Tawahum Bige is a Łutselkʼe Dene, Plains Cree poet and spoken word artist from unceded Musqueam, Squamish & Tsleil-waututh Territory (Vancouver). Their Scorpio-moon-ass poems expose growth, resistance & persistence as a hopeless Two Spirit nonbinary sadboy on occupied Turtle Island. With a BA in Creative Writing from KPU, Tawahum has performed at countless festivals with poems featured in numerous publications. His land protection work to stop Trans Mountain pipeline expansion saw him face incarceration in 2020. Find him online @Tawahum on Instagram, Twitter and more. Tawahum’s debut collection of poetry is slated for Spring 2022, to be published by Nightwood Editions.
Will you tell me how you became involved in spoken word poetry?
The first part of that story takes place in 2014 when the Kwantlen slam organizer Simon Massey and I both did a couple years in student politics for our student council. He was the arts representative and ran the slam, and I was the Aboriginal representative doing Indigenous activism. He invited me to 'Slamming the Binary,' an event that he was holding on campus.
I love that event name!
Right? Great off the bat. I didn’t understand anything about gender at the time. I went into the auditorium and it wasn’t even a third filled. It was a classic poetry event with maybe twenty people there. There were three different poets reading stuff that was really critical of gender. I think one was Hannah Johnson—they performed a poem about their femininity and their struggles and compared it to being a mermaid. It was this extended metaphor of being underwater. They were speaking about this, and I was there with them—I’m there underwater, I’m feeling what they're feeling, and seeing the images they are speaking into life, and I was blown away. I was like, how do you even do that? It really stuck with me, and I started going to the poetry slams on campus. Then Simon brought me to VanSlam as well. In 2015, I switched my major to creative writing.
I tried performing a couple times and tried open mics between 2015 and 2017, but I always say that I started in 2017 with the Talking Stick Festival. They had a mentorship program at the Urban Native Youth Association, which is a Vancouver Indigenous advocacy organization. They had an acting mentor, a poetry mentor, a dance mentor, and together we were creating this show. Usually they do a variety show of different genres, but that year they wanted us to combine them all—dance, theatre, poetry, storytelling—all of the art in one theatre. We ended up creating this 30-minute-long script of spoken word theatre. We were just cutting people’s poems up into dialogue and creating character arcs. I had all of these resources to help me memorize and get into my body into all of it. Once we had our opening show, it was… it still is one of the most magnificent shows I ever got to do, because of the amount of effort everyone put into it and the mentorship. But also, folks showed up from the community, from the VanSlam community and elsewhere. And my name was starting to get put on lists. I started getting invited to things right off the bat. It shot me into the spoken word community. I started doing more competitive slam poetry.
Will you tell me about what it is like doing spoken word in the Vancouver community? How has it shaped you and how do you feel that you have shaped it?
Community here in Vancouver is interesting. There are so many resources out here to help artists get into the scene and start to work on their craft. I was blessed that I also got to be in my studies at the same time. So, around 2017, I was taking this class on the business of writing. And a big portion of the class, rather than it being the usual kind of workshop, was a task list that had us running around the community—go to a slam, volunteer for an organization, get involved in a performance, etc. I was already being encouraged by my studies to do it. And there are just so many places to get involved—through Vancouver Poetry House, the Urban Native Youth Association, Full Circle, and the Talking Stick Festival. There are so many organizations for poetry and for performance and especially for Indigenous arts. Those are the communities that I splashed down in, and they have been so core to my development. Any arts community is not without its complications and complexities. I think we often feel like we are competing for scarce resources even though there is an abundance, especially when we work together. That’s the part I hone in on: when we have focused on the abundance in this community, really big shows have happened, really beautiful transformations within myself and other artists. It’s been brilliant to be around that scene. I miss it a lot in these times.
It really is tough being an artist during a pandemic. How has COVID-19 affected your artistic practice? What has it been like doing primarily online shows at this time?
I really don’t like it [laughs]. It’s not the most conducive to my artistic practice. Little did I know, as I was emerging from maladaptive coping mechanisms and moving into the arts community, that the abundance of social stimulus in the arts community would become a new and much more adaptive coping mechanism. It fed the creative spirit to just be around people all the time who were sharing their creations, who were idea-generating off each other. And then, all of a sudden, to go to nothing. Then to slowly move into Zoom and doing video shows… I feel like I am full of criticisms for the community right now, because now there’s an expectation that we are all tech masters. I had come out of IT to do my creative writing major. I came out of computers for a reason and then the pandemic happens and they’re like: ‘Can you stream? Can you send us a pre-recorded video? Try to make sure it’s good quality!’ So I'm just sitting at my desktop trying to figure out OBS Studio and these different things. We’re a year in now and I just have no idea what I am doing on the performance side of things. On the writing side of things, here is what is useful for me: I have been working with music, using a looper, piano, guitar, and finding beats online. From the time that I was writing when we were all together, it’s just this giant collection to go back to. So rather than trying to generate new content, which is stressful on the best of days, I’m moving back into older content and breathing new life into it with music. And I’m grateful to have the space to spend time doing that. So, I’d say that the music side of it is really lovely. There are also a lot of opportunities to do workshops across the country without leaving my bedroom which is kind of neat.
On that pandemic note, something that I was thinking about today was that we seem to be looking to each other for a way to cope or figure it out. Like asking ‘What are you doing? What are you folks doing?’ Doing think pieces on the internet, gardening projects, home improvement, self improvement, whatever the heck people are doing with their free time. I’m realizing that it’s no different than Cosmopolitan sex tips, you know? We’ve been looking to each other for a long time. But I think if we have the ability to just go about our business, we create our own way. The thing I’m starting to realize is that we have to just trust ourselves. Nobody can give us the combination lock for how to deal with a pandemic or with isolation. That’s very internal work. And how we support our network… people are like, ‘You gotta make more phone calls’ and… no thank you. Maybe to a couple loved ones. But there’s always some voice telling you to do something differently. ‘Oh, you should just be writing all the time!’ No. We do what we can with what we have. It comes from within and that’s the thing. We have the medicine that we need to get through this. We look to ourselves and to our closest loved ones. Then we are able to make it through, both as artists and as people.
I love this phrase you just used: “We have the medicine that we need to get through this.” Both your poetry and your life work are really connected to Indigenous activism. I'm curious how those aspects fuse together for you. How do you see your activism in relation to your poetry? Do you see them as separate or as one and the same?
When I first came to poetry, I thought ‘Oh, this is this thing you do with words, and it is a separate art form.’ But the more I learn about our different peoples—my Dene Cree side and the way that art really works—I see there really isn’t fully a separation, only ways to integrate it. There are separations we have made, whether it’s between poetry and painting, or between our art and our activism. We’ve just codified those. Sometimes that’s to build things into cooler things on their own, but often these days, there’s an intention by the state to disempower those who are threatening, and this is something poets have been since the beginning of time. Especially for Dene Cree folks—we’ve used poetry in our storytelling since the beginning, in oral histories, but they weren’t just a form of storytelling to help pass the time. We codified our lives and our ways of being through our art forms, no matter what art form it was. So, to be a storyteller was to be a teacher was to be a lawmaker was to be a critic of law. I’m speaking words from Sam McKegney, who has a chapter in this big anthology called Indigenous Poetics of Canada that taught me a lot about the lack of separation between these things. Although sometimes I focus my art on things that aren’t so related to doing the work on the ground—to make sure that my people get to be free, that our peoples get to exist in this abundance that is all around us and that we have existed in since the beginning. I also get to do that inner work, that healing work. I also get to create art that I just really enjoy, that I would want someone like myself to get a chance to see or hear. And it’s not always tied to that. There’s also this thing where Indigenous artists are expected to do stuff on their culture, stuff on land protection, on water defense. There’s an expectation put on us. But we can do whatever it is that we want to do. I both don’t see a separation and I feel very… when I separate myself from the settler-colonial canon of CanLit, I feel very liberated once I do that, once I realize that I can do what I want with my art. And to encourage fellow Indigenous artists to do the same. We don’t have to be pigeon-holed one way or the other.
There is a wonderful poem of yours called “Professionalism”. In it, you reference resisting settler-colonialism. Will you tell me about the process of writing that?
There’s a Chicago-based American poet, this Black poet named Julian Randall. I was studying his book that came out in 2018. He’s a young spoken word poet, probably around my age, and it was for a class in which we really had to hone in on sources to inspire us. So I wrote “Professionalism” during that semester, reading his book called Refuse. A lot of my poetry spawned from that, including a poem that’s directly related to him called “Sanctum.” But “Professionalism” is really connected to the way he was speaking his story. I think he had a poem about being compared to Obama. He was talking about his story in those terms and the annoyance of it, to be compared—just because he’s Black, he’s compared to the Black president. In “Letters of an Indigenous Prime Minister”, it’s easy to think that just being outspoken gets me that phrase: ‘Oh, you could be Prime Minister one day!’ I’ve done student politics and the whole shebang, and I’ve always wanted to write about my student politics phase, but it’s maybe one of the least poetic things I've ever done. Besides the fact that you're learning language in a very high-level space—that is still one of the roles of the poet, to know words and language in that way. But to express that story to the rest of the world has always been a challenge, and I finally found my in. So that’s how “Professionalism” came about. I'm pretty proud of that poem. It’s a quick one, but it’s nice.
I mean, some poems don't need to be lengthy! Especially when you can encapsulate what you intend to say so well. Another poem of yours that I love is called “Law and Order”. In it, you seem to be soft in how you speak and think, while very adamantly challenging power structures. I was wondering if you would tell me more about this performance style.
Sometimes being in a performance overwhelms me to a point where it’s just my spirit and my heart wanting to come out. Or my nerves want it to come out! When I first was performing “Law and Order”, I was still learning how to perform in general. So, the first few times I did it as quickly as you could possibly imagine. When I started to learn how to control my pacing, it opened up this space to be soft in the moments that I needed to be. A lot of my inspirations are things like Rage Against the Machine. There’s intensity there and people think that it’s all anger and rage, but even with Rage Against the Machine, you have vulnerability. I also want to be able to fully embody that kind of vulnerability. People can then be more humanized about it and see it as something accessible, not just war and rage and anger. We’ve been put here and we are still human and still existing in this space, and I want that to be in my performance. I want folks to be able to see those softer moments, to hear when I’m enjoying it. A lot of that has developed from the mentorship I’ve received and all the feedback I’ve gotten over the years. It’s taken me a lot of time to be able to get to that point, to feel as though I can somewhat control how it comes out, more intentionally.
I feel like a lot of young Indigenous writers look up to you. What would you tell young Indigenous writers right now?
It’s not often that I’m asked what I would say to young Indigenous writers. It’s mostly just to do what they want to do. If you’re an Indigenous writer or poet or artist and you’re reading this, I want you to know that whatever it is that you want to create is sacred. It is beautiful and it is worthy of space and time. And alongside that, there is always room for you to work on that craft to make whatever story you want to tell even stronger. That’s a worthy endeavor. It’s worthy to find that. You don’t have to do it for settler eyes and you don’t even have to do it for your own community’s eyes. You can do it for you and trust that there’s still going to be people who want to partake in it.
Which poets do you admire?
Julian Randall has been a big inspiration. And then Zack de la Rocha of Rage Against the Machine, since I was in fifth grade, you know? Also, Indigenous poets like Janet Rogers, who is a spoken word poet extraordinaire in every aspect. I learned a lot at the Banff program a few years back from her. But even before then, just reading her work is phenomenal—how she talks about social issues and doesn’t really care what the canon of CanLit is looking for, and has carved out a space in such a beautiful way for herself. That’s always been so inspirational. There are so many people, I could just go off! In terms of local contemporary spoken word, one that I always looked up to right from the get-go is Mitcholos Touchie, a Vancouver poet. Getting to know him as I started to learn this art form has always been so, so inspiring to me. I honestly could go on for days! Jillian Christmas is a big one as well. She taught me a lot about putting that vulnerability into my work—acknowledging one’s complicity in the things we want to change that we might be angry about, and sharing that along with the desire to change it—I’ve always found that really inspiring. Any of the music I’ve listened to, it comes up—I grew up in a very emo phase, listening to death metal and things like that, and you’d be surprised at how that influences the backdrop of my work.
You mentioned that you went to the Banff Program. Will you tell me about what that was like for you?
So, they had a more general spoken word program, but they also opened up the Indigenous storytelling spoken word residency in 2018. So I got to be a part of the very first Indigenous storytelling residency, co-facilitated by Janet Rogers and Veronica Johnny, and other guest facilitators over the weeks we spent there. It was a beautiful time for my craft. I think the big thing is, I want this for way more artists, because we often have this ‘starving artist’ thing where even when we’re doing well, we feel like we’re not supposed to be doing well. And if there’s something that Banff does when you go there, it makes you feel like you should be getting this all the time. Like, three meals taken care of each day, you just go to the buffet. You don’t worry about anything but your art. You are gifted two weeks of time. And I say gifted, but I had to apply for financial support to go, I know it can be pricey if you don’t do that. Having all of that taken care of really does mean you can put all that focus into your art. When you can put all of that into your art, it’s like an incubator. You can go into a cocoon, you metamorphosize, you come out. A lot of that transformation is also really painful. You’re spending time as this artist gruelling over the work and gruelling over whatever story you want to share, especially if it’s personal. You’re trying to find the substance there. And with very talented folks who want to help you. You’ve got a land there that’s very supportive of that process as well, even though it has been settled, there’s spirit in that place. It’s definitely not a place anyone is meant to live, even though people do. There’s an energy there. It’s very spiritual. I would say, if I could go to Banff in the next little bit, I would. Or any kind of residencies like that. I just want to be in nature or making art with people that I care about.
You mentioned that you are beginning to work with both poetry and music. Where do you see your artistic work moving in the future?
My first book is being published in 2022 with Nightwood Editions. That’ll be my first collection of poetry. I have a second collection of poetry that was funded by the Canada Council for the Arts, we’ll see about the plans for that after this first book comes out. I’m always writing new stuff in terms of the print poetry and spoken word, but I’m really interested in music right now. I’m hoping to release an EP by the end of the year. I already have most of the tracks selected, now it's just about turning them into finished products. I’m really excited for that. I’m also trying to get to the confidence level of live looping rather than just doing it in my home space. I would love to be live looping and sharing that genuine energy with an audience. I’m also part of a group that combines music, dance, and poetry into these very beautiful BIPOC-oriented performances. It is just so gorgeous to be a part of this group as we are creating new work. You’ll definitely be seeing more stuff like that—folks maybe dancing to my poetry, me finding a place for my poetry within their dance, or a music piece that’s separate, or combining it all together. I’m finding my place in combining this poetry, and that’s me trying to find the full potential of this work, I think it’s when you combine the mediums. You can only go so far when you have these little silos, these little categorizations. There’s beautiful incubation and metamorphosis work to do in those silos, but when you come out, emerge and combine them, that’s when there’s so much space, for me to just scream on stage and not freak out an audience [laughs]. Or maybe, scare them in the way I’m looking to! There’s so much in the future that I’m really excited for.
Follow Tawahum on Twitter and Instagram at @tawahum.