Off the Page is a regular interview series featuring National Magazine Award winners. We recently spoke with writer Selina Boan, who won the Gold medal for Poetry last year for her poems (Good) “Girls Don’t Hitchhike”, Half/Brother and Meet Cree: A Practical Guide to the Cree Language published in The New Quarterly. Her work has also appeared in Room and CV2, among others, and she was shortlisted for the CBC poetry prize in 2016. Boan currently lives on the traditional, ancestral, unceded territories of the Musqueam, Sḵwxwú7mesh, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples in British-Columbia, and is the Circulation Editor at PRISM international.
Where and when did you write these three poems?
I wrote these poems over the course of several years. I carried them with me on walks, at vigils, washing dishes, visiting family. For me, an initial draft of a poem begins to take shape when I have time to be in a quiet space (or in a coffee shop with headphones!). It gives me the chance to revisit observations and thoughts I’ve been combing through. To be honest, I can’t remember exactly where the initial drafts of each of these poems were written since they came together slowly and in various iterations. I moved several times in the years these poems began to take shape and was very fortunate to have a number of peers and teachers, whose work I deeply respect, offer their suggestions and insights.
Did you set out to write them together?
I didn’t actually! The poems grew from my experience connecting with family and learning more about my Cree heritage, trying to teach myself the Cree language from the internet, wrestling with how to write about everything I was learning. I didn’t grow up with the Cree side of my family and so much of my writing circles in on identity; what it means to contribute to a community, how to negotiate my position as both a settler and an urban indigenous person, how to be mindful of where I come from, how I was raised, and how I am learning.
I am interested in the way languages shape our worldviews and the knowledge and power language contains. The poem “Waȟpániča” by Layli Long Soldier comes to mind. That poem was electric for me. She captures the complexities of loss, hope and identity in relation to language. For me, poetry provides a space to ask questions, to imagine new futures.
You’ve spoken before about changing details in your poetry to protect your own and other identities. How do you decide what to mask and what not?
Poetry, in many ways, provides me space to work through the messiness of life. I don’t live in a vacuum, and so changing certain details in my work is often done out of respect for the people in my life. I will sometimes blur time, I will shift details. It’s something that I think about quite a lot; how much do I share? Who am I really writing for? How vulnerable do I actually want to be on the page?
You’re currently working on a book of poems that addresses your Cree and European heritage. How did you decide to focus your energy here?
It was not so much a choice to focus my energy there as it informs who I am, my experiences, and the things I am compelled or interested in writing about. I can’t imagine writing a book of poems that negated or erased that, it would be an erasure of myself. In my work, I keep returning to and circling ideas around identity, around settler responsibility, around womanhood, and language learning.
I am slowly working on a manuscript of poems, a section of which will make up my creative writing thesis at UBC.
What did it mean to you to be recognized at the NMAs last year?
I was so surprised! It was such an honour to be published and nominated by The New Quarterly, let alone win. I can think of so many incredible writers, including the other nominees, who deserve that award. I am so grateful to so many writers: Jordan Abel, Gregory Scofield, Leanne Simpsons, Lee Maracle, Louise Bernice Halfe, Liz Howard (to name only a few!) whose work has paved the way and carved out space for indigenous voices within the literary community.
Can you describe when you first began to identify as a poet?
My mother has had a huge influence on my creative life. She was always very encouraging and even from a young age, she took the poem-like things I was writing or speaking aloud to myself and identified them as poetry. That said, it’s taken most of my life to gain the confidence to call myself a poet. I can recall someone asking me, do you write? Then you’re a poet. I loved that. I love the idea of poetry being something that is accessible.
What makes poetry your preferred form?
Poetry renders language to its most crucial elements. In the world of a poem, every word has the potential to carry multiple meanings. It asks you to listen, to uncover, to consider the complexity of a moment, a single word, a comma, a breath between lines. Poetry demands your attention and has the power to reveal what may or may not always be obvious. It reveals what is possible. I find that so exciting and empowering!
What’s it like for you to live and work as a poet today?
I feel very lucky to be surrounded by a strong, thoughtful community of people who work and publish with a deep consideration of their positionality in the world, who are advocating and writing towards an inclusive, decolonial future. There is a lot of hope and energy present. There is also a lot of work to be done.
Reading and hearing the incredible work of other indigenous writers like Jessica Johns, Carleigh Baker, Joshua Whitehead, Gwen Benaway, Samantha Nock, and Arielle Twist, (to name only a few!) inspires me, teaches me, moves me. I feel really lucky to be able to work at something I love so much.
Interview conducted by Stephanie Philp.
The call for entries for the 2018 National Magazine Awards is open now until January 22. The gold medal winner in the poetry category receives a $1,000 cash prize.