to love our beautiful planet even more: An Interview with annie ross

The following interview is the third in a seven-part series of conversations with BC poets which I released in April 2020. All seven interviews were originally posted at ReadLocalBC.ca. This was the second year of my collaboration with Read Local BC (you can read the 2019 interviews here).

Photos accompanying "fix it."
fix it – annie ross

swarm of Grasshoppers
looking for dinner, yes?
if i had anything i would give it to you
no one here planted, i didn’t.

how hot can it be
did we do this?
mercilessly, we did this.
the long meandering highway
stares blankly at the Sky

what, here, for a Wolf to eat?
the sign reads, good beef jerky, thirty-four miles ahead
everything is always
somewhere else

Reprinted with permission from 
Pots and other living beings by annie ross
(Talonbooks, 2019).

Rob Taylor: The opening poem in Pots and Other Living Beings, “future tense,” reads: “walk up / wake up / walk away.” I get a sense that this may be your life’s mantra. So much of this book is about waiting, watching, learning…

annie ross: deep seeing, deep listening, deep feeling from which emanates work.

Rob: Yes – in another poem, for example, you write “Animal Teachers, their arms, their chests, / their patience for, their Power to / live.” That stillness, that steady watching and listening, is central to the arts of both photography and poetry. Each piece in Pots and Other Living Beings is a triptych: two photos beside one poem, all speaking to one another.

annie: the photos are 1 and 2, the poem = 3, you, the reader = 4, the space within us between us = 5.

Rob: A “pentaptych” then (yes, I looked the word up)! How do you think your work in these arts — photography and poetry, in this particular arrangement together — has influenced your ability to “wake up” in the company of Earth’s teachers?

annie: could it be i am trying to express moments of relationship with all Wild, Sacred, Good? does it make natural sense to describe and share via many aesthetic methods?

there’s a miracle in a triple rainbow, in a Heron standing one-legged in recovered wetlands, a giant black bird perched upon a fencepost, arms open, the span of twelve feet. Impossible pinks, oranges, in centers of folded flowers – bumblebees gathering yellow pollen. it’s all right here, every day and never, or perhaps, never again. every miracle is a hidden (yet in plain-view) supernatural event.

i am not saying the natural and supernatural are separate; they are all of this world and the Spirit world in this world. they are the same, and they are different, at the same time.

Rob: I get this sense of a folding in of images and ideas, one over another, all in conversation, united yet apart. It’s beautiful. And yet in some way they must have all started somewhere, in a single image or poem, and grown. Could you talk a little about the chicken-or-the-egg origins of the photo-poem pairings? How did you arrive at these final combinations of photos and poem, and was it the same process each time? Did it come more naturally to you to pair the photos or to write the poems that connected them?

annie: in order of creation (process):

dreams, thoughts, meditation.
quiet time.
worries, silent moods. dwelling in my hermitage.
readings, praying, talking with folks in communities.
writing notes, poems or phrases
drawing sketches, taking photos
painting. weaving. more work.
the back and forth of this and that.
years (a lifetime) in the deep water.

the process above happens first.

this project began while on a research trip. i was frustrated with trying to find a way in which to talk about our beautiful and Sacred Earth, and how humans have brought us to ruin. something i did with intention for this project was to stop and photograph those deep moments.

after this research journey, i gathered years of photographs created with intention. i was surprised to see i had 4000+ digital photos, and these were my memories of thoughts and experiences which hit me hard. i then made written phrases and mini-poems. (all done ‘on the side’ as i performed my testimonio work in the southwestern u.s. and my primary duties at my job.) at home again, i sorted photos and concentrated on the finalization of short poems for the meanings of the three.

in its first life, this project placed two pictures and one poem on real estate signage, the signs installed on campus at sfu (unfortunately, that night was ‘pub night’ and many of the signs were vandalized).

over time, i re-wrote the poems (alongside my other responsibilities), to make them, well, more themselves. one poem stayed the same:

where am i?

to power

these moments when Earth and her Beings reveal themselves, creates a flash – in feeling, in vision, understanding – you know? it’s that revelation, magical moment, the Natural that is the Supernatural (there really is no division here), which reveals itself.

maybe listening comes first, or that openness, as a way of being, a practice; with whom is speaking and living alongside; miracles in a flash, an event, a moment.

some beauty may be photographed. when looking at photos later, i attempted to recall the moment in a poetic form. so the images are the story, the written word just helps us get to the “spell” of being under what i perceived as a message.

Rob: You mentioned your testimonio work just now. Could you tell us a little more about that work?

annie: testimonio/testimony work is first-person, experience-based, recalling of events from individuals at the front lines of harms and injustices from lawless powerful groups and state-sponsored actors.

its practice acknowledges the ancient Indigenous governing system of truth-telling, witnessing, and re-yelling, in order to have collective remembrance of history in its full: its actors, facts, motivations, results. in modern times it finds compatriots in liberation theology, truth and reconciliation commissions, and in the goal of uplifting agency for the poor, marginalized, Indigenous peoples, and the work of achieving our collective and potential rights, justice.

i’ve been working in testimonio since 1981, in and with community. i have worked with many diverse individuals from many Indigenous Nations, and non-Indigenous folks as well from many countries, age groups, and walks of life. this has always been a part of my practice, in all aspects of my work.

i suppose story-telling, truth-telling, was a constant feature of my daily upbringing, and it naturally carried over into my professional work. if i wanted to know something, or say something, i needed to talk to those who had the personal experience, read what book ‘experts’ had to say, and go from there.

Rob: I love the feeling your description gives me, of wide-reaching arms pulling everything in, all the beautiful and ugly truths others avoid or are unable to see. Your time collecting testimonio in the US Southwest involved documenting both the region’s beauty and the ruin we have brought upon it (as seen through the lens of the nuclear bomb, invented and tested in the region). I am curious about your favourite place in the Southwest, a place where you’ve felt most at peace, like the world was in balance and whole?

annie: Peace:

* felt in community ceremony (as an invited observer, a relative, a close friend),
* with my beloveds; found in those open places,
* during long walks along mesas with fantastic bats, butterflies, ancient corn remnants and pots,
* ceremonially grinding corn in ancient meal bins while drummers sang,
* in dreams of land, running, water, and
* with the smells of fresh clean springs and evergreens.

Rob: Lovely. I can hear the water, smell the evergreens, just thinking about it. What are places where you’ve felt the opposite, disconnected and damaged?

annie: there are times in a city, where all is perpetually broken or in the process of breaking, and will never be put back together again. witnessing large pads of asphalt, their waves not of water but heat; shuttered inner-cities, places for hungry rats and ants, abandoned dogs, forgotten humans, gifts transformed to litter; clear-cuts; Beings wandering and wondering where other Beings fled to, and where shall we all go when rescue and sanctuary are undone?

Rob Taylor: Can you separate the two feelings — the peace and the destruction – or are they always tied together in some way?

annie: i am thinking. i could answer this question one hundred different ways, and they would each be correct, although they would maybe not all tell the whole story, and contradict one another (maybe). “one hundred poems for peace and destruction.” hmm, i like this.

i often say: it is a little bananas, really, how human primates decide what is real, and what is not. in the united states, breaking apart is considered “progress,” making more chaos and destruction, is considered “genius.” this is why we have the nuclear bomb.

Rob: Do you think this book could have existed without the tensions and contradictions created by the nuclear bomb?

annie: this book could not exist without pain. loneliness. sorrow. or desire, for putting back together, all broken apart, which lives alongside futility and hopelessness. a profound (and embarrassing) need to stop war against our Mother, Earth. faith in a great evening-out, a balancing, of all that is. all actions have re-actions, they say.

this book was a way to discuss root questions around the bomb, such as:

what is genius?
where is God?
if humans manifest their concept of God in their/our work then is God destruction, omnicide, pollution that will cause harm and never be remediated?
why is it easy for governments to lie?
why is “news” actually reports on meaningless popular culture, while testimonio towards justice is “gossip”?
what has happened while occupying time with meaningless concepts of human physical beauty, when all the while the culture of violence proliferates?
why are the dominant economic culture’s mores at odds with many of the world’s Indigenous peoples? (for example, the concept of “genius,” “sustainability,” and “responsibility” have very different interpretations, using history as the proof for these answers).

Rob: I feel like you’ve approached these questions from a variety of different angles (beyond the aforementioned poetry and photography). Your doctoral dissertation, for instance, was entitled “One Mother Earth, One Doctor Water: Environmental Justice in the Age of Nuclearism. A Native American View.” Does Pots and Other Living Beings take on the themes of Nuclearism and Environmental Justice in ways you were unable to engage with in the dissertation? If so, how?

annie: the dissertation (so very long ago) was accepted for publication by a university press. there was a shift in editors, and the new editor stated there needed to be one change in the manuscript: all of the words of Native/First Nations authors had to be removed. i asked why, and she stated, “because they are all lies. Native people lie.” she assured me it was no problem, just take all of the testimonio out. of course, this is the opposite of the point of the work, in process and product. to do so would have broken my promise and relationship with community members, and would have further marginalized those in the direct line of neoliberal destructions.

another reviewer at a well-known press in Santa Fe, NM, said they couldn’t print it, as it was full of lies, and “we will be sued.” a colleague of mine at UCD implored me to ask “sued by whom?”

i am grateful i grew up in a home where ghosts and others considered “impossible” by mainstream culture were my everyday experiences. this prepared me for the mainstream world’s inability to understand things outside of the status quo, their lack of desire to learn and include others whose reality differs from theirs, and their rush to declare themselves experts upon things they know nothing about. being relatively poor in our neighborhood prepared me for the hierarchical world-view imposed from without in the mainstream working world.

i was prepared, then, from the first, to be the outsider, to perform the work needed to understand full histories, and to be able to forge ahead while being labeled wrong, stupid, or primitive.

the entire book is about life, moments in time. my dream is to make work (art, community work, teaching and writing) that shares feelings, how to say this to make work that encourages myself and others to love Earth and her Beings even more.

Rob: I’m sorry your dissertation faced such challenges, and you’re right about our desire to maintain a status quo and shun whatever’s outside it. Art allows for a bit more leniency, I think — especially photos, which simply are. You took most of the photos in Pots and Other Living Beings, but eleven were taken by Mi’kmaw artist Robert Pictou. Could you talk about Robert’s role in making this book happen?

annie: i find Robert a great photographer and artist, but this isn’t why.

Robert Pictou was with me on some of my journeys. he was a confidant and ally. when he wasn’t with me (as i have done most of the travel for this manuscript alone), he was a phone call away, and i depended upon him to help with my terrible anxieties, dark and over-whelming feelings of dread and hopelessness, and in the struggle for work that will somehow “help.” i am overwhelmed often, with the sorrow of life, and Robert is the one person who is able to understand. i have also depended upon others, dear good friends with big hearts. i am lucky. but Robert had been the closest to the work of these years of this manuscript. to exclude him would have been a form of dishonesty. a cruel exclusion.

Rob: Many of Robert’s photos feature you engaging with nature, your face always hidden from the camera in some way. Why did you think it was important to (sparingly) include these photos of yourself, taken by someone else, in this book that is otherwise almost entirely “unpeopled”?

annie: i do not use my face willingly in anything (i completely dislike being photographed). it wasn’t my plan/idea to take or use the photos. in all cases, i was not aware Robert was photographing me.

i hesitated using these. none of this is about me. i think my body stands in as a placeholder for anyone’s body.

Rob: Ok, yes, that was my sense. That bodies were important, that human bodies appearing in this landscape were somehow essential, and that yours was a reluctant placeholder. Along those same lines, mannequins feature prominently in the book’s photos, providing stand-in “people” in your de-peopled book. What do mannequins suggest, to you, about the world of the US Southwest?

annie: mannequins here are the “perfect” person: height, weight, colour, non-descript facial features, non-imposing presence, the obedient non-verbal citizen.

i find mannequins frightening, as i do clowns and maniacs. while mannequins are said to portray all of us, they make me feel terribly lonely. they represent an expected type of citizen i shall never be (even if i tried), a stereotype of normalcy while the world suffers. they wear clothes most cannot afford, suggest a place in life that most will never enjoy, economically. they live in a world without concern, work, care.

specifically, mannequins describe the perfect utopian human, the human who has all and is all. dressed in store windows, they remind us of the fun we should be having, the parties that we should be invited to and attend. they tell us to be slim and conform to societal standards of physical acceptance and the sameness of our homogenized mores and motivations.

for the nuclear bomb “tests,” mannequins were dressed in suits and dresses, staged in positions as if entertaining, and placed in homes constructed at the Nevada test site, where their “home life” reality was filmed as they succumbed to a nuclear blast.

live pigs were used to measure their pain and suffering from heat, fire, and radiation (more cruelty upon more beings). we are told to be indifferent to those souls whose bodies are not like the mannequins.

Rob: That connection, between the mannequins of the storefront and the mannequins of the nuclear test sites, is so striking — I’m glad you explored it here.

You talked before about your difficulties in trying to publish your dissertation. This book, though, has quite beautifully made it into the world. Could you talk a little about the role Talonbooks played in the making of Pots and Other Living Beings?

annie: the people at Talon were wonderful. i am still a little shocked that this has all happened. i make work (studio and writings), and don’t really expect anyone to be on the other end to see, hear, or listen. there are so many talented Beings in the world. who sees their work? it is a lonely place, one we may share with the Beauty Beings of the Woods and Wilds.

i was simply happy that someone read this manuscript (Stephen Collis). i fretted for some time about how it would be read or understood, or not. i was a stranger with a headache. Catriona Strang, first at The Capilano Review, then at Talon, was welcoming with her criticisms and kindness. i liked her right away, we seemed to be already aligned. i felt understood at Talon, and this continued throughout the process of editing and going into publication.

Rob: It’s so nice to find a welcoming home, isn’t it? You mentioned Catriona’s “criticism and kindness” — to what extent the shape/structure/content of the book shifted as you worked together toward a final printed book? Was the layout as we see it always the same (black-and-white images on left, poems on right, etc.) or did that take some trial and error to figure out?

annie: i had hoped the images would be presented in colour, but it is too expensive for anyone to print it that way. i had enough guilt thinking of using paper and trees for a book, let alone the cost of colour prints. i still struggle with this question of how much i use. what i have taken and do take.

we had ideas of placing the text in various creative ways within the photos, but that idea disappeared. i don’t know why, perhaps a financial reason, which makes sense to me.

i greatly appreciate Catriona and Charles Simard, who both were absolutely allies with understanding my attempt to create new rules for usage of capital letters with this manuscript. Kevin and Vicki Williams are always kind and welcoming. that goes a long way.

Rob: In addition to your poems and photographs, Pots and Other Living Beings features your art, too.

annie: the cover is a wool applique on an old red and black trade blanket, part of a fabric series entitles Corn Mother our Ceremonial Sister v. the Terminator Gene.

Rob: You work as an artist in a wide variety of mediums – poetry, photography and embroidery, of course, but also weaving, painting, taxidermy, even fruit-tree arranging! Could you discuss your journey to/through these arts a little? Did you come to certain arts first, and then others? Have you arrived at any only recently? Do you find yourself connected to/thinking through one for a while, and then another, or are you always engaging with all of them in some way?

annie: i am not sure i have chosen anything. in other words, i haven’t been controlling it all, not at all. there are ideas that come from somewhere and some i am able to pick up and do, others flow past and back into their home. i am very grateful for the practice of seeing, listening, and responding (what some may call meditation), and i feel i have a strong spirit life.

i imagine this is true for all of us; things come to us somehow, and if we are lucky, we can listen and respond. life’s responsibilities make it impossible to respond to all of these, but i give love and thanks.

Rob: I love that idea of making something out of some of what comes to us, and letting the rest “flow past and back into their home.” Yes, I am feeling that a lot these days.

I wonder, with so much art to choose from, what drew you to the applique you picked for the cover?

annie: i think i chose several from which the editors could pick, and they both chose the cover image. i was thrilled that they liked this one.

Rob: It’s always delightful to be reading a book and thinking “This reminds me of…”, and then I turn the page and there that poet is, making an appearance in the book! This happened for me in Pots and Other Living Beings when you quoted Gary Snyder in your poem “no food allowed.” (I had been thinking about his Turtle Island sporadically during my reading of your book.) The quoted line is “Wild, Sacred, Good” and it seems to capture so well the way both you and Snyder see the landscape of the Southwest. What role did Snyder’s writing play in your thinking about the Southwest, and about poetry? What other writers have helped you better see/understand the region?

annie: my primary teachers are my home family, Land and her Beings. so many stories about this!

as for your question, i have been blessed by communications with land, waters, and learned beings. this phrase from Snyder, and some from Wendell Berry, reflected back to me the way i feel the world. i find solace in their words and in my many conversations and life experiences in community.

Wild = as is. true to one’s Natural Being-ness. unashamed. their/our needs and wants are what they are. source of Power, knowledge, understanding, compassion, responsibilities.

Sacred = from the original source of Creation. perfect, autonomous, sovereign.

Good = authentic being-ness within our inherent needs, wants, and work in the world to shore one another up and to provide for all other living beings in our thoughts, words, actions, dreams.

Rob: You mentioned earlier how Catriona and Charles at Talon worked with you to “create new rules for usage of capital letters.” In your book, certain nouns are capitalized and other aren’t (for instance, in the short poem “cage,” the words “Stream” and “Flowers” are the only capitalized words, with all other nouns (bowls, stagnant water, lipstick, hand, etc. all lowercase). Could you share some of your thoughts about capitalization and how you use it in your poems, and your life in general?

annie: the nuclear bomb, wwi, wwii, all capitalized in vain-glorious attempts to indoctrinate society as to what is meaningful, lasting, sacred. these are the opposite, of that — life-takers, not life-givers.

normal everyday natural things — shit, fuck, cunt — society considers taboo words. the real taboo words are war, bombs, bullets, casualties, starvation, murder, violence, trophy “hunting,” extinctions.

Grizzly Bear (in all of his/her Indigenous names), Wolf, all Natural/Supernaturals are Sacred. capitalizing them is an attempt to re-sanctify, to put back in place, the identities broken apart by imperialist, omnicidal methods and philosophies. Beings made by Nature and Power, Those with Supernatural affect, are capitalized here.

i attempt(ed) to do the same in my studio work. animal-centric works, made with community communications and with my own (to my mind) Maya-centric view of the world.

Rob: In one case, you write the word “cake” as “c(C)ake,” which seems to suggest to me its simultaneous human and supernatural existences.

annie: you are absolutely correct. “cake,” as in heavily-processed ingredients, especially gmo wheats, heavily dependent upon pest/herbicides, the vanquishing of biodiverse Beings, erosion, erasure of wild, and pollution of the water table. cake can be calorie-high and nutritionally-poor, as true for many processed foods. these make up a bulk of available foods in many urban centers and in remote areas, found readily in grocery stores, restaurants, school cafeterias, and are often the go-to “food” for those in remote areas or in urban poverty centers. a cake for 99 cents is more affordable to the poor than is an apple. often the apple is not available at any price, unless one is able to grow their own, or trade/barter for them.

when we lost our sustainable, craft-based manufacturing capability (and job opportunities), our spiritual relationships to all Beings, Land, Elements and Water, we created urban centers that are food-insecure, where basic needs are not met. highly-processed foods replace heritage foods and Their Ecosystems, replacing nutrition with artificial sugars, salts, and laboratory-made substances.

Foods are Power-Beings, replaced by human-made things, to control the world food supply for the empire and other power elites.

gmos have benefitted monocrop masters, destroyed biodiversities, and broken family farms globally, placing corporate farming in their place. “Cake” refers to any food source close to the source (Earth). however, when “cake” is all we have, and separates us from hunger and starvation, cake = Cake.

in other words, where is our innocent meal?

Rob: You pack a lot into that “c(C).” Another “C” that is relevant to your book’s themes, though it exists here and not in the US Southwest, is the Site C Dam. Near the end of the book, you include some photos from BC, including one featuring a “Stop Site C” button. Why was it important to you to move beyond the US Southwest, and toward your new home in Vancouver, in that way?

annie: Land, Land, Forever. everything is from, with, and all about Land — her sanctity, her ability to give, promote, and sustain all life, and her need to thrive in all of her majestic Power.

similarly in range, but opposite in matter, meaning, and motivation, the neoliberal agenda is one large many-armed machine whose reach is global.

one promotes life, the other destroys life. destructions via the seven deadlies are a part of the human condition.

this is all our One Mother Earth. all Her Beings, and all of the thoughts and ideas, are a part of Earth and the on-going Creation and Transformations all around us.

Rob: Pots and Other Living Beings has such multifaceted themes and sets of concerns, it can be difficult to summarize quickly. What is the main idea you hope a reader would take away from the book?

annie: i feel a bit embarrassed, but, if i may say, my goal in all of my work is that somehow, in some way, the work will encourage others to love our beautiful planet even more.

annie ross (Maya/Irish) works with and in communities, and is in love with Mother Earth and all her Natural and Supernatural Beings.

No comments: