Juliane Okot Bitek

26 Oct 2018

Juliane Okot Bitek

The Poetry Extension’s founder and curator, Natalya Anderson, conducts a Q&A with the poet Juliane Okot Bitek.

Juliane Okot Bitek is a poet, scholar and university instructor based in Vancouver, British Columbia. Her work has appeared in Event, The Capilano Review, Room, Arc, Whetstone, and Fugue, and has been anthologized in Love Me True: Writers Reflect on the Ups, Downs, Ins & Outs of Marriage, Transition: Writing Black Canadas, Great Black North; Contemporary African Canadian Poetry, and Revolving City: 51 Poems and the Stories Behind Them. Juliane’s 100 Days (University of Alberta 2016) was shortlisted for several writing prizes and won the 2017 INDIEFAB Book of the Year Award for Poetry, and the 2017 Glenna Luschei Prize for African Poetry. Juliane’s chapbook, Sublime: Lost Words (Elephant Press), was published in early 2018 and is available for free download.

When did you begin writing poetry?

I don’t know for sure, but I had my first publication when I was 11 years old. I’d written a poem about the 1979 Liberation war that led to the overthrow of Idi Amin, and it was published in the children’s section of the weekend national paper, The Daily Nation, in Kenya. That said, I should probably hunt down a copy of it since I’m still thinking about that war.

What drew you to poetry as a genre?

Hmm. I suppose I don’t have the stamina or attention span that it takes to write a novel – I’ve never tried, and I have no inclination to. And full sentences mostly bore me. I like poetry because it offers spaces to play and innovate and stretch scraps and phrases and build whole worlds or nothing. Poetry is deeply satisfying in ways that other kinds of writing are not. For me anyway. To quote Mahmoud Darwish, the Palestinian poet: “Every beautiful poem is an act of resistance”. Poetry is where beauty is at once life, a play space and a weapon. It is the closest to painting, which what I seek to do with words since I don’t know how to hold a brush or mix colours; I know how to translate what I see and hear in the world through poetry.

How has it felt creating and working in the Canadian literary world? What do you like, and what would you like to see change and evolve?

There is no feeling that I can think of that encapsulates creating and working in the Canadian literary world. So far, I’ve mostly lived and created in the margins, away from the limelight and in the company of, and in solidarity with friends and colleagues. We have loved and supported each other and still do. The “Canadian literary world” sounds like the spaces where some folks live and breathe, and we pay money to witness them articulate themselves beautifully, formally and with poise. Glitterliteratti. I don’t even dream of it.

That said, my work has garnered a wee bit of attention and sometimes that’s jarring, mostly because of the expectation that I should speak right, dress right and know what’s going on around me when I’d much, much rather be the witness. I am grateful though, for the attentive reading of those who have looked at my poetry and continue to teach it and talk about it. I learn a great deal from them.

Are there some poets you have discovered over the years that you would recommend to our readers?

I didn’t discover Dionne Brand. Her work found me lost in Vancouver, unable to orientate myself to the city where I’d lived at the time, for almost a decade. Her book, A Map to the Door of No Return, sustains me through different readings like nothing I’ve read, before or since. Her latest book of poetry, The Blue Clerk, is astounding. I’m grateful for all her writing. What drew me to poetry, you ask? A book like The Blue Clerk allows our minds to expand and reach in ways that no other genre can. (Well, I don’t know. Maybe there’s other kinds of reading out there that I don’t actually know about, but poetry is home for me. Fiction is a country I like to visit and sometimes live for a short while, but I don’t like to work there).

Layli Long Soldier is an amazing poet. The first work I read of hers, ‘One Poem: 38’ reminds me that language like English is formulated to reflect the content, like the history of colonial oppression, without complicity to the reader. Long Soldier reminds me to read more closely. M. Nourbese Phillip – of Zong! and She Tries her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks – teaches me that the language we use to write in (English) is a language that cannot be trusted. And, that some stories do not want to be told and yet must be told. In poetry, I learn from Phillip, everything can be attempted and should be. The poetry of Cecily Nicholson, a Vancouver poet I deeply love and admire, teaches me that the land I live on carries a complicated history and present and therefore I must always be cognizant of this fact. Her latest book, Wayside Sang, has been longlisted for this year’s Governor General’s Award. And of course, there’s Canisia Lubrin, who you have interviewed for this series. If living in this country for almost thirty years has taught me that folks who look like me must be relegated to the margins, Lubrin reminds me that we can be central to ourselves, and that the world exists in our own image and tongue.

What’s next for you?

Nothing is next – there is no to-do list. Everything is working its way to itself. I’ve been working on finishing my dissertation and look forward to the end of that, but I’m also writing new poetry and I really, really, really enjoy teaching.