The Ottawa Writers Festival’s opening night concluded with Poetry Cabaret, an intimate conversation about listening to Indigenous voices and finding balance. The event was hosted by writer and scholar Tracey Lindberg, who is a citizen of As’in’i’wa’chi Ni’yaw Nation Rocky Mountain Cree and from the Kelly Lake Cree Nation community. Phoenix Sandrock of Poetry in Voice opened the event, reading aloud Billy-Ray Belcourt’s “Love is a Moon Time Teaching.” Poetry in Voice is a Canadian organization that encourages students to read, recite, and write poetry. Silence fell across the room as Sandrock brought Belcourt’s words to life. Afterwards, Lindberg welcomed both Belcourt and Katherena Vermette to the stage to read from their work.
Katherena Vermette opened with the haunting title poem from her newest collection, river woman. Vermette is a Métis writer from Treaty One territory and much of her work refers to her hometown of Winnipeg, Manitoba. Her previous works span several genres, including North End Love Songs, her first book of poems, which won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Poetry. Vermette is also the author of the novel The Break, a series of children’s books and graphic novels, and short documentary film, this river. “I like to acknowledge the rivers in these places; they are why we are here,” she said, reminding the audience that most major Canadian cities were settled along shorelines. Vermette related her experience of writing while also shooting the documentary this river, which follows the work of the volunteers from the non-profit organization Drag the Red as they search the Red River in search of evidence of missing loved ones. Vermette also read aloud “where” and the beautiful love poem “I write you into every word every.”
Billy-Ray Belcourt is from the Driftpile Cree Nation and the author of two books of poetry: This Wound is a World, which won the 2018 Griffin Poetry Prize and his newest collection, NDN Coping Mechanisms: Notes from the Field. His forthcoming work, A History of my Brief Body, will be released in next year. Belcourt read “Flesh,” a powerful work based on the erasure of words from Walter L. Williams’ 1986 text The Spirit and the Flesh. He followed with “The Wall Clock Caught Fire from Neglect” and ended with an homage, “NDN Brother.”
After the readings, Tracey Lindberg opened the conversation with the seemingly simple question: “Who got you into this room?” Both Vermette and Belcourt’s replies spoke to the strong tradition of Indigenous writers before them. Belcourt characterized this “chorus” of Indigenous voices as “rebellious but joyous,” while Vermette credited earlier Indigenous writers with tearing “down those walls so we could come forward.” As the conversation continued, both also spoke of their experiences presenting their works to non-Indigenous audiences, each describing their own coping mechanisms and the need for a balance between offering an open and honest venue for exchange and safeguarding their own time and energy. The conversation was at turns serious and light, as Vermette and Belcourt expanded on the themes of melancholy and anger in their poetry, as well as the need for resistance through the arts, but also noting the humbling effect of spending time at home with a toddler. The evening closed on an optimistic note, as Katherena Vermette captured the energy and excitement of reading emerging Indigenous voices: “Indigenous writers, we are just getting started.”