Everyone was suddenly everywhere
An interview with Joanne Arnott
Note: Métis/mixed-blood writer Joanne Arnott’s sixth and latest poetry collection, Halfling Spring: An Internet Romance, is an intriguing weave of writing about love, culture, and relationship mediated through textuality — both on- and offline. The play of environment, distance, geography, community, and indigenous ways of knowing, as well as the relationship with materiality and the tangible (the body and the physical world), are fascinating. I planned to conduct a regular back-and-forth interview with Joanne, but what resulted was some introductory remarks about two particular poems which were especially interesting to me and which I thought were characteristic of the rest of Halfling Spring. In the process, some questions got asked. I sent my comments and questions to Joanne who then knocked it out of the park with an extended essay-like response. — Gary Barwin
Gary Barwin: Joanne, two of the poems that most intrigued me appear beside each other in the book: “textuality” and “climate change.” I’d like to hear your thoughts about these poems and will ask you some straightforward questions, but I’ve written the following commentary on some of what I think is going on in these poems. I will get to the questions, but first let me enthuse. “textuality” is a beguiling little love poem:
i write his name, Alastair
then i put a comma beside his name
i see that the comma beside his name
is like my hand on his shoulder, neck, face
i enjoy this
i write his name
i place my comma
Lovely. The image rhyme between the curved hand and the comma is very charming. The repetitions and gentle rhythms of the poem evoke the tenderness of the moment. But, in the larger context, the poem is informed by the idea of “textuality.” The subtitle of the book Halfling Spring is “an internet romance.” A romance that occurs through text, through the interaction of words, and through such things as the tender placement of a comma. Of course, all of our relations are mediated by language — what we say, how we think of things, what we call things — language is there. And there is the larger language of love and its expression. It’s a complex system of signs that we navigate. This poem, as does your book, explores this rich territory.
The next poem (“climate change”) greatly surprised and intrigued me. It is a poem about global warming and begins with an articulation of the issue and relates it to northern indigenous people:
i understand, this tragedy visited
by the greed of wealthy nations &
careless middle latitudes
upon northern folk who have their own
cherished ways, born upon the ice & snow
that is now disintegrating
who can recognize a land
And this certainly is no climate change denial poem. It states that,
the multiyear ice is in retreat
it is happening at an increasing rate
take a look around you
you know this is happening.
But then you take the poem to a different place, invoking non-Western conceptual systems: “yin & yang,” “the dao of civilizations,” and then wonder, “how to represent polarities / in a process of change, not the stasis / of oppositional natures // but the fluidity of waves.” You address the question: what are we to do faced with this perhaps inexorable global change?
imagine, though, this is what i’m doing
because my nerves are rattled & i
have to do something.
Then you make the very surprising leap from despair, worry, and catastrophe, to wondering
what might be revealed through
this process of change, the human resilience
called up in the face of such massive
and you ask, “is it travesty to gaze at tragedy with clear eyes?”
The clarity that you envision diverges from the standard industrial, scientific view. The earth’s ice fields are seen as “a suit of clothes / the earth has lived in long on long” and the animals, people, and cultures who “know / the ice as solid home” are about to be shirked. The goddess, who is earth, may change her clothes “any time she chooses.” The result of this wardrobe change isn’t disaster, but “may bring gifts of revelation” — for example, a long-buried mammoth. And further,
a southern wind, effect of global warming,
arriving with enough love to blow
the soul back into these animals
The change is so significant that the world may be “tipped on its axis.” Finally, the poem imagines the ancient animals revived to gaze “back at the world / with those miraculous eyes.”
This shocked me — global warming bringing rise to change, to reviving life, even to the resurrection of a more ancient life? We usually think of climate change as being a scourge born of contemporary technocapitalism and not as the source of renewed life or beauty. We don’t usually consider it as part of a large non-binary worldview, of the natural ebb and flow, the natural process of change endemic to nonpathological ecology, spirituality, and philosophy.
The poem ends with that haunting “gaze back at the world / with those miraculous eyes.” The animals are — what? — looking at what we’ve done to the world? (They “look back,” as if with sadness, or at least bittersweetness, as if they were in another place of consciousness.) Are they grateful for their return to life? And we notice those “miraculous eyes.” Have we, too, been awoken from a kind of deep freeze and into a renewed awareness of the miracle of life, to the gaze of these spirit animals whose souls were returned to them by the warm wind-breath of love?
So, finally some questions. I’m really interested in how you consider an alternate approach to considering climate change, how you use it as a kind of teaching story which might perhaps remind us of our relationship and feelings regarding our planet, or perhaps, by deliberately adopting the conceit of taking the opposite approach to open up or revivify our ways of thinking about the issue. And you chose a non-Western framework. How do you think of this poem within the greater conversation about climate change and contemporary culture? And further, about how we attempt to address the issues in our public discourse (essays, poems, speech, etc.)?
My friend John Barlow wrote, “Then suddenly our generation like fish were caught into the internet, and everyone was suddenly everywhere.” “textuality” is one of a stream of poems in the book that engages with that sense of person as text, and expresses my delight in how openly metaphoric we are as human beings. Long before the Internet transformed my world, I was a person who sought to connect with others through the written word — from pen pals like Max (when I was ten), an English boy who visited our neighbors, to my schoolmate Christine, who helped me in my transitions when my family left Vancouver and returned to Manitoba in the autumn of 1972. These were the antiphonal precedents, alongside the encouragements of school, where some teachers could “hear” or “receive” me in a way very different from the bulk of humanity, day to day, once they read who I am (as opposed to talking to me).
My thoughts on “textuality” are — as you’ve so well received — playful and tender. It is the pubescent person doodling, and the first-generation Internet human commenting upon what she is experiencing. There is the wordplay, sexuality/sensuality/textuality, and in the absence of the Beloved, asserting an embodied claim via purely textual means. There is the specificity of the language I am creating text with, how my punctuality (to bend a word) is a part of my intimate worldview. I am very fascinated by the wealth of languages in the world, how these exist in oral and textual presentation, changing over time and cross-fertilizing through translation and other forms of remembering. You are one whose playful engagements with fonts, glyphs, typographies explores a similar terrain in distinct ways.
When people become fond of one another via textual conversation, that is different from having an arranged marriage considered by elders and community, and it is different again from toppling in love with one’s neighbor. It is different from abduction, or other classical and modern means of man-woman bonding. Of all of these, Internet romance (as I experienced it) is most like toppling for a neighbor with none of the surety of any of the more formal processes.
To continue this aside a little further, the collective picture of Canada/Canadians tends to posit arranged marriages, multiple marriages, etc. as “over there,” which obscures the contemporary reality of our true diversity. It creates situations where people have traditional wealth outlawed, and thus hidden, until such time as a new thaw or time of tolerance allows the fuller pictures to emerge.
My friend Giles Slade has written a great deal about the broader impacts of climate change in the North American context, and that sense of population shift — which is worlds away from a cultural or a colonial view of North-South cross-fertilizations — and that perspective was a leaping-off point for the next poem, “climate change.” I was reading and thinking a lot about the interface, legal and otherwise, between Inuit people and the Canadian south, and reading a lot of oral and written testimony of Inuit people in realms of arts and metaphysics cross-fertilizations and in TEK terms (Traditional Ecological Knowledge). These are widely available in books, newspapers, journals: Aalasi Joamie’s Walking with Aalasi: An Introduction to Medicinal and Edible Arctic Plants,4 Rachel Qitsualik’s columns in Nunatsiaq News and Indian Country Today or in Voices from the Bay. Another great source are books available from Inuit organizations, generally free to download, like Unikkaaqatigiit, and films, like Zacharias Kunuk and Ian Mauro’s Inuit Knowledge and Climate Change.
Beyond all of these possible views on the epic scale of change we are living through, it is important to bear in mind that this is a love poem. So, the miraculous eyes may be two middle-aged war horses eyeing one another, wondering if the sensible thing is to go with the flow of love or to do something far more sensible, diverting the energy into real-world pragmatic realms. It may be that the mammoth’s miraculous eyes are those of our descendants, seven generations on, glistening with a newborn lust for life. That is what life is all about, in some sense, the recurrence of vitality and the fresh impulse.
“climate change” is thickly embedded with references; I can share a few examples. The words “long on long” are a reference to a love poem written in Chinese, translated by my first husband, Brian W. Campbell, back in 1992. I haven’t relocated the translation or name of poet, but in English the title and recurring line is “Her Hair is Long on Long.” So, this morphing of a woman love to a mammoth one, an old love to a new one, shares a flexible sense of the Beloved (or the Desired) which is translanguage, rooted in a much longer, deeper sense of time, and is one of the strands.
Likewise, “tipped on its axis” is drawn from Inuit observations on climate change: these are published in several oral histories and interviews with elders, available online. Beyond specific observations in relation to temperature or seasonal shifts, many people have observed a shift in the placement of earth in relation to heavens, and for me this has very exciting implications:
Interestingly, in two Nunavik communities and one community in each of Nunavut and the ISR, residents suggested that the Earth’s position has shifted or tilted on its axis, or that the rotation of the Earth is slowing down. In both Nunavut and Nunavik, Inuit have noticed a slight shift in the location of the sun, stars and moon in the sky. According to some residents of Nunavut communities, the moon is now said to travel higher in the sky, while Inuit in both Nunavik and Nunavut reported that the sun travels higher in the sky and sets in a slightly different location on the horizon than it used to.
When I was young I was an avid student of geology, and I think the grand scale of time involved in geologic observations had a liberating effect on my sense of the now. The moment is infinitesimally small, it is passing and part of a traceable flow, to some extent, so the context of the moment is very broad. I found that many of the geomorphic processes described also held revelation for the human processes around me and within me: for example, “isostatic rebound,” the term for land arising after the release from pressure, after the lifting of a great weight, seemed to hold true for humans too; for myself, moving away from great pressure allows for resurgence. Later I would see how this is also true for communities, the release from oppression allows for resurgence.
My interest led me to read Joseph Needham’s work in the translating and communication of Chinese scientific principles and approaches, technologies, and mindset, and then, other authors. The conception of Chinese (and related) medical systems is one of energies, balances, areas of blockage and stagnation, areas of overheating or overstimulation: the earth, land, water, air all follow similar paths of waves, at different times and pacing, but all are in the flow. For me, there was a strong sense of continuity between Western geological concepts and Chinese, Japanese medical systems, the same insights spelled out in a new set of metaphors. Life is dynamic, fluid and changing, we are living beings, the land and the plants as well have their seasons and fluidity.
When I finally got around to studying with my indigenous teachers and elders, the sense of wholeness and congruence was complete. Basic teachings like “we are all related” coexist very easily with these ways of looking at the world.
More recently, I have been thinking about human migrations, intermarriages, and in particular the sense of certain nonindigenous appetites for indigenous cultural wealth. These can be seen as a kind of vulturism, or vampirism, but that perspective has no respect for the humans involved, any more than the segregation of different kinds of indigenous people in Canada, with different rights and relationships to government under law, reflects respect for the humanities involved. It seemed to me that there was and is a tremendous hunger for spiritual replenishing and reconnecting with Nature, and a more rooted understanding or perhaps a broader, more accurate way of understanding the world. My observation (or speculation) was that this may well be seen as greed, but, it is equally valid to say that this seeking is driven by an absence.
In order to step back from the colonial indigenous-settler polarization, the heaven-hell, good-evil split, I needed a way of seeing that was less alarmist and reactive, more naturally rooted. When we are hungry we seek food, when we are unwell we seek the correct medicines, and these aren’t intellectual processes but animal and human, naturally occurring. If the cultural processes of colonial thought have brought the people to a place of hunger and diminishment, for the sake of our health we must find new ways of seeing and believing.
Whatever our cultural richness, there is a widespread lack, hunger, or absence that is driving the movements of the populations of the world, every bit as much as it is driving the philosophical and the spiritual seekers, for safe lands within which to live, and for good food for the soul. This nonjudgemental or detached way of viewing highly emotive aspects of our shared lives may not be true, but it is what I have come to: the migrations of plants in response to opportunities and changing weather is not unlike the intellectual and spiritual seeking people do.
When I first looked up “Taoism” in a reference book, I read that it was a dead religion. Later, more recent books by Westerners have insisted on a separation between “philosophical Daoism” and religious, community expressions. This separation of what Westerners are comfortable with from what is the whole of Daoism is a sleight of mind. For myself, I learned as much or more about Daoism by volunteering at a temple doing translation projects and learning tai chi, kung fu, qi gong with Chinese elders than from the medical and philosophical and literary texts I pored over. The dimensionality of cultural wealth is always beyond words, and a person seeking understanding can engage through action, through seeing, through listening, through myriad approaches. For me, the street parades of deities and the syncretic approach to religion is absolutely coherent with the ancient poetry, the philosophical concepts, the medical, and the metaphysical.
Anyone who has sat through a tutorial of “little ice age, big ice age, little ice age” will have a sense that climate change is the norm. If that person has participated in ritual, be it a pipe ceremony or a tai chi class, that is rooted deeply in non-Western frivolities and short-sightedness, there will be a strong simultaneous sense that this does not excuse the destruction of the planet, the pillaging of communal wealth and shared life for the profit of a small global clique. It does not mean we can all sit back and say, “Oh well.” Whatever is happening now is part of the oceanic balance of assertion of life, and we do need to continue to assert what is right, to be a power for the good and for all time.
How I think or feel about the poem has changed over time. Frankly, I do not think that the bones of a mammoth are worth the sacrifice of a planet. While the idea of the big hairy elephants of the Americas is one of the lifelong threads of continuity, of that sense of the world’s wholesome, I think that the piece of the elephant (to reference an old story) that the Inuit describe through lifeways and observations of the skies is as important as any other part described by any other people. In terms of Canadian identity, when Inuit or Cree or Metis people reminisce about starvation, resulting from state decision-making, we have to incorporate that into our sense of ourselves as a collective. Likewise, the cross-fertilizations of Asian cultural wealth with North American and Euro-American is a contemporary fact of life, and the cross-fertilizations of First Nations with every locality across the Americas are also a fact of life.
A final reference embedded in the poem is that of the warm wind from the south, a revivifying influence. My sense is that it was a specific Cree hunting story that I had in mind, but by today the details have fallen away, and it remains there, to mean for others whatever it means to each one, depending on everything they have heard or known and bring to the reading of the poem. I remember attending a talk, an indigenous history of Turtle Island, and the speaker, a Dene woman, spoke of olden times, still held within her people’s oral history, of tropical plants and animals. Whether there was a long journey between those hot times and the colder days of today, or the long passage of time which transpired and was remembered within a single region, I don’t know. But the reality of who we are is rich and interconnected, multifaceted, and diverse, and while time stands still for none, the most reductive possible future is not the most likely one.
The beauty of the moment is that very few people indeed can believe in the palimpsest version of Canada that has been promulgated through our schools and history books, that is reflected in our laws and in the ways we do things. Resilience of indigenous people and cultural wealth, the resilient adherence to a sense of history not sanctioned by colonial government, is resurgent, and forcing change on all levels, not least is that fundamental self-assessment: who am I, where am I, what is the significance of this moment. Very few Canadians will agree that some should have no access to potable water, no access to economic participation, no access to self-governance or self-regency within a self-defined “free” country. Working out the details of how we shall live together, that is an ongoing unfurling.
The concatenation of voices, of points of view, of what is beauty in cultural terms and what is true in historical terms, is the challenge set before us, the street parade that we are all collectively mounting.
5. S. Nickels, C. Furgal, M. Buell, and H. Moquin, Unikkaaqatigiit — Putting the Human Face on Climate Change: Perspectives from Inuit in Canada (Ottawa: Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, Nasivvik Centre for Inuit Health and Changing Environments at Université Laval and the Ajunnginiq Centre at the National Aboriginal Health Organization, 2005), 62.