Quoted: Gwen Benaway’s Passage

Poet Gwen Benaway talks about the epigraphs that inform and inspire her newest collection, Passage (Kegedonce Press), a rumination on her history of experiencing colonial violence and an affirmation of her Two-Spirit identity.


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One of the quotes I use to open Passage is a pivotal guide for me in my life and work. I chose quotes from two Queer men and two Queer women, Tim Dlugos, Robin Blazer, Audre Lorde, and Adrienne Rich. Three American writers and one dual Canadian/American poet, each of them has influenced my work, but the work of Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich has guided me the most.Too often, younger generations of Queer writers let go of our literary past. Poetry, like all forms of writing, is directly influenced by the work of other poets. The Indigenous poet in me wants to maintain my ties to the past, expanding what other poets have written into new places. A poet wastes nothing and I carry my poetic inheritance forward.  One of the leading Queer female poets of the 20th century, Adrienne Rich was a Queer feminist poet. She was a link between poetic generations, a student of Auden at Yale. She broke with poetic tradition by bringing the oppression of women and feminist theory into poetry, creating space for women’s experiences in poetry. Along with her friend, Audre Lorde, she had a profound impact on generations of female writers, charting a rich poetic path forward.All of Rich’s work is influential for me, but her essays, On Lies, Secrets, and Silence, are the centre of my poetry. At the beginning of Passage, I quote her writing from this collection, “when a woman tells the truth, she is creating the possibility for more truth around her.” My interpretation hinges on the concept of truth and truth-telling as a process for creating social change. Rich challenges her readers to use truth as a tool to liberate women from patriarchal structures and the fear of our humanity. She positions truth telling as the responsibility of a woman, a way of opening complex connections in our social bonds.
Image Credit: Pekka Nikrus/Flickr.As a trans Indigenous woman poet, I am often punished for speaking truth. My truth telling is framed as vulgar, self-pitying, or a lurid confession designed to seek attention or attract sympathy. The negative associations with truth-telling are mirrors of patriarchal descriptions of women, framing us as emotional, manipulative, and irrational creatures who need admonishment to control our wildness. I disagree. Truth telling is an act of moral courage, a sincere desire to create space for our shared humanity, and a central requirement for social change.We must resist the social isolation which urges us to frame our experiences in the most palatable way. We cannot shy away from speaking vulnerability because of the threat of criticisms. We must be comfortable with discomfort. The revolution is personal and the work of a poet is to reveal the unseen. As Rich notes, the possibility of our lives is not in the projection of our fears, but in the immediacy of our truth. Until we see our truths, we cannot see the truths of others. The refusal of truth is a spiritual death. As women, poets, and human beings, we must speak honestly to each other. It is not weakness, but a necessary first step to emancipation.
Image Credit: mzec/Flickr.* * *Thanks so much to Gwen for sharing the stories behind her chosen quotations for this edition of Quoted, and to Allison at Kegedonce for making the connection. Passage is available now.