Try Poetry: Abolitionist Intimacies + El Jones

We’re in good hands on this first day of Try Poetry (Why Not?) – former Poet Laureate of Halifax and academic/activist El Jones shares her electrifying poem “How to Write a Settler Poem” from her latest collection Abolitionist Intimacies (Fernwood Publishing). Read the poem, the spoken word and activist poets that inspire Jones, and more in our interview feature below.


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An Interview with Poet El Jones

All Lit Up: When was the moment that you decided you wanted to write poetry?

El Jones: The first poem I wrote was when I was maybe four, and it was “sun, mum, fun, bum.” I drew pictures to accompany them and gave it to the minister at church. My mother was mortified because it had a picture of a bum.

In high school I played guitar and wrote a lot of songs, so that was really when I started writing. Later I was also writing “page poetry.” With spoken word, I woke up one day with a poem in my head, and I wrote it down and then looked at it kind of asking, “what is this? It’s like a rap but I can’t rap.” Word Iz Bond had a monthly show in Halifax at the time, and right after I wrote that poem I saw a friend of mine in the street and she asked why I never came out to spoken word night. I went and did that poem, people reacted to it and I just kept going! I suppose I had something to say, and spoken word was the place to say it.

Poetry really formed my political outlook – I often talk about reading Ballad of Reading Gaol by Oscar Wilde when I was 13 and how I immediately understood how unjust prisons are. So I say that poem made me into an abolitionist.

ALU: If you had to pitch your featured poem to someone who had never read poetry before, how would you do so?

EJ: I think spoken word is its own pitch – it’s not really meant to be read on the page, but heard in performance. So I would definitely perform any poem I wanted someone to engage with.

I don’t really have a writing process, I mostly write on my phone. In general with spoken word I want it to be direct, to be understandable to a broad audience and to take on political or social issues. To be honest, this isn’t a poem in my stage set so I don’t actually perform it – it’s part of kind of a series of poems about Canada (the original title for my book was Canada Is So Polite after the poem in my book.) So, a lot of the final version of a poem usually develops through performance – what gestures or movements do you do? How do you sell the funny lines? What tone of voice, etc. I haven’t really been through that process with this poem!

ALU: What’s a poetry collection or individual poem that you’d recommend to anyone looking to get into poetry?

EJ: I really love the work – both poetry and prose – of Audre Lorde. “Who understands me but me” by Jimmy Santiago Baca is one of my favourite poems. I enjoy the poetry of James Tate a lot because it seems so conversational which is incredibly difficult to write. Sonia Sanchez and June Jordan are other favourites. There’s a lot of great spoken word on YouTube by so many artists as well! Just find a poem you enjoy and go from there!

“How to Write a Settler Poem”

From El Jones’s collection Abolitionist Intimacies

Write about nature, never about land
Land is political
Land might lead to critical thoughts about land claims
And we just want poems about the rain
Or how we tamed the wilderness
Not about Treaty Rights or fracking
Or who stole this land anyway
Because that might lead to unpleasant feelings of shame
And what are we supposed to do, just give it all back?

So let’s just write poems about following the moose tracks
Into the undergrowth
In both official languages
Because Indigenous languages
Don’t qualify for a Governor General’s Award

And we just can’t afford
To think about all those places with Indigenous names
Like, for example, Canada

Definitely avoid poems about race
They don’t give awards
To poetry that inflames
Acclaimed Canadian poems are poetry that make us feel safe

Avoid anything that’s contemporary or relevant
The words oppression or white privilege just aren’t poetic or elegant
And after all Canadian poetry should make you feel benevolent
Like, I’m a good progressive white liberal Canadian and I’m special
Poetry that can be read on CBC and makes you feel intellectual

Being a poetry reader should ideally make you feel
Like you’re better
Than regular people
You know it’s respectable If it’s boring and ineffectual

Canadian poetry is for settlers
That’s why Canada loves nature poems
Because nature is that open sweep of empty space
With no inconvenient Indians
And poetry really should be empty of opinions
Otherwise, isn’t it just a rant?

Canadian poetry should evoke a pre-colonial fantasy
Where it’s just settlers against the land
And nature is threatening and dangerous
Until it’s taken in hand
And conquered existentially by a single pioneering white man
After all, isn’t that how Canada began?

Poetry by Indigenous people
Should allow you to place them firmly in the past
It’s so sad how those people just can’t keep up
With a modern world that’s just too fast
Such a gentle people really
Oh, but Idle No More won’t last

You should probably appropriate
Some Indigenous images for your own poetry
It’s okay, you don’t have to ask
After all, famous white Canadian painters
Painted totems and sacred masks

Art is for everybody, after all
That is, until you violate white copyright
But we just do folk art, so it can’t be plagiarized
Our ideas and style are available for free
We’re not intellectual or anything
It just comes to us naturally

Real poetry is deep
Poetry is spiritual, which means it puts you to sleep
Real poetry should be individual
Real poetry is just about you and your vision

It should be about reflecting on your personal life journey and relationships
And comparing that to a fox
It should never be about social justice or collective liberation
Because isn’t that just writing in a box?

Isn’t that simplistic?
Not sophisticated like, say, poetry about the cottage

Poetry by people of colour is okay as long as it’s exotic
Write about spices
White people love that local flavour
Don’t write about the racist immigration points system
Or the exploitation of Third World labour

Just write about your grandmother’s wisdom or colourful market behaviour
White people should feel
Like they’re an expert on your culture after reading your poems
So that they can play saviour

Throw in a couple of words in your language
As long as you speak English
When you’re around your neighbours
Don’t get carried away
Remember, poetry is civilized

Poetry is quiet and white
Just like nature
Nature is the opposite of urban
Which is a synonym for Black
And that means hip hop and slang and loud
And Canadian listeners don’t like that
We just want to hear baroque music
And balmy white voices
And poems about your grandmother’s farm

Nature is white and calm
Nature is, I get to own a second home in the country
But I’m sophisticated and educated
Not like those rural folk
Nature is, I get to fantasize about being authentic
And getting rid of technology
But not because I’m broke
Nature is, I can give up what I have when I feel like it
Just for fun or a joke
It’s not rural poverty or drug addiction or the loss of industry
It’s water skiing and campfire smoke

Nature is quiet nights at the cottage
With nothing but the sound of the loons
And loons are on the loonie so that’s government-approved
As an image of Canada
Loons are soothing
Really, if you write a Canadian poem
And you can’t record it over the sound of loons
Then is it really worth producing?
If you’re not writing about nature in Canada
Then what are you really doing?

Write about loons
And not about the Black people they’re removing
Or describing the bruising from police brutality
Or how Bill C-51 is attacking our privacy

Write about the lake
Don’t write about how we take
Water from the lakes we vacation on
While the reserves who own the lake
Have boil-before-drinking advisories

Write poetry that’s already dead and buried in the libraries
Write about the time you saw a deer
Not about how, say, Canadian companies profit off oil in Nigeria

If you’re Black, write an update of Shakespeare
That will make white people feel like you’re intelligent
And like you admit white culture is superior
That makes them think you’re literate
And not like those rappers
Remember, they don’t know Black people
Can actually read books with chapters
Write a tribute to Leonard Cohen or the Group of Seven
Or even William Shatner
Definitely don’t write poems about the Toronto Raptors
Write about the white spruce, or the white fir, or the white pine

That’s why we write about nature in Canada
Because nature is colour-blind

“How to Write a Settler Poem” is excerpted from Abolitionist Intimacies by El Jones, copyright © 2022 by El Jones. Reprinted with the permission of Fernwood Publishing.

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Poet El Jones.

El Jones is a poet, journalist, professor and activist living in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She teaches at Mount Saint Vincent University, where she was named the 15th Nancy’s Chair in Women’s Studies in 2017. She was Halifax’s Poet Laureate from 2013 to 2015. She is the author of Live from the Afrikan Resistance!, a collection of poems about resisting white colonialism. Her work focuses on social justice issues, such as feminism, prison abolition, anti-racism and decolonization. Since 2016, she has co-hosted a radio show called Black Power Hour, on CKDU-FM where listeners from prisons call in to rap and read their poetry, providing a voice to people who rarely get a wide audience.

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Thanks to El Jones for answering our questionnaire and sharing “How to Write a Settler Poem” with us for Try Poetry (Why Not?).

Remember, if you purchase a copy of Abolitionist Intimacies or any of the other featured Try Poetry collections, you’ll receive a free digital sampler containing all of our featured poems. (Purchase from All Lit Up or from your local independent bookseller; send proof of payment to if you purchase from your local!)