Books·How I Wrote It

How Gwen Benaway faces her transgender future in her new poetry collection

The poet reflects on working with Katherena Vermette on her sophomore poetry collection, Passage.
Gwen Benaway is the author of the poetry collection Passage. (Gwen Benaway/Kegedonce Press)

Gwen Benaway's latest poetry collection, Passage, runs deep. In traversing the Great Lakes, Benaway mirrors the paths of her ancestors. At the same time, the Métis poet ultimately embraces her own burgeoning passage from male to female.

In her own words, Benaway reflects on being edited by Katherena Vermette and how returning to the water meant accepting the person she has always known herself to be.

Lake effect

"Passage is organized according to the Great Lakes, with a thematic section for each lake. This idea came really late in the process, and it was in part motivated by my editor, Katherena Vermette. I asked Kat a weird question after she did her first editorial pass. I said to her, what is this collection about? When I'm writing a collection, I don't always know what the heck I'm talking about until someone else sees it. She said, 'this is all about a return to the water, a return to the land, which for you is a return to that feminine force in yourself. It's you coming over to your feminine side.' I think the idea of returning to ancestral waterways within myself and within the land — that's where the idea came from. 

"The collection starts with poems that are more about the land, about the lake, and then they focus in on me. This comes from the fact that my approach to writing is very much grounded in my culture and my traditions. I see the personal poems and the more landscape-based poems as very linked. When we go into ceremony, we start with the land. That's how we sustain ourselves. Being an Anishinaabe woman starts with those lakes. We come from those lakes. It made sense to affirm my relationship to my ancestors first before I came to my personal work."

Kindred spirit

"I demanded Katherena as an editor for this collection. I really wanted an editor who I respected, and who was writing in a similar style. When I was writing Passage, I was reading a lot of [Vermette's award-winning collection] North End Love Songs. Kat has a wonderful talent as a poet, in that she compresses so much imagery in such sparse language. I myself wanted to move toward that as a style — I wanted in some way to approach her poetic genius, though I didn't at all, of course. 

"Kat and I come from the same cultural context, and we have the same lens. We were able to really connect through that. If I had had a non-Indigenous editor, or even an Indigenous editor from a different nation, it wouldn't have been the same thing."

Watershed moment

"I had resisted writing Passage for a really long time, but there was this moment in my life where I felt incredibly vulnerable and felt a need to reach out. My relationship had ended and I was flailing about. I was going on all these horrible dates with gay boys, and they hated me. Truly tragic hook-ups. I was really looking for a connection in the world. That desire came first. And as I started working through the collection, the idea of transitioning from male to female came through. 

"It was always very clear for me that I would transition. I've been talking about it since I was a kid, and everyone in my life has known that. But I thought I would transition later in life. In writing the collection, I came to see that the time to transition was now. I realized I couldn't connect with people until I was truly myself. That's what led me to write this collection, to find a way back to myself. One of the interesting things for me looking at Passage is moving from a place of living as a gay man and that viewpoint — and there's poems that flag that this isn't working — and me shifting into envisioning myself as a woman, and embodying that. There's a literal passage there in how I'm engaging with the world." 

Diving deep

"Writing a poetry collection surprises you. You suddenly find things in yourself you didn't know were there. It changes you. Some of the poems I looked at and went, Oh my god. OK. I have to live my life differently now. That's the power of poetry. It shows you the truth, and then you have to respond to it. 

"I don't have contact with my family, which makes it somewhat easier for me to write about the things that happened to me early in my life. These poems are my story, they're what happened to me, so I don't feel guilt about talking about it. I don't feel shame about being an abuse survivor. It affects me, it changed my life, but it's part of who I am. One of the things I like about the collection is that it shows the complexities of my response to the abuse. And I think that mixed state of being is the case for a lot of survivors. I think we need to show our whole selves — the parts of us that are beautiful and the parts that hurt us. And it comes back for me to that link to the land. There's a reason I was abused, and it comes from our history as Indigenous people in this country. I am a product of that, good and bad."

Gwen Benaway's comments have been edited and condensed.