Border Breaking: Will Johnson in Conversation with D.A. Lockhart

D.A. Lockhart

D.A. Lockhart, whose essay "From River's Edge: Detroit the Other, Detroit the Centre" appears in The Malahat Review's autumn 2019 Issue #208, discusses the people of Detroit, the danger of nationalism, and the deep dive from poetry into essays in his Q&A with Malahat Review volunteer Will Johnson.


D.A. Lockhart is the author of five collections of poetry, most recently Devil in the Woods (Brick Books 2019) and Wenchikàneit Visions (Black Moss Press 2019). His work has received several Pushcart Prize nominations and as well as generous support from the Ontario Arts Council and Canada Council for the Arts. Lockhart is a turtle clan citizen of the Moravian of the Thames First Nation and currently resides at Waawiiyaatanong in Three-Fires Confederacy Territory.

Your piece "From River's Edge: Detroit the Other, Detroit the Centre" is a meditation on your relationship with a city seen from the outside. Repeatedly you return to a Canadian riverbank to survey the skyscrapers across the water, where you meditate on history and reflect on how and why the landscape has been transformed.

I love how over the course of the piece Detroit becomes a symbol of colonization and "progress," how you capture both its beauty and its menace, then mourn the civilization it destroyed. As you were conjuring it on the page, what were the crucial themes you were trying to express?

Over the years so much of the work I’ve done tends to push against the notion of borders and look towards the overarching sense of connection. They are arbitrary in the best sense and cruel in the worst. Basically, I look at borders as the lies that settler governments put on places to control those that fortunately or unfortunately come to live in their regions. As a Jay Treaty person, there is no border for me in some sense in North America. And it feels absurd that there is one running right through my community.

Living on an international border, this becomes difficult for people to see and do. Although for the eight or nine millennia that people have called Waawiiyaatanong home, there has been no border, the last two centuries plus saw the addition of an international border, and a metaphysical severing of the land and connection between longtime relations. We’ve pushed back against it, Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike, over the years from cross-border shopping to rum-running, but still it comes to dominate us. No doubt, 9/11 served to make the border more robust, but still this south shore community of Windsor is fundamentally attached to that which it was severed from by treaty makers. The essay is a push back against the populist lies of things like border walls, customs and tariffs, and work visas. 

In short, this is the primary vision point I undertook this essay from. But like all of my work, I undertake it with a strong connection to concrete place. Hence this essay rests in a very specific place, looking and meditating on the physical emanations of that place. So Detroit as it looms over us in both a representation of that connection and of the way the border has and has not failed to separate us. The north and south shores of Waawiiyaatanong are bound together in ways that are fundamental and permanent to the place rather than distant ruling classes.

You are a Turtle clan citizen of the Moravian of the Thames First Nation, and in your piece, you write "we are not a people given to rest." How has your background propelled you into your artistic practice, and how does it inform your work?

The line about not being people given to rest is easily applied to a lot of First Nations that originated from what is the contemporary American east coast into the Midwest and southern interior of Turtle Island. We’ve been fleeing genocide for a great many generations and while that flight has been slowed in just the last handful or so of decades, one of the things that has remained central to our being is the need to carry our culture and ancestors with us. The Lenapehoking is what is now coastal New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and my ancestors moved to southern Ohio and Central Indiana before most recently coming to Three-Fires Confederacy territory, where our reservations this side of the medicine line now reside. So you could say that my want to apply motion and border breaking to one’s world is tied to this. I understand this to be ingrained in some sense. I need to talk about the place my roots have sunk into, Waawiiyaatanong or Windsor-Detroit, as well as the pathways we get here, the history we share, the culture and understanding that filters the experience here and now and historically. Central Indiana and the American Midwest feature a great deal in my work because of the numerous connecting points I have with the spaces personally and ancestrally. Being Lenape and identifying as part of that culture and that heritage means that informs my every way of being. From my morning ceremonies, to the stories I teach my daughter, to the poems and essays I write, I carry my way of being with me. I do art not necessarily out of my cultural background, but I do it because something in my essence tells me I have to get up every day and create. And specifically, I create with words, and if I don’t, I feel as if I’ve let some part of creation down.   

You're best known for your poetry, having published five collections, but for this particular exploration you decided to go with creative non-fiction. Why was that the right genre for this topic?

Poetry, for me, works in glimmers. They are tightly focused and work their way, via lyric consciousness, towards a response to a specific event or thought. I’ve written about the shoreline around the Detroit River multiple times using poetry. It’s easy enough to do, it’s there and it dominates our region in a very specific way. But these poems are very specific in that they look at one aspect of that place, one given incident, one factor from that experience. They didn’t exactly hold that sort of deep dive, multi-level exploration that essays or longer form prose can. Basically the form didn’t match exactly what I want to do so I started looking around at options.

I started to play around with notions of poetry and essays in one of my more recent books, Wenchikaneit Vision. The collection ended up becoming more hybrid in nature, the essays/poems became these lyric essay mixes between concrete stanzas and prose stanzas and I thought they got more to the heart of what I was hoping to do with these glimmers. In total honesty, they were strange in look and feel but definitely were more in line with speaking to ceremony and experience and decolonization. While they worked for me at a certain level at least artistically speaking, they felt as though they lacked the approachability that more standard essays do. Not perhaps as much in content, but in form. I liked the direction they were taking, but I wanted to reach more readers with something that looked less poetry.

My close friend and fellow poet Benjamin Goluboff asked that I join him on a conference panel to talk about border crossing and the urban Midwest. Obviously, I wasn’t going to say no to this, and obviously I didn’t have a lack of things to say about this subject. So I composed the starting point for this essay for the conference and let it grow and morph into this collection. We talked about Ted Koosier and his work a great deal at the conference, Society for the Study of Midwestern Literature 2019 for those keeping score at home, so much of the talk centered on his essays and his poetics and how he was shifting between them a great deal over his career. No doubt, that contributed to my comfort in working in the essay form. I feel comfortable enough with the form that I’ve started tentative work on an essay collection entitled “Sipu” that will use the form to explore the decolonized history of rivers around southwestern Ontario, Michigan, Indiana, and Northern Ohio. So you could say it’s a form I’ve been enamored with in recent months.

In your piece, you note that the traditional name for the area where you live "does not recognize the forced-upon border, understands that we are connected to the land itself." You also write that "our ties are geographical and not national." What were the implications of growing up with this world view, and how do you think contemporary Canadians could benefit from tweaking their perspective in this direction?

As far as I see it, nationalism is one of the absolute most troubling things in our contemporary world. This is the connection of self to nation rather than place. I think if our seething mess of a planet at this moment tells us nothing more, as we slowly cook ourselves out of existence, to the murderous wars eating up our news headlines, it should confirm this suspicion. In connecting to nations we often look to their political leaders who, more often than not, lead us down paths to their personal enrichment and leave our families and environment in tatters. If we instead turn to the portions of creation that we push and dig our roots into, we understand the things and people we need to take care of.

I grew up moving between the United States and Canada a great deal. I have immediate family on both sides and have always felt at home in either country. In different ways, but completely at home nonetheless. That border has most definitely changed in the last few decades, and in a way is that profoundly troubling to those that straddle it. Borders don’t divide ecosystems, they divide people in impossible ways. Once we understand that, the notions of “us” and “them” break down a little bit more. And we might learn how to better live with positive relations to our environment.

Indigenous literature in Canada is experiencing a surge in popularity with writers such as Alicia Elliot, Jordan Abel, Waubgeshig Rice and Eden Robinson achieving notoriety and success. As we continue to embark on the Truth and Reconciliation process, what role do you think Indigenous writers such as yourself will have in creating a coherent national narrative? What issues need to be explored, and what stories need to be told?

One of the most important thing we can and must do as Indigenous writers along this path is to seize back control of our voices. Those voices come in as varied and numerous ways as there are First Nations and Indigenous peoples. A lot of non-Indigenous voices have been busy spinning false representations of our lives for their own gain. For all too many Indigenous peoples, we’ve grown accustomed to accept those representations as our new truths. We need our experiences, as unique as they all are and will be, to enter into a dialogue with the rest of the country around us. The real end of the Truth and Reconciliation process is a place where our nations are empowered, able to engage in the culture and essence of our ancestors, and so in a positive relationship to those around us. We must be the voices of that truth, we have to speak to say that we have our own unique voices and spaces in the contemporary word. It’s not really up to me what issues or stories need to be told. I would like for them to be truthful and in some way illustrate our old ways in the new world, but it is important they breathe Indigenous lives into the world. Our cultures and nations live on, only in that they still move and change and grow. That all needs to be shown. But we must carry portions of languages, ceremonies, and understandings in the works. And from the work I’ve come across from Tenille Campbell, Jordan Abel, Mikka LaFonde, Carol Rose Goldeneagle, and Alicia Elliot (to name only a few) I can see that at work.

I don’t know how comfortable I am saying exactly what issues or stories need to be explored. I have a very specific set of life experiences as an urban Lenape guy. What I see as critical might be different to a significant portion of our nations. I do know that we should be able to share our experiences – truthful, painful, humorous, all of it – so as to push against the unified racists/stereotypical depictions of all of our beautiful nations and peoples. A large part of me hopes the art contains teachings or portions of our old ways or cultural modes of understanding, and do so in a way that speaks to the everyday common people rather than academics or elites. I would like to see more of our Indigenous languages incorporated into our works. The embers are all there, we need voices to breathe them into flame. 

Your piece is deeply rooted in history, detailing events that range from 8,000 years ago to only a few decades ago. It shows how those events are intertwined with your contemporary reality, and it's this awareness of history, along with your connection to the land, that allows you to glean such profound insights from your surroundings. What is it about the history of Detroit, and the nations that existed there before its creation, that initially drew your interest?

There is much to admire in the Renaissance City. Detroit is the collective of people that had had enough of inequality and codified racialized discrimination and so they went all in on a rebellion against a remote national government and corporate base. In truth, the rebellion failed, but its lasting effects linger in the current residents. I admire that. I also grew up here and our family lineage goes back through this place at least a couple of centuries long. You can see the grandeur of the place in the bits that have survived and in the stories told by the survivors. But there is also this fantastic literature of the fighters, of the common workers and people that struggled through that grandeur, and that is very approachable and available. It’s an interesting place to be, where the past is often considered to be a better and more sacred place than our contemporary world. It’s a familiar place and story for so many Indigenous folks and so much so that the narrative of the city of Detroit completely has to resonate with me. Watching as those survivors and the descendants of the rebellions get pushed from their homelands via gentrification makes the connection all the stronger. But it also begs the question of how far back all this goes.

We learn much from our history. But the history we hear is often far from the truth. When I returned to Waawiiyaatanong, the local Canadian government and settler-dominated cultural institutions had politicized our history so much so that they weren’t recognizing the Three-Fires Confederacy as the traditional peoples of the land and were busy trying to erase their presence by doing things like telling residents to head to the city museum to celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day. My work tries to undo this to a degree. It undoes the mythologies of the privileged classes that have sought to erase title and connection to the land and force a fealty of the common people to their employer and blue blood overlords. 


Will Johnson

Will Johnson

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