Over storied her career, Louise B. Halfe – Sky Dancer (who was recently appointed Canada's parliamentary poet laureate), has proved she can do it all: her writing is powerful, raw, and wise. But her newest collection shows she can be just as powerful through a witty, playful, and wildly imaginative literary approach.
awâsis: kinky and dishevelled (Brick Books) follows the titular trickster character through various genders, identities, mysteries, and jokes. In Cree, there are no pronouns to denote gender, and awâsis is language come to life—drawn from ancient stories, the gender-fluid character is raucous, mischievous, and simply fun to read. In this, her fifth collection, Halfe (as Buffy Sainte-Marie commented) "presents a whole new way to experience story poems. It’s kinda like she writes in English but thinks in Cree... stunning.”
To celebrate the publication of awâsis, we're thrilled to welcome Louise to Open Book to talk about her journey to becoming one of Canada's most impactful, and exciting poets. She tells us about how, in the early days, she didn't realize that what she was writing was poetry, why she no longer burns any of her writing, and the best (and worst) parts of being a poet.
Can you describe an experience that you believe contributed to your becoming a poet?
Louise B. Halfe – Sky Dancer:
I kept a daily journal while living in Northern Saskatchewan. There was a call for Native Women to send their works to NeWest Review in Edmonton. Their collection resulted in an anthology titled Writing the Circle: Native Women of Western Canada. Sylvia Vance and Jeanne Perreault invited me to Edmonton for a visit. With their encouragement I continued to write.
Interestingly, I wasn’t aware I was writing poetry. I didn’t have a word for it back then or perhaps I just didn’t pay attention. Professor Ronald Marken, now long retired, was my first English Professor. He too introduced me to the wonders of literature. I was hooked. Also listening to the late Peter Gzowski fuelled this new found passion. I was encouraged to apply to the Sage Hill Writing Experience. I had never been to a writer’s week before and I was bowled over by the very famous names I was introduced to. They were bowled over by my work and again I was encouraged to send the work to my first publisher, which at the time was Coteau.
What one poem – from any period – do you wish you had been the one to write?
Sherri Finch wrote “The Window Washer” which still tickles me today. Gosh, I wish I had thought of that one.
Do you write poems individually and begin assembling collections from stand-alone pieces, or do you write with a view to putting together a collection from the beginning?
I write poems individually and then see what happens. When I witness a manuscript forming I then scatter the paper of poems on the floor and being to sculpt and prune. Sometimes a thought, a subject comes to mind and I will be completely possessed and obsesses by it and I then know the subject is calling. I will research books and persons and ask a lot of questions.
What do you do with a poem that just isn’t working?
I sleep on it. And if it still doesn’t work I file it away and may pick it up months or years later and steal lines from it to produce new works. Sometimes it just isn’t meant to be a poem. So it gets filed away. I used to burn all my work, in particular my journals; now I keep them all because I’ve come to appreciate what may sound mundane and isn’t going anywhere it will spark another flame.
What’s more important in your opinion: the way a poem opens or the way it ends?
Personally I cannot and will not separate the two; they have equal value and are of equal importance. The introduction must capture one’s attention and the ending may be just as juicy.
What is the best thing about being a poet... and what is the worst?
I grew up on the reserve with no hope in hell that I would become a world traveller and meet loads of people. Those have been my biggest rewards.
And what is the worst?
The insults from white people that I’ve had to put up... for example, I was representing Pauline Johnson one year. A person said to me that she [Johnson] was nothing but a whore who slept around. Another said, if it weren’t for my husband I would never been successful and made it on my own. I can give numerous distasteful examples.
Louise Bernice Halfe – Sky Dancer was raised on Saddle Lake Reserve and attended Blue Quills Residential School. Her first book, Bear Bones & Feathers (Coteau, 1994), received the Milton Acorn People’s Poetry Award and was a finalist for the Spirit of Saskatchewan Award, the Pat Lowther Award, and the Gerald Lampert Award. Blue Marrow (Coteau, 1998) was a finalist for the 1998 Governor General’s Award for Poetry, and her fourth book, Burning in This Midnight Dream (Coteau, 2016), won the 2017 Saskatchewan Book Award and the Raymond Souster Award, among numerous other awards. Her newest book is awâsis – kinky and dishevelled (Brick Books, 2021). Brick Books is publishing a new edition of Burning in This Midnight Dream in May 2021. Halfe was awarded the Latner Writers Trust Award for her body of work in 2017, and was awarded the 2020 Kloppenburg Award for Literary Excellence. She was granted a lifetime membership in the League of Canadian Poets, and currently works with Elders in the organization Opikinawasowin (“raising our children”) and lives near Saskatoon with her husband, Peter.