On Multiple Identity: Chloe Hogan-Weihmann in Conversation
with Délani Valin

Delani Valin

Malahat volunteer Chloe Hogan-Weihmann interviews Long Poem Prize winner Délani Valin on how Métis identity, Canadian landscape, and cultural stereotypes all play a part in her winning poem, "No Buffalos," to be published in the Summer 2017 issue.

 

Read the full announcement page on Valin's Long Poem Prize win.

Tell me about the evolution of "No Buffalos." Did you always have a clear idea in your mind of what the finished product would be, or did it go through some different incarnations before you figured out the right form, or structure, or rhythm, etc.?

My intention was to examine contemporary Métis identity by using my own experiences as a case study. I began with a sheet of paper and a list of topics I wanted to explore, including living in urban centres, vegetarianism, dance, history, and education. This list indicated that I would be leaping from topics in the realm of the personal, to the traditional, to family history, and to Canadian and pre-Canadian history. Furthermore, I didn't intend for these meditations to be chronological. With that in mind, I knew from the outset that I required a slightly stricter form than free verse to serve as a point of reference throughout the poem. The structure of five quatrains per canto gave me the freedom to jump from topic to topic. No matter where the poem went, the vehicle remained the same.

One of the judges' comments on your piece was regarding the "clarity and authenticity of its voice." Do you feel that this clarity and authenticity is a constant in your poetry, or is this piece a little more special in that sense?

Accessibility is important to me. I am always interested in finding a balance between interesting technique and readability. I believe clarity is an important aspect of having a widely accessible poem. In this particular piece, I wanted to communicate some already challenging aspects of contemporary Métis life, such as navigating government, tradition, labels, history, and beliefs. Rather than risk clouding these already complex issues by focusing too much on metaphor or allegory, I wanted to offer some concrete experiences that had more potential to be understood.

I think the authenticity in this piece is a consequence of inserting real experiences throughout the cantos. This is not something I shy away from in my poetry, and even in other forms of writing, but the difference here, perhaps, is all of the context surrounding those "I" experiences. I believe including the context of family and Canadian history helped to situate the "I" in the poem. I am passionate about identity, so a lot of my poetry and fiction reflects the questions that inevitably arise when one either joins or is born into a community.

I noticed you mention multiple locations across the country: Vancouver, Montreal, Saskatchewan, Hay River (Northwest Territories), the Great Bear Rainforest. Can you talk about why you chose so many locations across Canada as settings for your piece?

There are two main reasons why I chose these locations. The first is the obvious reason: my family and I have lived in all of these places, and they have affected the way I view the world. I also wanted to illustrate the vastness of Métis experience—there are people who grow up in urban centres, those who grow up in the North, those on the East Coast. The crux of the poem is that there isn't one right way to have an identity, and demonstrating the range of places that one can find Métis people shows that there are many different lifestyles, all of them valid.

There's an ongoing sense of conflict in this poem about the wisdom and experiences of the speaker's ancestors versus the way Métis history is taught in schools. Can you elaborate on that?

In the poem, I allude to a memory of being taught Métis culture in elementary school in British Columbia. We had a guest who wore traditional clothing and who spoke to us using a slideshow that lasted a little over an hour. This was the only exposure to Métis culture I had in school. Fortunately, I was able to learn about myself at home, but because of colonization, some students don't have family or ancestral connections to their cultures, and school is the only place they can learn about themselves. This is just one of the reasons why learning about Indigenous cultures is important. What I experienced in school was already an improvement on what my mother experienced: her high school textbook referred to Métis figure Louis Riel as a traitor, and openly painted Métis people in a poor light.

And yet there are still improvements to be made. Resisting the tokenization of Indigenous cultures, and not relegating them to a small section of the curriculum before turning back to topics like the railroad and confederation. There is room to be more holistic. Moreover, it would be beneficial to learn about contemporary Indigenous people. Métis people, Inuit people, and First Nations people are notrelics from the past. Who is out there contributing change and shifting Canadian and International culture? That kind of representation is important.

"No Buffalos" explores the contrast between the instantly recognizable "noble savage" image of Indigenous people (decked out in traditional garb, performing traditional dances, using herbal remedies, etc.) and the invisibility of Indigenous people as participants in modern society (drinking soy lattes, using modern medications, etc.) Can you talk a little bit about this concept?

I will state that I'm speaking here as a Métis person. There is often a tension experienced by those of us who are mixed race or bi-racial. There is a pull from either side, and an impossibility to fit neatly into either camp. It can feel like being in two places at once, and it can feel like always betraying one allegiance for another. There is pressure to fit into urban life, and there is pressure to live close to the land. There is pressure to master English, and there is pressure to know Michif, Cree, or other Indigenous languages. There is pressure to make kale smoothies, and there is pressure to hunt deer. There is pressure to embody all of these things at the same time, and those feelings can come from within one's own community, and from outside of it. "No Buffalos" is an attempt to catalogue these tensions and to put them out in the open. Because what often arises from these tensions is the feeling that one is never good enough—what arises is a feeling of shame. And from my experience, the best way to deal with shame is to shine a big spotlight on it so that it can be questioned, and so others can examine it, too.

You use a lot of enjambment in this piece. What was the reason for that choice?

The use of enjambment was in part to respect the form of the poem, and in part to contribute to the quick pace. I wanted "No Buffalos" to be read as if I was speaking it out loud, and I wanted little room for pause. Rather, it was important to re-create the sensation of living with many thoughts and tensions at the same time. Enjambment was a way to embody the fascinating and often confusing experience of living with a mixed identity.

 

Chloe HW

Chloe Hogan-Weihmann

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