Books·How I Wrote It

Arielle Twist explores grief in her poetry and finds a home in the Indigenous arts community

Her debut poetry collection, Disintegrate/Dissociate, navigates the grief and dysphoria experienced by the poet as an Indigenous two-spirit transgender woman.
Arielle Twist is a Halifax author, poet and sex educator originally from George Gordon First Nation, Saskatchewan. (Arsenal Pulp Press, arielletwist.com)

Disintegrate/Dissociate marks a powerful debut for Arielle Twist, a young two-spirit transgender writer from George Gordon First Nation. The Cree poet first tried her hand at writing in the spring of 2017, encouraged by her friend and mentor Kai Cheng Thom. Her new collection presents a voice that is raw and honest — one that is determined to be heard and to process the grief she has encountered.

Below, the Halifax-based poet shares how she wrote her first poetry book.

Representation in poetry

"I always felt poetry was for white people. I remember in high school learning some poetry and it was the same kind of white people from years and years and years ago and I just felt like it wasn't accessible. When I saw the poetics that resonated with me — a place called No Homeland by Kai Cheng Thom, Passage by Gwen Benaway and North End Love Songs by Katherena Vermette — I was just like, 'Oh, I want to do that. It's beautiful.' There's something about sharing parts of yourself, but hiding so much in it that can't really be deciphered that is cool."

Learning about writing

"I have no formal training. This new generation of Indigenous writers right now, a big chunk of them are Ph.D. students or grad students. I think I'm one of, if not the only one, who's not in any academic setting. I feel like I wanted to prove something — I don't know whether to myself or to the world — that I can be successful without having to go through a system, which is actually still gluttonous and taking so much away from us, even though we are gaining so much at the same time. That's not to say that I will never go into an MFA program, but I wanted to make a point and I think I made that point.

"Because I never had any formal training, I was never taught how to have a writing practice. I didn't realize until I went to the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity and everyone was like, 'This is my writing practice.' I was just like, 'I will literally just smoke cigarettes and try not to cry while writing something.' Things just come to me when they come to me. I often write at night. I can't write at a desk; I have to sit on my bed hunched over like a little gremlin."

Playing with space

"I write on a laptop because I like to play with spacing. You can see in my poetry collection that it starts off just playing with spacing and then it gets more and more abstract throughout. I use it especially in poems about dysphoria and poems that make me feel fragmented in a way. I find I play with spacing more with things that I find harder to talk about. I don't know why.

This whole collection is about grieving and the ways in which I am coping by disassociating or deconstructing or disintegrating or rebuilding.

"The poem Vacant, which is one of the ones that is more fragmented and all over the place, was definitely inspired by dysphoria, the feeling that everyone is telling me that this body is mine, but doesn't feel like it's mine and that I can destroy it freely, so I will. This whole collection is about grieving and the ways in which I am coping by disassociating or deconstructing or disintegrating or rebuilding."

Holding back

"I had to navigate through processing my poetry and using poetry to process and trying to figure out the difference between the two. At first, I was processing through poetry and it made my poems painful and aching and angry, which I think is fine... I don't think I would call my writing confessional writing because I don't think I'm actually giving enough. I'm still holding back. One of the things that people are saying to me at my book launches is that I'm so brave for sharing something so intimate, when this is only the top layer. These griefs are griefs that I've already shared with other people in different ways. Maybe that's brave, but also maybe that's just the life of an Indigenous trans person."

The Indigenous arts renaissance

"I feel like I was searching for a community for a long time and I finally found it — not even just within literature, but in Indigenous arts as a whole. We're all taking care of each other and loving each other. It feels like home and it feels like love to be in this specific Indigenous queer moment. It's so nice to have friends who understand what it's like to be thrown into this world, coming from a place of poverty or a place of precarity. Jeremy Dutcher winning the Polaris, Billy winning the Griffin, my first collection and Lindsay Nixon's memoir coming out, Joshua Whitehead's books — all of us are from very different places, but have similar relationships to things. We're all trying to navigate this and it's much easier when we're navigating it together.

I want there to be a sense of freedom in making art because that's what I've found in it — a kind of freedom that is giving me a chance to breathe again.

"I want to see more Indigenous queers and weirdos and gender freaks. I want us to be able to exist openly. I want there to be a sense of freedom in making art because that's what I've found in it — a kind of freedom that is giving me a chance to breathe again. I want that for all of us, not just ones that are being 'successful.'

"It's kind of a weird honour to be asked to put your work out into the world. It holds so much more weight when you're such a marginalized person. White people get published all the time and it kind of takes away from how much of a big deal it is, but when someone like me gets published, that means we're doing something right and people are listening."

Arielle Twist's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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