False Stories: Eliot Gilbert in Conversation with Shane Rhodes

Shane Rhodes

Shane Rhodes' poetry, an excerpt from his manuscript It's Here All the Beauty I Told You About, appears in The Malahat Review's fall issue #212. Shane discusses Western novels, the origin of his name, and how the original injustice of genocide and settlement are not confined to the past in his Q&A with Malahat Review volunteer Eliot Gilbert.


Shane Rhodes is the author of six books of poetry, including Dead White Men (Coach House Books), which won the Ottawa Book Award. Other notable titles include Err, which was nominated for the Ottawa Book Award, X, which created poetry out of Canada’s post-Confederation treaties, and The Wireless Room, which won the Alberta Book Award. Shane’s poetry has also been featured in the anthologies Best Canadian Poetry, Resisting Canada and others and has been awarded the PK Page Founders Award for Poetry and a National Magazine Gold Award. Shane lives in Ottawa, on unceded Algonquin, Anishinabek territory.

I find it significant that some of your work here is very visual erasure poetry. Why do you think this form lends itself to It's Here All The Beauty I Told You About?

Found poetry, erasure poetry, cut ups and visual poetry have all been important parts of my poetic practice as I use poetry to grapple with the history and present of North American colonization and its attendant narratives. For me, these are valuable techniques to take apart and interrogate the stories we have been told, especially the stories settlers tell themselves about their past, their present and their future, and to problematize ideas of ownership. Sometimes seen as post-modern techniques divorced of politics, I think we are in a period right now where we can see how valuable these techniques are in art that questions origins, questions canons, questions the narrative history our literature and lives are built upon. Look at poets like M. NourbeSe Philip, Jordan Abel, Sonnet L’Abbé, Layli Long Soldier or Billy-Ray Belcourt. Each have used these techniques to amazing effect, creating a valuable counter discourse out of texts written right over them.

In effect, found poetry is about working within constraints just as demanding as a sonnet. How can you create something out of the limited vocabulary of a Western? How can you make another text speak meanings it was never intended to speak? Using erasure, how can you highlight the text’s own erasures? And what can you do with this piece of history that is integrally yours but integrally repugnant?

What role have Western novels played in colonial history? What attracts you to Shane specifically?

Stories are history and the main way most of us have any knowledge of our past. Westerns are a key part of the apparatus of colonial mythmaking in North America. They are the way settlers have rewritten and continue to rewrite what was done to get and keep the land they live on. The Western has always been the chorus to genocide, spinning theft into a foundational act of heroism. Every time I see a new Western film (like The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, The Hateful Eight, The Revenant, or Bone Tomahawk, to name a few) it seems amazing to me that this strange genre still has so much power. But Westerns remain a powerful genre in European settler societies because the settler will always worry about the past and its stories, about history and its statues. To ease this worry, the Western offers reassuring narratives that maintain the myths white settlers have always told and been told. What isn’t to be gained by pushing back on the false stories we tell ourselves?

Shane was one of the most popular Western novels ever written. It sold millions of copies and was made into an Academy Award-winning film in 1953 staring Alan Ladd. Following the success of Shane, there was an uptick of the name “Shane” (not to mention Shayne, Shanee, Shanette, Shaneel, and Shanell) across North America, with the highest concentration on the Great Plains where the novel and movie were set. A peak was reached in 1973 (the year of my birth) when, according to everythingbaby.com, 0.2% of American infants were named “Shane.” I can only assume this popularity was mirrored on the Canadian prairies, but I can’t find records going back that far. However, the appeal of the name “Shane” declined precipitously.

The line graph of the rising and falling popularity is a grimace of disapproval. By 2018, according to Vital Statistics Alberta, only 11 babies were named “Shane.”

Your last two poetry collections, Dead White Men and X: poems and antipoems also seem to be about settlers. Why do you think it's important to write about this?

Since 2010, I have been engaged in a three book project to investigate—using a mix of found and lyric poetry and essays—key texts in the colonization of North America and how these historic narratives continue to inform and shape the ongoing settlement of Canada. This work has resulted in X (which, in part, built poetry out of the eleven Post-Confederation Treaties and the public response to the Idle No More movement) in 2013, and Dead White Men (which built poetry out of early European texts from the exploration of North America and the South Pacific) in 2017. It’s Here All The Beauty I Told You About is the culmination of this project.

As a third-generation settler raised on the northern plains on Treaty 6 land, I can’t think of anything more important to write about now. Understanding the history behind settlement I guess is a way of grappling with the problematic histories behind my birth (being born into a name). The original injustice of genocide and settlement are not confined to the past but are carried forward by each subsequent generation of settler and I think it leads, on a societal level, to white cultural psychosis as we work through the paroxysms of guilt. The only way we can maintain our bifurcated ideas of justice amidst such injustice is by protecting ourselves with a scar tissue of myth. Understanding the lies we tell ourselves is my way of writing poetry of the body and living.

You've been publishing your writing since 2000. How has your writing practice changed during this time?

  • I trust the lyrical voice and sentiment less. And I look to my poetry as a real practice of art, that is, why do it unless it is doing something new?
  • I design my own books – it took me a while to realize that the book and the design of a book should take just as much attention as the design of a poem. I want my books to be as artful and considered.
  • Balancing life is harder and etching out time to write and read poetry are hard-won victories. I think I realize now not what a luxury reading is but how difficult it can be to make time for it in a life full of exhaustion, full-time work, full-time childcare, full-time everything. Maybe I’m harping on this because I’m writing it at 5:30 in the morning before going to work? Reading poetry can be work – as a writer, I want to make that work worth something.
  • I would never have used bullet points to answer a question in the past. Nor would I have used a line graph to illustrate a point.

What are you reading right now?

  • I’m working my way through the National Book Award longlist. As dubious as I am of prizes, they can be a useful window into writing communities with which I’m not as familiar. Enjoying books by Eduardo Corral, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Don Mee Choi, and Natalie Diaz.
  • I love mushroom hunting and so am reading a few field guides and a longer philosophical book on mycology.
  • I’ve got Tanya Linklater’s new book, Slow Scrape, on my table and am slowly making my way through it whenever I have a chance.
  • I’m also reading the Franciscan missionary Toribio de Benavente o Motolinía’s History of the Indians in New Spain from the early 1500s. Franciscan missionaries are some of the first narratives the world has of initial European encounters with the cultures they found in the “New World.” Beyond the boring and frightening Christian argumentation, it is fascinating to see writing stunned by what it has seen, by the newness of what had never before been imagined, and how it scrambles to make sense using all the preconceptions and biases it can muster. And it was such a cat fight between Motolinía and another Franciscan of the time, Bartolomé de las Casas, both of them marked by the genocide they had seen and both of them bitching to the King about the other.


Eliot Gilbert

Eliot Gilbert

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