Gregory Scofield is Red River Metis of Cree, Scottish and European descent, and one of Canada’s most recognized poets. Scofield won the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize in 1994 for his debut collection, The Gathering: Stones for the Medicine Wheel. He’s published seven more volumes of poetry as well as a memoir, Thunder Through My Veins (1999). His latest collection, Witness, I Am, won the Latner Writers’ Trust Poetry Prize this past Fall. It is a powerful collection that uses both English and Cree languages, explores the nature of belonging and identity, and examines the critical issue of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. Every poem offers a deeply personal lens.
by Jennifer Manuel
Jennifer Manuel: Your latest collection of poetry, Witness, I Am, looks at the critical issue of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women through the retelling of atayohkewin, a Cree Sacred Story. Can you speak to how this Sacred Story serves as a lens for viewing this critical issue?
Gregory Scofield: The Cree Sacred Story used in the poem Muskrat Woman is a re-telling or re-imagining of one of our most scared creation stories. The animals in the original story are all presented as male. So in my re-telling, I’ve given Muskrat, who is essentially responsible for remaking the world by getting a piece of the old earth after the flood, a female character. Her main focuses, however, is ensuring the new world will be safe for her sisters, and many of the Missing and Murdered women. The poem employs both Cree spiritual beliefs and Christianity, and how the creation of the world is often told from a male perspective.
JM: There is a poem in this collection called “Dangerous Sound.” The phrase “is it okay” echoes throughout as the poem navigates the in-between space that Metis people have long occupied. Tell me about this phrase, “is it okay.” Where does phrase fit into the idea of belonging?
GS: This particular poem is about my late Aunty’s residential school experience and how, as a Metis woman, she would not have been able to provide her survivor testimony with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Metis people, who attended residential and boarding schools, were often over looked in this process being that they were not considered “Indians”. The term “Is It Okay” in the poem speaks to this exclusion and oversight.
JM: Congratulations on winning the Latner Writers’ Trust Poetry Prize last Fall. I watched the awards streamed live online, and I thought your reading of “She is Spitting a Mouthful of Stars” was powerful and compelling. For some reason, I was reminded of how Maya Angelou read her poetry. A conversational yet not casual cadence punctuated with hints of musicality. How do you perceive the poet’s role in reading to the public and what do you try to bring to a reading?
GS: The poet’s role in reading to the public is to engage the audience, to shake the rattle of poetry, to make it accessible and moving to the listener. The poet is a storyteller and must always remember their very important role.
JM: Speaking of awards, your debut collection, The Gathering: Stories for the Medicine Wheel, won the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize in 1994. What impact have such accolades had on your work, and how do you perceive your own growth as a poet over the past twenty-five years?
GS: My own growth as a poet has been very rewarding. I’ve been fortunate to have been mentored by many wonderful poets and storytellers. Perhaps the greatest gift I’ve been given with poetry is that I found my voice, I found the rope that led me back to the stories and to the Cree language.
JM: You will be teaching a poetry workshop at this year’s festival called Shaking the Rattle of Poetry. What do you hope for participants by the end of that workshop?
GS: My hope is that participants will leave the workshop with a new sense of their own voice and how to make the rattle of poetry sing, how to make it sound.
Gregory Scofield will be appearing Saturday, September 30th at Shaking the Rattle of Poetry | Workshop with Gregory Scofield, 9:30am at GOOD and Saturday, September 30th at Speaking the Unspeakable, 3:30 at the Greater Victoria Public Library.
Jennifer Manuel is the author of The Heaviness of Things That Float (Douglas & McIntyre)