Strong words

By Amy Reiswig, November 2011

First Nations writer Janet Rogers doesn’t mean to be confrontational—just honest.

Amid tables of cables, cords and screens at Victoria’s MediaNet office, multitalented Janet Rogers works on a radio commission for Toronto’s imagineNATIVE film and media arts festival, pulling together sound clips of music and poetry into a nine-minute piece. As she plays it for me, I realize again—as I did reading her latest book, Unearthed (Leaf Press, Sept 2011)—that Rogers is an artist of dynamic, enterprising vision who revels in the creation of meaning and structure where others might see mess.

Rogers’ life and art resist simplistic categorization. Born in Vancouver in the early 1960s, she is culturally Mohawk/Tuscarora, from the Six Nations territory in southern Ontario, but now lives in Coast Salish territory here in Victoria and travels and performs across Canada and the world (including, most recently, New Mexico and New Zealand). Her creativity is like a roving spirit, taking shape in and inhabiting pretty much any genre she applies herself to: visual art, poetry, short fiction, playwriting, spoken word, performance poetry and video poetry. Recent work includes books of poetry—Splitting the Heart (Ekstasis 2007) and Red Erotic (Ojistah 2010)—as well as CDs Got Your Back (2011, with Mohawk poet Alex Jacobs) and Firewater (2009), the latter earning her nominations at the Canadian Aboriginal Music Awards and the Native American Music Awards. Rogers can also be heard hosting Native Waves Radio on CFUV, and a native music column called Tribal Clefs on CBC Radio One’s All Points West each Tuesday.

Rogers’ most recent book of poems, launched at UVic in early October, continues her personal and artistic journey of bridging borders and busting through perceived limitations. At just over 100 pages, Unearthed is a surprising pulling together of powerful order from the equally powerful chaos that is capital-L Life.

Thematically, the book is divided into three sections: love, politics and identity. But each section contains poems incorporating all three concepts. “When you’re an indigenous person and aware of your political surroundings,” the outgoing, intense Rogers explains to me, “you have to engage. It’s tiring. It’s exhausting, infuriating. That’s the dance, man. And you’re born into it.” A good part of the book is Rogers showing us the difficulty—and the beauty—of this dance, as engaging with her surroundings provides meditations on land, love, loss, the age-old dialectic between body and spirit, notions of home, belonging, betrayal and culture clash.

Rogers admits that in this book “the process is a little bit raw. Editing makes great writing, but truth makes great writing too. My words are my truth. I wait for that feeling in the gut that says, ‘That’s my truth.’”

Therefore, the book’s tone changes from page to page. Statements about nature range from sassy colloquialisms about how the “chill-filled winds bitch-slap my cheeks” to moments of lyrical description: “time takes on shapes/ripe fruit in the orchard.” Instances of personal revelation vary from bold assertions like “get an eyeful/try not to go blind/from my light!” to contrasting expressions of doubt and vulnerability such as “would rather fly than fight/but this skin weighs me down.” Similarly, comments on Canadian culture are philosophical—“people can never be/illegal or illegitimate/the earth knows this”—yet also accusatory: “I have been cut/that’s my blood/that stains your land/and flows thick in the rivers,/feeds the fish, you feed/your children. How does it taste?” 

Rogers acknowledges the somewhat adversarial nature of the poems emanating from and reflecting what she calls a “split heart” relationship with Canada. For example, in a poem called “Love Your Country” she asks in the first line: “Do I offend you?” and adds “That’s my ancestors’ voice/ in your ears/…you know it/in your colonial bones” before stating: “I don’t apologize/ if you’re sick/ of hearing about us.” 

“That’s just my truth,” Rogers tells me, a mixture of defiance and humility. “I don’t try to be controversial. I’m just trying—if I’m trying to do anything—to relate honest messages from an aboriginal perspective. Hopefully it won’t be off-putting.” While it might certainly make some readers uncomfortable, that’s not wholly a bad thing from Rogers’ perspective. “It’s good that people don’t know what to expect. We shouldn’t know what to expect from one another if we’re all living authentic lives.” 

If Rogers is authentically frustrated and angry, even divisive, she is also authentically reaching out inclusively with a spirit of pained but hopeful humanity. For instance, in another poem she writes: “sounds like complaints/but try it on—this truth/ maybe it fits you too.” The inclusive address forces readers of all backgrounds to ask themselves how they relate to Rogers’ messages, which in several instances she delivers with almost sermonic fervour to everyone: “steady on brothers and sisters/steady on/we’ll be fine”; “spirit makes it all possible/we carry on as proud people/spinning so much love/from one split heart.” 

“The message is for you too, Amy,” Rogers tells me, leaning across the table with a warm, embracing smile. “The essence of poetry is medicine—good things for the spirit and the mind.” 

Throughout, the book communicates a sense of urgency: a driving need to share these diverse messages. “I’ve lost people,” she explains. “Even just in March this year: my niece. I see her as someone who didn’t make it. I want to honour those who didn’t make it by keeping my words strong.”

This is a book of strong words indeed: words that confront, words that question, that celebrate and exhort and try to make sense of our collective mess and mystery. “Life is the whole journey, from start to finish and beyond,” she tells me. And Unearthed is ultimately a reminder to us of the simple, unifying truth—and a kaleidoscopic search for a way to say—that “Life is People/Life is People/Life is People.”

As a transplanted central Canadian from Montreal, writer and editor Amy Reiswig is grateful for the ability to share life in these beautiful BC lands with the cultures and people who have loved them for millennia.