How Lee Maracle helped Shannon Webb-Campbell understand the true meaning of poetry
This interview originally aired on June 1, 2019.
When Shannon Webb-Campbell published her 2018 poetry collection Who Took My Sister?, she thought she was honouring missing and murdered Indigenous women. But family members of the victims didn't see it that way.
The book was pulled, and the poet and her publisher apologized. Because of this controversy, Webb-Campbell has spent the past year remaking her book to examine issues of accountability and harm reduction. The result is her 2019 poetry collection, I Am a Body of Land.
Her guide and editor through this process was the award-winning Sto:lo writer Lee Maracle.
Shannon Webb-Campbell: "I was very shocked and, of course, devastated. My original intentions had gone the opposite way than I ever imagined. I was feeling very isolated and alone. It was such a gift to speak to Lee and understand where I had gone wrong in the beginning and to feel supported even though I had made a mistake."
Lee Maracle: "We don't need anyone to write our stories for us. I think I asked Anne Cameron in 1988 and a lot of other white women to just move over. I don't see Shannon that way but let us do our own story. You did not live their life, so you don't really comprehend their death. If poetry is about anything, it is about the deepest truth possible. The deepest truth wasn't coming forward.
"I thought Shannon was a very capable and good poet. I thought that we would start with what was great about her poetry, make everything rise to that. Then you would see who Shannon Webb-Campbell really was."
Webb-Campbell: "We sat for quite a few hours, over some coffee, going line by line. I don't think I've ever had such an intimate process. It was very clarifying. We would ask questions like, 'What are you actually trying to say here?' And sometimes I wasn't sure myself.
"The entire process has changed how I write and think about writing. For a long time, I was dressing things up and using metaphor or trying to say something without actually saying what I meant to say, and in the process, having to own who I am and who I'm not and what I know and what I don't know. I have to make space for that and be able to fail and then try again."
Maracle: "Poetry is about images. It's not about your feelings about those images, your thoughts on those images or your philosophy. It really is about the image. What do you want them to see? That takes out all the expository writing, all the pompous writing, all the declarations and proclamations that you know all of us poets want to do. Once you get what you want them to see, then you have the threads of a picture developing and the picture will give you the philosophy, the heart, the spirit and the thinking behind it."
Webb-Campbell: "My community is Newfoundland. I come from the west coast of Newfoundland. I didn't grow up there and that's where my father's family is from. I didn't have the ties and the relationships to my family in the way that I probably needed to. That's been a huge absence in my understanding of my Indigeneity.
"I used to say that I was an island, which meant that I felt very alone. This is the theme of isolation. But, 'I am a body of land' to me is a counter response to saying 'I am an island.' I am as connected to the land and my ancestors. Hopefully that will show me the way forward."
Maracle: "We make family out of the people we come to associate with on our journey. You have an elder in me and I'm happy to walk you home. We are all in this boat of being partly settler and partly Indigenous. We are disconnected from our Indigeneity by the deliberate will of the Canadian state for almost 125 years. We're fractured people from within and from without. We're busy putting ourselves back together. But this is what we want to be: good people."
Shannon Webb-Campbell and Lee Maracle's comments have been edited for clarity and length.