New! SSHRC Award for an Indigenous Languages Aesthetic Translation Project

Neil Weisensel and I are thrilled to be the recipients of a 2020 Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Connection Award — one that will enable me to work more closely with our Saulteaux and Michif(s) translators, and for Neil to found a Michif choir and to mentor Michif conductors. The work will be based on the text I’m writing for Li Keur, Riel’s Heart of the North, premiering in Winnipeg in October 2020 with the Winnipeg Symphony.

Sharpshooter, mid-19th century, upon whom
one of the characters in the new opera is based!

From the grant description:

“Dr. Steele will continue her work alongside the Indigenous translators to further develop protocols and methods of poetic translation (from English to Michif and Saulteaux) established in the initial phase of the project. Steele has a very strong connection to the Métis community and is highly respected by its members; the translators from the Metis and Saulteaux communities are Elders and traditional knowledge keepers and as such are highly qualified in their respective language and cultural traditions. In tandem with this, we will create a multimedia Michif/Saulteaux Pronunciation Database for the translated texts. This knowledge will be transmitted to the Metis Chorus, who will be involved in the October 2020 performance of Li Keur, through a series of workshops and seminars (see below).”

“The Michif/Saulteaux Pronunciation Database and translations will be made available to other interested parties, including but not limited to Indigenous language scholars, graduate students, the Indigenous communities to which our translators belong, singers and choirs in the extended Canadian musical community, and other interested groups. These resources will be valuable not just for additional future performances of Li Keur, but can serve as a model of methodology for other writers and creative artists wanting to create new works using Indigenous languages. It is important to note that the translations are intellectual property of the translators. We will be developing a proper strategy in concert with the translators, a Cultural Consultant, and other Elders to ensure this knowledge is appropriately mobilized.”

and this:

“The 80-person Metis Chorus will be created using connections established with, and outreach by, our community partners: Manitoba Metis Federation, l’Union Nationale Métisse de St. Joseph, Canadian Museum for Human Rights, Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, Manitoba Opera, our Indigenous translators, our Métis Chorus Director, and previous Metis Chorus members from 2018 workshop performances of Li Keur. In a series of further workshops and seminars, the Métis Chorus will integrate the results of our work with the Indigenous translators, making use of the Michif/Saulteaux Pronunciation Database. The Métis Chorus Director will be responsible for training the chorus and integrating it into the larger body of the piece, Li Keur: Riel’s Heart of the North, for performance in October 2020.”

don’t panic (on Truth & Reconciliation)

Sometime ago, while I was living overseas for the majority of the past nine years, Canada embarked upon a consultation and conversation with the Indigenous nations. It was/is a huge and mightily ambitious project—to examine the impact of the past four centuries (or so) on the Indigenous peoples during the commencement of this nation of nations, Canada; the residential schools and how they harmed the Indigenous peoples in particular was the focus. A commission was established, thousands and thousands (millions?) of people participated, reports, summaries, and findings were made public.

Here is the commission’s stated goal: “There is an emerging and compelling desire to put the events of the past behind us so that we can work towards a stronger and healthier future. The truth telling and reconciliation process as part of an overall holistic and comprehensive response to the Indian Residential School legacy is a sincere indication and acknowledgement of the injustices and harms experienced by Aboriginal people and the need for continued healing. This is a profound commitment to establishing new relationships embedded in mutual recognition and respect that will forge a brighter future. The truth of our common experiences will help set our spirits free and pave the way to reconciliation.”

Besides the findings of the commission an accessible and beautifully written report was made available. One I highly recommend people read. In particular Vol. 3 on the Métis experience is of interest to us of Michif heritage as it describes the breadth of experiences of Michif peoples, many being quite different experiences than perhaps that of First Nations peoples or Inuit.

Another outcome of this laudable project was its Calls to Action (if you read this you’ll see that these calls are manageable). When I returned from the UK in 2016 I was intrigued and a bit overwhelmed by the ubiquitousness of these ‘calls to action.’ I saw them or heard of them almost everywhere I turned—from schools to churches to colleges and universities, media, sports orgs, and individuals. Almost all had drafted or articulated well-meaning sincere responses and programs to the calls for action. Meetings, visits and new partnerships with the local First Nations, self-examination became a modus vivendi. And that’s great. I began to notice, too, that there was a lot of wearing of hairshirts by some of the more well-meaning individuals. And so too, as the years rolled on and goals set out in 2015/16 failed to be attained, a lot of anger. (And it just occurred to me as I write this, that fuel for some of this might also be attributed to the rise of governance by tweet, the rise of the troll and the echo chamber etc. etc.)

Last night I spoke at a gathering at the Vancouver Aboriginal Friendship Centre, an event hosted by Métis Night (a modest weekly gathering of Michifs far from home in the centre of the continent) and as part of the Heart of the City Festival. I was there with my co-collaborator, Neil Weisensel, soprano Leah Alfred of the Namgis, Kwagiulth Nation, the maestra of Michif dance Yvonne Chartrand, and Ella & the Other Fella (fiddler E. Speckeen and guitarist J. Hilberry) and the organisers of the festival, hosted by the stalwart Pat, who keeps the Michif peoples gathering. I spoke of the new major work I’m writing, a musical drama on Louis Riel that premieres in 2020 and introduced Leah and Neil who performed the ‘Mending of Violence’ aria, one I wrote the lyrics to and which we had translated into Saulteaux. Later we danced to Michif fiddle tunes and a fine time was had by all. But I also spoke of our project as a Truth & Reconciliation piece, one that has brought much joy and many challenges, and how my goal is to see our languages and narratives back where they belong, central to the cultures of the central continent.

Later in the evening, a well-known personage of the Nlaka’pamux First Nation took me aside and told me that my words had had an effect on him, and we arranged to meet to talk later about what I had to say. Last week too, I had the chance to speak to a primarily non-Indigenous university faculty on the TRC Calls to Action. They wanted to know what concrete things I could envision for their department. I do not doubt their sincerity, not one little bit, they are thinking, sensitive people who genuinely want to see change. Just as I do not doubt the sincerity of all the churches, arts org., educational institutes etc. who want to do the right thing. But I made some observations to them, as well as to the person from the Nlaka’pamux First Nation when he told me that ‘our youth are angry that nothing is happening’ that seemed to make sense.

We live in a reactive age. One engendered by spontaneous and somewhat anonymous communication. We live in a culture where we can cancel each other or ghost each other with no social penalty. We live in a culture that seems to have developed a Pavlovian response to likes and a whole host of icons that symbolise emotional responses. And these are responses we do not really have to be responsible for despite the harm they can bring others, and even ourselves. Given our digital responsive-ability we have also turned to wanting to solve problems immediately and this is what I see in all the ambitions and disappointments of the promises made in response to the TRC.

So my thoughts on the subject that I communicated to the Nlaka’pamux person and the university faculty are as follows:

We didn’t get here overnight folks, it took 400 years (at least) of cultural exposure/clash to get us to this place and we can’t resolve much, if anything, in four years, never mind 40. This is a generations-long project. But we’ve begun it and that counts for a lot. The starting place, I sincerely believe, is startlingly simple: to still ourselves, really still ourselves, and to develop our listening skills in preparation for speaking or responding.

To still ourselves. To listen. Prepares us to hear. This is the stuff of calm maturity, of peaceableness. Because we cannot hear anyone’s truths if we’re in high-response mode, nor can we make relationship (other than an enemy binary of them/us). Nor can others hear us if we are in response mode as we won’t be able to speak with eloquence or heart.

Yep, basic stuff. Don’t panic. And I sincerely hope, don’t give up. We can do this.

War Video Installations

Two of my installations currently on view
at the Penticton Art Gallery until Nov. 11
composite photo ©Ron Marsh 2019

Here’s a nice article on my most recent doings! Thank you curator Paul Crawford, what an honour to share billing with Mary Riter Hamilton, one of my war artist heroes. She was neglected in her lifetime and I’m so glad Paul is bringing her home to us all.

On Metaphor & Narrative

photo of Ocean Vuong copyright Ocean Vuong/Literary Hub

How I love this article by Ocean Vuong for its insight into a different way of writing, especially handling narratives and literary techniques such as metaphor, and in the writing of On Earth We Were Briefly Gorgeous. I suppose I am grateful for Vuong’s voice at this moment because with the opera I am writing I feel pressured to write a classical dramatic arc with a main protagonist (Riel, of course), someone who DOES SOMETHING! In this much-anticipated work on Riel, I feel especially pressured to write something political/historical rather than the multi-layered work I have written to date, one with multiple persons, choruses, narrator, all working in an ensemble to create a whole. Thus it is fascinating to read Vuong’s literary provenance— that they are a poet does not surprise me.

In the article, Vuong (a McArthur Genius Award winner) writes: “In Western narratology, the plot is the dominant mode to which all characters are subordinate. But I wanted a novel to hold these characters thoroughly and, most importantly, on their own terms, free from a system of governance, even one of my own making. I could not employ the plot-heavy strategy because I needed these people to exist as they are, full of stories but not for a story.” Vuong cites

I love their commentary on the use of the metaphor from the point of view of non-Western literature. So often, it seems, we are warned not to write in clichés, nor to write in a style that is too metaphor-heavy. But Vuong comments that metaphor is ‘an alternate speech act’, and that ‘metaphor in the mouths of survivors became a way to innovate around pain’.” Oh how interesting, metaphor being a time-honoured building block of poetry empowers rather victimises the one who has experienced trauma; it is not a sidestep, nor a blocking.

What I am particularly intrigued with is how Vuong cites his use of Kishōtenketsu, a Chinese/Korean/Japanese literary form (Ki – Introduction; Shō – Development; Ten – Twist; and Ketsu – Conclusion). In this way they felt able to describe violence but not privilege it: ‘”It was important to me, at least in this book, that violence remain independent from any character’s self-worth, rendering it inert, terrible, and felt—but not a means of “development.” Through Kishōtenketsu, violence becomes fact and not a vehicle towards a climax.’

Now if I understand correctly, the Ten, or the twist, is a contrast rather than a climax in a ‘typical’ Western narrative arc. In some cases, the Ten is a cautionary tale within a tale (I’m just beginning research on the form so forgive me if I don’t have it correct!). Interestingly, Kishōtenketsu is used in gaming narratives (google the term in Google Scholar for a wide body of analyses), and given the relative youth of Vuong I could see how this might be a natural narrative ecology. The author offers this statement on why they used this form: ‘I could not employ the plot-heavy strategy because I needed these people to exist as they are, full of stories but not for a story.’ I like this very much in the context of my current work that focuses on the multi-cultural peoples—the composers and conductors may feel daunted as they juggle the forces on stage, but somehow, to me, it just feels right.

The Art of War at the Penticton Gallery

SM Steele outside my installation, Road to War 2008-9
inside the ‘bunker’, my video triptyche, Road to War 2008-09

a quick note to say that two of my video installations have opened at the Penticton Art Gallery’s war artist show. I’m thrilled to know that I’m sharing the billing with Mary Riter Hamilton (1873-1954), my hero actually. Riter Hamilton spent three years painting the still-smouldering battlefields of the Western Front from 1919-1922, losing her health and partial eye-sight doing so and suffered greatly afterwards, financially and physically. Her work has been neglected for a century. I wish she could see it exhibited so beautifully by curator Paul Crawford. More photos from the exhibit coming soon!

Penticton Art Gallery! Sept. 20-Nov. 11, 2019

from Champs de Visions/Fields of Vision/Blickfelder

I am pleased to announce that two of my video installations will be on exhibition at the Penticton Art Gallery this autumn, and that I will be giving an artist talk on Saturday, September 21 at 1 pm. Curator Paul Crawford has assembled a fantastic exibition featuring the much neglected, but fantastic war artist, Mary Riter Hamilton’s (1867-1954) work. I have long admired Riter Hamilton and have lectured on her work, and I am so grateful to Paul Crawford for bringing her work back to us. I am humbled to be part of this show.

my view from inside Light Armoured Vehicles (LAVs)

The work of mine that will be on display includes Road to War (2014), a video triptych shot over the two years I was embedded as a war artist with the 1st Battalion Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. The footage, shoot using a handheld digital camera, intends to provoke thoughts on the paradox of the war narrative—a narrative at once private, and yet so very public. The work is intended to be viewed selectively, that is, one chooses how to experience the triptych, e.g., as a single screen, a double screen, a triple, with or without ambient sound, or my poetry as voice-overs. First seen at Scotland’s wondrous StAnza International Poetry Festival, the work has been exhibited in Canada and Britain.

The other video installation I will be exhibiting is one I shot on the battlefields, in the woods, and the graveyards of the Western Front in 2014, the centenary of the start of the Great War. Champs de Visions/Fields of Visions/Blickfelder is a meditation on the consequences of landscape—all footage was shot from the ground up, so flat and dangerous was the Western Front. I hope you can join us for this innovative exhibition that includes women war artists from almost a century apart.

On Editing: the Middle East Connection

I often get asked how it is that my work as an editor includes a Middle East/Islamic studies specialty, given that I’ve only been to Dubai and Afghanistan briefly, and speak neither Arabic, Farsi, nor Pashtun, Dari etc. Additionally, I am patently not an Islamic or Middle East scholar. While I have worked as a writer and editor for management consulting companies for over two decades, I’ve developed this sub-specialty. A brief perusal of the work I’ve edited in the field reveals a wide range of topics: Islam and democracy; Saudi feminism; the use of the conditional in modern Arabic; several studies on various aspects of Sufism, historical and contemporary; Kurdish studies; undocumented labour in Saudi; Indonesian pedagogy; Egyptian EFL teacher training, and much more, including the geopolitical. Each editing job has provided fascinating and contemporary insight into cutting-edge research, and has allowed me to see the many facets of the complex Arab and Islamic world, a world seldom examined outside the conflict narrative. So how did my Middle East editing practice start?

A few years ago, while doing my PhD research at the University of Exeter, I discovered the beautiful Institute of Arabic and Islamic Studies (IAIS) on my way home to our apartment on campus. The Institute is housed in a building one can truly describe as serene, and was one that I gravitated to particularly because of its gorgeous architectural lines, its honey-coloured stone, and the lovely light from its oversize windows. Rather a nice break from my own faculty’s modernist architecture, one replete with 1960s aluminum-cased windows that whistle with winter winds off Dartmoor, and that always seemed to have a sense of over-crowdedness.

Interior of the beautiful Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies
University of Exeter
Image © University of Exeter

Soon I began working in the common room of the IAIS, which led to attending lectures on contemporary or historic issues, all of them dedicated to Middle East and/or Islamic subjects. I also attended art exhibitions and openings. The lectures on contemporary Middle Eastern or Islamic subjects were by world experts, and for the most part, provided me a welcome respite from my own subject—war and the complexities of personal war narrative. Sometimes the topics at the Institute were quirky, such as Dr. Jenny Balfour-Paul’s fascinating lecture on the history of indigo. Other times they were deeply complex lectures on some aspect of Arabic syntax. No matter what the subject, I learned so much, and mused at how I’d love to take the elementary Farsi or Arabic courses. But I had enough on my plate already.

Often I’d meet my neighbours at the institute. My 14-year-old daughter and I lived in the wonderful apartments set out by the university for international families where we had the great fortune to be surrounded by post graduates and their families from Korea, Syria, Kuwait, Saudi, Turkey, Iraq, the UAE, Libya, and other countries. The apartments are built around a playground over which we looked, and from the beginning of our residency my daughter and I were welcomed by the women who often sat outside watching over their children (a few were the post grads, but most were wives of post grads). Over the two years we lived there, we became good friends with the families and frequently were invited to share meals, or tea and goodies. More than once I’d come home from a day’s work and find a bag of delicious food hanging on the door. The children were often messengers sent to invite! We reciprocated by hosting Easter egg colouring (by request from the mothers and children I must add) and Canada Day cupcakes and celebrations.

Institute of Arabic and Islamic Studies
University of Exeter
©University of Exeter

The friendships we made included invitations to meet extended family visiting from Kuwait, e.g., and, joyfully, new babies born into our little community while we were there. I will always remember sitting on blankets and sharing tea and food, and especially our farewell gathering, at midnight during Ramadan when all we women feasted together in the semi-moonlight while the children slept. Even our Saudi neighbour, a very busy Master degree candidate with a sick child, came out that night and enjoyed our companionship. I’ll always remember a knock on the door and a beautiful pearl necklace delivered by a child, a gift to me from his mother. We shared a lot there, not the least being the stress of doctoral research and raising children in a foreign country, especially for those whose countries were at war (sometimes a regime change eradicated years of research).

family residences
University of Exeter
©copyright University of Exeter

Over the course of a few years I began to be recommended through word-of-mouth and have rarely advertised. I learned a lot, and continue to do so. One of the things I’ve learned to do is to communicate up front to non-native-English writers: English is an extremely complex language, even for native-English speakers. Indeed, I remind my clients that even editors need editors, not the least because one is too close to the subject often, and, in the case of large research projects, too often all the writer wants to do is FINISH IT! But as I recently reminded a Dutch client, it’s the last 5% that makes all the difference in the final work.

Another major challenge for my authors, I believe, is that at home in their respective countries they are amongst the most fluent English speakers and writers; they are top academics or functionaries accepted into a first class university. And for some it is difficult to accept that their English is not perfect. I counsel these writers and reassure them that their English is VERY GOOD, but that it is a notoriously challenging language, and that there are some inexplicable grammatical conventions learned by ear at a young age. A colleague of mine and I discuss this quite often. And so there is some ego involved in having one’s work edited. (Personally, I like to have a good edit of my work—I’m often too close to it to really hear or see its imperfections.)

Once in awhile I was asked to help edit some of my neighbours’ papers. Soon I was asked if I could edit dissertations, frequently being recommended by supervisors. And I loved it, and continue to love editing in the subject (and others). What I find when I edit non-native English writers’ work is that I learn not only a lot about the subject, but also a bit of how the culture intellectualizes, lays out a formal argument. For example, through editing for syntax and flow I found that many Arabic writers use long, very complex sentence structures. Frequently the argument comes at the end of the paragraph(s); interestingly, I found this while editing native-German writers’ work as well. When I queried one of my Arabic- speaking clients about this they referred to certain classical Arabic writers whose sentences often flow on for one or two full pages!

Ultimately, I believe it is my job to be a cheerleader as well as an editor for my clients. Writing a major work such as a PhD dissertation, a Master thesis, a book, or even an article, is a lonely business, one fraught with self-doubt. I love working with these fascinating people who teach me so much. My clients benefit from the fact I know the PhD trajectory well, having just completed mine in 2017. They also benefit from my Master of Library Science, and my genuine interest in their world. I love this work, I really do, and I am so glad I entered the institute years ago, it continues to feed my curiosity for a world I’ve known so little about, outside conflict and oil. There is so much, much more.

ArtsWells: or how to do a festival right

HQ, ArtsWells Festival of All Things Art

It’s the 50th anniversary of Woodstock. Last thing I heard, the anniversary edition was canned, revived, moved, canned, and possibly revived yet again. Lazarus never rose so many times. But I’ve never been much for festivals and can count on one hand the number of them I’ve been to. Even then, I was on stage performing for most of them. Too many people, too much garbage or mud, just too much of too much. An introvert’s nightmare. But in early August I had a chance to see the beautifully run festival, ArtsWells, in the sweet little town, Wells, B.C., in the centre of the province.

You learn a lot about a village by counting the number of churches it has. Or bars. Or churches AND bars. But what about a village bursting with performance venues? I’ve travelled this world a whole lot over my lifetime and I’ve never seen such a charming little village with so many perfect, human-size venues, as the tiny village of Wells, population 245 (or 300, depending upon who has guests over). Invited to appear there as a poet and speaker, I was one of the significantly larger, temporary population of festival-goers, one I can only guess swells to maybe 10 times the usual population number.

The Sunset Theatre, Wells, BC

In its 16th year, this celebration of ‘all things art’ is run by Julie Fowler, Paul Crawford, and an amazing ArtsWells team (thanks Sam for the 1001 responses to my emails). This was one festival I’d wanted to see for years, most of all because I’m a longtime fan of Jeff Andrew, one of the most original voices of his generation – think Woody Guthrie of the digital age. To catch Jeff is a rarity and ArtsWells is one of his haunts, so for me to be invited as an artist in order to get me up there at long last, well, that was a very fine thing. Thanks Julie and Paul.

Paul Crawford announcing the rules of the 1 Minute Play competition

On the August long weekend we packed up early and headed north from Vancouver. Off we went through the Fraser Canyon, [Sto:lo (in Halqemeylem), Lhtakoh (in Dakelh), ʔElhdaqox (in Tsilhqot’in)] up to the Cariboo, places I’d adored as a child, entirely enamoured of the geography – I mean who doesn’t love a river and a canyon and valleys? And it was the Cariboo that kickstarted my love of history – Indigenous and post-contact. I admit, as a kid I had gold fever. Our 9 1/2 hour drive morphed into a 13 hour drive due to bad weather, and a truly terrible accident that closed the highway.

Sto:lo (in Halqemeylem), Lhtakoh (in Dakelh), ʔElhdaqox (in Tsilhqot’in)
aka The Mighty Fraser River

We arrived in the early evening and the festivities were well on their way with a parade of giant puppets, slightly drenched, and the fab Queen, Ms. Fondle, as Parade Marshall. What a welcome sight after our arduous journey on back roads (and sobering too, as a woman had lost her life on the highway and two seriously injured). Forgoing the evening’s multiple events we headed to our cabin at Barkerville and rested til morning.

Up early to a still-sleeping village, we ate and then went to shake the road from our bones at Dance Church with Grampa Groove. Seriously fun way to start the day. Then for the next three days a truly fun and intelligent program made such a great festival. It got me thinking of what made it different from other festivals I’ve observed (mostly from afar). I think it is ArtsWells modesty and its programming brilliance. We’re not talking brand names such as at the big festivals, we’re talking talent, pure talent that works its a$$ off while on stage, and better yet, clearly loves their art form. Every single act I caught, every workshop I attended, was compelling, original, and thoughtful – and yes, the music on every single stage was fabulous. The people in attendance – a huge proportion of them are artists – all so colourful and interesting. Outbreaks of music and theatrics were frequent and seriously delightful.

For my Sunday session I gave a reading, showed video footage (with actors’ voiceovers of my war poetry) and dispelled as many Myths of the Poet as I could. Apparently I did. Even the sound crew were wide-eyed; one of them came up to me afterward and said “I didn’t think I liked poetry until now”. We wandered and watched, ate, and enjoyed the acts, and especially Jeff Andrew, whose rock-out session in the pub left me even more amazed at his talent than ever before, his use of guitar effects tasteful and intricate. (Generally I’m no fan of guitar effects because most people overuse them.)

On Monday, I hosted a session, Becoming, a storytelling with Quinton and Darren of the Snotty Nose Rez Kids currently on their wildly successful Trapline Tour. Dialling it back, waaaay back from hype and crowds and expectations, we had a chance to be people together, people telling our stories. I began with the session by inviting everyone to relax, close their eyes and listen to the Becoming story I’ve written for the overture to my new opera. That I heard a few zzzzzzzzs coming from the crowd was a great reward to me as that’s exactly what I had in mind.

Quinton, SMS, Darren, aka The Snotty Nose Rez Kids

I invited those in attendance to take this chance to be still, to listen and settle, to begin to hear the soothing voices of these men tell their truths. Because in this noisy age of keyboard strokes and opinion, listening is really such a balm. The young men took over, each taking half of the large group, and spoke softly for over an hour and a half – so different from their hip hop delivery of their truths – and not a person stirred. I am so grateful to these men for showing up to tell the Becoming stories of two Haisla boys from the tiny coastal village of Kitamaat and how they became Hip Hop artists. They told much more. It was a profound experience for the listeners, and I wish them well. Fame, fast fame carries a lot of stress.

The final performance we caught was Bruce Horik’s Assassinating Thomson. This one-hander has won numerous awards and deserves to be, as cited, a Canadian classic and much more. Horik, legally blind, manages to juggle a triple narrative of the mysterious death of painter Tom Thomson with his own narrative of going blind at age 9 as a result of a genetic blastoma (with poignant reference to his father’s own struggle and sense of guilt with the same thing), with an onstage demonstration of his painting skills. To say it is a tour de force sounds cliché, but it is a tour de force. Horak’s acting, writing, and painting on stage is a triple threat. It was a fitting end to the first festival I’ve been to in years. We left Wells early on Tuesday morning, satisfied, grateful, and inspired. Thank you Julie and team.

SMS at ArtsWells Festival of All Things Art Aug. 2-5, 2019

image ©ArtsWells Festival of All Things Arts

It’s with great excitement that I announce I will be doing a reading and leading a story workshop this weekend at ArtsWells Festival of All Things Art. Billed as ‘the Cariboo’s largest celebration of music and art’, this is a festival I’ve tried to get to for so many years I can’t tell you. Somehow something always comes up on that first long weekend of August. This year I was invited to participate, et voilà, Barkerville and Wells here we come! At long last I’ll get to see Jeff Andrew, an artist (and now a friend) I have long admired. Jeff Andrew is an original. The first time I heard him, at a treeplanting party somewhere in the wilderness of B.C., I dropped everything and sat in awe and listened. He is a major talent, one of the strongest voices of his generation, politically and artistically.

So what am I up to at ArtsWells? My first session is titled, ‘The Myth of the Poet’. In it I’m going to dispel as many myths of the poet as I can with readings from my war work, some readings from my new opera, a little bit of Wittgenstein-riff, and maybe even a bit of skank from 51 shades of black & blue, a cabaret project with my collective Exegesis (Dr. Jaime Robles and Dr. Mike Rose)! The second session is a workshop, ‘Becoming Stories‘, with the Snotty Nose Rez Kids, two hiphop artists from the Haisla village, Kitamaat Village. SNRK are currently riding the wave. Pairing me, someone who works with the ‘legacy’ classical music world as a cross-cultural project, with this duo who work in a distinctly different cross-cultural project, a ‘legacy’ world originating in the urban black experience, well that should make for interesting times! While there will definitely be a Q & A session for us all, it’s going to be a work session too so participants should be prepared!!

In Extremis: The Life of War Correspondent Marie Colvin

24 hrs leave


war, this word so small so worried
over and out; you and I, self-storied,
the click of lips, our hips tented
into one, a shelter, new conquered
land; small, there it is again, 24 rented
hours just for this; wars’ dragonflies
lapus lazuli, gossy-gold, the fuse; my
heat, the sheets, the folds, and you.

©S.M. Steele 2009

For me some books are better read in summer than winter. This is the case with, In Extremis: The Life of War Correspondent Marie Colvin (2018), a biography of Colvin by war correspondent Lindsey Hilsum. I am reading it in the full light of July. I bought the book last winter when it first came out but could not bear to read it. Given my work of almost a decade ago, far different than Colvin’s, and my exposure to the trauma of war, far less, I find this compelling biography to be at once fascinating and depressing. Ultimately it details the price one woman paid for illuminating the human condition in war, a price her family and friends and colleagues must continue to pay.

In 2012, I had the good fortune to meet David Loyn at the Frontline Club in London, a club founded by, and for, frontline journalists. I was introduced to Loyn by a retired British Brigadier-General who had contacted me for an interview for his own Master degree on war poetry. The retired general, a 40-something year old and veteran of Iraq, was then working with the media and was a member of the club, and as I’d mentored the general with his own work, he was eager to oblige with some quid pro quo.

At the time, I wanted to speak with Loyn for my PhD, a study of war narratives and the inherent challenges of finding an appropriate artistic form, and the process the artist undergoes in war. Finally, I attempted to explore the rather old-fashioned notion of truth in war. As a Canadian War Artist (2008-10 Task-Force 3-09 A’stan with 1PPCLI), I was interested in hearing the front-line journalist point of view, how they tackle story – I felt this would add a dimension to my dissertation that would contextualize my central arguments. Central to my research, I wanted to know how war tackles frontline journalists. Near the end of our interview, Loyn suggested he introduce me to his very good friend and comrade, Marie Colvin. He told me that she was due back to London within a few weeks and he’d facilitate this. I remembered this striking woman with the eyepatch and was very interested in meeting her. But within 10 days or so, she was dead, targeted in Homs, Syria. I sent Loyn a letter of condolence.

My experience of journalists, or at least how they are often perceived by soldiers in theatre or on military exercises, is one of caution. During my tenure as a war artist (a poet for heaven’s sake), soldiers avoided me like the plague as they thought I was a journalist, due to my constantly taking notes and photographs. After their officers explained who I was, why I was there, and how to behave around me (as normal as possible), they slowly relaxed. The Commanding Officer of the battalion I accompanied on the road to war advised that I ‘be ever-present, become like the furniture and the boys will soon forget you’re there’.

I spent thousands of hours with the boys (and I include women in this term), mostly recruits rather than officers. I slept on the ground alongside them, rattled in Light Armour Vehicles (LAVs) for hours on end, suffered the dreaded GI (gastro-intestinial virus) with them and got hauled off live-fire and then quarantined and forgotten, helped feed them by getting up with the cooks at 4 a.m., and visited them on the frontlines. Interestingly, I got more street-cred with them for suffering the GI and being forgotten, than I did flying outside the wire to them! (‘You’re one of us now Ma’am’ they told me). I became part of the furniture. Almost. But one thing I never tried to be, was one of them. Nor did I ever speak for them. And contrary to what the poem above suggests, I did not fraternize. (I think I was a mom-figure to them, actually.)

I liken war to a very hot frying pan of sizzling oil. As anyone who cooks will know, ingredients thrown into the hot, hot pan will either fry to a blackened, inedible crisp, or, the heat can bring out the very best of flavours, the sharpest. It’s all in the care and timing. In war, one sees the very best of human behaviours, and the very worst (on the homefront too, I should add). And war can be gaudy or addictive, as I write in my poem, a poem imagining a 24 hour leave:

wars’ dragonflies
lapus lazuli, gossy-gold, the fuse …

Over the long haul, if one throws in the MSG of PTSD, a slow slither of a flavouring comes forth, one that quickly turns war from intriguing to craving, to addiction. This is the recipe that I refer to in my dissertation as being ‘the sensual and moral conversion’ (Lande qted in Steele, 25-27), of the war artist, or, in the case of Colvin, the war correspondent. This notion of becoming someone else, through physical and moral conversion, was developed from my reading of sociologist Brian Lande’s fascinating study ‘Breathing Like a Soldier: culture incarnate’ (2007) in which Lande signed up for basic training so he could understand the process of becoming a soldier. That the conversion happens in the highly-pressurized physical environment of the war zone, or what I refer to as ‘The Forbidden Zone’ (with reference to Mary Borden’s 1928 narrative), fixes the conversion. I believe these ideas hold true for war journalists too.

And I think this is why I find Colvin’s story by Hilsum so daunting to read, especially in winter – it is a cautionary tale as much as a well-researched and well-written biography. One reads of Colvin’s choices, her braveries, and sometimes her foolhardiness, and then of her private life and choices therein, many of them disastrous. Colvin is portrayed as a wonderful friend, a great companion, and a generous colleague – someone I’d have loved to meet – an attractive spirit who loved sailing (something I’ve learned too, these past years) and a good party. But Hilsum’s brilliant interspersing of Colvin’s diary entries and excerpts from Colvin’s dispatches are often just too painful to read – the ones from the Serbian war I had to skip – I know too much about vicarious trauma to know what we put in we cannot take out, I’ve met too many veterans of that war and have learned of their pain.

What is most painful in Hilsum’s biography of her colleague and friend, is that we know the outcome, the divorces, the estrangements, the deaths, and ultimately, Colvin’s death. At times while reading this, all I want to do is shout out to Colvin “No!!! Don’t do it!” – whether this be a marriage or another trip to the war zones. And this is the brilliance of the book, Hilsum carefully lays out the sensual and moral conversion of the young girl, Marie, born to a big, happy, Irish-American Catholic family, to the war-weary Colvin. And as the very best of biographers, Hilsum gets out of the way of the story. This is no mean feat given Hilsum’s own illustrious career as a journalist working on the frontlines of some of the world’s most difficult conflicts. Further, as Hilsum states in a Press Gazette article, she did not want to appear to be “buying into or helping create the myth of Marie and the glamour of the war correspondents”. But Hilsum pulls it off. She has written a great biography of one of my generation’s most committed and skilful journalists – not a Martha Gelhorn (Colvin’s hero) for our age, but a Marie Colvin, an original.

My condolences to Marie Colvin’s family, colleagues, and friends.