X About X: An Interview with Shane Rhodes

By and | 1 June 2013

MH: Moreover, any current knowledge of or plans to engage with Indigenous Australian poetry?

SR: My interest is to engage with many writers and artists and I am particularly interested in writers who are investigating race and the history and present of colonisation and settlement. From my experience in Canada, these topics are often seen as only the purview of Indigenous writers, but I think that is part of the defense mechanism that colonisation instils in the settler; given how colonisation has and continues to affect our societies in general – our relation to land, our relation to the environment, and each other – these topics are imperative for anyone in a settler society. I am interested in engaging with Indigenous Australian poets and other Queensland poets interested in these issues and looking to art as a way to investigate and understand the present in which we all find ourselves.

MH: Both fidelity and infidelity are pertinent and important ideas in the poem of The Bindery, representing a connection to others as well as to place. Can you speak to how fidelity functions in these poems, your conceptualisation of this concept in a poetic, and how your relationship to the concept has changed as you’ve moved into more political realms of poetry and discourse?

SR: Dogma is death. One thing I value in poetry is its lightness and infidelity to ideals. This itself, of course, is an ideal to which I am unfaithful. I believe in using what is at hand to understand and write about the world around me and have seen far too many faux battles between artists battling it out over the impure and dogmatic applications of theories, politics or the use of pronouns. This lightness has to apply to what I use and how I write. When I first started writing, I wrote in a way that I thought others wanted me to write. After two books, I realised nobody was watching and so decided that it made much more sense to write what I wanted to write in whatever the hell way I wanted to write it. This space of neglectful infidelity is both killing and life-giving – you are never so free as when you realise that so few are waiting on your words.

MH: Tell me about how you started to use found poetry.

SR: We are in an interesting time right now, where we have unprecedented recorded dialogue – online forums, twitter, status updates, blogs, comment pages, etc. – taking place about almost everything, from the latest pop song or political scandal to environmental catastrophe, revolution and protest. At one time, artists had to search out this kind of material from archives and personal interaction; now, anyone with a computer and time can do it. This presents really interesting possibilities for artistic investigation, appropriation, research and play.

I grew up in the time of AIDS and have spent most of my working life working and thinking about HIV/AIDS in some way or other. In Canada – in comparison to, say, the US – there isn’t a lot of writing about AIDS or about how the slow unfolding plague has affected us over the past 25 years. (There are some great examples in art, though – pre-eminent being Toronto’s General Idea). Given my experience of working in HIV/AIDS, given the people I’ve known who have died from AIDS or are living with HIV, given the impact that HIV/AIDS has had on me and everyone around me, I thought I needed to try to write something about it. But, how do you write about something so big, so multifaceted, so enormous in the confined space of a poem? There is no way. There has to be a way.

That was when I started to look at found poetry as a technique to sample discourse. The resultant poem, called ‘The Body’, ended up being a 10-page poem built from material gathered from reading two decades of posts to Question and Answer forums on The Body, the world’s larges electronic HIV/AIDS resources centre. These Q&A forums are collections of electronic posts that have been submitted anonymously to doctors and experts at thebody.com from people newly infected, people who have been living with HIV/AIDS for years, and many people who are scared shitless that a papercut just gave them AIDS. The poem takes all of this and builds a portrait of the plague: of its attendant pathos and bathos, of its attendant stupidities, sadness and fears.

Of course, there are a number of artists and poets around Canada and around the world right now playing with found poetry. Here is an article I recently published on the history and contemporary use of found poetry in Canada.

MH: How does found poetry relate to your current project?

SR: I am currently completing my next book, X, which is largely constructed from found poems based on Canada’s post-confederation treaties, on contemporary and historical Indian law and policy, and on the current discourse around treaty rights and First Nations protests.

Conducted by the Government of Canada over a 50-year period, Canada’s post-confederation treaties (commonly called the numbered treaties, one through 11) represent the ‘legal’ basis for one of the largest systematic, colonial land appropriations in the world. Daunting for the history and future they carry and their impenetrable legal diction, these texts represent the foundational logic of Canadian colonization and of ongoing settler, First Nations, Inuit and Métis relations. The post-confederation treaties, and their interpretation and implementation, ceded vast territories across Canada regardless of tens of thousands of years of First Nations’ history and placed Indians (it was a point of law that Indians be called Indians and not persons) on reserves smaller, in proportion, than the generous land grants being given to newly arrived settlers from Europe.

X uses the treaties’ own strategies of finding, one-sided negotiating, erasure, obfuscation and overstatement to take the documents themselves apart. At the same time, the constraints placed upon the project (to restrict my vocabulary to the source material) seemed a fitting strategy (indeed, it seemed to me the only ethical strategy that could work), given that the documents themselves are so much about the creation of new constraints (constraints that would only grow with the establishment of the Indian Act and its many precursors) for a frontier territory and its peoples to feed the growth of the British Dominion and its domination.

Here is a poem that will appear in the book …

as may have been grunted
Treaty 5

As aforesaid within, hereunto the hereinafter, thereupon and hereby thereof. That is to say, within the aforesaid that whatsoever thereto, that is, the whereas within, thereon. Therein, however, that whereas, hereinafter elsewhere, thereto unless therefor. That within the that that is that, what soever, forever within the hereby, that thereupon, there is is heretofore that within. Whereas, that is to say, inasmuch hereby in that, therefor hereinafter within this. Within therein that is. Within, that is, thereabout unless thereof—hereafter throughout. And, as aforesaid, any part thereof otherwise elsewhere or hereinbefore hereby—thereto, as aforesaid, hereof within whenever. Thereon thereof whatsoever wherever forever. That is to say, however, therein thereout, therefore within. Whereas thereof, hereby within. Within the aforesaid, therefor within the hereinafter.

All words are from the Government of Canada 1969 transcript of the 1875 Treaty 5.

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