MH: Do you expect Queensland to draw out some of the complexities of land rights of interest to your work (the Mabo native title case being an obvious example)? Is there a broader former Commonwealth and colonial significance to your trip here?
SR: Understanding the legal background of land ownership and treaties in Canada itself is a huge undertaking and not one to be entered into lightly. It would be farcical to say that I will have the ability to understand the legal or even historical details of land rights to a place in which I will only be a fleeting visitor. I could not do that project justice. My ability to explore these issues in Canada is grounded in dirt: my family immigrated here over the past two centuries; I grew up here and was raised in a farming community. As much as my culture has shaped me, I am from this land and my desire to understand my relationship to this land – and how it has been affected and shaped by the history and present of settlement and colonisation – is deep. I hope to share my poetry with other artists interested in similar issues in Queensland. I hope for an exchange of ideas surrounding how artists can engage with the current and past realities of colonisation and settlement. I will also use my time in Queensland to explore early exploration and discovery texts and look at their potential for poetic appropriation.
MH: Where do the visual dimensions of this work come from?
SR: Part of what I wanted to do with X was look at the treaties in a new way. If Canadians know about the treaties, this knowledge is only that they are boring historical documents that might have meant something in the past but have zero relevance today. Most writing about the treaties is in academic prose – prose that places the documents in the even drier confine of academia or political discourse. With these poems, I wanted to look at different ways of working with the texts that would get them out of their ‘textualness’; they are documents that rely on narrative, that rely on the logical sequence of syntax to stultify thought in legal repetition and diction. The only way for me to engage with these texts was to take them, as if through biopsy, to a new context and environment and watch how they function.
MH: Can you expand on this recontextualisation of legality, judicial and colonial narrative, and historical lexicon, and describe how this information makes its way into the poem?
SR: One thing that I am very aware of in this project are the many fence-lines and barriers that colonial and settler societies put in place to keep anyone from looking at the history of land ownership. These barriers are physical, but most are psychological. (An aside: I’m not sure how it is in Australia, but when travelling around Canada I find it enlightening to check out land registry offices. The imposing architecture of these buildings – most are like column-encrusted tanks – speaks to the ethics of the overall project of which they are a key part.) For example, there is the belief that one can’t understand land ownership and arguments over land rights and treaties unless you are a historian and have read all the historical documents (and there will always be another, earlier document that you should have read), unless you understand the legal precedents and judgements, unless you understand all the perspectives and complexities of legal processes and argumentation. If you don’t, you’re made to feel that you have no right to explore these issues and are living in a dream world of emotion unhinged from legal reality. There is also the belief, among some, that these issues are only issues of importance for Aboriginal Canadians and not something to be touched on by members of the settler class.
This is bullshit, but it is bullshit so entrenched that it seems like a real rule. Art is the one tool we have that can actually get outside of and play within the realm of the serious without getting bogged down by the need to participate in the logic of the discourse that these issues have built up to protect themselves. Land rights and ownership in Canada (and I’m sure the same is true in Australia if not most settler societies) are a wound in rational logic around which there is layer after layer of protective scar tissue which tries to hide the original wound.
MH: Whose work do you see working in a similar vein – politically, if not aesthetically?
SR: Many white writers believe these issues belong only to Aboriginal artists. And many would rather write of ancient thinkers from Greece or Rome, of love and beauty, or of atrocities in distant lands than look at the land on which we live.
I started this project partially because there are very few other poets doing it. My inspiration, though, come from writers and thinkers like Taiaiake Alfred (especially Peace, Power, Righteousness: An Indigenous Manifesto), the energy and verve of City Treaty by Marvin Francis, Discovery Passages by Garry Thomas Morse, and artists like Nadia Myre (such as her weaving work with the Indian Act)and Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun. Also, a very important book for me was The True Spirit and Original Intent of Treaty 7 by the Treaty 7 Elders and Tribal Council – a book that gathers the collective memory of elders and oral history to give a perspective of Treaty 7 from the Aboriginal people involved. I think this last book should be mandatory reading for anyone residing on treaty land.