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Shannon Webb-Campbell in conversation with poet Douglas Walbourne-Gough about his latest books ‘Colour Work’ and ‘Island’

Shannon Webb-Campbell in conversation with poet Douglas Walbourne-Gough about his latest books ‘Colour Work’ and ‘Island’

Douglas Walbourne-Gough is a poet and mixed/adopted status member of the Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation from Elmastukwek, which is colonially known as the Bay of Islands in western Ktaqmkuk/Newfoundland.

He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia Okanagan and a PhD in English/Creative Writing from the University of New Brunswick. I reviewed Walbourne-Gough’s first book of poetry, Crow Gulch (Goose Lane 2019), for Muskrat Magazine in November 2019.  Since then, Walbourne-Gough’s poetry and reviews have been published throughout Canada, and his poetry has garnered several awards and grants, including the 2022 Riddle Fence poetry prize. Most recently, he served as Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador’s Fall 2023 Writer-in-Residence.

Walbourne-Gough’s first collection, Crow Gulch (Goose Lane 2019), has been nominated for several awards, and won the 2021 EJ Pratt Poetry Award. His second collection, Island (Goose Lane 2024) centres around the Newfoundland Mi’kmaq experience in the wake of the Qalipu enrolment process and is forthcoming this fall. His most recent release Colour Work (Anstruther Press 2024), is a chapbook filled kaleidoscopic poetics.

Shannon Webb-Campbell: What inspired Colour Work? 

Douglas Walbourne-Gough: Two things, I guess. The first being a form of synesthesia, chromesthesia, also called sound-to-colour synesthesia. Audio input often results in associated colours in my head and, when I’m really lucky, patterned and coloured shapes. The poems aren’t directly about this, but certainly influenced by it. Secondly, I needed a break from writing about heavier things. Colour Work was a break that allowed me to play and enjoy myself in the writing – something I rarely allow myself.

Webb-Campbell: As a poet, what does it mean to you to publish a chapbook? How does the format differ from a full-length collection?

Walbourne-Gough: I’m not really sure what it means, yet, to be honest. When I first approached Jim Johnson at Anstruther Press with the idea, I had three dozen poems that were all weird and/or playful in some way. We zeroed in on the through line of colour and started the process of editing. I hope I’ve achieved the potency (despite the playfulness of Colour Work compared to Crow Gulch or Island) that I’ve enjoyed in the chapbooks of others, but I guess that remains to be seen.

Webb-Campbell: What inspired your second full length poetry collection, Island? Where does the title come from?

Walbourne-Gough: Island. Ooooooof. Island is so many things to me or, rather, so many things I’m trying to say/ask. In a nutshell, though – I saw the community work, beyond the page, that Crow Gulch was able to help do, and wondered if I could write something that could, if I approach things with integrity and humility, address a bigger issue: the Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation and its place, or perceived non-place, within this province and across Canada.

The title is a small nod toward Ktaqmkuk being an island, but also the idea, or misconception, of the self as an island. An island is such a seemingly isolated thing, but also, as I was astutely reminded by my dear friend Cecily Nicholson, only truly isolated on the surface.

Webb-Campbell: Island is heavily informed by dreams. How has your dream life intersected with your poetic life? What has the process of recording your dreams in poetry like? Do you know more about yourself as a poet or a dreamer?

Walbourne-Gough: The dreams attached to poems are real dreams I’ve had, many of them recurring dreams. I dream vividly, intensely, and often. There’s a section near the end of the book that I’ll quote here:

“This book was heavily inspired by dreams. The hopeful, waking sort born out of resisting the histories and realities that try to press and twist us into diminished versions of our true selves, but also the dreams our minds and hearts gift us while we sleep, where we are unconstrained by the physical and the dogmatic. Where magic is possible. And, of course, the kinds of dreams where these two veils overlap. Ultimately, though, maybe it’s not about waking or sleeping. Maybe it’s about yearning, about feeling. What do you yearn for? What are you unwilling to feel?”

Webb-Campbell: Island is dedicated to our Elder Cal White (who recently published One Man’s Journey: The Mi’kmaw Revival in Ktaqmkuk with Memorial University Press 2022) and all the work he’s done for Mi’kmaq Newfoundlanders. Can you share why? How has your relationship with Elder Cal White inspired the poetics of Island?

Walbourne-Gough: Between Elder White and the words of Gregory Younging, the attempt to do no more harm, and the attempt to help those coming after us, have informed much of what I’m trying to do with my writing. Knowing both Elder White and Dr. Younging, and others like them, has indelibly impacted my writing.

The patience and kindness that Elder White has shown, and shows me, keep me on track toward honesty, integrity, and resilience. His life-long example is a constant reminder of the privilege and reason I’m able to do this work, as well as the responsibility to doing the work in a good way.

Webb-Campbell: As you’ve shared with me in the past, Island is part of a trilogy. Can you share more with our readers about the connection between Crow Gulch and Island?

Walbourne-Gough: I see each of the books, the third of which I’m currently thinking about the form of, as concentric circles.

Crow Gulch is a small circle surrounding my home community of Corner Brook that willfully helped to reinstate Crow Gulch’s place within that community.

Island can be seen as three circles; the smallest circle of all, which contains myself, but also the larger circle of Newfoundland and, larger still, my own place, and Newfoundland’s place, within Canada.

Kuntew I see as a circle of a different sort – one that loops temporally, allowing a reinterrogating of Newfoundland history to better inform current Qalipu Mi’kmaq realities.

Someone else’s interpretation of how I see the books is, of course, entirely possible, but this is how I’m attempting to interrelate them.

Webb-Campbell: How do identity politics inform the poetics of Island?

Douglas Walbourne-Gough. Photo by Kaila Mintz.

Walbourne-Gough: I’ll answer that by referring to “Division,” the prose poem that contextualizes Island as a whole:

“Division

My family got a letter from the Federation of Newfoundland Indians, stating that we were part of a class-action lawsuit. FNI was going to fight for us. A few months before that, Canada rejected our applications for enrolment in the Qalipu First Nation. Initially, I was relieved by the rejection. I’d watched my hometown divide itself —— are you Mi’kmaq or settler? Mi’kmaq or not Mi’kmaq enough? Do you want tax off your truck, or do you want to decolonize, reconnect with who and where you come from? Or have you known yourself all along and no one, federal or local, gets to tell you otherwise?

As a community, we became suspicious of eye and hair colour, felt economic jealousies when a neighbour was finally able to access dental care, get glasses for their kids, afford medication. I heard the jeers about the whole southwest coast suddenly having free university, every mouth full of gold teeth, dripping with self-entitlement.

During the Qalipu enrolment process, I worked at the public library in Corner Brook. I witnessed people who, only months before, asked each other, How’s the family? People who chatted weather, recommended each other good books. Now, they interrogated each other’s surnames, places of birth. So engaged in more-status-than-thou that we missed the point entirely — we were already doing the government’s dirty work, tearing each other down when we most needed to build each other up.

I very nearly kept my name out of the FNI lawsuit. I was tempted to avoid facing the struggle with my identity, Indigeneity, self-doubts. The doubts and disbelief of others, both perceived and real. I’d buried the Crow Gulch manuscript for over a year out of that same anxiety.

Perhaps we forgot, or never even knew, about the Mi’kmaq in Flat Bay, who, decades before I was born, fought to be federally recognized, to be taken seriously as Indigenous Newfoundlanders at a time when we were dismissed as myth, seen with indifference at best. We likely never asked ourselves, How does the Mi’kmaq Grand Council feel about this? Neither did the federal government. No wonder none of us felt we could trust each other. Ottawa got to put its feet up, watch us propagate our own division.

I know I don’t have all the details, but neither do you, or any of us just yet. That picture only becomes clearer when we sit and truly listen to each other. All I can write is what I’ve seen, felt, and experienced, and hope that helps. Recognize the gaps in my knowledge, slowly fill them in as I reckon with centuries of colonization while figuring out what a Newfoundland Indigeneity is, what it can be. There is beauty, love, and power in our potential.

If I can’t employ humility, can’t be honest about how there’s no flicked switch from Newfoundlander to Mi’kmaq, then I do disservice to my grandmothers. I do disservice to the Elders and scholars I’ve met and read so far and the ones ahead. I do disservice to other Newfoundlanders, Indigenous or not, who might not know where they stand. Who might not know how to feel about these Indigenous Newfoundland voices and faces now making room for themselves on this island, in this country, finally feeling some sort of permission to say, I exist.”

Webb-Campbell: Wela’lin, Douglas. We do exist. 

People, places, land and memory are central to your work. I really enjoy the poems about moose in your collection. In particular, “I Visit Margie With Moose Meat,” for Margie Benoit-Wheeler. Can you share a little bit about the inspiration for this poem?

Walbourne-Gough: Margie is a former resident of Crow Gulch and, as the poem details, spoke at the unveiling of the Crow Gulch mural [which was a collaboration with Mi’kmaw visual artists Jordan Bennett and Marcus Gosse], but also gifted me her memory of my grandparents’ first walk down the tracks through Crow Gulch as a married couple. This gifting, as well as the gifting of the bear claw necklace also mentioned in the poem, are beautiful acts of healing, of reclaiming history, connection, and community.

I Visit Margie with Moose Meat
for Margie Benoit-Wheeler

I brought Margie two bottles of moose,
a thank-you visit as I left town for K’jipuktuk.
When Corner Brook finally acknowledged
Crow Gulch with a Mi’kmaw-made mural,
an opening ceremony complete with ribbon,
I knew my grandparents were there, nodding
with thanks at Margie, who minced no words
when she took to the mic, told of how this town
looked down on her community, our people.
After the ceremony, when the news crews
and politicians were long gone, Margie
gifted me a memory from when she was
young. She’d watched Ella and Rudy walk
the tracks back from town, just married.
Nan’s makeshift veil flowing behind them
as they walked into the rest of their lives,
started writing the story I’d one day find
myself inheriting, trying to live up to.
Before I stood to leave, she put up a finger
and left the kitchen. Came back with a hand-
made necklace, blue and white beads, black
cord, a bear claw exclaiming itself at the centre.
My colonized mind raced to Am I allowed
to wear this? but Margie’s face told me all
I needed to know. Something older, bigger
than both of us was at work here.

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About The Author

Shannon Webb-Campbell

Shannon Webb-Campbell is of Mi’kmaq and settler heritage. She is a member of Flat Bay First Nation. Her books include: the forthcoming Re: Wild Her (Book*hug 2025), Lunar Tides (2022), I Am a Body of Land (2019), and Still No Word (2015), which was the recipient of Egale Canada’s Out in Print Award. Shannon is a PhD candidate at the University of New Brunswick, and the editor of Muskrat Magazine and Visual Arts News.

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