Just south of Pelee Island is Middle Island, a small island that is part of Point Pelee National Park. It is home to no permanent settlements, with a ruined 19th century lighthouse as one of the only marks of human development. It is also unique: it is the southernmost tip of Canadian territory.
The island, and its sparsely populated surroundings, inspired acclaimed poet D. A. Lockhart's new collection, appropriately titled North of Middle Island (Kegedonce Press). Capturing the region's isolated nature and its identity as "a place that has largely erased its Indigenous history" in epic verse, he explores Indigenous experience through the lens of natural vs. human-built environments. North of Middle Island is especially notable for its long poem in the second section, "Piper", which recounts a new Lenape myth of how Deerwoman (Ahtuhxkwe) arrives in Pelee.
Showcasing his creativity, Lockhart uses the conflict between professional wrestlers Rowdy Roddy Piper and Goldust (Nkuli Punkw) in the 1996 WrestleMania event to create this modern epic, which weaves together pop culture, identity, and the landscape of the territory. Infused with powerful imagination and passionate storytelling, it's a collection that will sweep readers into its world.
We're speaking with Lockhart about North of Middle Island today as part of our Line & Lyric series. He tells us about the time he spent on Pelee Island—and the islander he met there—that first inspired the collection, how "being on the periphery of the “civilized” world afforded an interesting vantage point" on colonization, and about how it takes an epic amount of research to create an epic poem.
Tell us about this collection and how it came to be.
I first conceived of North of Middle Island on a residency and performance I participated in on Pelee Island. While there I had the good fortune to spend time with visual artist and Pelee Islander Carolyn Hardy who introduced me to the island and its history. The island as ecological reserve in the hyper-industrialized region of Essex-Kent counties was and is a clear draw for me. The Carolinian forests of the island harken back to my Hoosier roots. All that taken together places Pelee Island as a very unique liminal space in the borderlands between nations and ecosystems. Being on the periphery of the “civilized” world afforded an interesting vantage point of how colonialization has shaped the physical spaces of Canada’s deep south. Speaking of a relatively unknown southern landscape in a fiercely northern-conceived of country affords lyric and philosophical spaces that simply don’t jive with the image this region and this country carry themselves with. All of this created interesting lyric meditations upon Indigeneity, colonialism, and our relationship with place and the natural world.
Was there any research involved in your writing process for these poems?
Quite a bit, actually. This research followed not only the history of the island and the surrounding Lake Erie archipelago, but also Unami Language, the biography of Roderick George Toombs, WWE Wrestlemania XII, and the Anglo-Saxon style of epic poetry and storytelling. The research is what took the longest with this particular book. This particular collection is fundamentally a mixing point of linguistic, historical, and cultural research coupled with lyric presentation and traditional indigenous knowledge. I did walk the land and engage with the physical spaces of Pelee Island to find footing for the collection. Being physically present in the spaces you wish to capture in your work is a critical aspect to the honesty we have come to avoid pitfalls of misrepresentation. In addition I spend a great deal of time with histories of the region and the island to learn something of its colonial and pre-colonial past. The Piper epic took the most all-around research. This included revisiting Old English epics like Beowulf as well as studying the culture of wrestling and the specific events of Wrestlemania XII and Roderick Toombs’ life. From archival videos, maps, walks on the land, and thousand-year poetry this book took in a great deal of research to reach the final product we now have.
What were you reading while writing this collection?
I tend to read a fair amount and widely at any given time. Some of those books get into the work and others don’t. Definitely there is some Randy Lundy, some Natalie Diaz, James Welsh, and Jim Harrison in the collection. For the "Piper" section it was a lot of Anglo-Saxon or Old English epics. This meant a lot of textbooks from my graduate school days. But also meant returning to Seamus Heaney and to a lesser extent Paul Muldoon and Alan Ginsberg. Interestingly, I have been working with two American speculative biographic poets—Benjamin Goluboff and Mark Luebbers—through Urban Farmhouse Press that have most definitely bled through to the Piper piece. The speculative part of looking at Toombs life really helped to craft this new Indigenous myth into what we find in North of Middle Island.
Your CanLit News
Subscribe to Open Book’s newsletter to get local book events, literary content, writing tips, and more in your inbox
Was there a question or questions that you were exploring, consciously from the beginning or unconsciously and which becoming clear to you later, in this collection?
Pelee Island as physical space in the Canadian context did beg a great many questions. First and foremost is that the island is an unnaturally constructed space. Without the irrigation systems, the pumps and the canals, the island would actually be closer to three distinct islands rather than one. Agriculture and particularly the vineyards would be in the very least, significantly smaller. Because of that artificial natural state, it should come as little surprise that island is a place that has largely erased its Indigenous history. Although it, like every part of Turtle Island, has a deep and rich history. While the birds and wildlife hold the primary connection point of pre-European settler transformation of the space, I wanted to learn and understand how both my ancestors, relations, and descendants would potentially interact with this space “cleansed” of Indigenous peoples. Part of this is a reclamation. And the reclamation is what lies at the heart of the epic Piper piece. A way of taking stories, myths is probably a better term here, and letting them interact and craft something new. Really the heart of the work does come down to learning both the millenniums long relationship with Indigenous peoples like the Myaamiaki, Wyandot, Apsáalooke, and Ojibwe peoples with these islands and the settler resource-extraction history of the space and place them in conversation with each other. Perhaps the catchphrase concept of decolonizing a heavily colonized space is what lay at the heart of North of Middle Island. I did consciously begin with wishing to understand the Indigenous roots of the island. The act of discovery that is writing made this unique take or a very unique space. One is which, it would seem, that nature or creation is far more in control of than the small number of relative newcomers.
Did you write poems individually and begin assembling this collection from stand-alone pieces, or did you write with a view to putting together a collection from the beginning?
I typically write poems in responses to experiential moments in my life. While they come in groups, most often, they do tend to be place specific. All things come the land itself. Without it we cannot survive. As a Lenape, all of thought, metaphors, and simple ways of living come from the land. So those individual pieces tend to become organized by place and by mood. Every space has a story that both begins and carries through with Indigenousness. The Piper epic however, was a much different sort of literary construction.
For you, is form freedom or constraint in poetry?
Form is a unique sort of freedom in poetry. Particularly when you have a depth of research and thought to put beneath the “show” that is the lyric nature of poems. I typically see all writing as a mechanic process. The meaning and the underpinning of the why you write is, for me, more the divine or spiritual aspect of the craft. By having your lyric mechanics already in place means that you can focus on the actual substantive aspects of the work. Poetry must be more than say “writing” gibberish words on a calculator and calling it poetry. Sure, it's playful word play. And sure, that is an extreme example if not a true one. But form allows us to break this type of soul-less work. There is a tradition of the craft that stretches back millennia. One that speaks to grandeur of the human experience. Form poetry, for me, speaks to both the human experience and to the craft itself. A sonnet, and sestina, a haiku, or an Anglo-Saxon all say that you understand the origins of both poetry as a craft and the human experience behind. It is a more community-based approach to poetry than the individual-focused make-your-own rules verse. And yes, I do both. But freedom of joining a conversation rather than making your own from scratch is one of the most important connective parts of poetry as craft. It shows a community-based form of writing, something more closely connected to the Indigenous notions of art and life. And to be honest, the vast majority of my work is structurally similar to my poetic influences. No writing can exist in a vacuum.
What are you working on next?
My next nearest to completion manuscript is Commonwealth. The next poetry collection, potentially anyway, that explores migration, exile, and community as it pertains to the Midwest in general and perhaps more specifically the Lenape homelands encompassed by the state of Indiana. The collection is a return to mythology again in a very substantive way. Hoosiers are famous for their folklore and so much of its early portions include sizeable portions of my Lenape as well as Shawnee and Myaamiaki cultural backgrounds. There is also an Indigenous history of the Detroit River coming up right behind that one. Really it is a book that seeks to decentre the settler culture and narratives of one of the busiest and most interesting waterways on Turtle Island. Misinformation and downright bad and political motivated histories dominate the south shore of Waawiiyaatanong’s view of the waters of the Detroit River. This new book will definitely work to counter those misinformations and place the river and its indigenous nature in keeping with truth, honesty, and reconciliation.
D.A. Lockhart is the author of seven collections of poetry, including Devil in the Woods (Brick Books 2019) and Tukhone: Where the River Narrows and the Shores Bend (Black Moss Press 2020). His work has appeared in Best Canadian Poetry in English 2019, TriQuarterly, ARC Poetry Magazine, Grain, Belt, and the Malahat Review among many. He is a Turtle Clan member of Eelünaapéewi Lahkéewiit (Lenape), a registered member of the Moravian of the Thames First Nation, and currently resides at the south shore of Waawiiyaatanong (Windsor, ON-Detroit, MI) and Pelee Island.