Review: Broken Arrow: Native Men’s Writing, Art and Culture

By Guest Contributor Jorge Antonio Vallejos, cross-posted from Black Coffee Poet

There’s a new zine out that’s kick ass: “Broken Arrow”.  Its fifty-two pages are comprised of poems, plays, short stories, photos, and artwork; all of which bring the reader to the many different lives of its twenty-eight contributors.

For the last year, Toronto writer Emily Pohl-Weary has given a weekly workshop to the men at the Sagatay Native Mens Residence in Toronto’s west-end with the final result being “Broken Arrow”.

In her introduction to “Broken Arrow” Weary writes, “Working with the writers at Sagatay for the past year has been the highlight of my life.  Each Thursday, my mind came alive with new ideas and stories.  I could be having the most difficult, busy week, but after spending a morning with them, suddenly life felt manageable again.  I only needed to take time to slow down and appreciate the power of sharing our stories.”

Everyone has a story but not everyone is willing to share his or her story.  The men at Sagatay don’t hold back.  Honesty, bravery, and humility are displayed throughout the pages of “Broken Arrow”.  Whether writing of street life, different forms of abuse, loves lost, and the ever present colonization of Turtle Island now known as Canada, these men shoot arrows at their targets with perfect aim.

Since Black Coffee Poet is dedicated to poetry, the focus of this review will be on the raw, self-revealing, and healing verse displayed in the zine.

Tim Renollet’s poems show readers who he is while having them think about how we all have vulnerabilities and similarities.  ”Little Raccoon” is a short prose poem about Renollet’s encounter with a drunk raccoon.  He watches as the raccoon stumbles and rolls around for forty-five minutes.  Really, he is watching himself, as will many a reader who have put too much back during a party or two.  Renollet ends the poem with “I was there to watch over it, to see that it didn’t get run over.  I did this because I would have wanted someone to do that for me when I was like that in the past.”

“How The World See Me vs. How I See Myself”, another of Renollet’s short and powerful poems, will see many readers identifying with his words.  Many of us know who we are, what we are made of, and what we think while the rest of society sees us in a different light.  Describing society’s view of him, Renollet writes:

I see kindness, they see rudeness.

I see understanding, they miss that.

I see a helpful person, they couldn’t give a damn.

How one sees him self as opposed to how he is seen is a theme throughout the collection.  Explorations of the attempted colonial assimilation by the Canadian government, white on red racism, hyper-masculinity and violence, and poems about Native identity are written about by various “Broken Arrow” contributors.

Many of the poets use repetition and rhyme, others use prose, and some write extremely short poems that are entertaining and leave you thinking and hoping for more.

Derek McColgan’s poem “Downtown” is seven lines and had me reading it seven times over.  It takes place at the welfare office and sees a couple addicted to heroine waiting to see their intake officer.  McColgan’s sentences are short and crisp, and his images have you sitting in the office alongside the couple.  Reading McColgan’s pomes you can see why many believe that poetry and short fiction are cousins.  McColgan takes you to a place, has you turn your head from side to side, and takes you out fast.  “With her under his arm they scamper off,” writes McColgan at the poems end.

The main constant throughout “Broken Arrow” is truth; not only through its writers making themselves vulnerable on the page, the truth seen in the zine is how the poems are time sensitive and call it like it is.  ”Broken Arrow” has come out in a recession.  People are being laid off everyday, companies are shutting down and leaving the country, and assistance is being sought by thousands daily.  In his untitled poem, Rain Keeper writes of a scary reality that most don’t believe, or realize, can happen to them: “You are just one pay cheque away from being homeless.”

Kevin D. writes of the many prisons that exist in ones life.  He explores how many of society’s condemned are not behind bars, him being one of these people in the past.  “Self-destruction” and “inner scars” can keep someone captive just as easily as the colonial prison system.  Through bravery, honesty, and his refusal to be a victim, Kevin D. shares the cause of his past pain:

Prisoned not by a fallen soap bar

But prisoned by a pedophile, down the hall

Kevin D. cleverly plays with the crude, cruel, and common joke of dropping the soap in the prison shower and shows the reader the reality of child rape.  He educates readers by telling them that it’s not the guys you don’t know in prison, or the street, that most people have to worry about, it’s the friend, relative, or neighbour that is the cause of most rape in our society.

Emily Pohl-Weary ends her intro by saying, “Many times it felt as if I was the student and they the teachers.”  There is much to learn in the pages of “Broken Arrow”: stories from the street, poetic technique, and the courage to write about oneself.  I hope “Broken Arrow # 2″ is on the way, and I hope a similar zine comprised of Native women’s voices gets published soon too.