Books·How I Wrote It

Poet Janet Rogers on reconciliation: Where do we go from here?

In her poetry collection Totem Poles & Railroads, Janet Rogers explores the dysfunctional relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Canada.
Janet Rogers is the author of Totem Poles & Railroads. (UNBC/ARP Books)

After her poetry collection Peace in Duress was published in 2014, Janet Rogers declared on CBC Radio that it would be her final print collection. So it came as a surprise when her new poetry book Totem Poles & Railroads emerged — especially to Rogers herself, who refers to the book as her "surprise pregnancy."

In her own words, Rogers describes the creation of this dynamic collection, which captures the damaged relationship between Indigenous peoples and Canada.

Where do we go from here?

"I think that people can refer to this collection now, and in times to come, as a good measure of this really challenging time in our collective history. We're figuring out this relationship between Indigenous and settler nation people; we've been figuring it out for 500 years. Now I think we're at a very interesting turning point, where settler nation people can make educated choices about this relationship. Do you want to carry on with this relationship? Or do you really think it needs to shift?

"Indigenous people have done a lot of work in this relationship; trying to fit in, trying to understand how we work with your laws and your values; having our original identities ripped right away from us. Now I'm looking to the settler nation and saying, 'OK, what do you guys think? What kind of relationship do you want to have? What kind of relationship should we have to make it healthy?' It's been so dysfunctional for so many years, and it's because there was no truth in that reconciliation. Now there's truth, so where do we take it from here?"

For the record

"This collection started with observation. There was a lot going on at the time when I was building this body of work that would then become the book. The TRC calls to action were getting published. A lot of people were responding to those calls to action. A few years back I probably would have ignored all of that activity going on, but I thought, 'No, no, no, no. I have to pay attention here.' An artist has the responsibility to respond to things that are happening currently because these pieces of writing — creative or otherwise — then become records of the time that we're all living in. I really take that quite seriously with the work that I do. I may be responding in a creative tone, but I realize over time that those poems may be looked back on and considered evidence of what we've all experienced and gone through. So I made a point of staying aware of what was happening. I always had my eyes open. I had my ears open. I was reading and taking in as much as I could of the current events going down at that time."

Gut feeling

"Whenever I think about where these poems come from, I want to touch my guts. There's an energy that starts to kind of spin around in my guts and that's what I call the inspiration. That's where it begins and is born.

"Then it goes to the head, which is the problematic part of it all. How do you express that energy in the gut? And then I do my best to make it interesting. Whenever I'm teaching creative writing, I always say, give yourself permission to be interesting. There's no greater crime than to not be interesting, especially as an artist. This is a gift to me, but it's also a gift to whoever is experiencing that. I want to make sure I offer up something good. I know that the term 'good' is very relative, but I think interesting is good."

Janet Rogers' comments have been edited and condensed.