A Fine Balance: Amanda Proctor in Conversation with Armand Garnet Ruffo

Armand Garnet Ruffo

Malahat Review work-study student/editorial assistant Amanda Proctor talks with Armand Garnet Ruffo, one of the three 2021 Long Poem Prize judges, about poems that puncture reality, the process of rewriting, and what the paintings of the Ojibwe artist Norval Morrisseau taught him about writing.


Armand Garnet Ruffo was born and raised in northern Ontario and is a member of the Chapleau Fox Lake Cree First Nation. He is the author of five books of poetry including Grey Owl: The Mystery of Archie BelaneyThe Thunderbird Poems, and Treaty #, for which he was a Governor General’s Literary Award finalist. He is also the author of the creative-biography Norval Morrisseau: Man Changing Into Thunderbird, which was also a finalist for a Governor General’s Literary Award.  Published both nationally and internationally, Ruffo is the recipient of a Life Membership Award from the League of Canadian Poets and the inaugural Mayor’s Arts Award from the City of Kingston. Currently a professor in English at Queen’s University, he lives in Kingston.

As a judge for this year’s Long Poem Prize, what are you looking for in a winning submission? What qualities make a poem stand out for you?

Each judge will have their own preferences, and that’s the fun of being on a jury. For me, I’m interested in reading a poem that makes me see and feel something in a new way. Poetry by its nature drills down to the level of language, and once the poem goes deep enough into that territory there is a tendency for it to bang against the world where it easily slips into non-recognition. Bang. Bang bang. I look for a poem that moves beyond the dull banging and instead punctures reality – be it love or loss or a tree or a chair. The poem has to make me see in such a way that it penetrates my humanity. For me simply disrupting syntax, or grammar, or stacking associational words together haphazardly just ends up in noise. On the other hand, I am also not looking for poems in which the word and line are flattened to the point where it lacks energy and invention and falls limply into plodding prose. That’s the other extreme. I guess I’m looking for a fine balance.

Some of your poems have a dream-like quality or deal explicitly with dreams, like “The Tap,” with its leaping, warm, yet nightmarish images, and “Old Story,” where storytelling and dreams collide. What role do you think dreaming plays in the life and work of the poet?

In Anishinaabe culture we live two realities, the waking and dreaming, and I try to be aware of those two realities, and, as you noted, incorporate them into my writing. Fortunately, I’m a vivid dreamer so I often remember my dreams. I used to write them down but now I’m more or less able to conjure them when I’m looking for a way into the writing. In fact, I think that when we are writing, and it’s really going well, we naturally move into a kind of dream state, a time out of mind. Ever notice how quickly time flies when you’re writing? Suddenly the tea pot has boiled dry. There’s something just beyond consciousness that we seem to be reaching for. It’s the elusive quality of the poem that defies notetaking and planning. Dreamlike, that’s as good a way as any to put it. What I might add though is that whatever dream-like writing I may do, it is strictly a first draft, and after that comes the long conscious process of rewriting which to me is crucial. On that note, you have to be careful because you can overwrite and lose that elusive quality you liked in the first draft. In that case I just scrape everything and then go back in a few days to the first draft.

As a professor of English at Queen’s University, you also work in the realm of academic scholarship. Is your academic work in conversation with your creative work? Does writing in an academic voice ever cause challenges for your poetry, or vice versa?

A lot of poets do strive to incorporate theory into their writing, whether it be race, gender, sexuality, language, liberation, or what have you. They even go so far as to name other writers and thinkers in their work. The poets who tend to do that usually hold PhDs (though not necessarily) and have spent much of their lives in school. They tend to write their books out of other books. Although I teach at a university, I don’t have that direct trajectory. My way into the academy was circuitous. Furthermore, as you noted, a lot of my work comes from a place on the edge of consciousness. I am certainly aware of the ideas of the day, particularly as they pertain to Indigenous peoples, and in fact I teach them, but I try to move into these concerns concretely rather than theoretically. I suppose that if I had to place my work in a theoretical space it would be somewhere in the slippery ideas of perhaps Lauren Berlant and Dian Million in terms of her work on Indigenous Felt Theory, and of course in the much earlier postcolonial thinking by the likes of Fanon, and Indigenous elders who speak of the land as an animate kindred spirit. But, again, for me a poem has to touch me differently than a philosophical treatise. It has to touch a part my humanity that’s emotional and even spiritual, without being prescriptive and tidy. All I can add is that it’s where I try to operate.

In your conversation in The Walrus, Liz Howard said that your poetics are tied to place. Does place also affect your writing process, and does where you’re currently located affect the content of your writing?

Place, yes, and affect. For some reason – which I’m sure it has to do with my northern Anishinaabe heritage – even though I have now lived in eastern Ontario longer than I lived in northern Ontario, I still consider the north my home. I cannot seem to leave the place where I grew up, and although I do return as much as I can, it is much more than a physical territory for me; it’s also an emotional and spiritual landscape. And, yes, I do set my poems in other places as evinced in my latest collection Treaty #, but many of those pieces also have echoes of the north. I’m thinking of “Small Defiance” where a boy is encouraged to climb as high as he can go into one of the few big trees left, and “Minobimaadizwin, The Good Life,” which has the speaker reflect on a life of travel only to have his travels return him to a young girl mired in poverty and neglect in a northern community. I don’t want to sound absolute here though. I do write poems set in other places and in fact recently wrote one set literally on a ladder hanging off my house in Kingston. So, yes, place is central to my work and it does have a huge influence on my writing.

You’ve said in a previous Malahat Review interview that you are drawn to the organizational form of short narratives for its energy. Do you have any advice about how a long poem can sustain its energy when making use of poetic narrative in its condensed nature?

As a caveat let me start by saying that there are so many different kinds of poetry written these days it’s near impossible to give advice. My fellow Indigenous poets who work in their languages, for example, immediately come to mind. I don’t necessarily do this because my thought processes are in English, the language I was raised in, and so what I will say is really about my own process. I try never to forget that when I am writing poetry the word is the unit of focus. Even when I am conscious of working with the longer line, I am always aware that the line is made up of individual words. I’ve said this elsewhere that what struck me about studying the paintings of the Ojibwe artist Norval Morrisseau, for my two books about his life and art, is that he would put two ordinary colours together, like red and orange, because the contrast would energize them. Two ordinary colours placed together suddenly become new in a sense. It’s the same with words. When I’m writing poetry I constantly rethink and rewrite my drafts to find those two ordinary words that when placed together become new and energize the line. It doesn’t have to be obscure words that few people understand. In fact that is quite the opposite of what I’m talking about. I’m looking for ordinary red and orange. And that’s the real challenge isn’t it? All the rest is fashion, and we know what happens to fashion in a few years – mullets and padded shoulders! Happy writing to all the poets entering the contest.


Amanda Proctor

Amanda Proctor

* * * * * * * *