Jónína Kirton is a Métis/Icelandic poet/author and facilitator. Born in Treaty One (Portage la Prairie, Manitoba) she currently lives in the unceded territory of the Musqueam, Sḵwxwú7mesh, and Tsleil-Waututh. A Room Magazine editorial board member she is one of the co-founders of their new reading series, Indigenous Brilliance, an exciting new partnership between Room and Massy Books. She is also the curator of their new online poetry series, Turtle Island Responds. Kirton received the 2016 Vancouver’s Mayor’s Arts Award for an Emerging Artist in the Literary Arts category. She was sixty when she published her first collection of poetry with Talonbooks in 2015. Much to her delight, page as bone ~ ink as blood, has received critical acclaim. Two years later she brought us her second collection, An Honest Woman, again with Talonbooks. The book was a finalist for the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize. Betsy Warland had this to say about An Honest Woman: “Kirton picks over how she was raised familially and culturally like a crime scene.” Apparently, all that dreaming about being a Nancy Drew when she grew up did come to fruition. Just not the way she thought it would as a child.
What is the most valuable piece of writing advice you have received?
In a lecture Betsy Warland once said, “It takes ten, to twenty to thirty years to become a really good writer.” When she said this, I felt myself relax. I did not have to be a good writer right away. I knew it was going to take time and I committed to hanging in for the long haul. This single piece of advice has kept me motivated and willing to take risks with my writing, as I am simply making my way to being “a really good writer.”
What is the most valuable insight or skill that your VMI writers have learned from you?
To listen to what the narrative wants and to stay with the subjects or themes that keep calling. As we circle back to what may seem like the same story, it can begin to feel repetitive, but if pulled there again and again, it may simply be that, despite our ideas of how things should unfold, we have not found our way in yet. Perhaps we are starting in the middle or we are leaning in and the narrative is asking us to lean out – think passenger on the back of a motorcycle. Clearly the narrative has more to say and is asking for more from us. Perhaps it is trying to help us uncover what is not being said so that we may bring it forward. It can be very fertile ground.
What do you gain from the mentoring process?
There is no question that spending time with other writers is essential to my own growth as a writer. At times, it has taken me in directions I might not have otherwise explored. Most of all, I simply enjoy the exchange of energy that comes from sitting with others who also value storytelling and the power of words.
What will VMI participants gain from the program?
Rarely is our work given this kind of in-depth attention. As a past participant, I can say that the weaving of group time and one-in-one consults can improve a manuscript in unexpected ways. It is not just about craft. My mentor, Betsy Warland, encouraged me to explore my fascination with the metaphysical world. It turned out that there were more poems to write. Adding ghostly visitations and divination made the book stronger. I would not have done this without her encouragement.
What book, poem or other written work has been most inspirational to you?
There are so many. Two books really stand out for me. The first to come my way was a compelling book by the Métis writer, Sharron Proulx-Turner, Where the Rivers Join. It was published under the pseudonym Beckylane as it explored ritual abuse in her hometown. The other book is Terry Tempest Williams, When Women Were Birds: Fifty Four Variations on Voice. Her mother left her three shelves of journals that she was not to look at until her mother had passed away. To her surprise they were all empty. These are two very different books, but both gave me the courage to write into what I call the absence of information.
What books do you recommend VMI participants read for additional advice?
I rarely read books on writing. I find the best way to improve my writing is to take workshops, join mentor groups where we critique each other’s work and to read other great writers, especially poets. Even if you are not writing poetry, reading poetry will improve your writing. If you are experiencing crippling fear I highly recommend Page Fright by Harry Bruce.
What are you currently working on?
Recent trips to Gimli, Manitoba and to Reykjavik, Iceland have left me contemplating convergence. Being mixed race, Indigenous and Icelandic, is at times confusing. I am exploring what happens when such disparate cultures collide in one body, in one land! Not a new theme to me, but one I want to take even deeper.
What do you enjoy most about being a VMI mentor?
There are few things I enjoy more than being a writing mentor. As a mentor, I feel I am a sacred witness to the unfolding of a miracle. It is an honour to bear witness to someone’s growing confidence and willingness to take risks as their novel or poetry collection takes shape.
What do you wish you knew when writing your first manuscript that you know now?
To trust myself more. To think of writing as ceremony.