Stillness & Movement: Délani Valin in Conversation with Conor Kerr

Conor Kerr

Malahat Review poetry and fiction board member Délani Valin talks with Conor Kerr, co-winner of the 2021 Long Poem Prize with his poem, "Just Passing Through." 


Conor Kerr is a Métis/Ukrainian educator, writer and harvester. He is a member of the Métis Nation of Alberta, part of the Edmonton Indigenous community and is descended from the Lac Ste. Anne & Fort Des Prairies Métis communities and the Papaschase Cree Nation. His first books, a poetry collection An Explosion of Feathers and a short story collection Avenue of Champions will be published in 2021.

Read what the judges had to say about his winning poem.

Of your winning poem, “Just Passing Through,” the judges have said that it is “divided into road trips criss-crossing the western provinces” and that “the poem in its very structure stitches us into Métis history.” Many of the sections are named after passages such as “Vancouver to Edmonton” or refer to specific highways. At the same time, the poem feels very grounded in the land, with references to trapping and picking berries. There’s a sense of movement with these road trips, and when still, the speaker talks of “the need for constant mobility.” Could you speak about these tensions, and how they came to be articulated in the poem?
I’ve only ever existed in a constant state of motion, mobility, movement. I love driving. I have no problem hammering out a twelve or fourteen hour drive. Even my leisurely activities of bird hunting and golfing involve walking large distances. I don’t like sitting still and I think that’s a trait that’s been passed down through generations of badass Metis and Cree ancestors. My grandparents would drive eight hours for a party and then back the next day. I know Elders right now who will drive twelve hours for a ceremony or visiting and then come back shortly after. My friends get mad at me because I describe everything as being four hours away. Kamloops? Four hours. Moose Jaw? Four hours. Saskatoon? Four hours. Lethbridge? Four hours. (Note none of these are four hours away from Edmonton.)

But at the same time everything is based around our relationships with landscapes and kinscapes. Just as that constant mobility defines us so do the areas that hold generations of blood, tears, sweat, laughs, loves, and everything that captures the human experience. I tend to always remember landscapes in sunsets and sunrises, or those dusky hazes of childhood memories. I remember Moose Jaw being the biggest city in the world, and the skyscrapers of Regina (there are no skyscrapers in Regina) towering over everything. It’s always interesting to go back to these places as an adult. To see the distances that used to hold so much promise, so much freedom, so much emotion. In a way they still do, but I feel like I’m losing that childlike fascination and I don’t want to.

In terms of structure, the poem alternates between sections containing fairly tight stanzas, and sections with long lines that skip across the page. Stillness and movement seem to be expressed in the very shape of the poem. Can you talk a little bit about the structure of “Just Passing Through,” and how and why you made these stylistic decisions?

I think my main reasoning, and I could be completely misremembering this now, was to break up the tedium of roadtrips with snapshots into a more subtle, still life. You get these intense strong narrative poems that are then contrasted with what I hope are little images. Snapshots in time. I want to try and capture the way that certain things looked at certain periods in my life or in the oral histories of my family and these short poems, which is what they are, poems within poems, can bring me back too. I have specific memories for example of being a really little kid trapping crayfish. Which was my main obsession at the time. We used bricks for traps. And as you can see in the poem I really wanted that to be the main image, more for myself than anything. To capture it so I won’t forget it.
The poem opens with the lyrics of a Michif song called “La Montagne Tortue.” More song lyrics are included throughout the poem as well. Do songs and orality typically play a role in your writing? What was the process of integrating this onto the written page?

I’m very musical. I tend to have songs constantly running through my head. And TBH I absolutely love this song. I spent a lot of time looking into historical and contemporary Metis song and music culture and this one in particular gets me fired up. Please listen to it. You’ll hear exactly what I’m talking about. And I love this idea of all these Red River carts and horses bouncing across the prairie playing this song in tune, out of tune, at different times. But this musical brigade rolling around and doing it’s thing. Love that image.

Temporality also features heavily in this poem. In one passage, there are examples of developments and perhaps gentrification such as, “they bring the railcars to Calgary. Bitumen blackens the sky and fills the corporate / Headquarters with unrefined crude.” Later, the speaker of the poem says, “I’ll hold my fiddle high in the air and play out a keeping time.” How do space and time interact in the poem? How does having a Métis perspective influence your relationship with time?

I don’t think it’s ever about time. I’ve struggled my entire life to work within the timelines of colonial systems. I absolutely cannot work at a job that needs me there exactly at 8 AM and then I have to leave at 5 PM or whatever. I will show up when I want and I will leave when I want. I’ve done that my entire life. Thankfully, I’ve spent the last ten years working in Indigenous organizations, or when I’ve worked for western institutions at least I’ve had unbelievable bosses (all badass First Nations women) who understand that I will get the work done, it will just be on my own timeline.

I wanted to note though that in this particular passage there’s a commentary on this western notion of “conquering nature.” I find it so contradictory to worldview this new idea (well not new, it stems from colonial attitudes towards landscapes) that you need to complete trails in record time, or go minimalist to maximize speed while backpacking or kayaking or whatever. Snap your Instagram photo and roll out with no regard to the natural landscapes around you except for the idea of conquering something. Bagging peaks or whatever they call it. My family does these multi-week-long canoe trips up in northern Saskatchewan and the “Arc’teryx and Patagonia” outdoors people would be distraught if they saw what we bring on them. Just for an example there will be multiple guitars, and sometimes a mandolin….

When tackling a project that spans years and kilometres, what is your writing process like? How does the process of this project compare to that of your other poetry and stories?

I wrote this entire poem over the course of about a week, week and a half, in the bathtub. It was end of January, beginning of February and fucking cold outside. Like -40 without the wind chill cold, prairie cold. And I have two beautiful Labrador retrievers, Niska and Zaya who don’t give a shit if it’s that cold out they still need to go for walks. So I’d take them for our 6 AM walk in the darkness, get back about an hour later, hop in the bathtub to warm up with two or three cups of black coffee. Everyone should try and write poetry in the bathtub. Highly recommend it. I’d write in there and refill the water a couple times if the words were really flowing that day. My dogs would barge into the bathroom and the younger one Niska would try and get in the bathtub with me and I’d have to get them both to lay down, which they’d do (not in the tub), and then they’d be snoring away while I thought about highways. I like the lack of distractions in a bathtub.

This poem in particular has been a long time coming. I’m an incredibly social person, extrovert by all definitions, and the pandemic has absolutely destroyed me. Usually, the only way I can get through the winters is by spending long nights sitting around fires playing cards with friends or visiting with Elders. But since those weren’t options I found I had to turn into myself and to think more about the events of my life. What defines a prairie life? How does one understand the landscapes around us and how they’ve impacted our psyche? A lot of this rests in my grandparents, and parents, Metis and Ukrainian, who have very different worldviews about what these all mean but at the end of the day have been able to make those coexist in a way. I’m fortunate and privileged to have been able to know all my grandparents. My paternal grandfather passed away three years ago, when I was twenty eight. But outside of that all my grandparents are alive and partying on Vancouver Island now. A long way from the prairies of their childhoods. They inform all my writing right now. I find them fascinating. At some point I’ll have to figure out other sources of inspiration.

I’d like to think that this poem was crafted differently than other pieces of my writing but that would be a lie.

You have a forthcoming collection of poetry, An Explosion of Feathers, and a forthcoming collection of short stories, Avenue of Champions, slated for release later this year. Could you talk a little more about these projects?

Yeah! My first poetry collection An Explosion of Feathers is being published through Bookland Press and Avenue of Champions is coming out through Nightwood Editions. Both of these collections were basically the end results of my MFA classes at UBC. The short story collection in particular was my thesis, and the poetry collection probably could have been if I had decided to go that route. I’m still amazed that anyone wants to read anything I’ve ever written. I only had my first poem published (in The Malahat Review) a little under two years ago I think. I hope people like the books, but I also understand that my writing style isn’t for everyone (definitely learned that in MFA workshops). But it’ll still be fun to see actual books of my writing out in the world. I hope that some lonely ass little kid like I was picks them up at some point and finds some solace in them. Or that they inspire educators, social workers, just people in general to do better. Or to rethink their stereotypical concepts of Indigeneity.

I’m also pretty excited because I have a complete second poetry manuscript tentatively titled Coyote Gods (which contains “Just Passing Through”) that I’m currently trying to find a publisher for. I also have two complete novels that I’m working on developing a bit further with the help of my agents. I think next I’m going to try my hand at more creative nonfiction, but I can’t help but write poetry constantly.

The books will be available from everywhere online but I encourage you to buy them from your local bookstores.


Délani Valin

Délani Valin

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