The Dayne Ogilvie Prize for LGBTQ Emerging Writers was established by Robin Pacific to honour a beloved friend. Ogilvie was a respected editor, writer, and literary manager and his death was devastating to those who knew him. Now, his name has become a symbol for the best and brightest, celebrating LGBTQ+ writers in Canada. Specifically, the $10,000 prize honours an emerging LGBTQ+ writer who has published at least one book and whose voice and writing contain exceptional literary promise. Just a few of the past winners and nominees include decorated authors like Zoe Whittall, Farzana Doctor, and Kai Cheng Thom.
Today we are speaking with all three nominees for the 2020 prize: Robyn Maynard, author of Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada from Slavery to the Present (Fernwood Publishing), Smokii Sumac, author of you are enough: love poems for the end of the world (Kegedonce Press), Arielle Twist, author of Disintegrate/Dissociate (Arsenal Pulp Press).
In our conversation, Maynard, Sumac, and Twist share wisdom about writing and identity, offer inspiring and hopeful visions for the future of CanLit, and tell us how the right poem at the right time can save a life.
Tell us a little about where you are in your writing life currently. What does joining the distinguished list of winners and finalists for the Dayne Ogilvie Prize mean to you at this stage?
I’m honorued to be named a finalist for this prize, incredibly grateful to the jurists for selecting me as a nominee. And to be in company with such incredible nominees! Smokii Sumac and Arielle Twist do paradigm-shifting work and to be alongside them is a gift, truly. Policing Black Lives was my first book-length work, and I wanted to use the work to lend support for what I would now call the first wave of the Black Lives Matter movement. More specifically I wanted to lift up how Black peoples’s realities, regardless of age, gender, sexuality, and nationality are still being subject to harm due to forces grounded in the still-ongoing legacies of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, colonialism/neo-colonialism, and cis-heteropatriarchy. To the ways in which we have continually resisted and tried to live otherwise, despite all of this. And I am glad, honored, that this work still speaking to this next wave of the Black liberation movement.
I also want to highlight that while I’m so grateful that my work was nominated, it’s important to name that my writing emerges from a broader context of community and grassroots resistance. From careful readings, too, of generations of Black scholarship that has gotten us to the place we now find ourselves. That all writing is a collective effort whether or not we name it as such, that there is no such thing as a single author. Analyses and critiques of police, prisons, and borders are produced have been produced across movements over generations, are forged in struggle by Black communities across multiple cities and across national borders. And so I see this nomination as an affirmation not so much of me personally, as a writer, but as nod to all of the world-building work being undertaken to build more liberatory Black futures.
I am working on some new projects right now that I’m pretty feeling excited about, as well.
This past year I took a job teaching at College of the Rockies, and it kind of felt like I put my "writing life" on hold for a little bit. With my first collection you are enough: love poems for the end of the world having come out in 2018, sometimes I forget I'm a poet until I have a gig booked. That said, I still keep up the "writing a poem when the poem comes" practice, which means I have hundreds of snippets in the notes on my phone, some of which get posted on Instagram (follow @smokiisumac for these!)
Being named a finalist for the Dayne Ogilvie has truly surprised me in the best kind of way. To me, the most important part of being a finalist (while of course, the funds do help!), is that more people in the 2SQ community will become aware of my work. My writing is always first and foremost for other two-spirit, trans, and queer Indigenous people. Having my name and work recognized by some of my heroes (both the jury, and the incredible list of finalists and winners that I am joining, are made up of so many incredible writers!) means that my poems have a better chance at finding the hearts that need them most. I believe the right poem in the right moment can save a life. It's happened for me before, and if there's a chance that my work can do that for someone else, then I will always keep writing.
I am unsure where I am in my writing life at this specific moment. What I do know is that I am excited to be an artist and I am so honoured to be joining this legacy of queer and trans authors that made the work I do possible.
Is there anything you'd like to share about your experience writing and publishing as a LGBTQ+ person in Canada?
There is clearly not a lot of space that is made in the publishing world for Black queer women writing in Canada. And yet there is so much brilliant queer Black writing across genres: OmiSoore Dryden, Nalo Hopkinson, Makeda Silvera, Dionne Brand, to name only a few examples, who have forged beautiful worlds up, against and beyond the broader context of erasure.
As a two-spirit and trans Indigenous writer, I feel like we've got a very small (but ever-growing) group becoming recognized for what we do. For myself, it's devastating to me that there weren't more of our 2SQ aunties/uncles/grandparents and non-binary relations of older generations recognized in their time of writing. I remember recently seeing a fundraiser for Chrystos, and I thought: how can someone so deeply important to our Indigenous literary world be struggling so hard to make ends meet? This is true for so many of my poetry ancestors. Only a few of us "make it," and even for myself-I have a career outside of my writing to keep me housed, fed, taken care of.
I think that for me, rather than competition, I really want to see our communities lift each other up. I want to combat the scarcity thinking that happens with awards. The CanLit community is so deeply toxic that I've rarely wanted to be a part of it. What if we imagined our way out of the world of accolades and awards, and into a space where we truly are a community? Where the "big name" writers redistributed their wealth? I believe the Writers' Trust aims to do this in their support of our work, but I also believe that we can change the ideas of awards themselves. It is an honour to be considered, but can we imagine a space where writers of marginalized communities all had living wages? I've been reading about Basic Income lately, and I am a strong advocate for everyone being able to survive, regardless of whether capitalism thinks our productivity worthy or not.
Since writing my first poem in 2017, this experience has been a whirlwind of trial and error. You are witnessing my becoming in that first book. I was learning, still I am learning, and I am so grateful to be able to share the mess that I have cultivated with the people who needed it as much as I did.
If you could recommend one book you've loved by a queer writer, what would it be?
A Map to the Door of No Return, by Dionne Brand.
Oh, so many! I want to simply say both of my finalist-mates books! Robyn Maynard and Arielle Twist are so incredible! However, since you already know about their books, I'd like to give you two other recommendations: For the Academics: Dian Million's Therapeutic Nations: Healing in an Age of Indigenous Human Rights, and for the poetry lovers: Beth Brants's Food and Spirits. The opening poem in that book is so powerful and so depressingly timeless, it blows me away every time I read it.
One work that has been stuck in my head and heart for the past year has been Carmen Maria Machado’s memoir In The Dream House.
What is your advice for emerging writers? Do you have a writing mantra or rule you find useful?
I try to think of writing as one way (among many others) to help to build a more livable world.
Write the poem when the poem comes. If you are like me, you know when it's right there, and you might tell yourself "oh, I'll write it down later..." but I've learned that later never comes. My writing mentor, Jami Macarty, who I took a class from at SFU many years ago, challenged me to write a haiku a day when I worked with her. That challenge turned into two years of near-daily writing, which turned into my book, which has now brought me here. Find your practice, and don't ever ignore it when the inspiration hits. If you are scared to write it, all the better. I've got a call in a couple days to talk about a new piece that scares the hell out of me (coming from someone who has a naked photo essay on the internet, the fear of writing a piece is definitely real!), but I know that I can't ignore it, or it will only get louder. When that happens, I reach out for support, to talk it through. I've even hired other writers to talk through my fears (Kai Cheng Thom helped me deeply with my "Just Make Me Look Like Aquaman" piece on Tea&Bannock, as one example), and it's always been worth it.
One of my teachers (who is very much a parent in my life) says "if I'm scared of it, that's how I know it's real." I really wanted to prove him wrong about this, but so far he's been right, and so I trust him, and I trust that the fear is leading me to the right places; the vulnerable places that are where the medicine lives. It's funny, when I wrote that sentence out I wrote the "write places," first. Keep following yourself into those write places.
Taxas (that is all).
My advice for emerging writers is to remember that you mattered before this institution, publication or jury told you this truth. You are more than the words they read, you are more than the perceptions that are placed onto you, you are loved now and you will be loved after.
Robyn Maynard is a Black feminist writer, grassroots community organizer, and intellectual based in Montreal. Her work has appeared in the Toronto Star, the Montreal Gazette, World Policy Journal, and Canadian Women Studies Journal. Maynard is the author of Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada from Slavery to the Present. She is currently a PhD student and Vanier scholar at the University of Toronto and is working toward the completion of a new book manuscript.
Smokii Sumac is a member of the Ktunaxa nation, PhD Candidate at Trent University, and faculty member at College of the Rockies. His debut poetry collection, you are enough: love poems for the end of the world, won an Indigenous Voices Award in published poetry in 2018. He has performed across the country at festivals including the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word and the Queer Arts Festival. Sumac currently lives in Kimberley, British Columbia, with his cat, Miss Magoo.
Arielle Twist is a Nehiyaw, Two-Spirit, Trans Woman originally from George Gordon First Nation, Saskatchewan. Her work has appeared in Them, Canadian Art, The Fiddlehead, and PRISM international and her poetry, multimedia pieces, and performances have been exhibited in art galleries across the country. In 2019, Twist was nominated for a Pushcart Prize and shortlisted for a National Magazine Award. Disintegrate/Dissociate is her first collection of poetry. She currently lives in Halifax.
Robin Pacific established the prize in 2007 to honour her late friend, Dayne Ogilvie, who was a respected editor, writer, literary manager, and passionate lover of all the arts. The Dayne Ogilvie Prize rewards LGBTQ writers of any age who are in the developing stages of their career and whose body of work to date demonstrates great potential. The 2020 prize is gratefully supported by one anonymous donor.