Mahlikah Awe:ri a drum talk poetic rapologist of African-Canadian/Mohawk (Kahnawá:ke) & Mi’kmaw (Bear River) heritage, with Nova Scotian roots, based in Toronto. Mahlikah is a founding member of Red Slam Collective a Hip Hop Fusion Band, of diverse indigenous artists who also deliver 4 Direction Urban arts based community engagement projects with youth across Ontario. In 2011 she released the EP Serpent’s Skin and 2 Dream In Colour was published in the 6th Edition of Diaspora Dialogues TKO. In 2012 Malikah was published in the International Festival of Poetry of Resistance anthology Resistance Poetry #2.
BCP: How did you come to write poetry?
MA: I started speaking rhymes and creating oral poems as soon as I could talk, my first full length written pieces began developing in grade 5 after a poetry unit. The pieces were so sophisticated, according to my Principal that he needed to be sure it wasn’t plagiarised from Shel Silverstein. These accusations actually turned me off from it for a bit, but I still found myself doing it; writing rhymes cuz I loved rap music and writing poems cuz I needed to unload my unhappiness with my home life; feelings of insecurity, not fitting in, and the longing to be anywhere but where I was at. By the time I was in High School I began performing my pieces in ciphers, community events, church, school assemblies…I was hooked!!
BCP: What is your writing process?
MA: Poems come from everywhere so my process is majorly curvilinear. Some poems are inspired by an incident; a memory; a picture; a piece of music; a conversation; one word; silence….then it takes one of three possible paths:
1. I start writing that poem down, go through some drafts and then test it out at a poetry show or as a potential Red Slam piece; and could eventually become a written piece for publication or a recording.
2. I just start spittin’ ideas off the dome and eventually the freestyle becomes a structured piece I am able to apply to memory; which may or may not ever become a written piece; but just one of those poems I spit.
3. I record the piece then write it out and then it could end up developing into a Red Slam track, a slam poem or a written piece for publication.
BCP: Which writers have been your main influences?
MA: John Trudell, Janette Armstrong, Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, Climbing Poetree, Saul Williams, Ntozake Shange, Nina Simone, Erykah Badu, Common, Mos Def, Robbie Robertson, Duke Redbird, Black Elk, George Elliot, Afua Cooper.
BCP: What does resistance poetry mean to you?
MA: It means to speak out and up. It means to take a stance even when the odds are against you. It means to draw upon the strength of your ancestors in order to overstand why you write what you write. It means evolution, change, representing to the fullest, and really keepin’ it real. It means unearthing the truth even when it hurts others to do so. It means survival. It means love.
BCP: Your poem Dying Breed is about Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women in the land now known as Canada; it’s hard to listen to. How did you come to write Dying Breed? Can you describe being in that space?
MA: Dying Breed is one of those pieces I never expected to write. However, as I mentioned earlier, poems can manifest from anything. In 2011 while doing community arts facilitation and performances with Queen West Health Centre and the Aboriginal Youth Sexual Health Network I became more conscious of the crisis affecting First Nations women across the nation around domestic violence, rape. I began researching the missing person’s cases involving indigenous women across Kanta; which were going unsolved. I found myself reflecting on this and began writing. I decided to write from my own eyes instead of the eyes of these women because I am not them; but I am me and I could have been them; any woman could have been them. I am hiding somewhere in this poem until the very end when I tell you:
I have passed her by
many a millennia
on busy intersections
and random street corners
our eyes meet
I pull away
towards the East
I’m walking away from my sister
away from my sister
Why did I hide…because this poem is so hard; painful; cruel and raw…It reflects a reality, I like most women want to deny exists, even if it stares us right in the face daily. No one knows what to say or do when another woman is destitute; abused; drug addicted; mentally ill…cuz then we begin to see ourselves and our own nightmares begin to resurface. To be honest there is a part of me that hates this poem…because all the guilt and shame I’ve ever felt about not wanting to associate with women who are “surviving” is being dredged up. Then my stomach starts twisting in knots because I lived in a home where there was domestic violence, I involved myself in relationships with violent partners…how close did I become to becoming a Dying Breed??
BCP: Dying Breed is a poem of resistance. It’s also a poem that talks of the many harsh realities that Indigenous Peoples live. Have you faced resistance for writing such poetry?
MA: Living in the skin and gender I am in; in many ways almost guarantees that no matter what I do there will be resistance. So the answer is a booming YES!! Do I care, NO! This is my path. It’s in my blood. It does mean I won’t always be in that book, that magazine, in that festival or on that recording…but what it does mean is for every one person who ain’t feeling me…there are a dozen who are.
BCP: You run OneVoice Radio out of Regent Park. Radio in itself is an art form. Have the two forms of communication, poetry and radio, helped each other in your life as an artist?
MA: After high school I attending Ryerson’s Radio & Television Arts Degree Program and earned a BA. I knew I’d never work for commercial media; I’ve always been grassroots; so it’s awesome to now have the opportunity to merge my arts activism with radio broadcasting. Media is a powerful tool and when in the hands of the people, our thought, feelings and opinions can be transmitted around the globe in seconds. I appreciate Regent Park Focus giving OneVoice this opportunity, I’ve been connecting to Regent for 12 years and it is great to continue to build there through the power of the word.
BCP: When do you expect to have your own collection of poems out?
MA: When do you want it out, BCP?…Hmmm good question. My goal is to start after the release of Red Slam LP this Summer. It will probably be more than a publication though…my work is rooted in orality and poeticrapology so I might have to flip it into a recording project or even a cinepoem presentation. Def look for the manifestation to begin in 2014.
BCP: What advice do you have for aspiring poets?
MA: Do you! Draw from your flame; the centre of who you were, who you are, and who you aspire to be. Develop a network of support, so you can share your pieces in a safe, nurturing circle, and gain confidence. Write about anything and everything that sparks an idea; you never know what seeds will eventually blossom into poetic pieces. Read and listen to poems by other poets who are fiyah!! Keep a journal (audio or text based).
BCP: Do you have a recommended reading list?
MA: BCP, I don’t so reading lists, cuz honestly I don’t read that much but here is a list of contemporary spoken word poets who you can find on Youtube who inspire me to do what I do:
John Andrew Akpata; Truth Is; Lishai Peel; Kahsenniyo; Winona Linn; Sheniz Janmohamed; ArRay-of WoRds; Moe Clark; Tomy Bewick; JustJamaal ThePoet; Ritallin…
BCP: Thanks for writing honest and powerful poetry.
MA: Chi Miigwetch; Wela’lin; Niá:wenh ki’ wáhi.
Roger Langen was born in 1949 in Perth-Andover, New Brunswick; of Irish, French and Maliseet heritage. His early displacement to Toronto, then eight-year elopement to Newfoundland, created for him the sense of being an outsider. He converted sympathetic observation to teaching, human rights activism, and the editing of poems.
BCP: What does resistance poetry mean to you?
RL: That’s a good question. I guess my first thought is that poetry is a form of resistance in itself. It acts against the normal uses of language – to ask a question, give an order, explain something as I’m trying to do now, argue a point – by calling attention to itself as language, as a performer really. So it is conscious of itself as doing this, performing language, language enacting language, showing off, full of all the tricks of language, resisting sense but supercharged with it, a musician, a painter, a brat, an introvert, a lover, simulating reality or undermining it, but never just talking about it. So it is a rebel to communication, the leader of a band of words, organized into a network of cells called poems, a terrorist of common sense, seeking always to re-establish the language as a resting place for the human spirit; and not – as happens with the discourses of ideology or conventional wisdom – a fortress of lies or prison for the soul. So what poetry imagines, in a way, is the Unattainable. And in that sense, it is always in struggle, always resisting.
So back to your excellent question, which I can re-phrase as: what does the word “resistance” add to poetry, since poetry is already resistant? And my answer is that, in spite of poetry’s aloof and self-insulated attitude as a language rebel, it is ultimately engaged: with the world, with uncertainty, with our collective destiny, with the unsettling laughter of God – Dostoevsky’s unsettling proof that there is a God, or Devil at least! So there is really a passion to mean, to undo evil, to find love, that starts with the pulse of the personal, that may be blind at first but reaches out, the way an infant does, seeking touch, the other, the scent of its mother; no knowledge of the world, perfectly innocent, but with an innate wisdom for this groping or reaching out. And as all the religious, cultural, and personal stories tell, knowledge, experience, growing up, bring with it the revelation of suffering, the test of character, the lousy luck of no love, and the terrible reality of cruelty and injustice. So I find in the more mature kinds of poetry a sensitivity to the larger project of a common humanity, however personally expressed. It takes note of experience. It sings about pain, and in this way transforms it, positions it as an object for condemnation or solidarity, so that it may know what it is, and defeat it, forgive it, or be free of it.
The challenge of “resistance poetry” is that poetry is extremely sensitive, being a resistant medium, to an external content that is also resistant. A raised fist, anger, a diatribe, protest – these are turbulent spirits to place within the delicate vessel of poetry. A poem is not a cargo plane. Load it with the wrong freight – it sinks. So that’s the challenge I enjoy, finding poems that carry the burden of a social or political message, and watching them travel with lightness and grace, even fly. As I myself have written in one of my own poems: poetry is the beautiful bullet that kills no one / the sword of the spirit that slays ignorance and despair / an arsenal of words to break the mind open / re-building hearts, as houses to put hope in. Note how “ignorance and despair” are kept out of the rhyme scheme. Of course, I called the poem, Insurgency.
BCP: How did you come to be the Editor of Resistance Poetry 2?
RL: Well, I am part of a group called the International Festival of Poetry of Resistance. It’s not a pretty title, and in a way makes my point in the first answer above: I can feel some kind of revolution in my mouth, but not the poetry. (I think the title was a compromise and so became this big set of antlers.) Anyway, I was invited to become a member of the organization shortly after it was incorporated in 2008, and of course, being a human rights activist and having started writing poetry fairly late in my life, I said yes. I didn’t have too much involvement through the first three years, just offering poems, organizing a little financial support through my contacts, attending the festivals.
I think I was a little critical of some of the poetry that was being published, but I understood that it was a writers’ collective, self-publishing in order to get started. So my attitude was also forgiving; and anyway, I kept my opinions to myself. But in our going toward to IFPOR 4, I accepted an invitation to be on the Editorial Committee reviewing the poems being submitted. We worked mainly by e-mail. I took a lot of interest in responding to the poems, especially the performance-based submissions, and often identified critical problems. Eventually, I was asked to take up the role of editor. I have had some experience with this kind of thing and … well … someone had to be found to do the work.
BCP: Was it difficult switching hats from creative writer to editor?
RL: No, I am a far better editor than I am a poet. So the problem for me is the other way around.
BCP: How long was the editing process?
RL: Well, we started in January or so of 2012. I took over as editor in late March. The poems were ready for the Editorial Committee to review in late May, then brought to the Board of Directors in late June or early July. We settled on a publisher at the same time, Richard Grove, who runs Hidden Brook Press. And we found a great artist, Gabriele Brossard, to provide art for the front and back cover. Richard and I then worked through the summer putting poems to paper. I learned a lot from him about publishing, and he learned that I was … well … a pain in the ass – change after change after change. I worked through my entire one-month holiday, ignoring the ocean in Nova Scotia and the pubs in Newfoundland. Finally, we had it ready for printing at the beginning of September. The Festival was in October. We launched the anthology at Q Space on October 13.
BCP: Most writers are influenced by other writers. Were you influenced by any editors? Edwidge Danticat is a writer I like who edits (puts together) great anthologies such as The Best American Essays 2011. Were there any anthologies that you used as a guide?
RL: That’s a fairly erudite question. The only editor I feel influenced by – if that’s the right word – is Lewis Lapham, the longtime editor for Harper’s Magazine. His magazine has a strong identity, based I believe on his strong sway and vision for it. That’s what makes a great magazine. I’m not influenced at all by editors of poetry magazines because in my mind the magazines are all the same. I flip through the pages of Arc and I’m not sure what I’m reading. To be fair, I stopped reading poetry magazines a long time ago. If there is a good one on the go, it will find me; I won’t have to look for it. I don’t think anything has come along to replace The Tamarack Review, which finally quit around 1982, but was a great finder of Canadian talent. So no, I used no anthologies as a guide. I did have a guiding principle, though, and that was to ensure that the poems were daisy-chained or garlanded to a natural order of sorts, clustering along themes. So Resistance Poetry 2 starts with a meditative walk through the Halifax ghost neighborhood of Africville, followed by other poems that in one way or another touch on race and class. Through the shift to Aboriginal perspective come themes of gender violence as well. Then prison experience, border crossings, Canadian privilege, immigrant exile, followed by a section on Cuba, including two poems by the Cuban Five. The anthology moves then to more broadly political concerns, then finishes on personal notes of mental illness or wry philosophizing.
Thanks for the name, Edwidge Danticat. I did not know it. Haitian feminist sensibility organizing an anthology of Best American Essays – I like it! My only worry would be that she has made the Oprah Reading List.
BCP: You have edited poems for magazines in the past. How was this process different?
RL: You are referring to the Newfoundland poetry magazine, Scruncheons (1971) and The Canadian Literary Review (1982-83). Both those magazines involved working with other editors, and we did not see eye to eye. I lost the Newfoundland argument, won the one in Toronto. Typos are a nuisance. There were only two in the inaugural issue of CLR, but one was in Margaret Atwood’s poem. She was reading it to several hundred people at the launch at the Brunswick House Tavern in Toronto, June 21, 1982. She announced the typo to the whole room, mentioning my name in that dry voice of hers. I think I had already introduced her as the Darth Vader of Canadian poetry. We had left the “h” off the word, “hedges,” in her poem, rendering it “edges.” If you had to guess between those two words for an Atwood poem, wouldn’t you take “edges”?
I guess what goes around comes around. There was a solitary typo in Resistance Poetry 2. But it was in the name of one of the Cuban Five poets. On the evening we had the anthology available, the wife of this same poet was in Toronto speaking to a large crowd about her husband’s imprisonment. We couldn’t give her the anthology in order to mention or even read the poem her husband had written because of this gremlin typo that chose to show its face in this worst of all possible places and moments.
What else? I guess I am much older now, so I am not afraid to be much more hands-on in editing the poems. It was more work per poem, but less work overall, as I worked mostly alone and with fewer submissions.
BCP: Every editor has a vision. What were your goals for Resistance Poetry 2?
RL: I think I have covered this question in my earlier answers. What I would like is to see RP2 as the basis for an ongoing project. I think there’s room for a resistance poetry anthology as a literary form in its own right.
BCP: There’s always a back and forth between editors and writers that can at times be a difficult process. How was it working with writers who identify as resistance poets?
RL: Well, as I said, I was very hands-on. I made it a condition of accepting the editorship that we could not take the self-publishing, writers’ collective approach and just publish whatever was on offer. That is where I had been critical before – too much dead space going on. So the two conditions were: poems don’t go in unless they are somehow connected to the resistance theme; and poems were subject to extensive editing. The Africville poem, for example, was twice as long when it was first submitted. The author was very gracious about the downsizing of the poem, as were so many others. Even the Cuban Five poet whose name we botched was grateful for the small changes made to his poem – “much better,” he said. Only three poets walked away.
BCP: What advice do you have for future editors out there?
BCP: Would you edit another anthology?
RL: I will be editing the next one in our own series, absolutely. I think we have a very valuable product.
BCP: Can you give a brief list of anthologies you recommend?
RL: Most of my reading is of past writers, not anthologies.
BCP: Thanks for helping put a great collection together.
RL: Thank you! One final comment: I read A Short History of the World in Drink for you. You will have noticed it mentions coffee. I drink a lot of black coffee. I’m drinking it now.
Tune into Black Coffee Poet Friday March 1, 2013 for poems on video by Malikah Awe:ri and Roger Langen.