Friday, January 5, 2018

TtD supplement #93 : six questions for Christine Stewart

Christine Stewart works in the English and Film Studies Department at the University of Alberta on Treaty 6 territory. She teaches and studies the transformative potential of poetics in the creative writing programme. She is a founding member of the Writing Revolution in Place Creative Research Collective. Recent publications: “Propositions from Under Mill Creek Bridge,” in Sustaining the West. Wilfred Laurier, “On Treaty Six from Under Mill Creek Bridge” in Toward. Some. Air. Banff Centre Press, “This—from Treaty Six” in Dusie and The Odes, Nomados Press (shortlisted for the bpNichol Chapbook award 2016). A new poetic study of Treaty 6 is forthcoming in Talon Books in 2018, and “Notes from the Underbridge” a collaboration with composer Jacquie Leggatt is also forthcoming in 2018.

Her poem “The UnderBridge Project Upriver (Winter 2011-2012)” appears in the fifteenth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: How did the poem “The UnderBridge Project Upriver (Winter 2011-2012)” come about?

A: The poem “The Underbridge Project Upriver” is a small piece of a much larger project and the answer to the question of how the larger underbridge project began is embedded. It is embedded in fear and it began under a bridge. It is embedded in 2007 and it began in loneliness. It is embedded in colonial time, and it began in Edmonton, in a ravine, by a raven, near a rising. It is embedded in crime. It begins with returning. It is embedded in creek. It began in failure, in stone, in river, in treaty.

It began with this grip, with this love, with these lists.  It is embedded in this colonial violence, in this throat, in this grief. It began with this gratitude. It is embedded in these ears. It began with this visit. It is embedded in this obliteration, this obligation. It began with this cat. It is embedded in this cart. It is embedded in this earth. It began with this refusal.

It began with Sharon Venne, with 1876, with the nêhiyawk, the Iyarhe Nakoda, the Métis, the Dene, the Niagara Treaty, with 1763, with coyotes, with all this bullshit, with all these good intentions, with Marilyn’s grey boots and her dancing.

It began with this weather, with Saidiya Hartman’s “Terrible Beauty,” with our collective, with our friendship, with our fragility, with all that distance, and fissure, and capitalism, and white settler supremacy.

It began with this project, with my failure, and our flailing.

It is embedded in this necropolis, this meeting place, in that dream, in this generosity, in that colossal nightmare, in that hilarious, devastating discussion, in this great fuck-up, in these suspect coalitions, in those visits, in your poetry, in that terrible mistake, in those mornings with quiche.

It is embedded in owing, in owl, in law, in labour, in breath, in wound, in debt, in violence, in failure, in refusals, in love, in plastic, in sweat, in Fred, in loose, in line break, in archive, in ache, in shit, in greet, in grief, in gratitude, in spirit, in berry, in hand, in heard, in hook, in listen, in time, in quiet, in staying, in leaving, in attending.

Q: I’m fascinated by how such an all-encompassing project began upon your arrival in Edmonton from Vancouver. What was it about this project that took over so completely, and how does it relate, if at all, to your previous work?

A: I think the underbridge project only relates to my previous work in that I am always working through and with the English language in order to encounter and consider something difficult.

And I think the comprehensive quality of the work is precisely because the difficulty I am working with (through and into) is totalizing.

To be here on colonized land, to be here with a white settler history, in a body that is both colonized and colonizing, consumed and consuming, this enfolds me.

It is an enfolding condition that is impossible and untenable because it is so possible, so normalized, so profitable.

I write and work to find something else, to see what other possibilities for life a poetic practice might (or might not) reveal.

And often I don’t write. Not writing is necessary. To be against writing is often necessary.

When I am mostly not writing I am trying to listen, to locate, to furnish other possibilities for life, for thinking, for warmth, for collective breathing.

That is, I am working, talking with others, trying to create spaces, other ways of meeting, other ways of being, in treaty, in anomalous collections, in unexpected connections and conditions, and sometimes, on a good day, there are moments of solidarity and resistance, sometimes there is time, and even air.  But sometimes there isn’t.

Fred Moten writes, “I believe in the world and want to be in it. I want to be in it all the way to the end of it because I believe in another world and I want to be in that.” 

It’s like that, wanting an end to this so that something else can emerge; and the writing, and the refusal to write—for me these gestures and their refusals are connected to the writing, and to the underbridge.

Q: How has such a project evolved? You mention Moten, but have you any specific models for the shape this project is taking?

A: I have no specific models, and the form of the work shifts constantly.

It depends on who I am working with at the time. It depends on where I am working at the time. I guess the underbridge is a kind of extended place study, and it is influenced by the communities I find, am engaged with, am responsible to. The students I work with, who teach me, who make me laugh. My beloved friends and colleagues in WRIP, at the university and in the city. My beautiful neighbours—the beavers just up river, the coyotes just down river, the grey trees, and those owls. So many owls around this month. Plus the ravine and then this river that, for me, is at the centre of everything. These communities keep me here; they challenge me, feed me; they shift me; they change and inform the project.

Q: How important is research to your writing?

A: The underbridge is a study, and I think that all my writing is research in a sense, always a kind of study, an attempt to sort out/through some difficulty or another. I suppose that I am always thinking what language might do in this case or in that case, right here and now, next to that; can it be coaxed, curated, refused (re-fused too, I suppose) in some way so that it might offer up something else? Can it let in air and maybe warmth and light? & also darkness and the cold and maybe a few termites.

Q: I’m fascinated by that, the idea that all of your writing is research. How did this emerge? How did you get to this place?

A: Writing as research, writing as a way of thinking, a way of reading through and into the world.
I think for writers that I read when I was younger like Susan Howe and Lyn Hejinian this has always been important. For Howe, writing was/is a particular way of encountering history, conducting historical research. For Hejinian writing is a practice of inquiry. & both writers are interested in what it means to be a female writing subject—a white writing female in their case. Though this distinction is not necessarily foregrounded in their work—though this is something that Hejinian importantly takes up in “En Face” (March 10, 2015 http://bostonreview.net/poetry/lyn-hejinian-en-face).

The idea that writing is a way of thinking through difficulties is not unique. I remember Hejinian saying that as writers, we work through the same problem our whole lives. I am not sure that is precisely true for me. But it is possibly generally true in that I look to words and what they might do to sort through things that are unbearable. These days I am constantly asking the question that is also an extension of the underbridge project: what would it be for Indigenous and non-Indigenous people to work together so that we might arrive at a way of being together in this place. This question is simultaneously animated and troubled by the work I have done in the last year with nêhiyaw (Cree) instructor, Reuben Quinn. I work with Reuben in a class that so far we have called “The Poetics of Treaty Six.”

In this class, we are working to find a shared language, a way to talk about treaty, to honour treaty and treaty sensibility. Reuben teaches this sensibility through the nehiyaw (Cree) spirit markers (or syllabics). You can see Reuben’s spirit marker teachings here in a video made by the Amiskwaciy History Series in Edmonton: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CpvuED_hJTM

In Reuben’s teachings, we learn the spirit markers and we learn how treaty sensibility is actually embedded in the nêhiyaw language itself; that is, that the spirit markers hold essential nêhiyaw laws based in familial obligation, reciprocity and love.  This is a beautiful and powerful teaching that radically reframes the world and the ways in which we are connected to the world. & Reuben’s pedagogical approach and his presence in the class shift us away from a conventional university experience. But we also learn how our treaty, Treaty 6, was not honoured by the Crown, and how Reuben, as an ancestor of Papasteyo, the leader of the Papaschase people, was displaced from the land here, placed in residential schools as a child, and exposed to the relentless genocidal systems of the Canadian government and Canadian society.  We learn that the University of Alberta sits on Papaschase land, stolen Papaschase land. The class opens up wounds and facts about the world that we continue to live in and from which some of us profit enormously and so the class costs Reuben in ways that most white people cannot even begin imagine. & this class teaches me a lot. For one, I learn that any feel good place I might ever arrive at is a delusion. That is, colonialism is still alive and well and wrecking havoc, and I am part of its havoc—in some very real ways, regardless of my intentions. On some basic level, anything I do is fraught with its own violence. Yet, despite this, I still try to create points of connection, because I don’t know what else to do, because I can’t do anything else. And so currently, one of the difficulties that I work with as I am writing is how to write with English, in its violence and possibilities. The book that I have been working on most recently, Treaty Six Deixis, is also an extension of the underbridge project and it looks towards Stein, in a particular way, to consider what a deictic focus in English might do in regards to making a reader look to and attend that place where they are, reading. Although Treaty Six Deixis focuses on this land in Edmonton, the river valley, it asks the reader to consider where they are, right now. The book is part of my struggle to acknowledge and to attend to this place with historical accuracy and honesty; that is, with a sense of obligation and implication. It is not much and it is uncomfortable. To be white here where I am is to participate in white supremacy and there is no way to language myself out of that fact, but maybe through writing I can think usefully around that place towards something else, something otherwise. I don’t know. In this way, writing is always researching. Writing is always writing me, always asking me, what else is possible here? But also, in my writing, I understand that writing is never enough.

Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?

A: What do I read? I used to read Hejjnian, Howe, Stein, Oppen, Neidecker, Judith Butler, Agamben, Spinoza, Vico. But then under the bridge, I needed to read Edmonton and its history. So, I started reading the underbridge—the graffiti on the cement pylons, bridge maintenance reports and the one history book I could find in 2008 that wasn’t overtly racist, Edmonton in Our Own Words. That book was a beginning and put me in touch with Papaschase scholar Dwayne Donald. With his help and generosity and with the equally generous guidance of Elder Bob Cardinal from Enoch First Nation, I began to understand this place in very different ways. But that understanding actually has little do with reading. It requires other things of me, different and difficult and (often) beautiful forms of discipline and labour—like listening, like quietness, like gratitude, like lighting a fire in the woodstove in the teaching lodge at-25 below without ever once blowing on the flames. When I started working downtown in Edmonton with the amazing creative research collective WRIP (Writing Revolution in Place), we read Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Rancière’s The Ignorant School Master. & this was raucous reading. When Lisa Robertson’s Nilling came out, I carried it around in my bag and read it again and again until it was grey and worn with furling. Then I read John Borrows’ Drawing Out Law and Kim Anderson’s work on being old lady raised (“Notokwe Opikiheet—“Old-lady Raised.”” Canadian Woman Studies) and Sylvia McAdam’s account of the role of the women law makers in nêhiyaw society at the time of treaty making in Nationhood Interrupted. Since working with Reuben Quinn, I read and practice the spirit marker chart and I read my nêhiyaw exercise books from Dorothy Thunder’s class. Also, always reading and rereading with my students and myself, Anne Boyer’s Garments for Women, Sarah Ahmed. Leanne Simpson, Mercedi Eng and Fred Moten, particularly his work with Stefano Harney, The Undercommons. These writers, these texts feed me, floor me. Now I am in Vancouver on a one-term sabbatical, and I don’t actually know that much about this pace where I lived for 35 years before I moved to Edmonton. So, now I guess my work is to look after my grandkids, try to finish up the underbridge project, which will never be finished and try, while I am here, to attend to this land, where I will be until the end of next summer. Where am when I am here? & what does it mean to be in this place? & these are all underbridge questions. & they will require reading and writing, but also maybe mostly listening.

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