Ottawa Writers Fest: Katherena Vermette goes with the flow of history and her story

Katherena Vermette will be at the Ottawa International Writers Festival on Oct. 24 and 25 with her new collection of poetry called River Woman.

Katherena Vermette lives near the Red River in Winnipeg. The flowing water has become a part of her life.

Now the idea of the river has become the central metaphor of her latest collection of poetry called River Woman (House of Anansi). Vermette will be reading from her new collection on Oct. 24 at the Ottawa Writers Festival. She is also the award-winning author of the novel The Break.

As a student of history, she has studied the river’s place in the story of her Metis people and in the story of her own family.

“Right now I’m doing a lot of Metis history,” she told ARTSFILE in a recent interview. “I am in the right place for it. We have a great history.

“I am completing a graphic novel series called A Girl Called Echo. She is a contemporary kid but she slipstreams back into key Metis happenings including the three battles, resistances, that happened in the 1800s. The final book is set in the early 1900s in what is known as the Road Allowance era.

Her interest started there.

“I have been stretched back 200 years years. I am amazed at how much there is to know.”

She also believes that much of the story of the Metis people has not been told by the Metis.

“I have found this to be true: when you look at many Indigenous nations and non-settler communities, you have to sift through a lot of other people trying to tell the story before you get to the truth. There has been a lot of that. That surprised me.

“I think particularly when it came to Metis and Louis Riel and that time; it became such a notorious story, particularly in Eastern Canada. Many of the people who are writing these definitive versions of who Lous Riel was and who the Metis were and are are from Central Canada.

“At the time it was for a reason. They were trying to win a conflict. But those views have become the dominant view.”

She believes that a more modern definition of the Metis “is that we are defined as a post contact nation. These nations came about in many different part of North America because there were huge displacements of Indigenous nations.

“Many different communities and nations began and some like the Metis were a combination of settlers, mostly male fur traders actually, and Indigenous wives. That is where they began and there has been 200 years of evolution of what became their cultural norms.”

The Metis come from both the Indigenous world and the settler world.

“I always say it’s both and neither.”

When she is in Ottawa she’ll be reading with Billy-Ray Belcourt, the young powerhouse Cree writer, someone she knows well.

“I always describe myself as the cool older aunt to all the young poets coming up. I hope I am that cool aunt, but I’m pretty sure I’m just the introverted aunt sitting at home reading on Saturday nights. I’m still cool in my own way.”

That quieter approach to her life is also evident in her writing, she said.

“I don’t try to be overly argumentative; I really am trying to show story, to show poem in poetry and trying to stay in that artistic space.”

However, that doesn’t mean she isn’t ‘political.’

“Inevitably just by being who I am and what I choose to talk about and what I choose and think is worthy of literary attention, the work becomes political. These things are not often talked about or talked about correctly. Or they are talked about by other people who are attempting to define us.

“So it becomes political. I own that and I earn that, but I do try to take an artistic approach.”

And personal. Her older brother disappeared when Vermette was young and the family searched for him. The belief is that he disappeared into the river, that he did drown in mysterious circumstances.

So as we said earlier the river is present in her life. Other Indigenous people have died in the river. The young teenager Tina Fontaine was tragically found in it.

For Vermette, who won the Governor General’s award for her first collection of poems North End Love Poems, rivers in the history of Canada are “also very much the reason we are here (in Winnipeg). All our cities in Canada are built on waterways. Water is a life source. It is why things are positioned the way they are and also why we have kept going where we are.

“In Indigenous teachings, women are the water carriers. We carry that knowledge and  bring it forward and protect it.”

There are many different layers of that idea of water, making the river metaphor a good territory for a poet.

“I really like to take metaphors, symbols, rich things like that and just dive in. I always joke about it. I beat it with a stick until it’s absolutely dead and I can get nothing else out of it before I move on.”

That watery metaphor has a darker side.

“There is always that counterbalance between this life source and a place that takes life away. The Red River has been the site of many missing person searches. It has often been used, as many rivers in Canada and the world have, as a place where things can be hidden. It is a dangerous place and it can be a sad place.”

That’s the kind of thing that makes her poetry cathartic.

“The way I choose to practice poetry is cathartic. Poetry usually starts with myself in my way of processing something and working it until it becomes something that is palatable for someone else to read.”

The poems of River Woman came as she was working on a documentary film called This River for the National Film Board.

“These poems actually came about because (making the film) was such a horrendously difficult process for me. A lot of the poems were written during the filming. We were doing so much work on the river and in the river, listening to the river and being in that space for such an intense period of time. The poetry became an outlet.

She wrote the poem River Woman during the filming.

This river is a woman
she is bright
and she is beautiful
she once carried
every nation here
But she is one of those women
too soon forgotten …

“I wanted to show the beauty of the river to counterbalance between these horrible sad things and the peaceful beauty things.”

In town: Katherena Vermette will be at the Ottawa International Writers Festival on Oct. 24 at Christ Church Cathedral, 414 Sparks St. at 9 p.m. with Billy-Ray Belcourt. She will also be on a panel in the same venue on Oct. 25 at noon with Ottawa’s Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm.


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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.