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Q&A: Anishinaabe artist Leanne Betasamosake Simpson on combining poetry and music

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Leanne Betasamosake Simpson wants to make sure the Anishinaabe people are able to hear their own stories. Through writing and music, she has been able to do so, while also bringing the voices of her people to the wider world.

The Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg artist just released her latest album, f(l)ight, on Sept. 30, and will follow with a connected book of poetry next year. Simpson began her career as a writer, but eventually found a way for her poetry and music to flow together and create new meaning about the past and future of her indigenous community.

Q&Q spoke to Simpson about how storytelling has always been a part of her life, the accident that made her realize her poetry should be put to music, and her goal to tell the true story of her people.

How do music and your writing connect for you? Poetry and lyric writing are both about storytelling for me. I want to take audiences and readers on a journey that’s not just intellectual but also political and artistic and emotional. My writing, whether it’s poetry, music, academic fiction, or non-fiction, is rooted in my relationship with the land and my relationship to the world as an Anishinaabe person. The process of working collaboratively with other artists is a way of really deepening the meaning and adding multiple interpretations to the words.

As it is the common piece in all your work, what does storytelling mean to you? Storytelling is a really complex process within Anishinaabe intelligence and I spent a lot of time over the years listening to elders telling stories. I think of stories as seeds that you carry with you through your life; the more that you engage with them, the more you see yourself inside the stories, the more their meaning gets revealed. I’ve always wanted my children to grow up in this nest of stories then be able to tell our own stories on our own terms to our own people and to our own community. That’s what I’ve really tried to do as a first intervention—to write for an indigenous audience and to assume that the audience is going to identify with the stories, affirm my experience as a storyteller, and see themselves and their experience within. As a reader, I’ve never felt that there were a lot of books, poems, or records that were written for me. The best part is that when I’ve written these books and these records, non-indigenous audiences have also embraced them.

How did you begin working with music? In 2010 we were having an Ode’min Giizis, an indigenous arts festival. I was invited to perform storytelling by the organizer of the festival, Patti Shaughnessy. Patti had recognized that storyteller in me before I’d recognized it myself. There was a scheduling conflict at the festival and when it was my turn to tell my story, the band Oka, an electronica indigenous group from Australia, was on the main stage. So I had the mic and Oka played a really mellow track. The audience thought that it was rehearsed and that I had planned to do it. They were like, This is amazing. You should do this all the time. I also really liked doing it. I had a lot of musical training as a kid that I had just sort of left behind. I think writing is a very specific skill—people who are really good writers aren’t necessarily good at performing. I wanted to explore this idea and figure out how music and lyrics work together. It allowed me to take the concepts that I write about and embody them in a deeper way.

How would one of your works go from a poem to a song? The track “How to Steal a Canoe” initially started as a trip to the Canadian Canoe Museum with an elder that I work with, Doug Williams. A canoe that had been taken from our territory in the early 1800s to England had been returned. Doug asked me to help when he was asked as a local elder to welcome the canoe back, which is both a strange and wonderful thing to do. We were in this warehouse with the collection of canoes that the community has and I was singing and praying to the canoes—it was a very powerful experience for me. So I used the experience I was having in life in my poetry. Then when it came time to add music, I approached Cris Derksen, who is an indigenous cello player—but not in the classical way. I thought the cello was a really interesting instrument to work with because it sings and tells its own narrative to take audiences on an emotional journey. And then Amanda Strong, a Metis filmmaker out in Vancouver, is working on a music video, adding another layer of interpretation. The story deepens each time there’s a new collaboration.

Is there something you get from music that you can’t get from writing? I find writing a little bit isolating and then when you release your book you’re not with the reader when they’re reading it. With writing, you have this clear space between you and your audience so I was really interested in performing these pieces. I think the lyrics embody the themes and add a deeper understanding of what I was writing about. It also creates a community with different artists—almost a constellation of artistic energy.

What themes did you want to put forth in your new album? There are sort of three layers to it. I wanted to have some elements of fire and fight and to acknowledge the struggle that my community faces and that indigenous people are in right now in 2016. I wanted to affirm that struggle and the sort of the erasure and dispossession but then also to uplift people and the community and find these tiny moments of love and connection and gentleness and kind of amplify and magnify that as well. So there’s some heavy political lyrics in the album but there’s also a lot of beauty and heart and love and connection and I wanted to have that kind of braided together because that’s very much, in my experience, what it’s like to be an indigenous woman in Canada right now.