Poetry, Accessibility and Education – An Interview with Jónína Kirton

At CV2, we are always seeking ways to expand public appreciation of the poetic art form, to engage those who are curious about poetry, and to re-examine our ties to poetry. In this endeavour, we recognize that poetry can feel inaccessible and intimidating to fresh eyes and pens.

All poetry journeys are unique. We find our reflections in verse for different reasons, and poetry is a perpetually elusive, yet poignant art form. What draws us to poetry? How does one guide a poet? What is integral to the craft? In order to help answer these questions and encourage more dialogue around the accessibility of poetry, we interviewed two educators and poets who experience life through verse: Anna Swanson and Jónína Kirton. In each of their respective interviews, Swanson and Kirton explore poetry’s dualities: its tenderness, its truth, its rigidity, and its pretension. We are grateful to both of these writers for working tirelessly to share the beauty of poetry with others.

We hope these interviews draw awareness to language as an entity that enables us to understand ourselves, each other, and our cultural context. We seek to emphasize the vitality of language that rests within us all and to pick away at the barriers that prevent some from diving deep into the poetic art form. To borrow from Italian author Elena Ferrante, “true writing is that: not an elegant, studied gesture but a convulsive act.”

You can read Chloe Gandy’s second interview with Anna Swanson in the Winter 2023 Issue of CV2!

CHLOE GANDY: How would you describe your relationship to language and poetry? Where did you first encounter poetry and do you think that space influenced your perception of poetry?

JÓNÍNA KIRTON: My relationship with language began long before I considered poetry relevant to my life. As an empath, and survivor seeking healing, I could feel that we two-legged needed ways to express the repressed feelings that lay within our bodies. While in therapy, I recalled the way that anger and shame overtook my Métis father, leaving him with few words and the feeling that he needed to use his fists. I also remembered my Icelandic/Irish mother’s tears, her inability to gain control of her own life, and the way this would send her to bed, depressed and unable to care for us. Neither could ask for what they needed and both used indirect, sometimes manipulative means to get the things they wanted from each other. Both of them admonished me for being what they called ‘too sensitive.’
The thing I most longed for as a child was honest communication that honoured feelings. Once grown, I decided that the teachings offered at the Justice Institute around conflict resolution and improving communication could be the answer to so many human problems. I studied there in 1993 and went on to become a support group facilitator. I still believe in the value of this work, but it is not enough. I now believe it is poetry that will save us. My first inclination that my father and mother needed to be able to express their repressed feelings was accurate, yet most of us do not have the language we need. It’s not only that we may not even know what we feel, but also that when we encounter a poem that breaks us open and gives us the words for the grief, the joy or whatever emotions we are carrying, we are
instantly changed.

Nothing gives me more pleasure than writing a poem that catches the breath. It is there that we are united in our humanity. We need words to get there, but not just any words. Finding the right combination of words is a grand adventure. It has allowed me to turn my deepest sorrows into something beautiful that reaches across the great divides that exist between so many of us.

I can’t recall when I first encountered poetry on the page, but I do remember when I first encountered poetry that I liked in my 30s. I started with Rumi and Hafiz, not knowing that the translations of these poems may be off. I was drawn to the mystics and longed for a solitary life — for the life of a yogi. Exposure to Eastern teachings opened something in me: a yearning for answers that the colonized world and the Christianity I had grown up with did not hold. I had begun life with family members who spoke Michif and I lived between that
and the tension in the bodies of family members who were hiding their ancestry. I was six years old when my great-grandfather, Elie Godin, a Michif-speaking fiddle player, made the change of worlds. Even though I have no conscious memory of this time, I now wonder if it was he who ignited my love of poetry. I recently learned that not only did he sit me on his knee and sing to me in Michif, but he also loved poetry and would recite it from memory. Song and poetry are in my blood.

I get shivers every time I read Jean Teillet’s recounting of my ancestors, voyageurs singing and paddling one stroke per second, their songs giving them the rhythm and strength they needed to continue. Body and words resonating with the water.

CG: Where are you most comfortable engaging with poetry? Who do you feel the most comfortable engaging with poetry amongst (i.e. loved ones, fellow poets, students, strangers to poetry, etc.)? Why?

JK: When I think of poetry, I think of movement. Words travelling between us. Words that enter us, changing us. I feel it is best experienced with others who have a true appreciation for it. I find that engaging with it is usually more comfortable in smaller groups as its immediacy can bring unexpected intimacy. Not everyone is comfortable with this. I prefer to experience it with others who also long for more gentleness and I tend to seek quieter settings with people who I know are interested in creating community. I think of it much like my dear friend Otoniya J. Okot Bitek, who has this to say about it:”The poet in the Acholi tradition is not just someone who says the flower is beautiful because it’s beautiful, but gathers people to think and talk about whatever it is they’re doing and what’s happening around them,” she says. “For me, as an Acholi poet, the poem is the container, the space and opportunity for people to gather in community.”

Writing poetry with others is important to me. Many of my favourite poems have come to me while attending ingrid rose’s writing from the body, where I have been a member for over 10 years. We use a practice called ‘Continuum’ to enter writing via the body and together create a field that allows us to relax, not only so that words can flow more easily, but also so that we may receive what each other has written from a more spacious and generous place.

Having said all this, I do bring poetry into spaces where it has rarely been invited and sometimes use poems as openings to the circles I host when teaching. I was first introduced to the idea of bringing poetry into workplaces by one of my favourite Irish poets, David Whyte. I discovered him around the same time as I was studying mediation at the Justice Institute in the ‘90s. In his book, The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America, he says, “Rather than talking about change, I use hundreds of memorized poems to try to bring to life the experience of change itself.” Life has such an interesting way of bringing things full circle. Little did I know that many years after reading this book, I would l find myself featured on Poetry Unbound, an On Being podcast hosted by Pádraig Ó Tuama, an Irish poet who also shares an interest in mediation. Coincidentally, David Whyte was the opening poet for their first-ever On Being gathering. Although I am still a fan of Whyte’s writing, it is BIPOC writers such as Chelene Knight, Gregory Scofield, Joanne Arnott, Lucille Clifton and our current Poet Laureate, Louise Bernice Halfe (Sky Dancer), who inspire me most these days.

CG: What made you want to teach? When teaching poetry or writing, do you have a guiding philosophy? What are some of the challenges of teaching creative writing (especially poetry)?

JK: I have a deep respect for the power found in poetry and feel that no matter which genre a writer is working with, they will find their writing enriched by reading and writing poetry.

When teaching poetry, my focus is not on craft, but rather on ways into poems and on how to nurture one’s poetic voice. My guiding philosophy is to do no harm. I try not to get in the way of the poet or writer’s natural instincts and think of myself more as a mentor or guide, assisting/supporting them in strengthening their particular way with words.

One of the challenges I face when teaching creative writing is the fact that not everyone is ready for decolonized learning. Some are not open to the question “Is this my story to tell?” or to the need for sensitivity readers. These writers are few in number but loud in their protests. They can really muddy the waters and leave everyone in the room feeling uncomfortable when my goal as a teacher is to help learners relax and lean into their creative spirits.

CG: How does your poetic voice present itself within academic settings? Do you conceive of your relationship to poetry as distinct from academia, or is there overlap?

JK: I am not an academic myself and often feel out of step with academia. This year I had a chance to bring decolonized learning to UBC as I was one of their Adjunct Professors, teaching poetry to third- and fourth-year Creative Writing BA students. I had never been to university myself. All of my education, which is extensive, has been through continuing studies or workshops and I actually came to poetry by default. I had applied to the SFU Writer’s Studio and had hoped to be put in the creative non-fiction stream as I intended to write my memoir and a self-help book. I was surprised to learn that they had determined that I belonged in the poetry cohort. I objected, but they assured me that they had based this decision upon my sample writing and that they usually get this right. My poetry mentor was Miranda Pearson and it was while being mentored by her that I realized poetry was actually a great way to tell a fragmented story like mine. The overlap between my relationship to poetry and academia takes place when I find teachers like Miranda who introduce me to poets such as Gregory Scofield and Marilyn Dumont. It is they—and others, like Michelle Sylliboy, who are teaching now—who provide a bridge that I can travel between the two worlds. It is my hope that I can do the same for others.

CG: Do you view poetry’s relationship to academic institutions as an advantage or a hinderance to the art form? How do academic spaces impact artists and the creative process?

JK: I do worry about what academic spaces sometimes do to our creative spirits. Focusing on performance and the need for grades seems contrary to creating safe spaces to explore creativity. Not only that, but who does the grading also matters. If their lived experience is not similar to yours, they may not see the brilliance in your work. I have spoken to so many BIPOC writers, women in particular, who have not felt seen when their work is being critiqued either by teachers or by other students. I have had the experience of someone trying to ‘correct my grammar’ when my vernacular is often Prairie Indigenous. Removing these traces of our ancestry and lived experience robs us of our particular way with words… a way that resonates with others who may or may not have any academic experience. I always tell those I work with that their writing does not need to be for everyone. It may be for their peer group and contain language, phrases, and sayings that only they will understand. The notion of the need for poems to be universal can be limiting.

CG: Have you ever taught poetry to new writers (or writers who are new to poetry)? Which barriers are commonly expressed?

JK: One of my favourite things to do is to work with people who don’t normally write poetry. Whether it is writers who work in other genres or high schoolers who think poetry is not for them, I enjoy showing them the freedom of expression that one can find in poetry.

I would say the biggest barrier is that they have not been exposed to poems they can relate to or that they feel they can understand. Somewhere along the line, they were given the impression that poetry was for people who ‘get it,’ that it lives in a world apart from the mainstream, yet nothing is further from the truth. Poetry lives inside us as song. It is in every cell of our being and can be about anything. Some of the most compelling poems are about the mundane or things not considered poetic. Poetry is about the senses.

Years ago, I was the writer-in-residence at a Surrey high school and while there, I asked students to write poetry about the things they did to decompress. I started with “Where is your safe space?” Might be your bedroom, the woods or when you are visiting your grandmother or dear friend. I could see that I was losing several of the boys and they all looked so relieved when I told them it could be about anything, even basketball. I told them that they could give us the sounds of the ball hitting the court or the side of the basket. I suggested that they explore how their body feels, notice the palm of their hand on the ball, their feet moving under them. I encouraged them to visualize being on the court. Are you outside? Inside? Are there any smells that come to you? When I said this, their eyes lit up and they went on to write some amazing poems.

CG: If you had to convince a reluctant reader to try reading poetry, what would you tell them?

JK: I would say that if you don’t think poetry is for you, it is very possible that you just haven’t met the right poet or poem. Poetry is diverse; there are probably poems that will speak directly to your lived experience in ways that are very affirming. Keep looking. Stay open. Stay curious.

Perhaps it would help to hear the poetry read out loud. If you have not listened to Poetry Unbound, I highly recommend it. They have featured many wonderful poets, including two of my favourites, Ocean Vuong and Lucille Clifton. The host, Pádraig, reads the poem and then offers his understanding of the poem. A poet himself, he clearly has a deep respect for poets and their poetry.

Jónína Kirton, a Métis/Icelandic poet, graduated from the Simon Fraser University’s Writer’s Studio in 2007. Her first collection of poetry, page as bone ~ ink as blood, was released in April 2015 with Talonbooks. It has been described as “restorative, intimate poetry, drawing down ancestral ideas into the current moment’s breath.” A late-blooming poet, she was sixty- one when she received the 2016 Vancouver’s Mayor’s Arts Award for an Emerging Artist in the Literary Arts category. Her second collection of poetry, An Honest Woman, was a finalist
in for the 2018 Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize. Her third book, Standing in a River of Time, just released in 2022, merges poetry and lyrical memoir to take us on a journey exposing the intergenerational effects of colonization on a Métis.

Chloe Gandy is a writer and community organizer living in Tkaronto (Toronto). Her work has appeared in The Queen’s Review and Pidgeon P. She recently completed her MA in Literature at Toronto Metropolitan University and now spends her days reading, writing and working at local markets.