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Letter.Box.Stamp.Collect. Poets, Letterboxing

Letter.Box.Stamp.Collect. Poet: Shane Rhodes

There is no end, now, to what we run away from
or to.

~ from ‘Driving’ by Shane Rhodes

This year’s Poet-in-Residence is Canadian poet Shane Rhodes who will be involved in many events during the festival. Here he talks history, counter discourse and about the stamp he designed for Letter.Box.Stamp.Collect.

Shane Rhodes

Your work has been described as ‘stray dog poetics’, “built on lightness, wander, wonder, hope, anger, inquisitiveness, love, hunger, lust.” It explores found poetry and erasure that promotes anything but historical amnesia yet meddles with the idea of progress. Could you discuss your work in relation to the notions of history repeating and forgetting itself?

As with anything stray dog, my work is a multitude of impulses and directions. Found poetry is only one avenue of exploration that seemed correct for the work I wanted to do with Canadian history and, specifically, settler, First Nations, Inuit and Metis relations. I am interested in how silence and forgetting (or forgetting something that was never really known in the first place) are manifest in colonial, settler societies. In Canada, this amnesia is apparent every day and can be seen in the irrational discourse and narratives that have been built around land rights, land appropriation and official, government “Indian policy.” Yet amnesia isn’t only something of the past but affects our very present (can you forget something happening in the present?) whether it be the unjust plight of many First Nations communities in Canada, the unequal relationship that Canadian society has engineered and maintains through its laws and governing systems, whether it be the epidemic of murdered Aboriginal women across Canada and the lack of real action to address it or the focus in Canada on mineral and resource extraction in blindness to environmental impact.

In Las venas abiertas de América Latina, Eduardo Galeano describes the history and present of colonial hegemony and exploitation that still affects Latin America. But I think this is something that can be seen in North America as well where the settler society’s relationship with the original inhabitants and to the appropriated land are still very much based on colonial ideas of domination and exploitation. The galleons waiting to take the plunder back to the mother country may no longer be in port; instead, they have been replaced by tanker and container ships.

For the project, your piece, mining, lumbering, trading: treaty 8, is a highly visual piece, depicting lines or boundaries and geometric patterns. Could you explain a little about the impact of the Treaty on the territories of Northwest Canada, and also your creative process in writing and designing the layout of the poem?

With increased evidence of mineral wealth in the Great Slave Lake, Lake Athabasca, and Peace River regions, Treaty 8 was signed in 1899 between the Canadian representatives of Queen Victoria and the Cree, Beaver, Chipewyan and “Other Indians.” In the understanding of the Government of Canada, the treaty ceded to the Queen almost a million square kilometers of northern Alberta, British Columbia, Saskatchewan and some of southern Northwest Territories. However, the understanding of that word “ceded” and what that entailed for the original inhabitants of this land is debated as is the spurious nature of “agreement” and the treaty itself given the vastly unequal situations of the signatories at the time of signing. However, this is the basis upon which the Government of Canada bases legal ownership of the land and which allowed it to start granting land to arriving settlers and begin commercial mineral and resource exploration and extraction. The importance of this later activity is highlighted in the original Treaty 8 document where the main reasons listed for the government’s interest in the land are “settlement, mining, lumbering, trading or other purposes.”

I wanted to use these ideas and this language to look at the treaty in a different way, a way that would take me out of the legalese in which the document is written. I decided to focus on the tar sands, which are on Treaty 8 land, and used the hexagonal structure of two nematically stacked coronene molecules, each of which is composed of six fused benzene rings. Coronene is one of the many polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons found in the tar-sand bitumen. This meant going through the treaty document in a mechanical way to mine it for specific words that would fit the structure I needed. The image in the stamp poem is the result of these machinations.

It is fantastic to have you as Arts Queensland Poet in Residence for this year’s festival, and to have you involved in artefact form for this project. I am particularly fond of the idea that your piece has been made into a stamp or a new imprint. It becomes another kind of administrative seal to a new way of thinking about historical decision-making. How do you relate to the material nature your work will take on?

Stamps, legal forms, and numbers are vitally important tools of government regulation and control of indigenous populations in any settler society and they are just as important now as at any time in history. In Canada, we have whole government departments whose aim is to build and maintain a fine weave of bureaucratic control of Canada’s indigenous populations. A number of Canadian Aboriginal artists have used the materiality of these systems to create art and counter discourse – Nadia Myre has created weavings with the Indian Act, Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun has performed “An Indian Shooting the Indian Act” where he shoots the Indian Act with a shotgun while “O Canada” plays in the background . The material nature of these examples, my poem included, evince a keen distrust of, and anger towards, the racist and colonial language and official documents that still hold so much power in the present.

Shane is the Arts Queensland Poet-in-Residence between July and October 2013, where he will host workshops and readings, headline at both Queensland Poetry Festival and Brisbane Writers Festival, travel across the state, and engage with our thriving poetry community. His newest collection, ‘X’, is out now.

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  1. Pingback: Letter.Box.Stamp.Collect. installation for Queensland Poetry Festival | pascalle burton - December 12, 2013

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