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Poetry In Conversation

Brenda Iijima with Aja Couchois Duncan

Brenda Iijima: Your book has been an immense gift and a pleasure these last months. Reciprocal life forces run so deeply through Restless Continent, interconnectedness is well-being and strength. Bonds break in the face of proprietary interest, fear arises out of violent forms of management – a legacy of the campaign of white colonial settlers to understand the world as an untapped economic expanse in which they believe/d they are somehow sanctioned by god to expropriate, pillage, plunder and manipulate. The violence of colonial-settler legacy and Enlightenment thought has alienated humans from nature and repositioned spirituality within a structure that is ruled by a hierarchical, masculinist godhead.

These poems and the ontological outlook of the trajectory you take bridge the spirit world with the physical world in myriad ways. Resistance is this powerful combinatorial matrix. Western monotheism has failed miserably to understand how to live harmoniously on planet earth. Restless Continent resets the precepts of engagement to draw a fuller living image of ecological and spiritual life.

“Autopsy is a western fixation, a belated curiosity about the body of.

When her body is split and dismembered, she cannot be found inside. To be spirit and flesh.
To leave the flesh behind.” (p. 45)


“how to explain so much damage
as if two worlds, empty and full
moving in-between” (p. 80)

Every utterance in this book is an act of decolonization. How has this book shifted your awareness of where this nation is as a country dealing with a monstrous history of violence and loss?

Aja Couchois Duncan: I wrote most of this book in the late 2000’s. Or at least the first iteration of “Nomenclature, Miigadewin, a Forked Tongue” was written then. It was a different time in many ways and yet the history continues. I am not sure anything is really different now – of course the events and actors do shift – but the impulse of colonialism, capitalism, white-supremacy do not. Perhaps there is now a greater depth of awareness. But that alone does not change anything, or at least not profoundly.

As a person of mixed race, indigenous and western european, the complexity of colonialism is literally an embodied one. And, too, I think of myself as writing towards and for a greater sentience – a sentience that rarely has literary voice. But Aki (earth) does speak volumes. And so, in my limited way, I hold space for her. To make space for all sentient creatures. This is something I see you doing and I feel deep gratitude for that.

To me it is about the thread and those of us that attend to it (in whatever ways we do). How can we give voice to river, rock, salmon, sky. How can we shift the narrative so that this is centered and not just human desire and the devastation left in its wake.

Iijima: Chronology (and the marching orders of linear time) is reoriented and made fluid by an ecological calibration in Restless Continent. What changes and doesn’t change are the friction and the tension of these poems. This is another way that the book resists normalization into colonial-imperial strictures. Ancestral duration binds with contemporary sociality. Time is in-between and around, courses through blood, water, spit and cum. Corporeal imagination and emotional bearing initiate time’s ability to branch out from spatial origins. Time is experiential and archived by cellular tissue. You give time to hear the voicings of river, rock, salmon and sky. Shifting the narrative, as you say, involves this careful timing. Beyond logic time is both heavy and light. Time collapses upon itself.

“The story will always be concave, a collapse against which another tale forms” (p. 43)

The Anglo-western conception of time is often portrayed as a forceful tyrant of forward motion, monetizing space and place as it pursues death. Telescoped time is opened up into multifocal awareness.

“When the earth is mined of all its treasures, the land will be barren. But the sky will be crowded with bodies. When the limp appendages slap against another, there is a second sound, less percussive. It is her, raptor, this cry. “ (p. 46)

The time of catastrophe has been going on for so long. Could you speak to how you think of conceptualizations like the Anthropocene that position our era in a time of human-made disaster (relating to global climate change, and an extinction event of other animals) – can we give a name to an on-going crisis of such magnitude?

Duncan: I am always interested in how we define ourselves and our worlds. The power of nomenclature is seemingly absolute. (It is not, of course, but western imagination can be a rather rigid organ.) That we live in a time when humankind is having a devastating impact on Aki, on our beloved earth, is clear. But does industrialization or the atomic age, necessitate a new geologic term? I don’t know. They seem more connected to a long standing and larger impulse to objectify, exploit, extract that has guided certain people for millennia. Part of the strangeness of the western european worldview is its violent separations and the resulting construction of objects, of things. Nothing is really a thing. Everything is alive. We are always in relation to. So if conceptualizations such as Anthropocene help people think about and possibly shift this propensity toward separation, extraction, destruction, then we are in right relation with language. Language too is an ally. But there is such a tendency to use it as a weapon. Like time. We defy it, beat it, capture it, outrun it. We abuse time in the same way we abuse so many “things.” But time is not a thing. Time is a way to describe movement - of our bodies across distances, of the sun. Time is a story.

Iijima: “Time is a story” – I fully concur. When I formed this question to you about time I was thinking about the immeasurable losses of diverse presences in our ecosystem. Succinctly stated in the introduction to Extinction Studies, Stories of Time, Death, and Generations, Deborah Bird Rose, Thom van Dooren, and Matthew Chrulew write: “To understand what is lost in extinction, we must come to terms with species as intergenerational heritages. The significance of extinction, what separates it from the singular death of an organism, is precisely this: the ending of an ongoing lineage cultivated over hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions, of years of evolutionary time; the abrupt termination of a whole way of life, a mode of being that will never again be born or hatched into our world.” There seems to be no human term to encompass a phenomenon so totalizing and devastating. We must rely on story. So much of this ‘event’ remains outside of (our capacity for) recognition. Through a sensitivity to time, your poems get inside catastrophe (through story), and come to terms with biocultural consequence. Language is the mode of transport. Like you say, language can be an ally. Language is elastic and shape-shifting (like time!). I love your statement, “Nothing is really a thing” – which is a riddle that makes sense either way one reads it. At once the phrase discounts thingness and in another reading nothing (as a noun) is the ultimate thing! A prime example of the richness of meaning-making. Language is often a jester! That said, I think of your poems as clear vision--expressing less interest in language as a game, more focused on truth telling. Does this make sense?

Duncan: Your reading of me, my work, brings deep joy. There is such resonance for me in the quote as well. There are many extinctions that have occurred over the centuries. So many beings and ways of being have been destroyed. The work now is to unlearn and remember. In small and large ways. As we do here.


Aja Couchois Duncan

Aja Couchois Duncan is a Bay Area writer, coach and capacity builder, and forest dweller of Ojibwe, French and Scottish descent. Her most recent book, Restless Continent (Litmus Press) was selected by Entropy Magazine as one of the best poetry collections of 2016 and the California Book Award for Poetry in 2017. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University and a variety of other degrees and credentials to certify her as human. Great Spirit knew it all along. 

Brenda Iijima

Brenda Iijima's involvements occur at the intersections and mutations of poetry, research movement, visual arts, floral and faunal studies and ecological sociology. Her current work focuses on missing persons and submerged histories, extinction and other-than-human modes of expression. A developing project involves choreography and vocalization centered on Fort Massachusetts, in her hometown of North Adams, Massachusetts. She is the author of seven full-length collections of poetry and numerous chapbooks and artist's books. Her most recent book, Remembering Animals was published by Nightboat Books in 2016. She is also the editor of the eco language reader (Nightboat Books and PP@YYL). Iijima is the editor of Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs, located in Brooklyn, NY (


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2018

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