IDENTITY AND AUTOBIOGRAPHY

by Aaron Tucker


“ten miles in from horsefly
shoulders sore from my pack
feet blistered i asked for
and got a job cleaning a barn
for the price of a meal”

– Patrick Lane “Ten Miles in from Horsefly”

 

Beginning

 

One of the strongest gifts of literature is the ability to capture the human essence within the lens of a singular personal experience. A poem has the ability to explain a particular event through one perspective and, from this pinpoint point of view, translate outwards to an infinite number of readers into a million different interpretations. For example, Patrick Lane’s “Ten Miles in From Horsefly” tells a very literal tale detailing the hard and thankless work it takes to clean a barn: yet from this poem, the reader can also draw the universal themes of poverty, bodily existence, frustration and redemption.

This relationship between the universal and particular is especially important in Canadian poetry, as it has been (and continues to be) explored as a means to explain both personal and national identity. Canadian identity has always been in flux because we live in a large country, spanning many different landscapes, and is made of a great many immigrant and indigenous families. A great deal of Canadian poetry attempts to define parts of Canadian identity by telling one specific personal story, whether it be through autobiography or biography, and letting the reader grasp the shards of identity and theme that he/she can relate to.

To explore this relationship in your class, use one or more of the following excerpts from Canadian poems. Following each excerpt, I present some context for the poem and a list of activities to spark discussion and original poetry. By highlighting specific poems from each of the works excerpted below, the unit looks at how personal experience can translate to larger, universally shared emotions or struggles, while shedding light on opinions and experiences that may be unfamiliar or “weird.”

 

EXCERPT NUMBER ONE

 

Questions I’d ask My Family

i’ve been thinking about arthimetic & what i’m wondering
is do you think arithmetic was invented or discovered i
mean it seems like it must have been invented because all
these signs numbers & things they didn’t find those lying
under a rock somewhere people must have made them up but on
the other hand it really works i mean do you think anyone
could have invented 10 times 10 is a hundred & if so who
could it have been

–Di Brandt, Questions i asked my mother

Brandt’s set of poems look at the world through an inquisitive young mind, a filter that challenges all initial impressions. Growing up on a prairie-Mennonite farm, questions i asked my mother investigates not only the world and its rules but also the faith and identity of her family, in hopes of clarifying her own sense of self and achieving a clearer picture of how her own identity fits in with the larger world. The narrator’s questions are largely impossible and perhaps then it is not the answers that the narrator seeks, but the way in which they are replied to.

Activities

  • As a class, brainstorm a list of impossible questions (questions that have no answer) and allow them to pick one and answer it as best they can. They could begin “I’m my opinion…”, “I think that…” etc.
  • Get your students to construct a list poem of questions they would ask their own mother or father. Ask them to imagine what their responses might be.
  • As homework ask your students to construct their own family tree, complete with names and the place they were born. This will most likely give each student a sense of family history as well as a sense of a global, perhaps immigrant, identity that they did not have before.
  • Return to class and get student to share in small groups, making lists of similarities between each other.

EXCERPT NUMBER TWO

 

  • My Body and HistoryIt was OK to talk about feet. It was okay to talk about
    toes. It was never okay to talk about toe-jam. If you
    talked about toe-jam you were really gross. I’ve never even
    seen the word spelt before. I think I like it best
    here, with the hyphen between the two words ‘toe’ & ‘jam,’
    like the dark grungey hyphen you were embarrassed to
    discover there, between your toes, inside your sock, your
    shoe, where you were never able to figure out how the toe
    jam got there

    –bpNichol “Toes”, From Selected Organs Selected Organs is a humorous autobiography filtered through odes to different body parts. With each part of the body, nichol dives deeper into his specific personal and familial history attached to it. It is interesting then to look at each of our individual limbs, organs, digits and isolate them from the other. What does each finger mean? How is the left leg different than the right? Is there a characteristic that is hereditary? What happens when, after thinking about each, we put the body back together?Activities
  • Get student to find a scar on their bodies and write a poem about how that scar happened. Stress the importance of sensations and details in the poem over the actual events surrounding how they got the scar. Starting your own version on the blackboard might be a good way to motivate students.
  • Prompt students to write an ode to one of their own body parts. Challenge them to think about their own feelings towards that body part, the history and memories attached to it. Once they are finished ask them to write a paragraph on why exactly they decided to pick that body part.
  • Now ask them to write two more poems on that same body part, trying to explain or describe that body part in a different way than the first. Share in small groups and see if you can build a “body” when you put all the students’ poems together.

EXCERPT NUMBER THREE

 

The Other as I

The others leap, shout
Freedom!

The moving water will not show me
My reflection.

The rocks ignore.

I am a word
In a foreign language.
–Margaret Atwood, Disembarking at Quebec, from The Journals of Susanna Moodie

Margaret Atwood’s The Journals of Susanna Moody is a cycle of poems, based on the real-life Moodie’s Roughing it in the Bush, exploring the life of one of Canada’s earliest writers and pioneers. Here Atwood uses the filter of Moodie to explore Canadian immigrant history and relationships to Native Canadians. It is through this history that the work highlights changes in the shift to modernity and the lingering effects of a young country attempting to establish its own national identity. Through use of the individual, historical Moodie, Atwood explains aspects of her own personal and national identity. You could also use a Michael Ondaatje selection from The Collected Works of Billy the Kid.

Activities:

  • Students choose a famous Canadian to research in the library and/or on the internet before creating a short biography of that Canadian.
  • Once the student has finished, have them create three separate poems using that Canadian as the central character.
  • Ask the students to reflect on how their chosen Canadian fits into the more general “Canadian identity.”Suggestions for Famous Canadians- Big Bear- Catherine Parr Traill- Pierre Trudeau- Roberta Bondar- Molly Brant- Rick Hansen- Henry Woodward- Norman Bethune- Jeanne Mance- The Famous FiveAaron Tucker is a teacher and writer currently working in Toronto. He has
    published his work and reviews in Matrix, The Antigonish Review, The
    Windsor Review, Rampike and Descant among others.