Samantha Martin-Bird is a citizen of Peguis First nation currently living in a house she painted purple in Thunder Bay, Ontario. She works in philanthropy with the Mastercard Foundation to address inequities in education and employment for Indigenous young people. As a way to pass the time during the pandemic, Sam started writing poetry about places she has called home, Saskatchewan and northern Ontario. She tweets @SammBird and is on Instagram @samantha.martin.bird
Interviewed by Luisa Celis
Luisa Celis (LC): What does poetry mean to you?
Samantha Martin-Bird (SMB): For me, poetry is a method of concise storytelling.
LC: Who or what has influenced your writing the most?
SMB: I have thoroughly enjoyed the creative writing of Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, particularly Islands of Decolonial Love and This Accident of Being Lost. I love the way Leanne intertwines traditional and urban Indigenous experiences in her stories, which is something I enjoy writing about as well.
My writing is also heavily influenced by the places where I have lived, especially Saskatchewan, Northwestern Ontario, and Southern Ontario. Some of my writing comes from places where my family lives, or places that I have visited, such as Manitoba and Alberta. It is important to me that the specificity of place comes through in the stories I write, because the land and water are just as much characters as they are settings.
I’m also influenced by the funny or sad things that friends or acquaintances have said to me in real life. Often, I’ll start working on a poem after someone says something that I find particularly entertaining or uniquely moving, and I’ll build out the rest of the story around that line.
LC: For many writers, there are experiences that keep coming up in their writing. Do you have any such theme that keeps showing up in your poems?
SMB: So far, a lot of my poems have been about men and the land. I might run out of men to write about, but we’ll always have the land.
Writing about these topics is impossible to do without speaking to the ways in which colonialism and race influence love and friendship and connection. However, my main purpose in writing is not to critique colonialism or racist policies; that’s what Twitter is for. I’m just writing about people I’ve met and places I’ve lived in, and those things are inherently political.
LC: Do you have an ideal reader in mind, someone you think of when you are writing?
SMB: The ideal readers in my mind are Indigenous people in the prairies and Ontario, at least, I think my poems are most accessible to Indigenous people from those territories. If I had to be more specific, I would say Indigenous young professionals, although I’m happy if any Indigenous person enjoys my work.
LC: Some of your poems include many Anishinaabemowin words or are in written in Anishinaabemowin; what is your motivation and objective when choosing which language to use, or how do you make that decision?
SMB: Some of my poems use anishinaabemowin, particularly if the story occurs anishinaabeg territory. Likewise, some of my poems use nêhiyawêwin, if they are about stories that occur in nêhiyawak territory or if they are about nêhiyaw individuals.
When it comes to deciding which words will be in English and which ones will be in an Indigenous language, I try to use words that are fairly common in Indigenous languages, so that the poem is a bit more accessible. Or, I’ll use words in the language if I’m intentionally creating a play on words, or if I’m trying to slightly disguise the meaning of a phrase for settlers. For instance, I like using “zhagaanash” instead of “white person” because sometimes white people get rattled by being called “white”.
LC: Your poem Sacrilegious literally calls for the burning of churches. It repeats, “burn down all the churches.” How do you envision this poem might influence the reconciliation process?
SMB: That poem was not written with reconciliation in mind. I did not write it for reconciliation or in spite of reconciliation. I wrote that poem in response to the multiple church burnings that occurred in the wake of the discovery of unmarked graves at the sites of former residential schools, but it is not written out of anger or as a call to arson, but to point out the ridiculousness in both church buildings and church burnings.
The poem says, “neither christ nor creator need them” to highlight the fact that Christian orthodoxy is actually incongruent with lavish budgets for churches and cathedrals, such as the discrepancy between how much the Catholic church spends on buildings and renovations, compared to how much it spends on reparations and justice for Indigenous communities.
I write in the poem, “but comfort auntie crying on a floor of ashes” because church burnings actually hurt Indigenous communities, where communities have (for better or for worse) embraced Christianity. In some cases church buildings have become important landmarks and heritage sites. For instance, my grandparents are buried outside a historic church in East Selkirk, and I know if that church was burned, it would cause immense grief to my extended family.
Throughout the poem I mix imagery of a sweatlodge ceremony and smudging, with imagery of a church burning. For instance, “a hundred degree heat” refers both to the heat of the lodge and the fire of a church burning. The line “teach settlers their prayers ascend in smoke” refers both to smudging and to the image of a church in flames. The line “retrieve grandfathers from the rubble for the lodge” refers to taking stone and brick from a dilapidated burnt church building to use for a sweat, something that could be a redemptive use of stone, or viewed as irreverent or “sacrilegious” as the poem is titled.
The final line, “show zhagaanash you’re schooled in their tricks” is a reference to the ways in which we were “schooled” in residential schools and are now repaying settlers with the lessons we learned there (e.g. sacrilegious destruction of the other’s spirituality).
If readers understood the poem, they would know that we don’t need church burnings, but that when churches are torched, there are ceremonies older than Christian liturgy that can lead us back to the creator, our communities, and ourselves.