The John Brady McDonald interview

Kitotam: He Speaks To It is the new poetry collection from John Brady McDonald. The Neyhiyawak (Plains Cree) word “Kitotam” translates into English as, “He Speaks to It.”   Written in two parts, these poems chronicle John’s life and experiences as an urban Indigenous youth during the 1980s. The second half of the book is a look into the inspirations and events, that shaped John’s career as an internationally known spoken word artist, beat poet, monologist and performance artist. 

John Brady McDonald is a multidisciplinary writer and artist originally from Prince Albert, Saskatchewan.  A sixth-generation direct descendant of Chief Mistawasis of the Plains Cree, John’s writings and artwork have been displayed in various publications, private and permanent collections and galleries around the world.  John is one of the founding members of the P.A. Lowbrow art movement and is the former Vice President of the Indigenous Peoples Artists Collective. 

John has studied at England’s prestigious University of Cambridge, where in July 2000 he made international headlines by symbolically ‘discovering’ and ‘claiming’ England for the First Peoples of the Americas. John is also an acclaimed public speaker, who has presented in venues across the globe, such as the Anskohk Aboriginal Literature Festival, the Black Hills Seminars on Reclaiming Youth, The Appalachian Mountain Seminars, the Edmonton and Fort McMurray Literary Festival, the Eden Mills Writers Festival and at the Ottawa International Writers Festival. John was honoured with the opportunity to speak in Australia in April of 2001.  John was also included in the Aboriginal Artists and Performers Inventory for the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver, BC. John lives in Northern Saskatchewan. 

 How does working in different art mediums help your poetry? Or does it?  

I wouldn’t say that my visual artwork, like painting per se, has much impact upon my poetry. That being said, both my visual and written works often come from the same muse or inspiration, though in vastly different ways.  An event or a memory might inspire a bright, bold painting, yet also be the source of a dark, brooding piece of poetry.  When it comes to Spoken Word or One-Person Monologue performance art pieces, the work is absolutely influenced by how I am going to present it, or how the character I am going to portray will say it. In those situations, the poems are influenced by how I am going to verbally execute the words onstage with ease and good flow, and not stumble over words or get tongue-tied.  

What were some of your earliest memories of writing poetry? 

My earliest poem was in 1989, Grade Two, just after I had gotten out of Residential School. I wrote a poem about Remembrance Day, and the teacher sent it to the local radio station. I was brought into the radio station to read it on-air. It was my first media spot. I was about 8 or 9. In terms of traditional Indigenous storytelling, my first memory was finding a booklet of Wesakechak legends in my grandparent’s house on the Rez. Wesakechak is the Nehiyawak Trickster character of our legends. It was a pretty graphic retelling of some of the legends, like Wesakechak’s father cutting his demonic mother’s head off, and the head chasing after Wesakechak and his brother across the land. It was my first exposure to the horror and brutal imagery which would influence much of my artwork during my “PA LowBrow” period.  

Who do you list as influences in your work?   

My first influence has always been, and will always be, music, As a poet, my biggest influences are those poets that just happened to be musicians. I have been deeply influenced by the written works of Leonard Cohen, Patti Smith, Jim Morrison, Joni Mitchell and Neil Peart, the lyricist for the band RUSH. The books of Leonard Cohen and Patti Smith still rank as some of my greatest sources of inspiration. Of course, I am hugely influenced by the works of the Beat poets, Kerouac and Ginsberg.  

I am also deeply influenced, as sad as it is to admit it, by the horror, negativity, vitriol and reality that is often on full display upon social media and in the news. A large portion of what I have written of any substance over the past few years has been in response to, and in some cases, the defence of, things that have been posted on Facebook, such as the continued efforts of Land and Water Protectors across the country, as well as the horribly negative and racist commentaries when it comes to Indigenous issues. Some of the most evocative words I have created over the past four years have been born out of online Facebook arguments with trolls and racists. I take comfort in the fact that some good has come out of these verbal jousting matches in that, while I might not be changing their already made-up minds, I can take the words I have written, and expand upon them at greater length elsewhere.  

Can you talk about the PA LowBrow art movement?  

PA LowBrow came about as a group of three Prince Albert, Saskatchewan (known colloquially as P.A.) artists, myself included, who all shared a mutual love of the darkest subgenres of Metal and a similar style and technique in painting. The original Lowbrow art movement came about in the late 1960s, with artists such as Robert Williams. The term denotes that the work is somewhat “less-than” the academic “highbrow” art of classical paintings.   

As the three of us all come from the artistic backgrounds of tattoos, comic books, graffiti, album cover art and such, we began to meet in-studio, listen to the heaviest, hardcore death metal we could find, and we would paint.  We had several regional and provincial exhibitions of our work and also branched out into both grants from the Saskatchewan Arts Board, as well as CARFAC Mentorships. PA LowBrow only lasted a few years, but we all still create in that same LowBrow style.  

Your new book is divided into two parts. What was the hardest or most enjoyable part of putting these two factions together for this collection?  

The most difficult aspect of joining the two halves of “KITOTAM” is that the first part of the book is a very autobiographical narrative collection, recollecting memories of my youth along with current issues, whereas the second half of the book contains many lyrical, ambiguous, surrealist freeverse poems that, at times, didn’t follow the flow of the book, but were still important to the story. However, that juxtaposition between the narrative and the ambiguous ended up giving the book the feel of the mixtapes I used to make in my teen years, which I love. That mixtape feeling is probably my most enjoyable aspect.  

Your practice has always contained a great deal of performance and activism. What was it like in 2000 when you made headlines in the UK?  

The July 2000 “Flag Thing,” where I symbolically “Discovered,” then “claimed” England for the First Peoples of the Americas, was the culmination of what I must say was the greatest life-changing event in my life. I was a young, urban Indigenous youth, a Residential School survivor, who had been awarded a scholarship to study History at the University of Cambridge. My world had been expanded far beyond what I had ever imagined it would, and the doors which opened before me changed the entire trajectory of my life, and I felt that, as I had a lot of people who took a chance on a street kid, I owed it to them not to let them down. That being said, I also knew that I was going to the homeland of the Colonizers, and I needed to make a statement and add my voice to the fight and say that what is taught in history books is not always true. I always wished that there had been more coverage of it when it happened. Those were the days before social media, and, while I originally had Canadian and International press lined up, the Concorde crashed in Paris the day before, so the media’s attention all but evaporated. As I am still recognized here in Canada for it, even twenty years later, I’m still very proud of what I did.  

How do you see poetry as a form of activism or do you?  

I think that any time you put your thoughts and emotions creatively into words and then share those thoughts in front of an audience or in print, you are participating in activism. Any form of poetry or Spoken Word is standing up for something. We live in an increasingly detaching world, where everyone is chained to a device and human interaction is becoming difficult. As writers and as artists, if we can make someone feel something with our words, if we can cause an emotional connection or response, then we have added to the fight for humanity. I call myself a “hypocritical Luddite.” I loathe technology and social media, but I need and use both on a daily basis, and, especially with the Pandemic, I have needed both to share my words with the world. Using the tools of our mental, social and emotional destruction, as it were, to share political, poetical or emotional messages is probably the most subversive and rabblerousing thing that we can do right now because it happens in real-time. The murder of George Floyd shook the world because someone held up a phone and shared it as it happened. The news of the bodies of those who didn’t make it home from Residential School being re-discovered is moving around the world faster than it would have without social media. As creators, we too must add our voices and our talents to the struggle. We too must stand and be recognized. It’s our responsibility to both the art form and to the world.      

For more information on this book visit Radiant Press’s website