Dialogue Archive: Jónína Kirton

I have always had the heart of a poet/artist but I was raised in a prairie hockey family where boys ruled and any artistic leanings were not understood or supported. Once I left home I got busy with a career in banking and later in the airline industry. I did enjoy my time in these fields.

Apparently, I am left brain, right brain balanced, but the creative side did not make any significant appearances until ten years ago. In 2005, I was faced with some health challenges. As a result, I left a full-time job and started working part-time at Banyen Books and Sound. As part of my healing, I began colouring mandalas and would spend as many as ten hours on one mandala. Then one day a neon pink pamphlet arrived in the mail. I can still see it to this day. It was for Simon Fraser University’s The Writer’s Studio. As I read the offerings, a little voice in my head said that I should apply and that I would be accepted. I had never taken a writing class in my life and had only written in my journals, so it was quite the leap, but I trust that voice. Much to my surprise, they put me in the poetry section. I did not see myself as a poet; I had really hoped to get into non-fiction, as I intended to write a memoir. I objected but was assured that over time they are usually proven to be correct. Wow, were they right. Perhaps this poem I wrote about how poetry chose me says it best….

following the scent of the pen

poetry chose me
I wanted to write narratives
books of non-fiction, storytelling
flushed out and full, but
poetry chose me
insists on sparseness
on no punctuation
wants double meanings
infers rather than tells
gesturing at the narrative
it thumbs its nose at prose
say’s I don’t need it to tell my story
fractured fragments more suitable
for tales of a childhood like mine

poetry insists it knows the way
offers keys to locked doors
full of surprises, it leads me
down the garden path
knowing clichés are for losers
for those lost for words
poetry chose me

Your first book of poetry, page as bone – ink as blood, is due to be published in Fall 2015. How do you feel as the release of your largely autobiographical collection approaches?

Getting to this point has been quite the process. Choosing to share one’s story is no small thing as it is never just your story. I have moments of elation regarding the publishing contract and I have also had moments of utter panic. I recently phoned my brother to warn him that some of what I have to say about our father may shock him. I wanted to let him know that I understand that he has a totally different relationship with Dad and that I hoped he understood my need to share my story. Like my father, my brother is a man of few words and one must learn to interpret the meaning of the various grunts and groans they both use to signal yes, no or some other wordless expression of concern or interest. I am the one interested in words. I am pretty sure he was indicating support or at the very least signaling all was well. I guess time will tell. I cannot control how they will respond and should be well used to being the black sheep at any rate.

Like anyone who writes autobiographically, I had to get comfortable with the vulnerability that comes when one shares the more difficult aspects of their story. I think it is good that it has taken this long to complete the book as I would never have been ready for this to be public even six months ago.

In your poem, ‘hungry ghosts,’ you speak of ancestral spirits visiting at night that “wish you read more poetry.” What role did your (living) family play in your development as a poet?

As I mentioned earlier, my father and my brother are hockey guys and not that interested in poetry. My husband has been my biggest supporter. He is often my editor and we regularly discuss poetry, storylines in movies etc. Without him I would not be where I am now. It is much more than his editing, which I do not always agree with, it is his interest in poetry and creative endeavours (he is a musician and a poet) that sparks a fire in me. We are very different poets, very different people. In one of the poems he wrote about us, he remarks on things like the fact that I protested on Premier Gordon Campell’s lawn while that same year he was invited to the Premier’s victory party, at his house no less.

My son came to a few of my early readings and is in for a surprise. I do not think he realizes where his mother has been going with all this. But one of the gifts of turning sixty is that you feel you can get away with so much more. I take full advantage of this. I welcome my crone years. I see this time, and my grey hair, as offering well-earned freedoms.

One of the stunning aspects of your work is the use of place as metaphor to illuminate the self. Do you see the holistic and land-based worldviews of your Icelandic/Métis heritage as integral to this focus, or is this exploration something you came to through your own experience?

I was not raised with any knowledge of either culture, but I now feel that my body has always known the story of my ancestors. It had wordless ways to let me know when we were on land that my ancestors had inhabited. Its cues and signals were often understood in hindsight as I learned about our ancestry.

My Métis father was an incredible athlete, his kinesthetic awareness a gift, and I too had this, but instead of pursuing competitive sports I wanted to dance, to write, to draw and to paint. I now feel that the kinesthetic awareness I have is in tune with all of creation, hence the use of ‘All my Relations.’ We can touch our ‘snake body,’ our ‘turtle mind,’ and find ourselves in a timeless place with everything we, and our ancestors, have ever been. We can even go back further to pre-human times.

Land and body are closely linked for me. Land speaks to us just as our bodies speak to us but most of us have been trained to ignore such things, to just trust empirical data. That science is now supporting so much of what my ancestors (on both sides) and Eastern teachers already knew is very exciting to me. I am thankful to Indigenous writers such as Vine DeLoria Jr. for his writing of our gifts, our teachings, our understanding of land, spirituality etc. But I do not stop there; I have contemporary non-Indigenous teachers as well. Ingrid Rose and her writing from the body has brought forth some of my best writing. It was through her introduction to Continuum that I began to work with Doris Maranda and to learn from the founder of Continuum, Emily Conrad.

I should mention that much of this is recent leanings/learnings and that it all lays on a firm foundation of nearly thirty years of spiritual exploration that included study with a guru and many other spiritual teachers. I meditated every day for seventeen years before turning to Indigenous teachings. Since I was a child I have been drawn to what I would now call the Great Mystery. I have trusted my instincts on many things and I have often been drawn to the unusual. I find the writing of poetry is often a very instinctual exploration of body, mind, spirit and our relationship to land, to the ancestors. I have strong desire to put words to what I often call the wordless things. I see why so many poets were also mystics. For me, poetry is a mystical adventure and I never know where it will take me.

In your poem ‘collective history’ you explore the legacy of Aboriginal culture as, ‘encoded in our bodies a collective history,’ against the legacy of trauma as a, ‘collective curse in our genes.’ Can ancestral knowledge affect healing?

There is no question that ancestral knowledge can play a big part in healing. My dear friend Sharon Jinkerson-Brass says it best when speaking of her work with the Pacific Association of First Nations Women. She always says that “women who know who they are become less vulnerable.” For this reason, her workshops always include ceremony and Indigenous teachings so that we may all be reminded of who we are. I was not exposed to these teachings. My mother was Christian and my dad was silent on the matter of spirituality and culture. This left me with what my dear friend, Oriah Mountain Dreamer, calls a holy hunger. It is this part of all of us that on some level recalls tribal times, times by the fire where storytelling and ritual sustained us.

In my own experience something as simple as getting confirmation of your ancestry can change you. I cried the first time I received documentation of my Métis ancestry. I always knew there was more than that ‘one little Indian’, that was supposedly too far back to be significant. In my heart I knew that the story my grandmother and her sister shared regarding being Scottish or French was not the full picture. I also felt that I had exposure to Indigenous language. Often when I was around someone speaking Indigenous words, especially Cree or Mischif, I would feel like a small child and would want to lean into the speaker. I am sixty years old and just found out that my great-grandfather spoke Mischif. Growing up, I lived near him and was six years old when he died. It seems that piece by piece, as I learn our ways, learn my ancestors’ stories, I am restored to a wholeness that is indescribable. Having said all this, I still struggle with the question, “where is my place in the Indigenous community?” and do my best as a Métis to not overstep.

The lines you mention above, ‘encoded in our bodies a collective history,’ and a, ‘collective curse on our genes,’ were intended to address both ancestries. I am not as far along in the research of my Icelandic ancestors, but did learn of an ancestor that was killed by sorcery. Given my unfortunate beginnings, the violence in my home, the loss of two brothers before I was twenty two and then the loss of my mother at thirty, I had long wondered if we were cursed. There is so much territory I am covering in these two phrases. Both cultures had a close relationship to the land, to things like the little people or spirits, but were either forced or pressured to accept Christianity. In both cases many continued with the old ways, despite significant pressure to adopt Christianity as their only spiritual path. I am a weaving of two cultures that held storytelling, the land and all its inhabitants in high regard.

There is a strong sense of physicality in your poems; you also speak of a body-centered approach in your learning as well as your facilitation in sacred circle workshops. Can you speak to the role of the body in your process and writing?

I am delighted to hear that you see a “strong sense of physicality” in my poems. This is something that I desire. We live in a culture that has shamed our bodies and our feelings. I see poetry as a vehicle to remind us to not give in to this rejection and distrust of our own sense of ourselves and the world we live in, which we experience via our body and our emotions, not our minds.

Poetry is very instinctual for me and once I discovered Ingrid Rose’s writing from the body, it really opened up for me. In her writing group I began to write about things I never imagined I would write about, and not only that, I found I was doing so in quirky ways that really worked for the material I was working with. But keep in mind that this has been a long journey. Growing up in a home where violence was commonplace and having been denied my own culture, I was lost. Thirty years ago when I came upon the Eastern teachings, I found a way to begin to fill that holy hunger. Long before I began writing, I meditated every day for seventeen years. I used mantras, chanting and ritual. I read spiritual texts and studied under some incredible beings, some known, some who preferred to remain anonymous. All these things prepared me for writing and of course, to facilitate sacred circles.

I tend feel my way through life. Too much intellectualizing can confuse me, leave me wordless. Perhaps this is why my first poetry mentor, Miranda Pearson, would often say I was a natural poet. I trust my intuition, and in my experience, intuition has a great deal to do with the body and the cues it offers. But these are mainly wordless gestures and nudges. The challenge for me, was to learn how to articulate what I was feeling and experiencing. For example, in collective history, I write of my disco days in Winnipeg. When I began writing that piece, I intended to explore how we may know nothing of things like trance dance and its healing properties yet many of us are naturally drawn to it. We enter dance, be it via disco or rave techno music, to experience ourselves in a new way. Our minds know nothing of trance dance but our body knows, it recalls tribal times, it urges us toward the fire, the circle and when we are there it is most calm. We are all like tuning forks vibrating at different sound levels most likely based on DNA, on our ancestry, and when we find something that resonates, we can heal. It may be hard to explain to another why we chose what we chose, why we are drawn to certain things. I think William Stafford expressed it best in his poem, The Way It Is.

The Way It Is

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

What role do you think poetry has in affecting change, both in the self and within the larger world?

Poetry has changed me, opening creative ways for me to express what I feel and think in exciting and creative ways. It offers me a way to explore my thoughts and feelings on a wide variety of topics. When I began, I had hoped to be a modern day mystic, a female Rumi, but I kept going in another direction, a much darker direction than I had planned, but the deeper I went into this underworld, the more I saw the power of words and how speaking of the difficult things offers healing. The writing of poetry is a solitary adventure filled with insights for the writer. When done well and shared with others it crosses boundaries, showing us the most basic and sweet human experiences are shared across all cultures. In a way it humanizes us. As Ram Dass says “We’re all just walking each other home.” Poetry is just one way we walk each other home. It does so by reminding us of our humanness, how we share this planet, this great mystery called life and perhaps most importantly the beauty of our vulnerability which is often forgotten in this busy world filled with things intended to numb us.


from Issue #10, Spring 2015
interview by Carissa Kasper