A Conversation Between Liz Howard and Matthew James Weigel

by Liz Howard and Matthew James Weigel

Liz Howard’s debut collection Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent won the 2016 Griffin Poetry Prize, was shortlisted for the 2015 Governor General’s Award for poetry, and was named a Globe and Mail top 100 book. A National Magazine Award finalist, her recent work has appeared in Canadian Literature, Literary Review of Canada, Room Magazine and Best Canadian Poetry 2021. Her second collection, Letters in a Bruised Cosmos, was published by McClelland & Stewart in June 2021. Howard received an Honours Bachelor of Science with High Distinction from the University of Toronto, and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Guelph. She is currently the Mordecai Richler Writer-in-Residence at McGill University and has completed creative writing and Indigenous arts residencies at the University of Calgary, UBC Okanagan, Douglas College, Sheridan College, and The Capilano Review. She is also an adjunct professor and lecturer in the Department English at the University of Toronto and serves on the editorial board for Buckrider Books, an imprint of Wolsak & Wynn. She is of mixed settler and Anishinaabe heritage. Born and raised on Treaty 9 territory in Northern Ontario, she currently lives in Toronto.

Matthew James Weigel is a Dene and Métis poet and artist pursuing a PhD in English at the University of Alberta and holds a Bachelor of Science in Biological Sciences. He is the designer for Moon Jelly House press and his words and art have been published by people like Arc Poetry Magazine, Book*Hug, The Polyglot, and The Mamawi Project. Matthew is a National Magazine Award finalist, Cécile E. Mactaggart award winner, and winner of the 2020 Vallum Chapbook Award. His debut full-length collection Whitemud Walking is forthcoming in April 2022 with Coach House Books. His chapbook It Was Treaty / It Was Me won the 2021 bpnichol Chapbook Award and was shortlisted for the Nelson Ball Prize, and is available now.

In early 2022, Liz Howard and Matthew James Weigel reflected on creation, emergence, community, acts of resistance, artistic influences, and many more ideas through an extended email conversation. Matthew will publish his full-length debut poetry collection, Whitemud Walking, with Coach House Books in April 2022. The latest poetry collection from Liz Howard, Letters in a Bruised Cosmos, was published by McClelland & Steward in 2021. Her first collection, Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent, won the 2016 Griffin Poetry Prize Award. What follows is the exchange between these two poets, edited for length and clarity.


Matthew James Weigel: We first met in the spring of 2019 when you were the writer in residence at the University of Calgary and had come up to the University of Alberta to read and chat about your work. It felt like a momentous occasion for me as an observer in that room full of amazing writers. I was sitting between Janet Rogers and Jordan Abel, and Billy-Ray Belcourt was there, at the back of the room. I think maybe even Marilyn Dumont was there that day. I had just started studying the treaty parchments and was beginning the work on my book.

We’re both heavily influenced by the networks that have brought us to where we are today—that’s a real demonstration of community among Indigenous writers.

You read from what you were working on at the time, and I believe that poetry eventually made its way into your new book, Letters in a Bruised Cosmos. I think about how these threads connect but also have their origins in things even further back. We’re both heavily influenced by the networks that have brought us to where we are today—that’s a real demonstration of community among Indigenous writers.

Liz Howard: Yes, I had been invited to speak by Marilyn Dumont as part of a creative and intellectual exchange between the universities’ respective writer in residence (WIR) programs. Janet was WIR at the University of Alberta that year. I gave a talk called ‘The Poetics of the Shaking Tent’ in which I spoke of how I came to write my book Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent. I spoke of how my paternal grandmother’s family left Atikameksheng Anishnawbek (formerly Whitefish Lake First Nation) after my great-grandfather was “enfranchised” (lost his Indian status) after serving in WW1 and eventually settled in Nicholson, Ontario (Treaty 9), a former lumber camp that has since become a ghost town.

From family stories, which I want to respect and honour the privacy of, it is my understanding that poverty and racism took its toll on the family. I unfortunately grew up estranged from my father’s side after he left, before I turned one year old. The reasons for that estrangement are complex. However, my mother instilled in me a sense of pride for my Anishinaabe heritage.

I came to experience writing as a conversation between myself, the land and the dead/absent. I wrote poems to my father, grandmother, and ancestors.

My hometown of Chapleau, Ontario (Treaty 9) has a large Indigenous community where Elders and other community members would visit our school. Growing up, I never felt I really belonged anywhere. As is the case with many children who feel this way, I turned to books and writing. I spent a lot of time by myself in the bush, reading and writing and meditating. When I was nine, we moved in with my future stepfather in a little house out on the highway in between a swamp and a graveyard. The boreal forest bordered the house. When I was ten, my youngest brother was born, and I was moved into a room in the basement. I was sleeping underground, and I came to realize that I was sleeping and dreaming at the same level as those interred in the graveyard. They entered my dreams and spoke to me. Keeping a dream journal has always been an integral component of my practice. I came to experience writing as a conversation between myself, the land and the dead/absent. I wrote poems to my father, grandmother, and ancestors. In this way, I had an experience of presence from a distance, and this was coming through long periods of meditative, automatic, or stream-of-consciousness writing.

I saw my writing as an act against assimilation and I sought to explore Anishinaabe ways-of-knowing alongside the Western science and philosophy that had informed so much of how I perceived the world.

When I turned 18, I moved to Toronto to study acting and then psychological science. After graduating, I returned to writing and found community and belonging (however tentative) in poetry. I pursued an M.F.A., and my thesis was a work of poetry that became the core of my first book. I had begun the difficult process of reconnecting with my father’s family and learned about the family’s subjection to assimilative policies. I saw my writing as an act against assimilation and I sought to explore Anishinaabe ways-of-knowing alongside the Western science and philosophy that had informed so much of how I perceived the world.

In my research, I read about the Shaking Tent (Jiisikaan) Ceremony, and I could see parallels between the underpinnings of that ceremony and my own practice, the desire to be “a congress/of selves a vibrational chorus” and a “guest in [the] mind” of others (Infinite Citizen, p. 16). I took care to only speak of the ceremony metaphorically as I have not had the honour of experiencing one myself. As I said in my talk, I did discover through genealogical research that a cousin of mine, Dasia Nebenionquit, who was a former Chief of Atikameksheng, experienced this ceremony as a child and his story is relayed in a book called Whitefish Lake Ojibway Memories.

 

Liz Howard: Were you also in Jordan’s poetry class? I know he invited me to one of his poetry classes where the students had read Infinite Citizen. I remember being enthralled by the various interpretations of my work. It was a real gift. I think we also viewed the treaty parchments that your current work engages with. All this to say, I am very grateful to be in a community of incredible minds and to be in conversation with you now. 

Matthew James Weigel: Yes, I was in Jordan’s class that semester. It was a real privilege to be involved in that conversation. I remember your talk and your use of photos and recorded materials. Displacement and dispossession tend to be common and can be challenging, but just having a photo and a story can bring you home to where you need to be in that moment.

Jordan’s Indigenous poetry class was an important time for me. I remember the first day, he started talking about research-creation and its value as a method for creating interesting art and research together, simultaneously. I was interested in expanding on visual art concepts I had started working with in a poetry class I took with Margaret Christakos. Margaret was instrumental in bringing me out of what I can only call a writing slump. I was taking her class at a traumatic period in my life and having discovered new ways to be a poet is something I’ll be forever grateful for.

For my final project, I created a small mixed media aquarium where the sand was dry but had been formed around a set of poetry objects. I didn’t have the word for it at the time, but it was my first attempt at an artist’s book. There was carved soapstone, a small hand-stitched chapbook, and some other bits representative of my life as a marine scientist. My favourite piece was a box of microscope slides I had etched with my lab notebook descriptions of deep ocean bristle worms. The worms were from a glass sponge reef in Georgia Strait that I had spent months analyzing as part of a research project looking at the reef’s community of invertebrates. These strange and quirky looking animals thrived in deep and lightless spaces. The glass sponge reefs are beautiful ancient formations considered extinct since the dinosaurs, but are alive and well in only one place on earth: the coast of British Columbia. That inspired further work with etching glass, which might be my favourite medium to work in. I started playing more with interactions between light, glass and shadow. That summer I made this piece:

Photosynthesis, Matthew James Weigel, 2018

A year later for Jordan’s class, I wanted to push what I had done before. I created a glass box of individual square panes that were held together at the corners by wooden blocks. Each pane was one of the six books we had studied in his class, including yours. The etchings were either words or images that worked together, casting different shadows as you shined a light on the box. In this way, you couldn’t see the images of just one pane, and, by changing the position of the light, you could see how Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas could be viewed in conjunction with Marilyn Dumont’s The Pemmican Eaters, or Lisa Bird-Wilson’s The Red Files. The images would project beyond the space of the cube, and you could use a light to fill the space you were in with these images. It’s a piece that resists photography and is made stronger by standing around it, telling the stories that can be read in each pane of glass. I spent a lot of time thinking about what it means to resist being archived, and that piece was a first implementation of this practice. This practice is now one of trying to understand how the different strands of my past work together, how different ways of knowing and sharing stories can work together but also how they work against each other at times.

Artists’ books have become a very central component of this practice. About six months after the glass cube was made, I finished another work called RIVERLOT. It is a double-spine hardcover book where the first poem consists of sheets of plastic cut in the form of a three-dimensional topography of the North Saskatchewan River valley in Edmonton. That poem would eventually make its way into Whitemud Walking, but I see both versions operating very differently.

RIVERLOT, Matthew James Weigel, 2019

I am fascinated by the layers of time in a given place, by the stories held and shared in each layer. The glass sponge reef I studied sits on top of a glacial relict from thousands of years ago. The ancient, fossilized sponge reefs from the time of the dinosaurs are now mountains in Europe. Water and glaciers and mountains and river valleys, they all work together and tell so many stories.

I think about how both of us have science backgrounds. When I read your work, there are always things that stick out to me as someone who has studied biology, but also philosophy. There were moments reading Infinite Citizen that called out to me loudly and with such clarity. Here was an Indigenous poet with a philosophy and science background, using words in such generative ways.

Liz Howard: I am fascinated by your approach to artists’ books! I wish I could see one of your shadow boxes. I also love the idea of you researching a community of creatures that live in “deep and lightless places,” and a place that is a sort of refuge and unique in the world (the reef of glass sponges off the BC coast). Studying science, both theory and practice, affords a certain way of interpreting the world. I find myself drawn to analysis and nomenclature, the sense that there is a method to navigate the complexity of the world is somehow reassuring. I remember seeing an electron micrograph of DNA transcription (part of the cellular process of “reading” DNA code to form protein) in a biology textbook when I was in high school and experiencing a deep sense of awe, something like divinity. I think it is possible for poetry to capture that experience of “divinity.” I’m reminded of the poem in your book Whitemud Walking wherein you write: “My water from the river and my nitrogen, / a buffalo protein. / I am a fleshbound manuscript of what this place might say,” (Whitemud Walking, p. 47). The body is a material expression of the deep history of which it is constituted. Neuroscientist Charles Sherington once described the brain as an “enchanted loom.” If we are material history then consciousness, by extension poetry is the fabric sewn within the complications of time. Something of poetry lends itself to the immaterial, as if unbounded by the usual limitations of human time. Poetry for me is an experience of radical simultaneity, everything collapsing into an infinitely dense node of certainty but paradoxically nothing is closed off, all other possibilities exist in parallel within the probability cloud.   

If we are material history then consciousness, by extension poetry is the fabric sewn within the complications of time.

MJW: It’s always so interesting what images kick off those experiences for us. There are a lot of gestures towards the scientific or to material processes in my book, as you mention. That gesturing often comes from anxieties over those complications of time, as you put it. I love this idea of poetry being unbounded. The anxieties are sometimes over things we know about, and sometimes over things we don’t. Alexander Morris’s text on the treaty negotiations is one I dissect thoroughly throughout the book, and there’s a line in it where Morris is trying to show how the people of this place were desperate to make a treaty with the crown: “He was anxious about the buffalo.” I have found it really challenging to work with material like this, and my only way through it has been poetry. Morris was trying to demonstrate the righteousness of the Canadian cause and yet, because of his white-nationalist zeal, he could only view Indigenous peoples as a monolithic “other.” The whole process of the numbered treaties was one that fought against radical simultaneity and tried to close off everything the infinitely dense node was open to. When confronted with the horrors of colonialism, the only possible conclusion is that it is an irrational process, and that it only makes sense as a cruel thing, a vicious thing. It brings up a lot of interconnected anxieties that continue to reverberate such that I can still be anxious about the buffalo.

Sometimes I feel like plankton, wandering wherever the currents take me. But if you can at least get into the right current, you’ll end up somewhere.

I had first seen the Treaty No. 6 parchment copy in the University of Alberta’s library special collections, and that had immediately formed the nucleus of my current research project. It was an intensely emotional experience, but also an introduction to methods of research-creation that continue to map out the work ahead of me. I came to studying treaty through the stories my dad would tell me when I was younger, about how “grandpa signed treaty,” which was always a short story—that was basically the whole of it. But it was connected to other stories about home and growing up in the north. It’s these connective qualities of stories that guide my work through research-creation. I’ve spoken with classes learning about research-creation for the first time, and this ‘how’ question comes up a lot. In the face of overwhelming amounts of information, you just have to tug on whatever thread speaks loudest to you. That thread inevitably relates to all the others anyway, so it’s important that you’re able to find some sort of grounding pathway to take you through the work. Not to mix metaphors too badly, but history is a real ocean of information and it’s easy to get lost. Sometimes I feel like plankton, wandering wherever the currents take me. But if you can at least get into the right current, you’ll end up somewhere.

LH: I wrote in my latest book that “history is a sewing motion.” I wonder if our work is a gesture towards closing certain loops and healing backwards. Information and how it is ordered is a complicated problem in that process. I seem to learn best by “doing,” putting what is gathered along the way into practice, and the practice is one of creation. It is so interesting to me how your work is a collaboration with the archive and how you render the explicit from what is too commonly taken as implicit in treaty. I often feel caught in the snare of information overload and it becomes a quandary of whether to try and make an art of the snare or risk escape by gnawing my own foot off. Poetry happens somewhere in there for better or worse.

MJW: That snare is an apt image for my time spent in archival spaces. Those spaces can be incredibly generative, but also cold and unkind. I remember sitting at a table and staring at the Treaty No. 11 book that my great-great-grandfather signed and sensing the weight of it. I asked the staff for a scale so I could weigh it. I was surprised at how light it was. There’s a line in my book where I list the weight of what remains of it: 703 grams. That was a way to make art of it, sitting at the table and measuring, writing about how it felt. The flip side of course is the need to escape. On the day I was in the main building of the Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa, I felt I was walking into a trap. That I was offering myself to something dead and mechanical. That a part of me would never be able to leave. I couldn’t spend a long time in the building. I couldn’t make many notes because it hurt too much. I was looking at my family’s scrip investigation files and feeling panicked. I was holding a file box full of Métis scrip applications containing the dispossession of my relations, every file folder label had the names of families I was related to. I practically ran out of the building. I had the opportunity to meet Lisa Bird-Wilson that afternoon. Her work has been so influential for me, and it was an honour to chat about the challenging experience I’d just had. It was exactly the grounding I needed to gain back those pieces of me I felt I had left in the archives that day.

I remember sitting at a table and staring at the Treaty No. 11 book that my great-great-grandfather signed and sensing the weight of it.

Letters in a Bruised Cosmos is such a great title. Is your work building on itself? Do you see your two books as part of a whole? This book has a very vivid flow, and it returns on itself cyclically in such smart and vital ways. I am fascinated to know more about your process of tying your knowledge together. I want to hear about Wittgenstein and how you feel the arcings of his work speak to the arcings of your own. Your work—a wide-eyed and breathtaking tour—offers not just moments on the page but connections between them. Reading it, I received so much, and it required a gentleness, an openness from me. Each of your collections is not only a book of poetry, they contain the idea of multiplicity.

LH: I started reading Wittgenstein by way of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest which I had started reading because someone I greatly admired said it was their favourite book. I read somewhere that DFW had said that Wittgenstein’s Tractatus was the most beautiful piece of literature ever composed, which I see now as both aesthetic praise and philosophical dig. I was howling with laughter reading it. I recognized something of my own mind in his impossible obsession with order and concision in language. This all-encompassing desire to state the problem of consciousness (essentially) so perfectly that the nature of it being a problem falls away into a crystalline certainty. So many poets and writers generally have engaged with that work. One book I really love (and have yet to finish) is David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress, whose unnamed narrator is experiencing “time out of mind”, something I relate to. 

As for my work building on itself, let’s say yes, it is. If I am a self-referencing prediction machine, then I predict I will continue to reference myself. Even so, multiplicity is the name of the game.

MJW: I studied logical systems in my first degree and was fascinated with Wittgenstein’s approaches to language. There’s something in being a student of logic that makes that “impossible obsession with order” seem possible, seem reasonable. I have a different view of those problems now, which seem so big you can’t possibly see their edges. I’ve become more comfortable with uncertainty and unknowability, which is reflected in my transition to poetry and art.

Are you reading anything that’s helpful or particularly enjoyable right now? I’m in the middle of grad school readings and so I seldom have the chance to pick up a book that isn’t assigned to me. But I made the effort recently to read a book for pleasure outside of coursework. It was Hanif Abdurraqib’s A Little Devil in America and I can’t recommend it enough. The entire time I was reading it, I wanted to start writing. When you find a book that’s so intensely generative, it is a real privilege and joy. I’m a huge fan of Hanif’s work and the way that book blends creative nonfiction with the poetic will be a major influence for me going forward. It highlighted how important it is to read for enjoyment. More importantly, it’s full of great stories, and joy, wonder and expansive historical networks that tie the present together.

LH: I have had the privilege to read your Whitemud Walking and also an ARC of Cody Caetano’s Half-Bads in White Regalia, a memoir which is also set to come out this spring. How do I express how impressive these books are, as are the works of so many Indigenous writers in our current moment that Alicia Elliot has rightly called an “Indigenous renaissance”? How to express the deep gratitude to authors and artists, like Pauline Johnson, Maria Campbell, and Lee Maracle, who have paved the way for all of this? I think that expression of gratitude will be a work of a lifetime and one I am thankful to be a part of. I’m currently savouring Joan Naviyuk Kane’s exquisite Dark Traffic. Kane’s work makes me excited about writing and I need that excitement to cut through a bit of the terror. Ariana Reines’ A Sand Book lives open on my bed, and I turn to its words in the morning like a regenerative balm. 

MJW: I echo this feeling of deep gratitude to those that have paved the way, and to this amazing community around us. It feels very loving and generous inside this circle, and it is a real privilege and honour to be writing in this moment. But also, it reminds me of the principles of treaty, that it is an ongoing and reciprocal process of honouring obligations to each other. I am very grateful to you Liz, marsi cho for your work and your words here.



Liz Howard’s debut collection Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent won the 2016 Griffin Poetry Prize, was shortlisted for the 2015 Governor General’s Award for poetry, and was named a Globe and Mail top 100 book. A National Magazine Award finalist, her recent work has appeared in Canadian Literature, Literary Review of Canada, Room Magazine and Best Canadian Poetry 2021. Her second collection, Letters in a Bruised Cosmos, was published by McClelland & Stewart in June 2021. Howard received an Honours Bachelor of Science with High Distinction from the University of Toronto, and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Guelph. She is currently the Mordecai Richler Writer-in-Residence at McGill University and has completed creative writing and Indigenous arts residencies at the University of Calgary, UBC Okanagan, Douglas College, Sheridan College, and The Capilano Review. She is also an adjunct professor and lecturer in the Department English at the University of Toronto and serves on the editorial board for Buckrider Books, an imprint of Wolsak & Wynn. She is of mixed settler and Anishinaabe heritage. Born and raised on Treaty 9 territory in Northern Ontario, she currently lives in Toronto.

Matthew James Weigel is a Dene and Métis poet and artist pursuing a PhD in English at the University of Alberta and holds a Bachelor of Science in Biological Sciences. He is the designer for Moon Jelly House press and his words and art have been published by people like Arc Poetry Magazine, Book*Hug, The Polyglot, and The Mamawi Project. Matthew is a National Magazine Award finalist, Cécile E. Mactaggart award winner, and winner of the 2020 Vallum Chapbook Award. His debut full-length collection Whitemud Walking is forthcoming in April 2022 with Coach House Books. His chapbook It Was Treaty / It Was Me won the 2021 bpnichol Chapbook Award and was shortlisted for the Nelson Ball Prize, and is available now.

☝ BACK TO TOP