Books·In Conversation

The poetry of Louise Bernice Halfe is about loss, legacy and laughter

Canada's ninth parliamentary poet laureate talked to CBC Books about her award-winning writing and career.

'I actually don't pursue the poetry — it pursues me'

Renowned writer Louise Bernice Halfe, also known by the Cree name Sky Dancer, is Canada's parliamentary poet laureate. (The Canadian Press)

Louise Bernice Halfe, whose Cree name is Sky Dancer, is Canada's ninth Parliamentary poet laureate and served as the first Indigenous poet laureate of Saskatchewan.

The poet, author and scholar was born in Two Hills, Alta., was raised on the Saddle Lake First Nation and attended Blue Quills Residential School. She earned her Bachelor of social work from the University of Regina and certificates in Addiction Counselling from the Nechi Institute. She earned her doctorate of letters from Wilfred Laurier University, the University of Saskatchewan and Mount Royal University. 

Halfe's poetry collections include Bear Bones & FeathersBlue MarrowThe Crooked Good and Burning in this Midnight Dream, a poetic response to the Truth and Reconciliation process. Her latest poetry collection is awâsis – kinky and disheveled

    Halfe, along with Canadian poets Canisia Lubrin and Steven Heightonis on the jury for the 2021 CBC Poetry Prize. 

    Halfe spoke with CBC Books about her writing, career and her "code-switching" approach to poetry.

    How does it feel to be Canada's ninth Parliamentary poet laureate?

    I feel like I've reached the pinnacle of my career. It's a great honour to be recognized as a quote-unquote, "great poet," I suppose. I'm very humbled by it. 

    You have received many awards over the years. What do awards and accolades mean to you?

    I don't spend a lot of time thinking about what I'm going to receive at the other end of a production. It's always a wonderful surprise and validation to receive those acknowledgements.

    Writers spend a lot of time alone, although we do get our social interaction. We use that to fill our artesian well, so to speak. 

    I actually don't pursue the poetry — it pursues me.

    When did poetry start for you? When did you decide that it's something you wished to pursue?

    That was a hard decision. At the time when I was writing, I completed my social work degree. It was a process of keeping a journal — which led me to the poetics. But it's a long journey. Back in the early '70s, I went to live in the Kootenay Plains in Alberta. 

    The dreams of writing began there, as well as the validation of ceremony. I didn't make heads or tails of it back then, and it took me a long time to figure it out. When I did, I just felt I had to honour those dreams.

    I went back to my community to honour those ceremonies and to think about a direction. I've been validated by my elders — and traveling far with my writing was one of the most profound gifts ever. 

    Were there any obstacles or challenges that you faced along the way?

    I've been very fortunate to have publishers come to me for my work. I haven't received any rejections per se. I've been blessed that way. There was some racism at times in my writing career, but I didn't let that stop me. And when I began, I actually had a university professor from the Athabasca University say that my writing was trite.

    And at the time, I didn't understand what that meant. And, of course, I do now. That could have destroyed my confidence, but I persevered. 

    For my first four books of poetry, each book was difficult to encounter and to carry it through. That's because I expected so much of myself in terms of how I can become better at my writing. 

    It was a constant challenge and I didn't have a totally good handle on English. So I relied on my good friends who happen to be English professors to help me along the way.

    It was a very rich experience.

    What is your creative process when it comes to poetry?

    What happens is I'll think of a subject that has been of long interest — and then I'll start researching it. Not only through books, but by talking with others and just thinking of my thoughts on paper. 

    I keep a daily journal. Once the subject captures my attention, I become totally obsessed and possessed by it. Then I know that I have to write it and the poetry works itself out. I actually don't pursue the poetry — it pursues me.

    The term "code-switching" comes up when people speak of your work. What does that mean for you?

    I didn't invent the word. Somebody else did. I never even thought of it as code-switching. I was just writing in Cree and then attempting to accommodate the reader of the meaning of the word. That's what I was doing.

    That's what storytelling does — it leads you to your own perceptions.

    I don't make an attempt to explain it. It's much more important that they come to their own perception. That's what storytelling does — it leads you to your own perceptions. You investigate that and you research it — and you decide what's best for you. It's a matter of choice. 

    For the first time in Canadian history, an Indigenous poet holds the position of parliamentary poet laureate. Louise Bernice Halfe, who’s also known by the Cree name Sky Dancer, grew up in Alberta and made a name for herself in Saskatchewan as the former poet laureate of the province. Halfe has published numerous works of poetry, including Blue Marrow for which she was a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award for poetry in 1998. She joined Tom Power to talk about the significance of her new position as parliamentary poet laureate, and how her life experiences as a residential school survivor and social worker have impacted her poetry.

    Burning in this Midnight Dream was a response to the Truth and Reconciliation process. How optimistic are you in terms of how things have progressed since you wrote that collection?

    Well, it's an incremental movement. Sometimes we move an inch forward and we move two inches back. That's how it happens. I acknowledge it, but I cannot go into it to a great depth because I get angry and bitter. I don't want to be in that place.

    I do acknowledge it, but I don't want it to take over my life. 

    Your recent book is the collection awâsis – kinky and disheveled. What is it about?

    I wanted to find out from my community: what were the stories about things that happened to them that they were too embarrassed to share.

    Because to me, those are really funny stories. Most of the time, we keep them hidden. When I was collecting the stories, people were embarrassed to share!

    I just killed myself laughing. Then I fabricated my awâsis character, but it actually means a little child. I'm addressing the little child within us with this particular book. 

    I hope that people reading awâsis – kinky and disheveled start reflecting on their young childhood and the joy of being a child. It's the freedom of that — and allowing that spirit to illuminate and find some joy in this difficult time in our lives.

    The Saskatchewan poet talks about her new poetry collection, the damaging legacy of residential school, and her reconnection with her Cree roots.

    Speaking for others and telling their stories has been a big part of your career. Why?

    These stories are like a portal — and it depends on what you find inside.

    We may want a voice given to some of the pain that we've experienced, or the jubilation that we've experienced, so that we can take some sort of light or a pathway to our situation.

    We may want a voice given to some of the pain that we've experienced, or the jubilation that we've experienced, so that we can take some sort of light or a pathway to our situation. 

    Is there any advice that you would offer to novice or aspiring poets in terms of writing about the world today? 

    Read, read, read! Use your thesaurus. Check out words. Don't sit still at one answer, investigate and research it. Go deep within the heart — the heart has the emotional intelligence; the head has the intellect. 

    What keeps you motivated and inspired to write these days?

    Well, I'll never retire! I'm very, very curious about life. I enjoy life, in spite of the great difficulties that we encounter these days.

    Louise Bernice Halfe's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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