Poetry Cure: page as bone – ink as blood by Jónína Kirton

In her first collection page as bone – ink as blood (Talonbooks), Métis/Icelandic poet Jónína Kirton seeks to access the “blood memory” of herself, her ancestors, and the lands she’s from, divining family secrets, gifts, and curses. She tells us about blood memories, writing rituals, and more in our Poetry Cure interview, and we read the poem “here everything is holy” from her collection.


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An Interview with Jónína

All Lit Up: Tell us about your collection.Jónína Kirton: My first book of poetry, page as bone – ink as blood, is an exploration of memory, mine, my ancestors and the land. It speaks to family secrets and the possibility of curses and gifts being passed down via what some call blood memory. The title of the book references the way that our body holds memories, even the ones we do not want or try to forget. Blood records memory in our bones just as ink can be used to record our memories on paper. Blood memory lasts longer than ink on paper but can be harder for some to access. It is not like taking out a library book or reading an article on the internet. It requires dedication and a belief in what the body and the ancestors have to offer.  Joanne Arnott said this of the collection “page as bone – ink as blood is restorative, intimate poetry, drawing down ancestral ideas into the current moment’s breath.”Whether obvious or not the question throughout the book is “Am I, and my family cursed?” This is a question I often asked myself throughout my young life. When doing ancestral research, I did find documentation of a curse on the Icelandic side. It is referenced in my poem, “unclaimed baggage”, where I explore a number of the things my family tried to hide including being Métis. At the time of the writing of the book I saw no references to any curses on the Métis side. But very recently I spoke with a well-known Métis genealogist and she said this of the Kirton family… “there was so much tragedy there.” Tragedy being death. Something that continued in my lifetime which is why the book has such a large focus on the dead and their visitations. So, is there a curse? Is there even such a thing as a curse? I have no idea. All I know is that if such things exist I think I may have broken the curse having lived to sixty-three. As for the gifts I am blessed with what some call “seeing.” I have always easily engaged with the spiritual realm. In the book, ghostly visitations offer glimpses into the way the dead still walk with us whether we carry them in our hearts or we experience actual visitations via dreamtime.  ALU: Do you read poetry as a self-care technique? What books in particular have helped you?JK: Surprisingly I do not read poetry for self-care. My self-care tends to be more body oriented i.e. a walk, a nap or a really healthy meal. I do find engagement with other poets to be a great form of self-care so love to go to readings when I can and to keep in touch with a number of poets via social media etc. ALU: Do you have any steadfast writing rituals?JK: I go in and out of writing mode. I spend a good deal of time contemplating and researching the things I want to write about.  When in true writing mode I start as soon as I get up and I only drink coffee. No food, no shower and I do not get dressed. I fall from bed (in my pyjamas) and head straight to the computer. When this happens, my husband knows he cannot talk to me and that he cannot even look at me with a question in his mind. He just quietly brings me my morning coffee and backs out of the room on his tiptoes. These are rare and precious times. I wish they came more often.ALU: If you wrote a memoir, what would it be called?JK: The first thing that comes to mind is the title of a Willie Nelson song. “Help Me Make It Through the Night” seems fitting. Much of my life has been in crisis mode, starting with childhood due to my father’s alcoholism and yet like the song there is poignant beauty there as well. Besides it was one song that both my mother and I loved. Although I have spent half my life without her she is still so very present in my life.  We often helped each other make it through tough times. She does this still.ALU: What books are you currently reading?JK: Chelene Knight’s Dear Current Occupant. It has offered me so much and I am only halfway through. There have been tears. It is a brave and creative telling of a story that we don’t often get to hear.   ALU: What’s the best piece of advice anyone has given you about writing, or life?JK: I think one of the best pieces of advice I have heard serves me well in life and as a writer. “Stay curious!” It is my mantra. As a poet I find the willingness to stay curious, to investigate and to allow things to rearrange themselves internally not only brings me some pretty good poetry but it is also a way to keep joy in my life. I love an adventure. Staying curious feels like an adventure to me. It is going out to sea without knowing exactly where you are going. You might have a general idea of where you want to go but bad weather or something unforeseen takes you in another direction. You could curse the gods and ask to get back on course or you can ask… now what? Maybe you are being taken in an unexpected direction for a reason. One that you could not have known before you began the journey. Writing poetry is just like that. If I knew where I was going all the time, meaning if I thought I “knew it all” my poetry would reflect this. As my writing mentor, Betsy Warland, says, “the narrative is boss”. It is guiding me. I set the course but must remain open to where it wants to go. In all matters I try to “stay curious.” I let what the poem wants lead.ALU: If you had one superpower, what would it be?JK: Time travel. I would dearly love to go back in time and visit my ancestors, especially during significant moments in history such as the early days of contact on Turtle Island, the voyage my Métis fur trader 4xg-grandfather took with Simon Fraser – or when my Viking ancestors first came to Turtle Island. They landed in L’Anse aux Meadows around 1005 or but only stayed a few years. I would also go to Iceland and visit the early days there. I would definitely make sure that I met Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont. Maybe I could even help change history.  ALU: What, outside of other books/writers, inspires your writing?JK: Vine Deloris Jr. once said that “All inanimate entities have spirit and personality so that mountains, rivers, waterfalls, even continents and earth itself have intelligence, knowledge, and the ability to communicate ideas.” I am always listening for this but do so closer to home. I take walks where I spend time with my favourite trees in the neighbourhood. I call this my “floating time.” At home I rearrange my altars based on what feels like a call from the objects themselves. While doing this I sometimes receive ideas but often the idea comes later, and it is clearly a result of the engagement with altar items which can be things like stones, photos, crystals, medicines, feathers, smudge bowl and lanterns. Some of these items have been with me for over forty years. Most come from the natural world. 

The Poem

here everything is holysweet cedar, take these burdens        heavy they weigh        my body weakened by the piercing pricks
breaks in skin    not thick    heart full
mind wanting to empty    into a river of tears
my own grief                     unholy in my eyes
                                        unholy in my eyes
sweet cedar, take these burdens        heavy they weigh
so much not mine                     yet
others weeping has entered my body
        a hornet’s nest under the awning
making a home stingswells    without provocation
my own anger              stifled              unholy in my eyes
                     unholy in my eyes
sweet cedar, take these burdens        heavy they weigh
the bows of my shoulders bend      tremble      at your touch
under the tree I stand      your branches      a caress
        here everything is holy–From page as bone – ink as blood by Jónína Kirton (Talonbooks, 2015)
Jónína Kirton 
is Métis/Icelandic poet and author who lives and works in Vancouver. She graduated from Simon Fraser University’s Writer’s Studio in 2007 and attended the Emerging Aboriginal Writer’s Residency at the Banff Centre in 2008. Actively involved with the Aboriginal Writers Collective – West Coast, she coordinated the first National Indigenous Writers Conference in Vancouver 2013.Kirton’s work has been featured in numerous anthologies and literary journals, including Ricepaper’s Asian/Aboriginal issue,V6A: Writing from Vancouver’s Downtown EastsideOther Tongues: Mixed Race Women Speak OutPagan EdgeFirst Nations DrumToronto Quarterly, and Quills Canadian Poetry Magazine. She won first prize and two honourable mentions in the 2013 Royal City Literary Arts Society’s Write On Contest and a finalist in the 2013 Burnaby Writer’s Society Writing Contest. Awarded a Canada Council grant in 2009 to complete page as bone – ink as blood, she is also the author of poetry book An Honest Woman (Talonbooks, 2017).
During the month of April, you can buy page as bone – ink as blood as well as any of our featured Poetry Cure books for 15% off (+ get a free notebook to jot down your moments of reflection).Keep up with us all month on TwitterInstagram, and Facebook with the hashtag #ALUpoetrycure.