On Sept. 10, the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre hosted the Empathetic Poetry Café. This was one of several events as part of their Celebration of Nations program, which is described as a “gathering of Indigenous arts, culture and tradition.”
The event was curated by January Rogers, a Mohawk/Tuscarora author, publisher and writer-in-residence for Western University. Her latest work, Ego of a Nation, is a 70-poem collection that celebrates her experiences and culture. The Poetry Café, however, follows a more sombre theme.
As host Karl Dockstader explained to the crowd as they arrived, the Empathetic Poetry Café followed the theme of remembering and reminding. It was centred on the generational trauma that Indigneous peoples are still grappling with, and the efforts to reclaim and preserve lost Indigneous cultures.
Another interesting note is the all-male selection, as the blurb for the event highlights. This is opposed to Rogers’ previous curations, which have predominantly featured female-identifying poets. It also helps to combat a common stigma against poetry, as Chief R. Stacey Laforme mentioned in his presentation; when he went to his first poetry reading, people were surprised that a man was interested in poetry, and some expected the actual reader to be standing behind him.
After sharing some anecdotes with the audience, Chief Stacey performed two pieces. The first, What if? Canada Day, is a piece that he published back on Canada Day in 2021. This was shortly after the mass gravesites at former residential schools were found. The poem states that there can be no celebration for Canada Day; they cannot “make merry” while so many grieve and mourn due to Canada’s actions. His second piece, “Common Ground,” lists the various traits that make people strong without revealing who these people are. “We are quick to anger, yet no one forgives faster / We are loyal and we are strong,” yet he never says who “we” refers to. After performing, he reveals that everyone should hear a little of themselves in the poem, and that common ground should show that “we” aren’t so different.
Tehakanere Henhawk, another of the curated poets, has been actively trying to rediscover his culture since he realized his family no longer speaks their original Indigenous language. He mentioned Six Nations Polytechnic where he teaches, which offers an Indigenous language immersion program for students.
His story of the little rabbit ties into this reclamation; it depicts all of the animals gathering when the Creator says they must meet, except one rabbit who is compelled to sing and dance. After many days without knowing what the meeting was for, the animals started joining in with the rabbit, and that was what the meeting was for the whole time. Henhawk explained that the rabbit sang and danced because it motivated him, and he was proud of who he was; Henhawk believes that those who are proud of their Indigenous heritage must persist in preserving it, as the rabbit persisted in dancing.
The biggest surprise was the performance given by Hyendegwas Tyrell King. He had never done a public reading before, and mentioned how nervous he was before performing. Despite this, he gripped the audience with his poem about generational trauma.
The poem starts from the perspective of a young boy speaking his native tongue; he is slapped, and starts saying the Lord’s prayer in English. He describes the horrors of residential schools and later becomes an adult. The slaps he received are passed onto his son, since the school stole him from his family and never taught him how to be a father. From this moment onwards, the perspective goes down the family tree, from son to grandson to great grandson, all of whom take big (pantomimed) gulps from a bottle since they don’t know how else to deal with their trauma. The last speaker, the great-grandson, vows to “not just take off the noose around my neck, but cut it down and burn it.”
All three poets, along with Dockstader, spoke passionately about the ways the Indigneous peoples are hurting and where the people and the nation need to go from here. They shared their empathy, motivation and pain in that theatre, which will hopefully resonate outside of it.