Smokii Sumac talks poetry, identity, and Queen’s Writer’s Residency

Winner of the 2019 Indigenous Voices Award reflects on time at Queen’s

Image supplied by: Supplied by John Elizabeth Stinzi
Smokii Sumac read poetry alongside John Elizabeth Stinzi at the Queen’s Biological Station on July 6.

Tucked away in Elgin, Ontario, Smokii Sumac spent two weeks at Queen’s Biological Station (QUBS)—the university’s wildlife research centre—in the company of two well-established Canadian authors. 

On July 6, the writers gathered with the Queen’s English Department, the QUBS student and staff, and local poetry enthusiasts for an evening of beautiful readings. 

Sumac writes about identity, generational trauma, Indigenous culture, queerness, hope, and fear in his all- encompassing poetry collection You are enough: Love poems for the end of the world.

“I think to be a writer, we have to be a little bit narcissistic, we have to be a little bit obsessed with ourselves,” Sumac told The Journal. “We also have to be completely self-deprecating, and also kind of hate ourselves too—there’s a fluctuation between all of that.”

Sumac says his work is about his world and his experiences as an adoptee, a trans person, a two-spirit person, a recovering addict, and someone who has lived through grief and trauma. 

“A lot of my work centres on the idea of coming home,” Sumac said. “For a long time, I thought of that as coming home as an adoptee and an Indigenous person. Now, I think of home in the body as a trans person and in my journey recovering from addiction, coming home to a sober and clear state.”

Sumac has experience with spoken word poetry; his poems are performances that grab your attention and refuse to let go. His intimate and deeply personal readings at QUBS clearly resonated with the attendees—both his and Stinzi’s novels sold out at the event.

Sumac explained how he often thinks of spoken word performances as sucking the air out of the room. While not all poets release this air back to the audience, he makes sure to do so because his content is often heavy and personal. 

“I got to really hold space in that room with a group of people and my poetry, I think there’s something magical about that connection between the audience and poet that we don’t get on the page,” Sumac said. 

Writers often use words as a creative outlet to understand the world around them, and to find comfort in the chaos and peace in the uncontrollable. 

Sumac paraphrased a quote from Timothy Findley to describe this feeling: “We write because we are compelled, we have to.”

He felt this became especially true during the pandemic, when many claimed that writers should thrive during the stay-at-home era. 

“I had a conversation about this at QUBS with the other two writers, [but] we need life to be happening, we need to be interacting, we need the relationship.” 

Writers rely on the world around them to inform their creations, and in isolation, the ability to do this is extremely limited. The residency, hosted by the English Department, offered a chance for contemplation and creation between the three writers. 

Sumac took time to reflect on the Indigenous lands the site resides on, the conservation efforts of the staff and students at the centre, and the shared emotions between the two parties.

As an Indigenous person, Sumac believes all his work is inherently political despite intertwining with his personal experiences. 

“It’s super interesting to me because as much as I can be critical of colonialism, I can also recognize that the relationship scientists have to the land, and the grief they have when seeing the impacts of climate change is connected to [the Indigenous community’s] grief as well.”

Studying English in his undergraduate studies, Sumac’s early university career centralized Shakespeare until his second and third year of university when he was finally exposed to indigenous literature and it “opened his world.” 

Sumac’s academic career subsequently turned to and focused on Indigenous studies and literature; he’s currently a PhD candidate at Trent University for this subject. 

“I work on stories of coming home, I work with representation—I essentially believe that when we share our stories, we can reach out of the pages and connect with each other to make one another feel less alone in our experiences.” Sumac said. 

“For Indigenous students and trans students and queer students, keep going. Find your people. And keep writing, it’s medicine.” 


Arts, indigenous writers, Poetry

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