Books·How I Wrote It

How Jordan Abel deconstructed the racism in old western novels and won the Griffin Poetry Prize

The Nisga'a poet talks about the process behind his award-winning poetry collection Injun.
Jordan Abel is the author of the poetry collection Injun. (Talonbooks)

Jordan Abel says curiosity drove him to create Injun, a poem in 26 parts that won the Griffin Poetry Prize, one of the richest poetry prizes in the world, earlier this month. In cutting up western pulp novels of the late 19th century, Abel has composed a visual poem that is stunning and searing in its portrait of racism.

In his own words, the Nisga'a poet, whose previous books include Un/inhabited and The Place of Scraps, describes the creation of Injun.

The power of found poetry

"The idea came from my previous books, specifically my first book The Place of Scraps, which used found text in a similar way. It was sourced from a book of anthropology by Marius Barbeau called Totem Poles. After I finished that book, I realized that found text has a lot of room for maneuverability in terms of talking about complicated Indigenous issues.

"I ended up searching out public domain found texts that I thought might be interesting or might have something to say about the representations of Indigenous peoples or Indigenous issues. I ended up coming to Project Gutenberg and finding a set of 91 public domain western novels. As I searched through them, I became interested in how they were constructed and how the representations of Indigenous peoples in those novels were constructed.

"The word Injun came up over and over again. It is a really difficult, derogatory word and one that is a mispronunciation of the word Indian. Every time it came up, I kept wondering, 'How is this word deployed?' and 'What is it trying to do?' and 'How is it representing and/or misrepresenting Indigenous peoples?' I was interested in looking at all of the contexts in which the word appeared."

Copy, paste, deconstruct

"My first reaction upon seeing that word is one of confrontation and difficulty. The western novels that I was looking at are really problematic. That word is loaded with racism and hatred. But I had a sense of curiosity and an impulse to understand and to deconstruct how that racism comes together. Also I had an interest in exploring the contours and mechanisms of racism itself.

"I copied and pasted all 91 western novels into a single Word document and ended up with over 10,000 pages. When I searched that document for the word Injun, I ended up with over 500 results. I copied all of those 500 sentences and pasted them into another Word document where I could read through each sentence individually. The book essentially came together out of me taking a pair of scissors and cutting up each page of that document into a long poem."

Finding the audible path

"I was looking for moments where unusual kinds of sounds came together. As I arranged the words, I was often speaking the poem aloud and trying to find the audible pathway through the words. Some of the words that appear in Injun are really antiquated words. One of my favourite words in this collection is the word unthinkingly. It's a word that is quite natural on one level, but also completely unusual. Attending to those moments of the unusualness of language contained in those western novels was an important process for me."

Jordan Abel's comments have been edited and condensed.