To explore something complex and painful, that weaves through long history, a writer must take an approach as nuanced and shifting as their subject matter. We see that kind of creativity on display in Matthew James Weigel's stunning debut poetry collection Whitemud Walking (Coach House Books).
A genre-bending feat from the Dene and Métis poet and artist, Whitemud Walking explores and interrogates colonial violence, rewritten history, the Numbered Treaties, and how the individual and the historical intersect and overlap.
Looking at the land that Weigel himself was born on and skipping backwards and forwards through the colonial history of Canada, the collection blends original art pieces, poetry, nonfiction, and design work, as well as photos and documents that are sequestered in archives but which involve Weigel's own ancestors.
Questions of access and ownership, erasure and dispossession runs throughout this passionate, wise, sharp book that displays an urgent new voice. Memory, the weight of time, and identity collide in an unmissable read here, and we're excited to not only speak with Matthew today but to announce that he will be joining us at Open Book as our April 2022 writer-in-residence, in celebration of Poetry Month.
Today, he tells us about finding the beauty in mud, about how the poetry community's small size can be a strength, and how the financial realities of CanLit can be a huge barrier for marginalized writers.
And stay tuned to the writer in residence page to hear from Matthew in original posts throughout the month of April.
What has been your most unlikely source of inspiration?
Matthew James Weigel:
Probably mud. I have a chapbook project I’m working on right now that’s entirely about mud and all the many varied things about it and the stories connected with it. It’s a sort of habitat study that began as a challenge. My undergraduate training is in ecology and marine science and I spent time in a sponge lab studying the mud of the glass sponge reefs. Maybe it isn’t an unlikely source after all!
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?
My larger projects tend to have conceptual aspects to them. So, they might come together in ways I don’t expect from the pieces that I’m building, or new ideas might emerge in the process or at the end. But they tend to all be working towards an initial vision. Whitemud Walking was always going to be a book, but I didn’t know what it was going to end up looking like when I started. Coach House was really great, they let me take a lot of control with the book design, so I was able to choose everything from the shape and trim size to the cover stock and foil. It’s a book that reflects on the archive and materiality more generally, so it was always important to consider the whole book as an object.
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What's more important in your opinion: the way a poem opens or the way it ends?
I think, if your poem is working, then the reader is a different person at the end of it than they were at the beginning. Even if it’s just that they stuck with you, nodded their head, made an ‘oooh’ sound, or felt something. If your poem did that then that’s you sharing a moment with someone across the time and space between you and the reader. That’s magic. That’s special. So, I think the ending really relies on the beginning to open up that moment, that experience, for the reader. But the beginning then really relies on the end to bring the reader to a sense of closure, even if it’s not a fulfilling closure, they at least are getting some sense of where the edges of that experience are.
It also depends on the kind of poem. A spoken word piece for slam really has to nail that ending. But a visual poem can be all beginning! The connection you make with a viewer/reader in that case really hinges on the first impression, the hook, the entry into the viewing experience. A poem like that might never leave you with the kind of closure a lyric poem will. You know, like how a painting or a sculpture doesn’t have an ending.
You can analyze the mechanical elements of a piece of writing, but you can’t control the moment you’re building with your audience, but you participate in it and to an extent are responsible for it. So as long as you honour that moment, that’s the most important part.
What was the last book of poetry you read that really knocked your socks off?
I’m gonna have to say Bertrand Bickersteth’s The Response of Weeds. I can’t say enough good things about Bertrand’s work. I’m a big fan of research based works and works that blend in the historical like that. It’s a book that grabs you immediately, and it does it in a lot of complex, but elegant ways. I’m also a total sucker for poems about the rivers here.
How would you describe the poetry community in Canada? What strengths and weaknesses do you observe within the community?
It can feel like a small community when you’re engaged in social media, or if you’re part of the spoken word community. I’m definitely an emerging artist, so it can also seem small because I’m somewhat on the edge of it right now. And that feeling of smallness is exacerbated by the pandemic. That smallness is relative to say, the United States, and I think it’s a strength. You can actually meet and interact with a lot of the people you admire. “Celebrity” is a different kind of thing in a smaller space like this.
The other side of that is the challenge of making a living as a poet. It’s very difficult in Canada and I think we just don’t have the support in the arts sector to really flourish or hone process in ways that we would like. And that’s obviously another thing made worse by the pandemic. I’m launching my book in April and the cost of travel right now is ridiculous. The provinces and federal government don’t give the arts enough resources to thrive. So, what that does is it further marginalizes voices. Unless you have financial support or a full-time job, you are not able to get a book out and tour it. And even then, you’re not going to make much money doing it to be sustainable. This means some of the best poets are out here just trying to survive, and they don’t get the chance to share their stories. And what that means is that Canadian poetry, CanLit in general, ends up being dominated by white authors who can afford the hobby of writing. That’s reflected in creative-writing programs, in publishing houses, in literary festivals, in writer organizations. Change is slow here, and Black and Indigenous people, disabled people, queer people, just don’t have the time to wait for change when survival is so precarious.
What is the best thing about being a poet... and what is the worst?
The worst thing is probably what I’ve mentioned above, the deck is stacked, and it sucks.
But the best? I really love being on stage, performing. Before the pandemic I did a lot of hosting as well. As a poet there’s nothing more joyful than being in community and celebrating each other. Watching a great poet deliver a great performance with a great crowd, that’s the absolute best thing.
Matthew James Weigel is a Dene and Métis poet and artist. He is the designer for Moon Jelly House press and his words and art have been published in Arc, The Polyglot, and The Mamawi Project. Matthew is a National Magazine Award finalist, a Cécile E. Mactaggart Award winner, and winner of the 2020 Vallum Chapbook Award. His chapbook It Was Treaty / It Was Me is available now. Whitemud Walking is his debut collection.