Named the 9th Poet Laureate on Feb. 3, Louise Bernice Halfe – Sky Dancer recalls growing up in the Lakeland area and her poetry style.
Although Canada’s Poet Laureate was born in the region, Louise Bernice Halfe – Sky Dancer said most of her major connections to St. Paul have moved on.
“Myrna Kostash, she’s a writer from the Two Hills area and I keep in contact with her. I have one sister who lives there with her large family, and my sister’s niece lives just north west of Elk Point. So I go home regularly, I have lots of relatives there but I don’t spend a lot of time in St. Paul itself,” said Halfe.
She said part of it is having a troubled past when she lived in St. Paul and doesn’t want to think back on those memories.
Born April 8, 1953 in Two Hills, Halfe was raised in Saddle Lake and attended Blue Quills when it was still a residential school. She moved away at 16, living in Drumheller and Calgary before returning to St. Paul to graduate high school, then going back to Calgary to begin the social work degree which she finished at the University of Regina.
“I was so messed up from residential school, from home life, from reserve life. I really did not think I’d survive as long as I did…I actually went into therapy long before my 30s. Because I had my little four-year-old son and I didn’t want him to become an inheritor of my aches and pains of growing up,” said Halfe.
She was named the ninth Parliamentary Poet Laureate on Feb. 3. The poet laureate composes poetry for use in Parliament on important occasions, sponsors poetry readings, and advises the Parliamentary Librarian on the Library’s collection. The position is a two-year term which includes an annual stipend of $20,000 and a budget for any related travel, programming, and administrative expenses.
Halfe began publishing poetry in 1990, becoming known for her code-switching – using both Cree and English throughout her work. She said Cree is her first language and that it was almost destroyed by the residential school system.
“And as a reader of many, many works of fiction and literature and whatnot I came across a lot of writing of people using passages in different languages. In Italian or French or Greek and not troubling themselves to translate those languages into an understandable common language which is English. And I was really quite perturbed by that. So I thought if mainstream settlers can you use that kind of format, I certainly can use it for my own writing career, and so I started inserting my Cree,” said Halfe.
When she first began including Cree in her poetry, she didn’t translate it because the language is difficult to directly translate.
“It has multiple layers of meanings. So to give it one little translation hardly addresses the sacredness and how profound the language is,” said Halfe. She noted there is also humour there which can be lost in translation.
“But the point is, if other languages can be inserted into an English context, there’s no reason why I can’t do the same.”
Unlike some authors, Halfe doesn’t publish a book every year. A review of her published works has items regularly included in anthologies, and five books already published with a sixth titled “awâsis – kinky and disheveled” which is due to be released in April.
According to Halfe, ‘awâsis’ means ‘child’ in Cree, but “it’s much more loaded than that.” She said awâsis is the adult child within, but also a shapeshifter.
“As she goes from one story to another she or he changes form,” said Halfe.
She said this collection was written with stories about crazy and foolish things white and indigenous people in Saskatoon shared with her, as well as some of her own stories.
“Like walking into a telephone pole and excusing yourself for example, thinking that you bumped into somebody.”
“I thought of myself as a poor reserve kid.”
Now 67, Halfe has been married for most of her life and has two adult children and three grandchildren. She said she never set out to be poet, and now that it’s happened she is continually astonished by the places she has gone because of it.
“I didn’t think I would have that opportunity, because I just thought of myself as a poor reserve kid. So that’s my favorite part of being a poet, not only having my work honored. But that I’ve been invited right across Canada and the Northwest Territories and parts of the [United] States,” said Halfe, whose travels have also taken her to parts of Africa, Europe, Asia and Australia.
Asked if there came a point in her life when she stopped thinking of herself in those terms, Halfe said part of that journey was attending therapy in her thirties.
She also took Nechi training in St. Albert, which is an approach to addiction treatment rooted in indigenous spirituality.
“It was a combination of Western therapy and native psychology that got me to where I’m at today. And of course, I’m married to a really wonderful, wonderful man.”
Halfe speaks in Cree every day and maintains contact and relationships with her elders, participating in ceremony regularly.
“I practice it every day because we’re only given this life today to live. We don’t know if we’re going to survive the whole day, who knows. We might be in a car accident in the next few hours. It’s so important to embrace the day,” said Halfe.