Monday December 12, 2016

Gregory Scofield on poetry as testimony

Gregory Scofield's seventh book of poetry, Witness, I Am, deals with the critical issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women.

Gregory Scofield's seventh book of poetry, Witness, I Am, deals with the critical issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women. (Gregory Scofield)

Listen 17:09

Almost every day, poet Gregory Scofield posts a name or picture of a murdered or missing Indigenous woman to his Twitter feed, captioning each post "Find our missing sister." For his new book, Witness, I Am, Scofield has written an epic poem, "Muskrat Woman," that reimagines a sacred Cree creation story and reflects upon missing and murdered Indigenous women. The new collection also contains personal poems that explore his identity as a Métis of Cree, Scottish, English, French and Jewish descent.

Gregory Scofield spoke to Shelagh Rogers in Toronto.

The personal loss that led to his advocacy work

A lot of the work that I've been doing around missing and murdered Indigenous women really stems from a personal experience with losing my auntie in 1998 to very mysterious circumstances. Her death was a homicide, and it was a homicide that was really never brought to justice. I decided, back then, that I was going to use my voice, my public profile, to do advocacy work around missing and murdered Indigenous women.

I started the name-a-day tweets about three years ago now — for me, the tweets are not only serving as a public announcement to hopefully find our missing women, but really to create public awareness. It really is that visual of their faces — when I have an opportunity to speak in public, it's become important for me to allow people to see the face of this experience. This isn't just an experience they're seeing on the news, this is an actual physical connection that they're making.

Telling the stories of the voiceless

With my poetry, I always begin with the title — the title becomes the sacred lodge of where the poems are going to be. Witness, I Am really came about with this idea of where we're sitting right now, the contemporary reality of Indigenous people. It's partly my own testimony as an Indigenous individual in this country. It's the testimony of my auntie, who cannot speak. It's the testimony of my mother, who cannot speak. It's the testimony of generations of my family that were left voiceless. It's also a ceremony of those things, of bringing the names together, of talking about the things that each of us witness.

Changing the narrative

With the piece "Muskrat Woman," my hope as the teller of the piece is that it helps to change the narrative, not only for non-Indigenous people, but for Indigenous people within our own communities. My hope is that we're able to start looking at some of those things that are causing this horrible issue of our women going missing and being murdered. That we're able to start looking at and addressing some of those issues in our own communities in a really healthy way. So Muskrat Woman, this is her job, this is her purpose. This is the reasoning behind the poem.

Gregory Scofield's comments have been edited and condensed.

A poem about missing and murdered Indigenous women by Gregory Scofield1:16