In conversation: thecanadaproject interviews Stephen Collis, Part 3…
When Stephen Collis won the 2015 Sterling Prize in Support of Controversy, I thought about his commitment to both poetics and activism, and this past July, Steve was kind enough to chat with me at the JJBean at SFU Woodward’s. I scrawled lots of notes while speaking with Steve and he’s added to my raw transcript: the conversation began with his most recent trip to the U.K. and then shifted to an exchange about Steve’s growing up years. I’ve tried to capture our give-and-take, below:
SC: I grew up in a political household, both my parents were public school teachers in the 1960s and 1970s in Victoria, B.C. There was always a lot of kitchen table conversations. I was the youngest of seven, and politicized by my elder siblings and their experience and conversations about the 1960’s.
My grandma is from Nanaimo from the time of its coal mining community-roots, and her grandparents were originally from North England (Northumberland) and Scotland. I grew up in the 1980s in a culture that included logging on the Island and a strong awareness of the eco-impact of that culture.
In my 20’s I messed around, worked on a fishing boat and in hotels. At 19 I had a child, my son, who is now 31…during that time I became interest in mapping the land, in geography, in the idea of place as a central ‘marker’ of the long poem… [and I] started thinking about the life-long poem as a space within which to live, inside the poem, inside place, the long poem as a project of space…
I attended the University of Victoria, although I kinda “walked out backwards with an English degree”: wary of universities and of institutions, I spent ten years as an undergrad. I’ve now been writing and publishing for 25 years (!). My first book was published in 2000, having published chapbooks and in literary journals during the ‘90s. It was at SFU that I found writers such as G.Bowering and Roy Miki and thought, “maybe this is an okay place”…by age 34 I had a PhD studying Robert Duncan and a job—Jordan Scott was one of my first students.
The whole point of art is liberation
RSS: How did your interest and activism in ecological issues come about?
SC: Because I was the youngest, Dad and I were able to spend time together. He was near retiring, and we spent lots of time outside in the natural world, taking canoe trips. These moments strengthened my sense of geography, place, environment. As well, the “radical hippy” views of my older siblings were a continuing influence as well as their arts and music practice(s)…so I came to literature informed by the notion, the ideal of liberation.
RSS: Your philosophy/attitude to teaching, I’ve always experienced as open and generous…
The year I was born, my parents took in a Nigerian university student for a whole school year and I’ve learned since it’s the custom to always keep a baby held and close to the body and my mom was busy and I was the last of her seven kids, so it was the Nigerian (Richard) who carried me everywhere, “he always carried me”….
I guess one thing we haven’t talked about is my sister Gail, who had a huge influence on me—as an example for a person for whom the world, life in it, was political through and through—without espousing particular politics herself. She was also an artist without practicing a particular art, a thinker and a reader too. My most meaningful discussions about how to live, what to do with my life, etc. were with her, and she read and commented on everything I wrote early on, encouraged etc. She died of cancer at the end of 2002, and I still feel, writing, that she is one of those I’m really writing for. She told me my theme as a writer would be “revolution,” and in most ways I’ve stuck to that. Sort of a “commission” in this.
On Refugee Tales
RSS: This year’s Refugee Tales never seemed more timely given world events and you were there.
SC: [It’s] a walking tour of South England similar to the pilgrimage walks in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. Last year’s walk was in Kent, walking from Dover to Crawley; this year, we walked from Canterbury to London. Along the pre-planned route, we stayed in church basements with a team of organizers and we stay in place likes church basements. Over a hundred people participated including, folks from NGO’s, as well as the actor, Jeremy Irons. I was invited to participate by David Herd who will visit SFU in spring 2017. There is a book, an anthology, from last year’s walk, which was launched in Canterbury in July, Refugee Tales.
RSS: And you’ve a piece in that anthology.
SC: A collage, “The Lawyer’s Tale” exploring the idea of displacement…”it was hard to get a narrative out of the lawyer”.
RSS: This year’s walk was a few days after Brexit and I’m interested if there was any reverb from that on the walk?
SC: A sampling of places on the walk: Gravesend: “white and run down” and voted to leave; at a local pub, we saw the King George I nationalist flag. I kept a journal for facts, docu-notes, especially bits of said things, conversations, when walking, and tried to capture a lot of intense dialogue. Those of us on the walk wore tee-shirts and passersby would stop and look. In London, people thanked us for the walk.
RSS: Your description of The Refugee Tales walk reminds me of images from the film adaptation of Children of Men.
SC: In thinking of this walking action and the life-long poem, there is a kind of simultaneous, “always present/always absent” quality of a life-long poetics. Walking with us were former detainees, from an all-men Detention Centre in the U.K.: mostly African, Sri Lankan, Chinese; ¾ of detainees, African. A year ago, a few Kurdish men. Many hold the status of “undetermined” and their hope is to achieve the oxymoronic designation, “Leave to remain”. The purpose of the walk was to raise awareness, and to challenge the practice of “unlimited detention.”
I did give a talk, the first year on the walk, on the commons, landscape and resource extraction (lots of talk, interest in the UK in fracking and “shale oil,” mining in park land, etc.). Talked about climate refugees, too. The Refugee Tales is one of those projects I like because it overlaps with my main interests, while remaining autonomous/outside. Think of a venn diagram; there’s a small space where the Refugee Tales and my work in and around the commons, The Barricades Project, and Blockadia intersect.
Another point, and perhaps relates to the comment below about privilege: we cannot afford to silo ourselves in the current crisis, and need to be aware of how most contemporary social issues intersect. So while my focus might be on, and my energies directed towards, climate justice (and sometimes, more broadly, social movements that challenge the current economic system), I see the way all manner of struggles intersect. I also see it as a crucial practice to support, show solidarity with, and give space to those who have been most marginalized, violated, and exploited by capitalism and colonialism. So I think this is part of what draws me to the Refugee Tales project, and in turn is part of what Indigenous solidarity, decolonization, and Indigenous leadership/ideas are so crucial to the work I do around climate justice. I’m still working out what this means to be a poet living and writing on—and out of a love for—colonized land.