Culturelicious: An Interview With Mohawk Poet Janet Marie Rogers

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

Janet Marie Rogers is a spoken-word poet from Six Nations Territory in Ontario, Canada who started writing in 1996.

Her literary passions are Native heritage, feminism, historical territories, human love, sexuality and spirit.

Rogers hosts Victoria, BC’s only Native radio program, called Native Waves every Tuesday at 2:30 pm on CFUV 101.9 FM.

BCP: Why spoken-word poetry?

JMR: This is easy to answer. I was first exposed to poetry readings at a local pub. And there was plenty of “bad” poetry being shared. People droning on and reading a type of therapeutic poetry which is like masturbating in words. So I vowed then and there that I would NEVER bore my audience. Plus I believe in my words and wanted people to pay attention to my messages, so I began “teaching myself” the spoken word genre and its been growing from there ever since.

BCP: What is your process?

JMR: I wait for the good stuff. Some writers are disciplined and are able to write everyday. Myself, I know when a poem wants to be born. It is a strong energy in my stomach, then the words begin to sound in my head and I’m off to the races as they say. And during the execution of the poem, I keep telling myself to stay true, be honest, go deep, make it interesting and creative. I tell other writers and artists, there is no great crime than to be boring and unoriginal … I live by that code.

BCP: How long have you been writing poetry/songs?

JMR: Gosh, I moved from Toronto to Victoria BC in 1994. I had three years sobriety under my belt at that time and I was done with the Big Smoke. I had every intention to pursue a career as a visual artist and even had a solo show in Vic called “Rock, Paper, Scissors” based on petroglyph and pictograph images. I also started a women’s artists collective at the time which was pretty successful. I began writing in 1996 – and when the writing began piling up, I produced little books. I was tickled when people actually took money from their pockets to buy my writing – and the writing seemed to go farther in a shorter amount of time, than the visual work ever did…so I followed that.

BCP: Who are your influences?

JMR: Well, influences are fluid, they change from time to time – so recently I picked up a copy of Skin Like Mine by Garry Gottfriedson. His work is a shining example of an aware mature Indian writer who expresses his poems beautifully without watering down his politics. For me, this is good writing. I have had very talented writing mentors in my life like Jordan Wheeler and Richard VanCamp. I have a writing brother, Chris Bose who recently launched his book Stone the Crow. We support one another and have come up as writers simultaneously. I studied spoken word once, at the Banff Centre which has a fabulous program, unfortunately its run by a crazy lady Sheri D Wilson. She was the only challenge within that program.

BCP: Your poetry/songs are raw, honest, and stimulating.  What do you try to convey to your listeners?

JMR: Truth. Inspiration. Creativity.

BCP: How long were you working on the poems/songs that are featured in Firewater?

JMR: Some are older poems, but most of them are recent, like created in the last 3 years. None of the poems on the CD are published, but soon will be in my next book titled “Un-Earthed” with Leaf Press. Fall 2011

BCP: Why did you name the CD Firewater?

JMR: I love the idea of re-claiming words, especially words that were meant to degrade our people. Firewater is actually paying homage to two of the natural elements, Fire, which represents the creative forces in the word and water, which is essential to our life, water runs through the veins of the earth. But firewater also means booze. So like the booze reference, these poems work with that wild energy, that drunk and uninhibited energy. Its about power! and I’m surprised, more people haven’t taken me to task over this title…I was hoping for more controversy.

BCP: Water is a huge aspect of Firewater. It is present in many songs through drops hitting the ground, rain pouring, rivers flowing, and the ocean crashing.  Why did you choose to make water such a prevalent force in your CD?

JMR: That’s the work of my producer, Chris Bose … he was working with a brand new Mac program. I trusted him with the soundscapes and effects he worked into the poems.

BCP: The violin is an instrument that is in almost every song.  Are you playing the violin in featured in Firewater?

JMR: Know this name, Swil Kanim. He is from the Lummi nation in the colonized Washington State and I am lucky to know this man as a friend and to have collaborated with him on this project. His violin playing comes from very deep parts of the soul. And he is very fun to work with, a very funny guy and at the same time professional.

BCP: “Drunken Shaman” reminded me of the tragic events this year with those people in the U.S dying in the sweatlodge.  How did it come about?

JMR: Hah, that poem had nothing to do with the poor souls who perished in the lodge. It is a story poem inspired by a real guy who I came across in Ottawa. He is a homeless Indian man and I really liked the way he tried to engage with me. He looked at me and guessed my nation, he told me he liked my shoes. He has good energy and worked his magic even though he didn’t have much. I respect homeless people because they actually have skills other people don’t. I’m not sure I could survive without money and a roof and a bed…

BCP: “Addictions” is a sad and scary poem/song.  You say, “life is short but not short enough for some.”  It is hard hitting and also has a positive message in it while leaving the listener with shivers.  Was it difficult to write this poem/song?  Is it difficult performing it?

JMR: I often lose it and break down and cry while performing this poem. It is powerful, thanks for feeling that.

BCP: In “Hurricane Rage” you say, “Procrastination is comfortable.”  This is very true.  How do you advise our society to get out of their comfort zone?

JMR: Aim higher, want more, envision the very best version of yourself and go for it. Stop eating shit and do exactly what you want to do.

BCP: “Warriors Prayer” sounds like the spoken-word version of the American Indian Movement song.  Has the AIM song been a big influence in your spoken word poetry?

JMR: I would LOVE to do a poem with the AIM song. I LOVE the AIM song. I sing that song with my pow wow drum “Big Crew” I believe my poems work with the same energy that’s within that song. Its all about empowerment.

BCP: What are you working on now?

JMR: I’m working on putting a new book of erotic writing together. All my erotic poems with the art work of 8 native artists. The book is titled Red Erotic and I’m putting this collection out under my own publishing label, Ojistah Publishing which means Star in the Mohawk language. So I’m going to start an Indigenous publishing house … Come one come all.

BCP: Do you expect to have your own collection of poetry published sometime in the future?

JMR: Yeah, I have a book out now called Splitting the Heart which has a companion CD. and my next book “Un-Earthed” mentioned earlier with Leaf Press.

BCP: What do you want the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities to get from reading Firewater?

JMR: I don’t work with pre-determined intentions like that. From the feedback so far, it sounds like people like the work and they get validation in some aspects in their own lives with some of the poems, so its doing what “good art” should do and that it is resonating back to the people, making them feel something, feeding their souls etc.

BCP: What advice do you have for other spoken-word poets out there who are having difficulties with their writing, or who have yet to see their work in print or on stage?

JMR: Just do it! Don’t wait for permission, just do it and keep it real.