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Death, desire, and divination are the threads running through Jónína Kirton’s debut collection of poems and lyric prose. Delicate and dark, the pieces are like whispers in the night – a haunted, quiet telling of truths the mind has locked away but the body remembers. Loosely autobiographical, these are the weavings of a wagon-goddess who ventures into the double-world existence as a mixed-race woman. In her struggle for footing in this in-between space, she moves from the disco days of trance dance to contemplations in her dream kitchen as a mother and wife.
Talon editor Shazia Hafiz Ramji talks to Jónína Kirton about the role of ritual, the lyric “I,” knowledge of the senses, the writing process and ancestral memory, and fairy tales.
SHR: Your book page as bone – ink as blood begins with an invocation, or the creation of a trance state through the detailed acts of ritual, allowing the speaker to access the creator through the senses: “I lift my head, close my eyes, and in the arms // of the Creator smell cedar.”
What is the role of ritual and tradition in page as bone – ink as blood?
JK: Ceremony and ritual have been a part of my life for thirty years now. It is the thread running through the entire book. When one hears “ceremony” they often think of Indigenous ceremony, but the truth is I have somewhat limited experience with this.
My entry into a spiritual life began when I witnessed my mother’s passing. Her leaving of her body was an indescribably beautiful moment. A peace entered the room and I wanted to know more about what that was. It set me off on a journey that continues to this day.
Shortly after her death, I was introduced to Eastern spirituality. For many years I considered myself a “bhakti yogi.” As a devotee of Gurumayi Chidvilasananda and the path of Siddha Yoga, I learned about ritual and ceremony as our local satsangs were run by the community. There were no ministers or priests, and I liked this. The teachings from Gurumayi, as with all Eastern traditions, encouraged an experiential relationship with Spirit or what some call God. I trust this more than any scriptures.
At some point I moved into what might be described as “pagan” or “goddess” traditions and I began to facilitate sacred circles for women. Over the years I have shared sacred space with many other women who also felt the need to reclaim ritual. It was not until ten years ago that the call of my ancestors brought me to Indigenous teachings and ceremony. I still have much to learn in this area.
Despite all my spiritual exploration, I am not a traditionalist. I do not follow one path. I am a firm believer in creating rituals that are responsive. I have had many conversations with a dear Indigenous friend who is traditionally trained and does a lot of ceremony. She also feels that ritual and ceremony needs to be responsive and that our ancestors created ceremonies to suit our changing needs. My poetry, like my spirituality, is fluid and comes naturally to me. It is responsive and it requires that I trust myself to know what is right for me or for the narrative. As my writing mentor, Betsy Warland, just said to me this morning, “the narrative is boss.” For me this includes “Spirit is boss.” All spiritual practices are intended to make us better listeners, which in my opinion can make us better writers. So, back to your original question, page as bone – ink as blood is permeated with ceremony and ritual just as my life is. Much of this is private or behind the scenes, the underpinning or foundation, if you will, of life for me – something I am quite shy to speak about, so thank you for this opportunity to do so.
SHR: What is the role of the senses and the body in your writing process? What kind of knowledge can the senses give us?
JK: To me the senses are everything. I often say that I feel my way through life. I have a pretty good intellect, but my way is the way of my people, both the Icelanders and the Métis honour other ways of knowing e.g. intuition and dreams. I have found the body to be great resource when it comes to intuition. I also believe that my body has a better memory than my mind, and that it stores the memories of my ancestors. My task has been to unlock these gifts and bring them to the page. To this end I do many things including, meditation, long walks, ritual or ceremony, and a practice called Continuum, which involves some breath work. In fact, much of my book was written at Ingrid’s Rose’s writing from the body, an eight-week workshop that a number of other women and I take over and over. I am in my fourth or fifth year with Ingrid. It was there that I was first introduced to Continuum.
SHR: When we talked at The Paper Hound Bookshop last week, I said that when I write lyric poems, I often judge how “good” they are based on how alien they appear to me a few days after the writing of the poem; the more alien, the better. I talked about inspiration in terms of influence through the reading of other texts, and you recognized this feeling in terms of the collective unconscious. How do you conceive of the lyric “I”?
JK: The notion of the “I” has hounded me for some time now. I am aware that some are disturbed by the use of it but I don’t think of “I” as just me. So even when I write poems using “I,” I am often thinking of others, at times tapping into ancestral memory or the collective consciousness. One of my favourite books is Unattended Sorrow; Recovering from Loss and Reviving the Heart. In it, Stephen Levine speaks to daily sorrows and how they pile one on top of each other adding to the collective burden we may already feel as women, or Indigenous people, or any group that we identify with. For me the “I” lives there, moving between myself and all who may identify with what I write. So I let myself go when I write and sometimes “I” appears – other times some mysterious, unnamed “she” will appear. Sometimes “she” is me and sometimes she is not anything I recognize in myself but I do not disown her. Perhaps she has something to teach me, perhaps she is more me than I realize.
SHR: Your book opens with an epigraph by Jeanette Armstrong, and quotes from Muriel Rukeyser and Frida Kahlo also appear in page as bone – ink as blood. What do your influences have in common, and how did you come to Armstrong, Rukeyser, and Kahlo?
JK: I like strong, vocal women who value diversity and are not afraid to take risks for their life’s work. Each of these women is clearly not afraid to speak up.
It was one of my writing mentors, Betsy Warland, who introduced me to Jeanette Armstrong’s work. I read and follow a lot of Indigenous authors.
I am not that familiar with Rukeyser but found the quote compelling:
What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.
It really reflected what I desired from the book.
I began to look into Frida Kahlo when Ingrid Rose read the prompt that birthed my poem, What Do Frida Kahlo and My Mother Have in Common? Kahlo was a strong and vibrant woman and artist but her health struggles left her very tired. This is what my mother and Frida have in common, hence the quote at the beginning of the poem: “I hope the exit is joyful and I hope never to return.” When I was younger, I was angry that my mother did not try harder to get better when her cancer returned. Reading stories like Kahlo’s and now experiencing my own health challenges I see how one can get that tired.
SHR: In your poem “crone,” you borrow the tale of Rumpelstiltskin to shape the speaker as the storyteller, and collector of ancestral and family histories. Why is the fairy tale appealing to you?
JK: I have a theory about fairy tales. I believe our most beloved fairy tales reveal something about us. Rumpelstiltskin is not my favourite but it is up there, and for the purpose of the piece it worked well. I wanted to find a creative way to examine the things all writers struggle with from time to time: Whose story is it? Who gets to tell the story? Are we prepared to pay the price this story may exact from us when we say what others do not want us to say?
This poem speaks to the heavy responsibility of feeling called to write about one’s life. It explores the need to escape the prison created by the expectation that one “turn straw truth into gold”, that they can only tell the good stuff. Some of us love the straw, grit.
The Princess and the Pea, illustrated by Edmund Dulac
By the way, my favourite fairy tale is The Princess and the Pea. As a highly sensitive person, I feel the peas in the world. I experience things that others seem to miss. I used to joke that I was the master of subtleties. It is a gift and a curse. Good for poetry though.
SHR: I feel that many of your poems are situated in an in-between state or a threshold, whether it’s between waking or sleeping, or the relationship between your Métis/Icelandic heritage and place, or between uncertainty and knowledge. I feel this liminality in your ease with shifting between lyric prose and poetry. How do you think the genre of poetry can express and enact liminal ways of being?
JK: Since I was a small child I felt different. I knew I experienced the world differently than my mother who was white and a good Christian. My father was Métis, but very patriarchal. We had the connection of the Indigenous world but that connection was often blocked by his need to be the man of the house. There were other problems, financial, mostly alcohol-related etc. I learned to live between, to not need much from either of them. I spent many happy days by myself in the forest behind our house in Goose Bay, Labrador. I did not need people as I had my woods, my books, what I now know to be some sense of Indigenous and Icelandic, or pagan spirituality. My imagination was deep and wide. I could disappear into a colour, float outside, speak with animals, hear the plants call for water etc.
When young, that feeling of being different followed me to school. It made me shy so I often stood alone, put myself on the outside of the circle and in so doing became an observer noting subtle incongruities in people. Some might call it a gift. I was never sure why it was there. Most of what I witnessed and felt was very hard to describe and certainly not welcomed by my family who lived by the “don’t talk” rule. Poetry saved me, brought me out and gave me a way to express what I saw. I feel that poetry is another language, one more intimate with the liminal world. Things do not have to be pinned down or follow rules. Through poetry I can share the things that are in some ways so very difficult to express in words. So with words and the wild and wily ways of poetry we find our way to the other ways of knowing which refuse to be pigeon-holed. We can escape the need for empirical data and learn to trust ourselves. With poetry I can offer the reminder of the Great Mystery, the liminal to the others.
page as bone – ink as blood is available from Talonbooks.