All Those Shiny Lures: David Griffin Brown in Conversation with Armand Garnet Ruffo

Armand Garnet Ruffo

Armand Garnet Ruffo, whose poems "Pink Mints" and "Filament" appeared in The Malahat Review's Spring 2019 Issue #206, discusses treaties, conformity, and traditional knowledge in his Q&A with Malahat Review volunteer David Griffin Brown.


Armand Garnet Ruffo is a member of the Chapleau Fox Lake Cree First Nation with familial roots to the Sagamok Ojibwe First Nation. He is recognized as a major contributor to both contemporary Indigenous literature and Indigenous literary scholarship in Canada. As an educator, he is currently the Queen’s National Scholar in Indigenous Literature at Queen’s University in Kingston, On. As a poet and writer, he has published widely and has read from his work both nationally and internationally. In 2016, he was honoured with a “Lifetime Membership Award” from the National Council of The League of Canadian Poets.

I love the spare storytelling style of “Pink Mints,” as well as the bittersweet contradiction between the adoration and disavowal of Mervin. How did you decide to write this poem in prose instead of verse? At what stage in crafting a new poem do you know what form it should take?

The main theme in the collection Treaty # is the concept of treaties; these include official governmental treaties, the kind Indigenous peoples signed with the Government of Canada, but also those kinds of treaties we make with ourselves. By this, I mean the various ways we come to terms with all those influences, which makes us who we are, and, accordingly, how we present ourselves to others, etc. “Pink Mints” then captures a moment in time where the poet is looking back at an incident in his life and coming to terms with it. On the face of it, the poem is talking about societal pressure to conform. To some extent, we’ve all experienced this pressure, which is especially pronounced when we are young. And, of course, implied in the poem is the Indigenous theme of acceptance of the “other” which does not exist outside the community. As for form, my poems tend to arrive as a package from the outset with content demanding a specific form. Rarely do I go back and change the form of a piece to any great extent. If I do, the poem tends to fall apart. Such fragile things.

“Filament” offers a similar reflection on the shifting perspective from childhood to adult-self. However, the idealism in “Pink Mints” is cast backward, from adult wisdom to youthful folly, whereas “Filament”  depicts a youthful idealism lost as an adult. "For a while we thought we could change the world. / For a while we thought we had a place in the world." How did you want to change the world, and what was the initial "shiny lure" that made you question your power and/or agency to affect this change?

Again, this poem is talking about conformity; it’s a major theme connected to this idea about the treaties we make with ourselves. When we are young, we are idealistic and want to change the world – hey, I just heard on CBC today that it’s the 50th anniversary of Woodstock – then something happens as we get older. Society demands that we change. We buy into things, the big house, the shiny car, the corner office, etc., at the expense of the world. All those shiny lures. If in doubt, take a hard look at our environment. Here the poet sees himself implicated – he drives a car; he uses plastic – his determination to change things is destabilized. Because of our traditions, I think this is a dilemma that (some) Indigenous people feel more acutely than others. I tackle the theme a bit obliquely in this poem, but plunge headfirst into it in “Structuralism.”

Your sixth poetry collection, Treaty #, has just been released.  How has your process for writing poetry changed since your 1994 collection  Opening in the Sky?  When you look back at your earliest work, what has changed the most about your style and approach?

As for my style and approach, some of the poems are much more associational in that theme and image are connected rather loosely and lead to interesting surprises. Other poems, as you pointed out in “Pink Mints,” are more tightly organized into short narratives, a form that I’m particularly drawn to for its energy, while others, like “Treaty No. 1” or “Terra Nullius Lingus,” move into the realm of experimentation. That said, I do not consider myself an experimental poet per se because frankly I find much of that kind of poetry fails to move me emotionally and therefore doesn’t interest me. I wonder how many of us spend time rereading enigmatic/non-logical poetry?  I think we look at it once, and maybe admire its erudition, and never pick it up again. Personally, I would rather read philosophy or go to an art gallery. For me, a good poem has to light up my body as well as my mind, and I suppose that's what I’m still striving to do.

A poetry professor once told me that all writers have a core theme underlying their body of work. Does this ring true for your writing? What themes would you say have defined your career? Again, looking back at your earliest work, are there some themes you have left behind?

I think that’s a truism. My bag of themes hasn’t really changed, and in fact, in Treaty #’s notes, I mention the much-anthologized “Poem for Duncan Campbell Scott,” because even back in the 90s I was interested in the treaties. Of course, this book like all my others deals with Indigenous themes, loss of land, loss of language, etc. However, in my first book Opening In the Sky there was a palpable anger in the poems, which for me was absolutely necessary at the time; whereas in this latest book, although anger may be the impetus for some of the pieces, the poems refrain from pointing the finger at anyone – though I have to say, the neo-capitalist system is certainly not left off the hook. For example, “Reckoning,” and maybe even “Filament,” have an angry energy to them, but rather than saying “look at what you did,” they are saying that we are all in this mess together. Lastly, as in my previous collection The Thunderbird Poems, I am also considering what is positive about Indigenous culture, some of the things that should not be lost because such a loss will affect all of us. The last poem, “A Wiseman Once Told Me” comes to mind, because it is this kind of traditional knowledge that can help us get out of this mess. So, I guess after all these years, I’m still interested in what matters at this particular time.

In addition to poetry, you've also written for stage and screen. Do you have plans to work in those mediums again? With Treaty # going to press, what's next for you in terms of poetry?

Last year I wrote a libretto for a musical called Sounding Thunder: The Song of Francis Pegahmagabow, a story about the famed Ojibwe WWI hero. I actually wrote the whole hour-long narrative in verse, which made for an arresting way to tell the story. It had a limited run at The Festival of Sound in Parry Sound and Toronto and received very positive reviews. This fall it will be going into rehearsals for a remount and tour next year, and the composer and I will be part of the process. Undoubtedly there will be rewrites for an expanded production. Other than that, I’m in the middle of researching another project; whether it will be prose or poetry, I can’t tell yet. 


David Griffin Brown

David Griffin Brown

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