The Tawahum Bige Interview

Tawahum Bige is in the present tense. An artist who is not only aware of the world around him but understands quite well his own role in that world. With World Poetry Month (April) beating a path to our door once more, I wanted to engage in a dialogue about all things poetry and the universe with someone who has a screaming new book baby entering this cruel world quite soon.

Cut to Fortress (Nightwood Editions) is a debut poetry collection that finds itself confronting colonialism, relationships, grief and intergeneration wounds. Growing up in Surrey, fraught familial conflicts, the passing of his older brother and its influence on his worldview, Bige slices through the forts built overtop occupied Turtle Island to examine their origin and his own. His journey climbs into the mountains while he reconnects with his Dene and Cree cultures like a gripping hand on jagged rock. Tawahum Bige is a Łutselk’e Dene, Plains Cree poet who resides on unceded Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh territory (Vancouver). Their Scorpio-moon-ass poems expose growth, resistance and persistence as a hopeless Two-Spirit Nonbinary sadboy on occupied Turtle Island. With a B.A. in creative writing from Kwantlen Polytechnic University, Bige has performed at countless festivals and had poems featured in numerous publications. His path draws into the concrete urban streets that Wetako-medicine lurks through, especially for his people. The labour of these travels brings him to the springs where healing passed-down traumas becomes possible by drawing water through vulnerability. His land protection work against the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion led him to face incarceration in 2020. Cut to Fortress is Bige’s debut poetry collection.

When did you first see poetry as a potential ally in conveying and reflecting your particular artistic expression / powers / vibe?

In 2016, when I was 23, I was going through deep grief from having lost a brother while I was in an intro creative writing class. It was suggested to write from wherever the heat is, and that heat was in my grief. It lit me right up! And thus I began this journey of writing and performing as a poet, so tightly coupled with my healing journey.

For you, what is the best part of performing?

Just being heard, so strongly, by such a wide array of humans. Whether a rage, joy, sadness or any emotion, that resonance is felt in every human being and when I express it, I can feel others resonating and I feel deeply heard.

Your poetry is filled with battle cries and mesmerizing internal questions that seem to be fathoms away from the surface of the poems themselves. Not to get all Joan of Arc on you, but do you hear a ‘voice’ in your head as you write or reread recent drafts of a given poem?

I love Joan of Arc! Before I even started performing, I tried to write an awful poem about Joan of Arc and Feminism and it was not at all what I hoped it would be. There is a voice in me that writes this work, and another voice allowing me to edit it, but they’re voices in relation to each other. The voice that writes it wants us to do something to change the fate of our world, to resist the narratives that have been wrought upon us and ultimately, find healing and fulfilment. The editing voice wants to make sure the writing voice can be seen, read, heard in a way that makes that desire understood, those wishes fulfilled.

Do you ever use anything from the extemporaneous state of performing and bring it into the page?

When I memorize a poem, ad-libs often find their way into the piece. I believe that’s the spoken word making its way known through repetition, and if that’s how it’s meant to be spoken, that’s often how it’s meant to be on the page. So, then I edit! This was the case with the poems Stormcall, Too Abstract, Law & Order, and more.

Who are some of your favourite poets?

Lee Maracle, Joy Harjo, January Marie Rogers, Julian Randall, Saul Williams, Jillian Christmas, Mitcholos Touchie, Audrey Lane Cockett, Catherine Garrett, Franz the Poet, RC Weslowski, R.A.P. Ferreira, Kae Tempest, the list goes on.

What are you most looking forward to at the launch and public readings for Cut to Fortress?

Just getting to read and perform my work in new and different places, to return to that energy of being on the stage and soaking in the attention in a wonderful Aries-sun, Sagittarius-rising fashion.

What was the first poem you remember writing in your creative writing program? Was it a good experience, the program, overall?

There were poetry exercises in my first intro course, and they all eventually became something akin to poetry, for sure. But I did this one exercise called “The colour is blank” where you choose a colour (for me, green) and start the prompt with that. However, you’re not allowed to stop moving your pen, and to make sure that happens, you write out that line repeatedly until other words come. It was a 12-minute exercise and I had 1200 words to sift through after, and that’s when the poetic image started making itself known to me. Through a green filter.

Exercises and tricks: Creative writing taught me a lot and it demystified writing process and poetic devices. I wouldn’t have understood my own writing process and the tools or tricks I need to make art from without that program. Overall, the faculty are some of the keenest minds in creative writing who also made a great effort to advocate for a more decolonial approach to writing programs. I arrived in that transition, and my own journeys to really reclaim my own Dene and Cree culture were often very much upheld in a wonderful way throughout my program. I felt like the more effort I put into the program, the more recognition I got and thus, it was also very rewarding! I wouldn’t be in my career both as performer and as writer if not for Kwantlen’s Creative Writing program.

Can you explain the title Cut to Fortress?

In the poem “Too Abstract,” there are lines about a forest cut-to-stumps called “fortress” and in a way of cutting to the chase of what the book is about, I titled it Cut to Fortress. The ways in which this continent dealt with colonization ultimately cut many places into fortresses for settler arrival, and that occupation on the land resulted in my lived experience along with that of all Indigenous folks today on Turtle Island. And to speak truth to it, to call it as I see it, how settlers “cut to fortress” is a statement of my resistance to it.

If you could read any of your poems to any three people alive or dead – what would that poem be and who would you read it to and why?

  • Lee Maracle who recently passed, I just love her so dearly and got to spend so much time with her! I believe she’d enjoy “Too Abstract,” a lot and I don’t think I ever had the opportunity to share it with her.
  • Emeri Julian Elan Bige, my late brother. I’d just want to share my whole book with him, but I’m glad he gets to see it and hear those expressions from the other side. Most of my writing is to honour him.
  • Joy Harjo, who I wrote a poem after “She Had Some Horses,” called “He Builds Himself a Computer,” and I would just love for her to know that from her structure I had a very different story of my own life I would love to tell.

What advice would you give a young poet afraid of being judged for what they write? 

That we are not what we write, what we write is a beautiful expression of who we are in that one moment. Each moment in writing can come out of us and we grow so beautifully from that! Every time you face that fear and let your truth pour out of you, it’ll get easier and more rewarding, I promise.

Imagine it’s fifteen years from now and you are older and debut poets are entering into the poetry community you’ve now been a part of. What would you imagine that community would look like?

I honestly feel like time is a circle and it would look like me in the place of many poets who were in the community before me, supporting me and uplifting me. I imagine the community will change, definitely, with the beautiful strides we’re making in Indigenous, anti-racist, Queer and Feminist knowledges that we’ll see even more differences from the white male-dominated poetry space that existed and still exists in many ways.

If someone came up to you at a noisy club or poetry event and asked you to describe your new poetry book to them, what would you say?

This book says “fuck you” to the system and speaks truth to my story. Interested?


Nathaniel G. Moore is a writer, artist and publishing consultant grateful to be living on the unceded territory of the Wolastoqiyik (Maliseet) and Mi'kmaq peoples.