Indigenous poets pull double feature at Toronto poetry night

Shab-e She’r poetry night will feature two Indigenous poets for the first time. Anishnaabe poet Cole Forrest will share the stage with Mohawk/Tuscarora poet and performance artist Janet Marie Rogers.

'We all have stories to tell; as Indigenous people, we have a lot on our shoulders,' Cole Forrest says

Anishnaabe poet and performer Cole Forrest, from Nipissing First Nation, will perform in Toronto on Tuesday. (Cole Forrest)

Cole Forrest of Nipissing First Nation, 19, will make his debut feature spoken word performance alongside Mohawk/Tuscarora literary poet, radio broadcaster, documentary producer and artist Janet Marie Rogers on Tuesday evening at the Shab-e She'r poetry event.

It's Forrest's first feature performance in Toronto, which comes on the heels of a fringe theatre show called Life Anishnaabe Youth that he wrote, directed and performed in at the On the Edge Fringe Festival in North Bay, Ont., winning the award for outstanding original work.

He is bringing elements from the performance to the Shab-e She'r stage along with new material.

Shab-e She'r, which means poetry night in Persian, has been running since November 2012. It is hosted and organized by Bänoo Zan, an Iranian-born poet based in Toronto, Ont.

While Indigenous poets have performed before, this is the first time the two feature performers are both from an Indigenous background.

Forrest said he writes his poetry from an Anishinaabe perspective, looking at history, questioning Indigenous identity and his own Indigeneity in a contemporary context.

"The basis for Indigenous culture is storytelling. Everything we do has a story attached to it. Everything we are is storytelling and ceremony," Forrest said.

"Some stories are more sacred and will never be shared within Canada, only in our sacred circles. However, the stories that we can share, we're ready to share them."

Storytelling through spoken word is an integral part of Indigenous culture, Forrest said. Before there was a written language used by Indigenous people, there was an oral culture of sharing stories.

Spoken word, poetry and oral storytelling are significant to Indigenous people, Rogers also said.
Mohawk/Tuscarora literary poet, radio broadcaster, documentary producer and artist Janet Marie Rogers will perform at Shab-e She'r on Tuesday. (Blair Russell)

"This isn't something new. This is something quite old," she said.

Rogers, who has been publishing poetry collections since 1994, lives on the traditional lands of the Coast Salish People in Victoria, B.C.

Her work includes written and spoken pieces, performance and sound art. She is in Ontario until the end of October doing a writing residency at the North House in Cambridge.

"We have a birthright to go into those practices," said Rogers, "and to hold on to those old practices of oratory and storytelling and pull them into today. And use them as ways to promote messages or even just promote the presence of Indigenous people in the literary realm."

Besides the two feature poets of the evening, Shab-e She'r also includes 20 open mic guest spots and has built its platform around diversity and inclusion of minorities and people with disabilities in order to bring different communities together.

"We all have stories to tell. As Indigenous people, we have a lot on our shoulders; we have a lot of stories to tell," Forrest said.

"Whether they be traditional or not, they're sure to keep your attention and you're sure to learn something from them."

Shab-E She'r will take place Tuesday at Church of St. Stephen-in-the-Fields, 365 College St. Admission is $5 and doors open at 6:15 p.m.