What Leaves Can Return: Conor Kerr in Conversation with Kaitlin Debicki

Kaitlin Debicki

Open Season Awards poetry judge Conor Kerr talks with Kaitlin Debicki, winner of the 2022 Open Season Poetry Award with her poem, "Kahkhwí:yo." They discuss belonging in two worlds, eco-eroticism, and how the Kanien’kéha words in the poem are ones that contain multitudes. 

Read "Kahkhwí:yo" here.


Kaitlin Debicki is Kanien’kehá:ka, Wolf Clan, from Six Nations of the Grand River. She is a mother, a language learner, and a tree and forest devotee. As an assistant professor and secret poet, Kaitlin lives an Indigiqueer life in Hamilton, Ontario with her daughter, her mini schnauz, and her ADHD.

Read what judge Conor Kerr had to say about her winning poem.

I wanted to start off this interview by noting how beautiful I found your poem “Kahkhwí:yo.” There is so much depth here and I feel that I was very lucky to be able to read it for The Malahat Review’s Open Season Awards. One of the things that really stuck out for me was the nuance of language you used and how you used Kanien’kéha words in a way that allowed for readers who don’t know the language to still have an understanding of the context. Can you tell me a bit more about your process in doing this? Why kahkhwí:yo?

Thanks so much for your kind words about “Kahkhwí:yo.” I’ve been an ad-hoc language learner since my undergraduate days, back in the early 2000s. Whenever I have the funds and the time to take a class in Kanien’kéha, I do. Luckily, my reserve—Six Nations of the Grand River—has done a tremendous amount for language revitalization. Six Nations Polytechnic offers language classes in Kanien’kéha (Mohawk) and Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫʼ (Cayuga) and we have an immersion school—Onkwawenna Kentyohkwa—which I would love to attend one day. As someone who was adopted out of her community at birth and raised by white folks, I am always looking for ways to reconnect to myself, my community, and my culture. This belonging in two worlds thing isn’t unusual, of course, and is often talked about through the metaphor of having one foot in two canoes, which is a reference to the Two Row Wampum—one foot in the European sailing ship and one foot in the onkwehonwe canoe. When I write, I think that in-betweenness comes through in all sorts of ways, including my use of the language. Often the Kanien’kéha words that I use are ones that contain multitudes. In other words, I can express more through the use of the word wahta than I can through the word maple. And maple has so many colonial connotations with the Canadian flag. Wahta, on the other hand, connects us to the Wahta reserve and is not loaded with the same assumptions of inanimate being. Kanien’kéha is a language of actions and images; first-language speakers and long-time speakers describe seeing images in their mind when they speak. I am still a beginner, but even I have had moments like this, where language appears in my brain differently than it does with English. Often, then, my language choices have to do with what I am seeing and feeling, internally. Kahkhwí:yo is my way of saying beautiful food—kahkwa means sustenance and the suffix, i:yo, means good or beautiful. It isn’t a perfect translation, but I was interested in representing food, beauty, bodies, desire, and trees together as one. I felt that kahkwí:yo let me do that.

There’s such an assertive love of land written throughout this poem. As we leave the winter season and come into the spring I find myself turning back to this poem and how the natural rhythms of the land are embedded throughout it. Can you tell me a bit more about how those connections informed your writing of this poem and just in general too?

I love trees. In fact, I wrote a whole dissertation about how much I love trees and how I understand them as cognizant beings in communication with us. It’s complicated, but I think my connection has a lot to do with displacement and feelings of lostness. Trees accept me, have always accepted me. I never need to worry about whether I’m Indigenous enough to be in relation with Pine. I never need to worry about whether I’m performing my gender or sexuality in the right ways when I’m visiting with Wahta, I can just be. Trees are rooted, flexible beings: ancestors. And they tell stories. As a prof of Indigenous literatures, I’ve come across generations of Indigenous storytellers and thinkers who tell us that everything is made of story. I tend to believe them. For me, then, love of land is love of self and that’s something I have always struggled with. The cycles of change that the land demonstrates are essential to my well-being. They remind me that there are things to let go, that imperfection is part of a process, that mistakes are mulch for new growth, that what leaves can return, that we might not always follow the right path but there are signs in the land that will help us return to ourselves again and again. But also, the spring just makes me horny, you know? And who doesn’t love them some sticky sweet sap?! Seriously, though, I think the land has a lot to teach us about our own desires and the desirability of our bodies in all kinds of shapes and textures and sizes. Some of what I’m thinking through, then, has to do with eco-eroticism and the ways that we might refuse narratives of settler sexuality.

As an Indigenous writer/educator myself I find the balancing of two very distinct worldviews tricky to navigate and I often use my own writing as a space to navigate that conversation for myself. How do you approach this?

Well, I think I talked a little about this in the first question, but the Tékeni Teyohà:te or “two roads or paths,” (a.k.a. Two Row Wampum) has always been a guiding force in my life when it comes to balancing my in-betweenness. The Two Row is a treaty agreement from the 17th century formed between the Dutch and the Haudenosaunee. It articulates the need to share the river of life with one another, while also stressing the importance of cultural and political distinctiveness. You stay in your boat and we’ll stay in ours, type deal (guess who didn’t keep their end of the deal?!?). There’s this legendary line in the history of the treaty’s narrative that says there will be some people who will try to cross between the vessels and that they are doomed to lose their balance and fall into the waters below from which only Creator can save them. That’s what I heard a lot when I was growing up, that I had to pick a vessel and stick with it. I never could though, because I was adopted into a non-Native family and grew up off reserve without any education about or access to Haudenosaunee teachings, history, or people. I have found connections across the years, though, and now I realize that it is tricky to keep your balance with a foot in two canoes, but it’s possible. Sometimes my weight is more in one vessel than the other, but my life has been a lesson in balance. This is why core strength is so important! As a reflection of my internal questing, my writing is, of course, turning this matter over and over again; it’s one of the ways I keep the vessels close enough together in my own mind that I don’t fall. More recently, I’ve been thinking about this positioning as a form of and reflection of my own queerness and that has been helpful.

In “Kahkhwí:yo,” form is a major component of the poem. You start by deviating from a classic structure, get back into that, and then deviate again towards the end. It’s a choice that really works for this poem. What informs your choice of form and structure? Do you bring this into your other writing?

Haha. Form and structure terrify me. Possibly because I’m an Aquarius so I like to know the rules before I break them (I have little in the way of formal poetic training). I follow my gut for the most part. There are some players in the piece that want a spotlight, there are some moments that deserve space, breath. I also like thinking about poetry visually—like I mentioned earlier with Kanien’kéha. I want the form to echo the imagery. So if what I’m seeing is the spigot in the tree, carrying the sap out and across and down, that’s what I try to make happen on the page. There’s movement in the image that deserves movement on the page.

I’m always curious to know about other people’s writing practices…. What’s yours like? And is there any other writing that you’re currently working on or finished? Anything that you’re excited about?

It took me a long time to realize what a poem is, you know? I used to write a lot when I was a kid and a teenager, but I got rejected from an MFA program in my twenties and decided that was it, the proof I needed that I was no good at this. So I stopped writing poetry and committed fully to academia. It took me over a decade to realize that I can write for myself. That I am a poet even if no one publishes me, even if no one likes what I write. I try to write everyday because it feels good, because one of our original instructions from Creator was to create, because to get good at anything you have to practice. I also like signing up for workshops, writing retreats, or even just making plans with writing buddies. I guess it has a lot to do with setting aside the time, with prioritizing writing and then not expecting perfection. I often write at the end of the day after my kid is asleep and I make myself put down that first line whether I think it’s crap or not. “You can always change it later” is something I frequently have to tell myself to even get going. Every time that works for me it solidifies my self-belief which encourages me to keep writing.

Right now I’m focusing a lot of energy on writing and submitting individual poems to literary magazines—trying to get a sense for the field—but my goal is to put together a chapbook. I’m also working on a monograph developed out of my dissertation on reading trees, called The First Storytellers. And I’ve got a couple kids’ books yammering for attention, but for now they’re still just in my brain.

Generational knowledge transfer is such an important part of this poem. It’s alluded to here, and even though it might not necessarily be outright stated I read into that. I’m wondering how you approach teaching future generations of Indigenous people? Do you have any advice for Indigenous writers/poets? What’s a piece of advice that you wish you had when you were starting out writing?

I heard once that no knowledge can be lost, even if it might take some time to remember it, what was known will return. Partly, that’s what I feel about connecting to the land—that the land was our first teacher and we can relearn all of what we once knew through caring for our land-based relationships. Stories also do a lot of the heavy lifting—so much of what I know about Haudenosaunee governance, philosophy, health, science, history, and relationships comes from our stories. I never even heard our creation story until I was an adult. I started telling my daughter Haudenosaunee stories before she was even born, so even if I succeed nowhere else, at least I’ve made a difference with her. As a professor in an Indigenous Studies Department, I seek to support and encourage Indigenous students to pick up the knowledge of their own nations, of their families, and to apply that knowledge to what they care about in the present. Much of what I do at the university is hold space for new generations of Indigenous students to bring their knowledge into an environment that is not always hospitable to Indigenous methodologies or ways of knowing. They don’t often need me to tell them how things are, they need me to believe in what they already know and to fight on their behalf for the validity of their values within the institution.

I guess my advice for Indigenous poets/writers would be to read as much poetry as you can with as much variety as possible and do not be afraid of discomfort. So much of what has held me back over the years is the fear that I don’t do poetry right, I don’t understand poetry properly. It’s okay to let go of boundaries that you think should exist, and to come to writing for the joy it offers, the release (*wink, wink, bat, bat*). Comparison is not the way, either. We cannot judge ourselves against the merits of others, but only against the feeling of satisfaction in our own hearts. That has to be enough. Grow yourself—the work of healing, of coming into yourself, of learning self-love, that opens you to the rest of the world which is where the stuff of poems lives. Lastly, writing is ceremony, too; consider how you will prepare your time, your space, the objects of your ritual, and your mind/body. 


Conor Kerr

Conor Kerr

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