Ten Questions with Melanie Siebert
Melanie Siebert talks to Open Book about "this hunk of land that holds us out of the big water," our rivers and her debut poetry collection, Deepwater Vee (McClelland & Stewart).
Open Book: Toronto:
Tell us about your book, Deepwater Vee.
Well, I grew up canoeing rivers and reading water — standing waves, haystacks, ledges, keepers. Reading the speed and direction of currents and eddy lines. Reading the vees studding the rapids. So this manuscript began as a meditation on the rivers that I’ve paddled and worked as a guide — the Churchill, the Nahanni, the Thelon, the Burnside, the Tat, etc.
My Dad taught me the j-stroke and took me on countless river trips. He taught me how to light a fire and read a map. And I grew up thinking of wilderness as pristine and untouched. As scenery. As sanctuary. Something out there. You had to drive a long ways and do at least one portage before you got to somewhere worth being. The North Saskatchewan, for instance, the river two miles from home, was dirt, we thought. Treeless, sluggish, muddy, prone to nasty headwinds, dammed, and full of farm chemicals. Not really worth looking at, let alone loving.
Something pulled me to look closer, though. Partly it was the river itself. Partly it was reading Canadian poets like Don McKay who were already out their doing fieldwork, patrolling clear cuts or walking dams or bomb-testing ranges. At first that just seemed strange, but then it started to make sense.
In many ways, this project was simply about wanting to read the land and its rivers in a more complex way. About learning to look at the neglected and the broken down. About sinking in to the places I’d failed to love. So the poems try to map into language this attempt at dwelling.
How did you research your book?
I guess my years of guiding were a sort of apprenticeship to the rivers themselves. But, for me, preparing to write this book had to include going back to the North Saskatchewan to practice being in a place — a place I’d taken for granted and ignored. And I was very resistant to this. When I was planning the North Sask trip, all my feelings of disdain and indifference surfaced. There was no cachet. No exotic pull. No bragging rights. And then even when we were on the river, a good chunk of time was spent just thinking what am I doing here. It was very disorienting. I felt aimless and awash. But in the end, I think that disorientation was a good thing. It’s a place I need to continually come back to. Just putting your head on the ground is a good place to start. Lie down where you are.
Later, I started reading explorer narratives and journals, beginning with Henry Kelsey’s trip notes from his 1690 walk from Hudson’s Bay to the Interior Plains. And then books like The Great Lone Land, written almost 200 years later by William Butler, and Buffalo Days and Nights by Peter Erasmus, a Métis guide and trader who translated for the Cree at the Treaty Six negotiations in the late 1800s, Across the Subartics of Canada by Tyrell, etc.
Eventually I ended up with Alexander Mackenzie’s journals and letters from the late 1700s. Actually, I had tried to read his journals before and had just been repelled by them. They’re very dry. Very aloof, full of directions, misdirections, assumptions. He was a ballsy young fur trader bent on making a load of cash and one of the first traders to push into the Athabasca region. He had the ability to make serious miles and to wrangle a crew of hunters, paddlers and Indigenous guides to get him where he wanted to go, but he wasn’t very observant of the land or its people. He rode roughshod. And got it in his head to hack a route across the continent and to create a globalized trade between Britain, China, and what was soon to be Canada. So he was the first European across the continent. But it was only when I hit upon a brief mention, just a couple lines, of the winter in Fort Chipewyan when he was submerged in dreams of the dead, the winter that something actually got to him, that I got hooked. And I tried to dream his dreams.
I also spent some time travelling with the Keepers of the Athabasca. We conducted community meetings in towns all along the Athabasca River to discuss the state of the watershed. And then ended up in Fort Chipewyan, Mackenzie’s old haunt and the place that is now downstream of all the massive tar sands operations, for a Keepers of the Water arctic watershed conference. Fort Chip has seen a spike in rare cancers, tumours in the fish and moose, one of the largest fresh water deltas has all but dried up, almost no one swims in the lake anymore, but there’s also a sense of crisis throughout the watershed. On day two of the Elders and Youth Council, they asked me to take verbatim notes of the testimonies, so here you have people sharing their stories from across the arctic watershed in Gwich'in, North Slavey, South Slavey, Chipewyan and Dogrib, and I have a set of head phones on and am trying to keep up to the English translations and at times I just wanted to put my head down on the table on cry. The stories. The changes in the land, the water and the animals are so sudden and startling.
What are the greatest threats to our waterways?
People. That’s the short answer.
The slightly longer answer:
1. Dams and other diversions change flow patterns and fragment habitats, cause changes in the water’s temperature, chemistry, levels of oxygen. So fish and other species die and the effects ripple up the food chain. Or wetlands are destroyed. That’s like destroying your kidneys. And no one knows how to reclaim or recreate wetlands.
2. Climate change means shrinking glaciers, more erratic precipitation, increased evaporation, which equals decreasing flows and increasing water needs in drought-affected areas.
3. Increased water withdrawals — for agriculture, manufacturing, mining, etc. — stress river habitats, especially when flows are low, and especially when that water is not returned to the river. So for instance, it takes three to five barrels of water to produce one barrel of oil from the tar sands. And about 90 per cent of that water that’s sucked out of the Athabasca ends up in the tailings ponds where it will take at least a thousand years for the toxic waste to settle out to solid form. Or another example: one nuclear reactor can use as much as 20 times the amount of water as the city of Calgary.
4. When the water does trickle back to the river, it often carries with it all kinds of contaminants — from pesticides and fertilizers to pharmaceuticals to hydrocarbons, mercury, arsenic, etc. Some of these are naturally occurring, but the concentrations can build to poisonous levels. On the Athabasca, one of the worst-case scenarios, it’s estimated that the tailings ponds are leaking around 11 million litres of pollutants every day — that’s something like five Olympic-size swimming pools every day.
A hundred years ago you could drink from any river in Canada.
Did you have a specific readership in mind when you wrote your book?
Poems seem to well up from interiority. Mostly, they’re traces of an ongoing conversation I’m having with myself. So, no, in the act of composition there’s no audience in mind. Once I’m editing the work, I have a few trusted readers, as I suppose most writers do. They’re my ideal readers — intelligent, permeable and alert. What would I do without them? That connection is very enlivening.
What was your first publication?
I have a bad memory for these kinds of things. Along the way, I started publishing poems here and there in literary journals and in chapbooks, which are essential venues for encouraging writers and shaping a sense of literary community. This is my first book, though, and so it’s the first time I’ve experienced how a project gathers momentum and then suddenly you’re just being swept along inside of it. In spate.
Tell us about your writing process.
Slow and solitary. That’s about all there is to say. I like long stretches of unbroken time and unbroken quiet. But I don’t always get it.
What's the best advice you've ever received as a writer?
“Let the gaps ache.” This is coming from Tim Lilburn. What’s said has to resonant with what can’t be said.
If you had to choose three books as a "welcome to Canada" gift, what would they be?
If I was introducing someone to this hunk of land that holds us out of the big water, I might suggest Stolen Continents for starters. Ronald Wright narrates a post-1492 history using Iroquois, Cherokee, Incan, Mayan and Aztec sources. As William Carlos Williams has said, “History begins for us with murder and enslavement, not with discovery.” But it takes a long time to alter the myths we’ve lived and breathed.
After that, I wouldn’t know what to recommend. Maybe something like Vis-à-Vis: Field Notes on Poetry & Wilderness. Only someone like Don McKay can inject some humour into what, it turns out, is still a rather dire situation. And then, if you’re ready for the quick Canadian poetry tour, how about Open Field?
Or how about E.C. Pielou’s A Naturalist’s Guide to the Arctic? Or some other guide that gets your feet on the ground. Something specific to the place you’re going to be.
What are you reading right now?
I’m reading Erín Moure’s O Cadoiro. I’m finally getting to sit down with it after picking it up at the Whitehorse poetry festival last summer. It’s such a gorgeous little book; I just want to hold it. And Moure’s so playful, so beautifully wounded. Who else has footnotes like “in this poem snow can be read as asthma”?
What's your next project?
More poetry. However it comes. I’m interested in how charted territories can be layered with mythic territories, how marked space gestures towards the unmarked. So I’ll keep looking into the cartographic history of the northwest and how the techniques of mapmaking mess with perception. Lyric poetry offers a space for another kind of mapmaking, one that plays with its inaccuracies and ambiguities, charting terrain that resists a definitive rendering. Maybe this is just another way of saying I have no idea what my next project is. Poetry seems to work best if you just follow the little game trails you stumble on.
|Melanie Siebert recently completed an MFA at the University of Victoria with a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Fellowship. Her poetry has been broadcast on CBC Radio and published in The Walrus, The Malahat Review, Event and Prairie Fire. For more than ten years, she has worked as a guide on wilderness rivers across the north from Alaska to Baffin Island.
For more information about Deepwater Vee please visit the McClelland & Stewart website.