News and Interviews

Smokii Sumac on Being Seen in Poetry, Why Endings Matter, and a New Spin on Love Letters

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Smokii Sumac's you are enough: love poems for the end of the world (Kegedonce Press), a debut collection that breaks your heart, makes you laugh, and leaves you gutted all at once, began as a daily writing practice. For two years, he shared powerful haikus online, musing on topics as diverse as love, homecoming, addiction, and depression, all shaped and informed by Indigenous literary and storytelling traditions. 

you are enough is Sumac's curation from those hundreds of poems, resulting in a razor-sharp collection that is deeply intelligent and moving. He draws on his experiences as a Ktunaxa Two-Spirit person, on the grief inherent to living as an Indigenous person in Canada, and discusses concepts of sex, gender, and consent with deep empathy, insight, and wit. 

We're thrilled to welcome Smokii to Open Book today, where he tells us about his writing life in our Poets in Profile series. He talks about the idea of a "real poet", the Canadian poem that helped hidden parts of him feel seen, and the crowd-favourite poem in the collection that consists of a particularly personal (and clever) twist on the idea of a love letter. 

Open Book:

Can you describe an experience that you believe contributed to your becoming a poet?

Smokii Sumac:

To be honest, I didn't really identify as a poet until October of 2017, when I was invited to perform at the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word (CFSW). I have been writing poetry for years, but it seemed to me (and I often hear artists say this) that "real poets" were something different than myself. I think part of that is reflected in my work-the never feeling "enough." In many ways the title of my book you are enough is speaking directly to that sentiment. But, yes, when I accepted the CFSW invitation, and began to plan my set, which included some very personal moments (I had just been given a new name and was unveiling my name change on stage), I think that was truly the moment where I stood in front of an audience and felt truly that I am a poet.


What is the first poem you remember being affected by?


This is such a hard question. I don't have very many childhood memories, and I wish I could say something struck me in high school creative writing (because my teachers there were truly wonderful), or earlier than that, but I think poems move through me quickly, so to answer, this definitely wasn't the first, but it's the one I'm remembering now. The first time I read (and later heard performed) "road salt" by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, I sobbed. It's such a beautiful and gentle piece on addiction, and it reached into me a way that helped very hidden parts of me feel seen.  


What has been your most unlikely source of inspiration?


In my book there's a poem (turns out to be the crowd-favourite) that is a love letter to "transthetics: the company that made my prosthetic dick." I was writing love letters, and I'm really against the limiting idea that love can only be romantic and between people, so I wrote love letters to my car, and to my cat, and then there I was thinking about gender and sexuality and owning who we are, and so came the idea for a love letter to my newest body part!


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?


Just as I never identified as a poet, I honestly didn't dream of having a collection, or, perhaps I did, but I always thought it would come much later in life than this opportunity did for me. So, truly I write for the pleasure of the piece. I write for the moment. Most of my current work was written on the spot during my near-daily practice of posting a poem on social media. That said, I do have another collection in mind that is much more cohesive, and I think I'm ready to explore the different intensities which focusing on a project like that would bring.  


What's more important in your opinion: the way a poem opens or the way it ends?


The way it ends. I love finishing a poem and having the moment with the audience as they catch themselves on the ending, whether you can feel the air sucked out of the room, or the soft hum of resonance, or the laughter rising up, that ending is always my favourite spot.


What was the last book of poetry you read that really knocked your socks off?


I want to answer this in two parts. The last book of poetry I read was a gift from Victoria Mohr-Blakeney, her first book printed by Jackson Creek Press in Peterborough titled the night i slept in your throat. She hasn't done any sort of release yet, but the way she uses language, it is so visceral that even now I can feel her poems in my body as I talk of the work. I'm also simultaneously slowly reading through Gwen Benaway's Holy Wild, which I am savouring a bit at a time. Gwen's writing is such a gift. Oh, and maybe I want to add a third part (because I rarely follow rules): the book I'm looking most forward to because I know it will "knock my socks off" is Arielle Twist's Disintegrate/Dissociate coming spring 2019 from Arsenal Pulp Press.


What is the best thing about being a poet... and what is the worst?


The best thing about being a poet is when someone shares with me what a line means to them. It is such a gift when my work helps someone else feel seen, and resonates within them.  

The worst thing about being a poet is the fear that my work will be hurtful in its honesty. There are already a couple of lines in the book I wish I could change, and I always want to add an addendum that because I write in the moment, those intense feelings that make the poem what it is, are always changing, always moving, and that often they are more about me, than the person I may be writing about.  But what is it they say about dating a poet, again? You'll always get at least two poems: one about falling in love, and the other falling out.  


Smokii Sumac is a proud member of the Ktunaxa nation. He is a PhD Candidate in Indigenous Studies at Trent University where his research centres on "coming home" stories from a Ktunaxa adoptee and two-spirit perspective. Smokii’s work has been published in Write Magazine, and under his former name (he is a man of many names) in Canadian Literature, Aanikoobijigan//Waawaashkeshi and on coffee sleeves as one of the winners of Peterborough's e-city lit’s artsweek contest in 2014. He currently shares his time between Nogojiwanong (Peterborough), and Ithaca, NY.

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you are enough: love poems for the end of the world

In his debut poetry collection you are enough: love poems for the end of the worldSmokii Sumac has curated a selection of works from two years of a near daily poetry practice. What began as a sort of daily online poetry journal using the hashtag #haikuaday, has since transformed into a brilliant collection of storytelling drawing upon Indigenous literary practice, and inspired by works like Billy Ray Belcourt's This Wound is a World, and Tenille Campbell's #IndianLovePoems.  With sections dealing with recovery from addiction and depression, coming home through ceremony, and of course, as the title suggests, on falling in and out of love, Sumac brings the reader through two years of life as a Ktunaxa Two-Spirit person. This collection will move you as Sumac addresses the grief of being an Indigenous person in Canada, shares timely (and sometimes hilarious) musings on consent, sex, and gender, introduces readers to people and places he has loved and learned from, and through it all, helps us all come to know that we are enough, just as we are.