It’s clear from daily news headlines from around the world that we’re living in a fractured time, a time when politicians and extremists exploit the divisions between us. This year’s Convergence Writers’ Weekend theme, ‘We Will Not Be Separated,’ aimed to counter this trend. Held at New Denver’s Knox Hall June 16 and 17, it attracted 26 people to the community for writing workshops, readings and discussions. Convergence was established in 2012, making this our fifth such event. Writing instructors Gary Geddes and Carolyn Pogue provided their perspectives on writing for social justice in a way that motivates and inspires readers.
Friday evening the public was invited to hear Geddes and Pogue speak. Geddes is the author or editor of 50 books over a 40-year career as a poet and nonfiction author. His newest book, Medicine Unbundled, is an account of Canada’s segregated health care system for indigenous people. His poem on the native residential schools, The Resumption of Play, won the Malahat Long Poem prize last year. Geddes spoke of writing as an act of reconciliation with the atrocities of history, that the writer is “the ventriloquist of history.” He rebuked the notion that politics and poetry have no place together. In fact, politics and poetry have been closely intertwined since Homer wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey, and even earlier. Geddes used Homer’s story of the Trojan horse as a metaphor for “the failure of diplomacy and foreign policy, a story that warned us long ago about the kind of conditions that could lead to the attacks of 9/11 or the election of a president such as Donald Trump.” In this respect the writer helps us “understand our destructive impulses,” in hopes of cultivating “more sensitive forms of government and a more enduring social contract.”
Poetry itself, said Geddes, is a kind of Trojan horse. He calls it “a subversive force… that gets under the skin, into the bones,” and “a healing art.” Poetry begins with the child’s love of language, her embrace of nonsense syllables, of songs and stories full of magical elements. Often at times of great national tragedy world leaders recite poems to comfort the afflicted. A superb example of this was in the wake of the Manchester terrorist attack when Tony Walsh (a.k.a. Longfella) read his poem This is the Place at a memorial ceremony. As Geddes aptly puts it: “In moments of extreme joy or grief or loss we return to poetry, that rich, primal language of the heart.” (http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2017/05/place-poem-tony-walsh-read-manchester-attack-vigil)
Pogue through her volunteer work with the United Church was involved in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings in Edmonton. The church has apologized for its role in the native residential schools and Pogue’s writing is dedicated to healing such wounds. Part of her work includes a peace camp for kids, and many of her books are aimed at children. The theme of her workshop was ‘Writing to Reconcile.’ She spoke to the Convergence theme of separation, noting how the divide and conquer strategy was used against the Lubicon Cree land claim negotiations. “Obviously, separation weakens, so would-be – fake – leaders like to separate people. Having grown up on a farm and lived many years in the NWT, I saw that separation sometimes kills. Literally.”
Currently a Calgary resident, she also spoke of the challenges of living in a technology-immersed culture. “Smart phones and gizmos like it are sold as something to bring us together, yet when I look around me in a restaurant or on public transit, I’m not seeing conversations or people making eye contact. Spontaneous conversations are more rare. People don’t even look out the window to see if the ice is moving in the river, or how the clouds over the distant Rockies are catching the glow of the sun. I saw a great sign in a restaurant. It read, ‘We don’t have Wi-Fi. Pretend it’s 1995 and just talk to each other.’” Pogue then read a children’s story she wrote called The Wall, a well-crafted allegory that illustrated how ‘walls’ of separation are built with bricks of intolerance, hate and ignorance.
Registrants convened again after dinner to give readings of poems or stories they’d brought to the workshops for critique. This was followed by a wrap-up discussion in an open format. It was pointed out that, despite living in such a fractured time, recent scientific discoveries are shattering the old paradigms that have divided us. For example, the old ‘dumb animal’ trope is being laid to rest by discoveries of complex communication systems and family dynamics that often mirror our own. Dr. Therese Descamp, who studied for her phD in cognitive linguistics at UC Berkeley with professor George Lakoff, explained how this field has clearly demonstrated the common biological basis for all human language. This counters the divisive idea that language structures are arbitrary and culturally isolated from one another. And the field of epigenetics is proving how deeply we are linked to our family past and how subsequent generations can heal from inherited trauma.
Political operatives have successfully exploited the ‘divide and conquer’ strategy against progressives, forcing people to deal with identity politics, valley-by-valley environmental struggles, and the twisted logic of capitalism. This has often worked against a united front on issues such as global climate change. Author Joanna Macy has said part of the problem with climate change is that we have not found a way to publicly grieve for it. Tom Wayman spoke of a recent New Yorker article that asked why dystopias are so prevalent in current film and fiction. What does it mean when a society can’t seem to envision utopias anymore? Some thought that maybe dystopias are a form of grieving. Pogue quoted Josh Stearns, an American journalist, who said: “We cannot create a world we can’t imagine. Stories are the engines of our imaginations.” If we want a better world, we have to first envision it before we can build it.
One person asked us to consider who was not present in the discussion circle that evening—youth or First Nations people. However, it was pointed out that from the very beginning of Convergence in 2012 we have offered a youth scholarship, which has been granted to two applicants so far. Last year we invited Colville Sinixt spokesperson Virgil Seymour to be a special guest in our panel discussion. Sadly, Seymour died shortly after last year’s event. Another registrant said that while he appreciates what young people are doing on protests against pipelines, he thinks the real work is being done by those youth participating in environmental monitoring or restoration programs, in particular the local Slocan Lake Stewardship Society. Yet this too risks a division between ‘worthy’ and ‘less worthy’ actions. If we only do environmental remediation, then we risk becoming little more than capitalism’s clean-up crew. If we only do protest action, we risk being dismissed as radicals. Both are important, and clear public demands for drastic changes in policy are essential. Each tile forms a piece of the total mosaic.
In the wake of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings, white Canadians are understandably feeling a lot of guilt over how we’ve treated our First Nations. It’s an important step in reconciliation but there’s a risk of division here too. We can’t quantify suffering by privileging one person’s pain over another. Suffering is suffering, whether it’s First Nations survivors of residential schools, the families of refugees, British home children, or anyone else. This actually builds compassion, preventing us from dismissing someone’s suffering because it’s not our own, or because we don’t understand it. We will not be separated if we look for what unites us, whether it’s a shared compassion for pain or our dreams for building a better world.
NOTE: To correct an oversight, I must thank our Convergence sponsors: the ProVision fund of the United Church BC Conference; Regional District of Central Kootenay Area H Director Walter Popoff for discretionary funding; and Oso Negro coffee for providing first-class, locally roasted coffee. A shorter version of this article has appeared in the Valley Voice. www.valleyvoice.ca