Giles Benaway is of Odawa/Potawatomi, Cherokee, Métis and European descent. A descendant of women from three Indigenous nations, French and Scottish voyageurs and original Mayflower immigrants, he represents a unique voice in the field of Indigenous writing. An emerging Queer / Two-Spirited poet, he has often been described as the spiritual love child of Truman Capote and Thompson Highway. His first collection of poetry, Ceremonies for the Dead, was published by Kegedonce Press in 2013. His poetry can also be found in Muskrat Magazine, Arc Magazine, Prairie Fire, Matrix Magazine and scrawled within bathroom stalls at truck stops across Ontario. In 2015, he was the recipient of the inaugural Speaker’s Award for a Young Author from the Speaker of the House for the Ontario Legislative.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
I wouldn’t say my first book changed my life in any major way. I suppose people have this idea that becoming a published author suddenly transforms your life, but it’s not like that at all. It changes things, because it brings you new experiences and challenges. It’s not a large change, but a number of small shifts which create a gradual pressure in your life. It moves you forward, but not overnight.
If anything, the biggest impact of being published is in how I approach my craft. I’m more aware of other poets and their work, more tapped into the collective poetic conscious, so I approach my work with a much greater skepticism than I did before. There’s a heightened level of anxiety around my craft now which I didn’t have when writing the first book. There was an optimism and energy that I approached my first collection with which has changed over time into wariness. Let’s just I have more “What the hell am I doing?” conversation with myself about my writing now.
I don’t think that’s a bad thing, my wariness about my craft. It means that I fight for my poetry in a way I didn’t have to before. I climb over myself and my fears to get into my poetry. I have to wage battle with my desires, what I want my craft to be and achieve, to come to a place of “this is where my work is right now” and admit that it’s not perfect. It’s so easy to get trapped in feeling bad about your craft, that you don’t have an MFA and you’re not writing those perfect sparse lines. I try to look through my work and admit the deficiencies, but also acknowledge the achievements. At the end of the day, there aren’t many poets writing in Canada from the place I’m writing from: Queer, Indigenous, abuse survivor, exile, and young.
And one thing I always say to myself is something that Shane Rhodes said to me, which is “Hey, no one is reading poetry anymore, so really, we can do whatever we want!”. That’s a liberating realization.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I love poetry. It’s the perfect medium for me and from the very beginning; I was writing and reading poetry. For me, poetry is exactly like my taste in men: brief, intense, and ruptured with meaning and beauty. It’s the quickest and most direct route for imagery. It’s like injecting drugs vs popping a pill. It goes right to the brain, sudden and sharp.
When it goes right, poetry is also an oracle. It divines the universe, unlocks truth. Each poem is it’s own universe, but connected to the greater whole. And through an individual poem, you can move through imagery to find yourself at an unexpected destination within yourself. It reminds me of ceremony. In my culture, ceremony is how you bring something to life and move between different states. But ceremony is just the vessel which takes you there, not the end game. For me, that’s the same as poetry. It’s a construct which takes you somewhere else.
What I love about poetry is finding lines which snap into my mind and change how I see the world. For example, from Maureen Harris, in Drowning Lessons, she has this line “sometimes we don’t ask enough of desire, that loss, like birth, moves us into some unknown and unsought country” and I think about that poem and those lines at least twice a week. Because she said something true, something which divined exactly how I feel about desire and grief, and it’s so powerful that it stays with you. It’s like prayer or a mantra almost.
That’s why I’ve stuck with poetry, I guess.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
I think about my work for a very long time before I ever sit down to write. When I write, I write intensely and in high volumes. It’s often pieces which I’ve been working out in my mind for months, lines which I’ve been rubbing together in my head while at the gym or something. So in that sense, I’m a very methodical poet. I map everything out first. The thematic content, and the individual lines to some extent.
But when I write, it’s intuitive. I just toss myself in and try to follow the threads I’ve laid out before and try to get myself to an ending which rings true. It doesn’t always work. My first drafts are often strong starters with weak endings. I spend most of my editorial time trying to sew up the endings. I can write 50 to 60 poems in a weekend, but most of them will just trail off incoherently, so then I have to spend months trying to piece together what the heck I was getting at.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
I find I become obsessed with a particular phrase or even word. That one bit of writing becomes my expanded focus for an entire collection or series of works. I often will title all of my poems by the same word until the very end, not giving them individual titles because I see all the pieces as one meditation on the same central theme. For example, right now, I’m obsessed with the word “passage” and everything I’m writing is about that core concept. So I translate that to talking about my Mayflower ancestors, my Metis relatives, the formation of Canada, colonization, but also the breakup of a five year relationship, the loss of my parents, discovering sexuality, and this never ending quest of finding yourself. And all of the pieces I’m writing are tied to nautical imagery, to voyage and exploration, to being alone in the “inner country”.
So that’s my writing process: obsession and filtering everything through a micro focus. I’m into words with dual meanings as well, like passage.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I love public readings, because I enjoy hearing my work aloud and seeing an audience’s reaction to it. I also love being on stage. There’s an energy exchange which I really enjoy. It also seems like an important part of the editing process for me. When I read a piece to an audience, it’s almost like encountering it for the first time. I notice new things, good and bad, in my work when I present it to an audience.
At the same time, it can be traumatic. Most of my work is about abuse and violence so I often have reactions from the audience. I have survivors of various forms of abuse and trauma approach me after my readings and engage me about what I’ve written. I think almost all of the reactions have been positive, but it’s a difficult conversation to have at the book sales table.
I’ve had readings where my work was poorly received as well. Being an Indigenous writer, you end up confronting racism and subtle Canadian bigotry in your public appearances. You get weird questions about “sacred Indian stuff” or you get blatant racist reactions like people complaining about the Aboriginal content in your work. When you combine the racism with the fact that my work is very grounded in Two-Spirited/queer culture, I can end with audiences who react to the Aboriginal and Queer content very negatively.
And I think so much of my work is dark and angry, that it turns some audiences off. Everyone wants redemption and reconciliation. I’m not redeemed from the abuse I experienced. I’m still very much damaged. And I’m not reconciled to it. I don’t think I ever will reconcile to what happened to me and my ancestors. I’m angry, I’ve always been angry, and I think that I will be angry twenty years from now.
But I’m more than my anger and if you read my work, I think you get that because that duality is embedded into my writing, the dual nature of anger and compassion. I think that’s a central part of what it means to a survivor, to have that anger and also that gentleness. On stage, it’s hard to give both of those experiences to an audience, to show them gentleness and your anger. It’s a difficult balance and some nights, I walk off the stage and think “Crap. I was just another angry Indian”. I think I aim to show complexity in my readings, but it’s challenging. Stagecraft is like writing craft, but it’s much more immediate. You can’t edit as much.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
This is a huge question, but I’ll try to answer it. My work is focused on three major themes: search for home, grief, and movement/transformation.
For me as an Indigenous writer, my identity and selfhood is wrapped up in history, colonization, the legacy of violence, and a really complex and powerful worldview which is radically different from European conceptions. I’m always working back through the past (Canada’s past and my ancestors) in order to speak to the present. Because of that constant translation, it’s always necessary for me to address the reality of colonization in North America.
So all that to say, any Indigenous writer has to, whether they want to or not, respond to the questions of losing home, of grief, and on the movement past it. It’s the starting place of our current context because of colonization, of the enormous violence leveled against Indigenous communities on a daily basis. And yes, we’re more than our suffering. There is power and hope in our communities, so much vitality in our voices, but we have to speak to the past as well.
And in our communities, the role of a storyteller is an important one. There is a specific set of responsibilities which comes with being one. So your work as an Indigenous writer is more complicated because whatever you write links back to your community and your nation. It’s not just your work, because a part of it belongs to the community. And you’re accountable to them in a way which isn’t the same for non-Indigenous writers.
So there is really no way, as an Indigenous writer that you can get around responding to the legacy of colonization.
For me, coming from an abusive childhood and being this crazy gay orphan without a family, the themes of home, grief, and movement are so much bigger than they are for other Indigenous writers. And as a queer writer, there is also this legacy of violence and grief (AIDs crisis in the 80s, homophobia) that you’re heir to as a writer (especially as poet). My writing really emerges from this crux of colonial trauma, abuse, queerness, and violence which is very unique. And that’s it’s strength, I think, more than anything else. Because it’s not a dirge or a swan song, it’s really about movement, about passage.
The best thing anyone said about my first collection was it was mistitled. Instead of Ceremonies for the Dead, they said it should be Ceremonies for the Living, because it was all about life. And affirming what it is to be human, searching for some connection.
The only other thing I would say is that my work is tied to the land. It’s a common trope, Indigenous people and the land, but it’s very true. My poetic landscape is about water, trees, lakes, and forests. Swamp land. Every image, even if it’s about the city, begins from that palette. And when I write a poem, that’s where I begin, in my mind. I see myself on the land and I write from there. I embed myself, mentally, into the land that I know and remember so I can speak to my poetry. Someone said to me, reading my work for the first time, that they knew that I was an Indigenous person from the Great Lakes by my writing. That it spoke to this place (Great Lakes), this collection of attributes, in way that reflects my family’s ties to this landscape.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
The role of a writer? I talked about how Indigenous writers have a special role in our communities, as storytellers and keepers of tradition/knowledge. So my answer to this question is the same as before, than Indigenous writers have a very specific role in their communities. For each individual Indigenous nation, it’s different but there’s a central thread of accountability and linkage in each of them.
I remember my elder asking a group of kids what they thought being “Anishinaabe (Ojibway)” meant. They had great answers, like having an awesome culture, art, and a powerful spirituality. But when it came back to him, he just said “To me, being Anishinaabe, means being responsible. Being responsible to my ancestors, my community, my nation”. And for me, I think that’s what the role of an Indigenous writer is really about. Being responsible.
I have no clue what the role of a Canadian writer is. Perhaps listening to CBC radio 1?
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I like being edited. It’s a wonderful learning chance. It’s hard to find qualified editors for Indigenous writers. Often there is no money in Indigenous publishing to pay for editors, so it’s hard to find skilled editors who can work on your stuff. And passing it over to non-Indigenous editors can help, but sometimes there’s cultural nuances which get missed.
But I’m all for editors. You need to have them. There’s no point writing otherwise.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Two answers to this one:
• Writing is about talent, but it’s also about the hustle. If you can’t hustle, you’re not going to make a good writer~ Neal Mcleod, Cree Poet
• The dead are more powerful than the living~ Lee Maracle, Stolo Novelist
10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I try to write in the evenings, but I don’t have a regular writing practice. I write when I need to, after I’ve worked it out in my head and the next step is to put it on paper. In that sense, I guess I’m always writing mentally, but I don’t get to the physical act of writing it out until weeks or months later. I work a 9-5 so most of my day is spent in other people’s words or writing very different kinds of content. It’s hard to step out of that into my own work without time in between.
And I only write at night. I can’t write during the day. And only on a computer. So it’s between 10pm to 2am during the summer, because if there is any light outside, I’m not writing. I mean, I can force myself, but it’s not the same. For poetry anyway. I can write prose whenever because it’s less demanding.
That’s why I like the winter. More writing time. The dead are closer. Darkness comes early and lingers.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Other poets. I read poetry constantly and it always unjars me. I love how poetry makes me feel. It’s like it connects with me in a way that only animals do. I guess, it’s like a puppy to me. A sad puppy, but it’s so immediate that I’m emotionally engaged and responding. I’m very guarded by nature and wary, which is odd because I have a very outgoing and sarcastic personality, but I’m really very discrete about what I’m feeling or experiencing. Except with puppies. I literally lose my mind when I run into dogs on the street and it’s like with poetry as well. It just unlocks me and I respond freely.
So when I get stuck, I go back to the poets I love. And poetry finds me. Wherever I am, it comes back and plays over in my mind. Words, I guess, lines from strangers I don’t know, but powerful nonetheless.
12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Reminds me of home or reminds me of my home? I’ll answer both. Home to me smells like rain, lily of the valley, lilacs, and dirt + farmland. Maybe some lemon scented cleaner. That’s the lost home.
My home smells like lavender, cedar, cologne, nag chamapa, herbal scents, Frebreeze, three Glade plugins, sandalwood, faint touch of cigarette smoke, and like a million other scents. Pretty much everything in my house is filled with scent. I’m not good for anyone with allergies.
13 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Not really. Maybe music, because of the link between lyrics and poetry, but I think it’s mostly poetry to poetry for me. I would say conversation influences me as well. Most of my writing is intentionally conversation or tries to copy everyday speech. It’s something that I love, to hear place and gender and position reflected in speech. So I try to translate that to my writing, so it always sounds like I’m speaking to my reader in genuine voice.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Fantasy genre fiction. Half my life is lived in my head, where I’m a high priestess from a remote island nation battling a dark force in a world populated by the descendants of several alien species plus proto-humanity, so I’m a) a huge nerd with no social life and b) addicted to the worst kind of fiction. I read fantasy books constantly. My favourite are Mercedes Lackey, Tanya Huff, Melanie Rawn, and Patricia Briggs.
Poetry? It’s everyone, but especially Lorna Crozier, Karen Solie, Frank O’Hara, Sigfried Sasson, Wilfred Owen, and Gregory Scofield. Mathew Henderson is a poet I’m watching as well.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Find true love? Or at least, a guy I felt was my equal in balls, brawn, and brains. Which is much harder than it sounds and slightly pathetic. I think it’s rooted in the search for home. Being an orphan now by default (family rejection because I’m super gay), I’m fixated on finding someone to fill that “family role” in my life. And I have friends and I’m secure in my life, but for me, finding home (creating home) and family is my central quest. Maybe that’s unhealthy and I want other things, like travel, advancements in my career, to make good art, but at the end of it, I think the scale that I measure my life on will be “was I known and loved”? Was I witnessed? And if the answer is, sorta but not really, then I think I’ll be disappointed with that.
16 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I have a regular full time job beyond being a writer. I’m a fearless policy wonk and a really bitchy admin in one combo package. And it’s partly community advocacy as well. I like having both careers. They both challenge me and bring me joy in differing ways.
I would like to be an earth mage though-if we’re really talking honestly. Or some kind of mystical oracle queen who rules a nation of barbarian gingers who fight with axes. I’ve thought about this a lot.
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I think I write because of the abuse I experienced as a child. And because I’m alone. Words were always a part of me. I used to read cyclopedias on breaks at school from as early back I can remember. And I was always known for having a very “big” vocabulary, so I think literature and language would have always been important to me.
But the abuse, which was sewn throughout my childhood and into my adolescence, took that capacity for language and gave it purpose. I found that language was a way to escape violence and in some sense, a way to protect against it. I built up words as barriers to what I was experiencing, so that a particular word held the resonance of that violence in a way that let me escape it. Or gave me enough distance to bear it.
And then language became a way to navigate the school system, secure help from teachers, to negotiate with social workers, to survive in hospitals. Writing, in terms of poetry, only really came into my life when I was 13 or 14. It emerged as a way to get attention, win writing contests, and get recognized by my teachers/the people around me. And it was something my family didn’t touch, couldn’t impact. It existed outside of them. Safe.
Now, I think writing is about witnessing. I write to capture a record of my life. There’s no on else who really can or who knows me for longer than 4 years in my life, so I’m the link between all the different versions of myself. And writing connects all the pieces of me and leaves a record behind me. It’s like having family, I suppose. A literary family.
And there’s a line by Judith Butler, which I’m paraphrasing, but it says something like “the moment when violence happens to you, you become responsible for it” and that how I feel about writing. It’s my fault what happened to me or what happened to my people, but it happened, so now I’m responsible for me. I have to answer. There must be a response. So I write. A small voice, but my voice-that matters.
18 – What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I’m reading this book called Fangirl! It’s great. It’s about a narrator who is obsessed with fanfiction, writes slash (gay) porn with fictional characters from mainstream books, has a mentally ill father and no mother, and is in a on and off again relationship with a thin bisexual guy who works at Starbucks. That’s likely a bad description of the book, but it’s worth reading.
Best film? It Follows. Such an amazing American horror film which looks at sexuality and human connection in a brilliant and refreshing way. Ultimately, it’s about adulthood and becoming a person, but in such an understated way. It’s genius.
19 - What are you currently working on?
A new collection of poetry about passage. My passage through life and also literal Northern passages. Also my recent gay divorce. And abuse. And death. And grief. And the loss of culture. And reconnecting to the ancestors. So you know, the same things I always write about.
And a young adult novel about a gay teenage Aboriginal werewolf with Asperger’s syndrome who falls in love with a foster kid who has magical powers in remote BC.
12 or 20 (second series) questions;