Athabasca University creative writing tutor Marilyn Dumont has a bone to pick. She’s discouraged that the craft she teaches and publishes – poetry – seems more akin to the country cousin of the more mainstream literary genre, The Novel.
The discrepancy baffles her, especially since poetry is considered a “high art” in the pantheon of literature studies. From Chaucer to Keats to Atwood to Angelou, poetry, says Dumont, may be something we’re taught in school, but when it comes to the mainstream, “poetry rarely raises its head.”
“It’s not reflected in the literary publishing world, in the whole popular media—and it’s become worse over the last couple of years,” she says, describing the novel as “the privileged genre.”
“If you write a novel, you’re a real writer. But if you work away at publishing 17 books of poetry throughout your life, somehow you’re not seen as a writer.”
The Raymond Souster Poetry Award
Gripes aside, Dumont also has every reason to be thrilled. Her latest poetry collection, The Pemmican Eaters (ECW Press), has been shortlisted for the prestigious Raymond Souster Award, of the League of Canadian Poets (LCP). Each year, the League lauds a book of poetry (published in the preceding year) by one of its members.
“I am really honoured about the award,” Dumont remarks.
“—because it’s named after this person (Souster) who basically dedicated his life to his labour of love—just as I’ve done. This was a man who was really instrumental in getting poetry organizations going. He published about 50 books.”
Poetry … may be something we’re taught in school, but when it comes to the mainstream, poetry rarely raises its head. ~ Marilyn Dumont, AU creative writing tutor and nominee for the Raymond Souster Poetry Award.
The Pemmican Eaters is shortlisted among five other works by esteemed writers: Lorna Crozier, Maureen Hynes, Alice Major, Bruce Meyer and Armand Ruffo.
Dumont says she feels privileged to be shortlisted among these contenders. “They’re great; they’re all major poets; it is an honour to be in that running,” she says.
The winner will receive a prize of $1,000, to be presented by the LCP at and during the 2016 Canadian Writers’ Summit in Toronto, June 16, through June 19.
Dumont has been studying and teaching the craft of poetry for more than 30 years, including publishing four books of poetry and one novella. For Dumont, writing poetry is about finding the connections between the past and the present, and showing that, when it comes to indigenous communities, particularly her own Métis culture, the two time frames are virtually one and the same.
Elegies to Louis Riel
The Pemmican Eaters, which took seven years to write, celebrates Métis resistance and survival, and draws upon Dumont’s ancestry and cultural heritage, while revering it in the present day.
“As Métis, we’re under the same colonial forces that we were then, as we are now,” she says.
“For today’s Métis, it’s like the historical present. The poetry shows that we haven’t gone anywhere; we’re still here; and we are still celebrating who we are.”
The muse for her book is Gabriel Dumont, Louis Riel’s rebel Métis ally and military commander during the 1885 North-West Resistance. When Marilyn Dumont was a pre-teen, she and her family learned they were direct relatives of the warrior general and folk hero.
For the impassioned Métis that she is, this treasure trove-like revelation was more than auspicious. It served to set the descriptive scenes for Dumont’s awards-nominated book (she is also up for the Stephan G. Stephansson Award for Poetry put on by the Writer’s Guild of Alberta) which, she explains, are a direct depiction of Red River historical lore.
“I have tried to recreate the geography, the time period, the people, the way they travelled, how they had fun,” says Dumont, noting that she was meticulous to include the historical figures’ varying viewpoints—from that of Gabriel Dumont’s wife, “on the night he is leaving to cross over the Canadian border to the States, where he found refuge (before he got amnesty and came back to Canada).”
For today’s Métis, it’s like the historical present. The poetry shows that we haven’t gone anywhere; we’re still here; and we are still celebrating who we are.” ~ Marilyn Dumont
The poems, she says, are essentially elegies to Riel, to Dumont, and to the Métis people, including depictions of cultural dance, or “jigging,” to the transportation method of the Red River Cart.
Aiding her in the penning process of The Pemmican Eaters, was the constant poring over of historical memoirs of the period. “—or history books—to place me there so I could write about that era,” she explains.