There’s a Poem for That: Kelsey Borgford & Cole Forrest + Once the Smudge is Lit

We start the week off with two poems from Nipissing First Nation poets Kelsey Borgford and Cole Forrest in their co-written collection Once the Smudge is Lit (Kegedonce Press). Kelsey and Cole tell us about how the book came together with beautiful illustrations by Indigenous artist Tessa Pizzale.


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There's a poem for that... NPM on All Lit Up.

An interview with poet Kelsey Borgford & Cole Forrest

All Lit Up: Can you tell us a bit about Once the Smudge is Lit and how it came to be?

The cover of Once the Smudge is Lit by Kelsey Borgford and Cole Forrest

Cole Forrest: Kelsey, Tessa, and I came together in a coffee shop and developed the themes and ideas for the collection, then we just jumped right in from there, what poems do we have on these themes, and what can we write to build this bigger story we’re telling in the collection. Then boom, throughout the year we put together this awesome poetry book. Once the Smudge is Lit is all about our experiences as young Indigenous people, from our cultural and personal histories, through our perspectives.

Kelsey Borgford: Our book is a composition of our unique experiences as Nbisiing Anishinaabe expressed through literary arts. It is an expedition through the tumultuous terrains of grief, love, and finding oneself. The reader undertaking the expedition finds peace in works about culture and ceremony. 

Our work came to be as a result of a shared understanding of the comfort writing can give whilst traversing the often tiring path of life as Anishinaabeg.

ALU: What sparked your initial love of poetry? 

Kelsey: I have always been interested in writing for as long as I can remember. The first time I found a love for it is when my work was recognized as good by those around me. I knew I was destined to be a creative as I was passionate about the arts, however I didn’t know which path I belonged in as I never felt like I excelled in anything until I was reaffirmed by other creatives. 

Cole: I’ve always loved the ability of poetry to be as non-linear, non-conforming, non-narrative, free-flowing as possible. I’ve always loved poetry because it can be what you want from the jump. Sometimes in artistic practice there’s talk about knowing rules before you break them. In poetry I never knew whatever poetry rules were out there so I just wrote and thankfully I’ve always had a lot of encouragement to continue to write. I’m grateful for my mother because she taught me to be intentional with what I do, and to question, to be my own person, and I feel I reflect what my mom taught  me in the way I write; it’s molded me to create my own auteur poetry voice (so thanks mom, love you). 

ALU: What did you learn while writing your collection? 

Kelsey: Writing isn’t a task I can take up without inspiration. I often feel as if I am guided whilst writing, and I don’t have to think much about the words that I am putting down if I have a source of inspiration. From this, I learned that my writing is a collective experience. Bits and pieces of family, friends, and places are sculpted into each line. It is made of the community, and it is made for the community. 

ALU: Has your idea of poetry changed since you began writing? 

Kelsey: In some ways, yes! With the editor I learned there were more ways of expression I could be utilizing through grammar and punctuation. For example, I did not use periods in my works to communicate a thread between each work. Each short piece came together to create a story. The concept of that continuation is also expressed through the artwork by Tessa through the flowing smudge on each page. 

ALU: Can you discuss the significance of language and word choice in your collection. How did you land on which words to use? 

Cole: For my poetry in the collection, I definitely communicate my writing in a frank way, I’m really direct and honest in the way I respond and recall my memories, trauma, and history. I think when it comes to words and which to use, for me it just comes from the way I speak, it’s very much like mouth-to-paper in the way I write and convey what I’m talking about, just as how I would in a conversation.

ALU: Are there poetry collections you can’t get out of your head years later?

Cole: There are three collections that inspire me greatly. This Wound Is A World changed my life, I took it everywhere, I recommended it to everyone, Billy-Ray Belcourt’s poetry blew my mind. Infinite Citizen of The Shaking Tent by Liz Howard, for me was like woah, this poetry is incredible, such a unique voice, and when I put it down I started writing. The third is Night Sky With Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong. That collection opened me up to new levels of vulnerability, and taught me so much about style. I would say all of these collections had a huge impact on me, they really helped me grow and take new steps to develop my own poetry voice.

There’s two poems for land gratitude…
“Neyaaba’aakwaang” & “The Eagle’s Nest”

from Once the Smudge is Lit


the water rushed over me
and knocked me to my knees

the river took me with it
it didn’t hurt when i held my breath;  
i’ve been holding it my whole life

i was enveloped in the tide 
from my toes to my soul 
the water rushed against me
washing away all that i carried with me  

the things i thought i needed to live were taken from me
with a simultaneous violence and gentleness  

and when i finally dragged myself out of the current 
i kissed the earth desperately  

thank you,  
i’m alive 
i’m alive  
i’m alive 

The Eagle’s Nest

there’s a size 3 Jordan show box of photos from the early 2000s photos from my mother’s childhood
photos of my great-grandmother
photos of my gokmis
photos of my cousins
photos of my auntie
photos of me
photos of where we lived
photos of where we travelled to
a newspaper clipping of the explosion that happened when grandma was a child
she always walked with a limp

my mom always laughs when I pulled it out to show people
it’s what happens when trauma and memory feed through
the same needle

I always tell the story of when I was 3 I sprayed lysol into my eyes
while my mom was in the shower

I remember picking up the roller coaster tycoon disc for our pc
when we moved into our upstairs apartment

Miss Cheechoo came to say hello before JK

I cried when we watched Armageddon with Bruce Willis because
I thought volcanos were possible in Nipissing

there was a volcano at one point but I didn’t know that at
3 years old

we fold memories into our present
in the apartment I lived in when I was in high school

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Photo by Mina Linklater

Kelsey Borgford is a Nbisiing Nishnaabekwe from the Marten clan. She is an emerging author, passionate about utilizing writing as a tool to revitalize cultural connections.After losing her Gokomis-baa in 2014,Kelsey sought out a means of connection with her grandmother and found that connection to her through the arts. Kelsey’s work aims to pass along cultural traditions and identity. Her work is predominantly centered in the practice of beading and writing.She has a children’s book,What’s in aBead, forthcoming from Second Story Press.In all aspects of her creativity, Kelsey draws inspiration from her culture, her mother, her community, and relatives in the natural world

Photo by Emily Seiler

Cole Forrest is an Ojibwe filmmaker and programmer from Nipissing First Nation. They have written and directed independent short films that have been screened at film festivals including imagineNATIVE, TQFF, and the Vancouver International Film Festival. Cole isa recipient of theKen and Ann WattsMemorial Scholarship and of the James Bartleman Indigenous YouthCreative Writing Award. They were the 2019 recipient of the imagineNATIVE + LIFT FilmMentorship and a 2020 Artist in Residence as a part of the Sundance Native Filmmakers Lab.Cole has supported programming at festivals including TIFF, imagineNATIVE, and FabulousFestival of Fringe Film. They are a graduate of the Video Design andProduction program atGeorge Brown College. Cole is currently writing their first feature film. They are grateful to represent their community in all artistic pursuits.

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Thanks to Kelsey and Cole for answering our questions, and to Kegedonce Press for the poems from Once the Smudge is Lit, which is available to order now (and get 15% off with the code THERESAPROMO4THAT until April 30!).

For more poetry month, catch up on our “there’s a poem for that” series here, and visit our poetry shop here.