Award winning author and conceptual poet Jordan Abel will be spending the Christmas holidays in the West Kootenays working on an upcoming project while visiting his wife, Castlegar News reporter Chelsea Novak.
Abel’s most recent book Un/Inhabited has received several honours and is included in CBC’s list of the best 75 books of 2015. CBC also put Abel on its list of 12 writers to watch in 2015. Un/Inhabited is a book of conceptual poetry using 91 different Western novels as its source material. Abel found those books on the Project Gutenberg website, a site that hosts works that are in the public domain, meaning their copyrights have expired. He took the books and entered them into a single Word document consisting of over 10,000 pages. Using the basic Control-F function in his word processor he then searched all of the books simultaneously for words relating to land, ownership and territory, such as settler or frontier.
Abel felt the subject matter was an important one to explore. “As a Nisga’a writer, I feel that issues of land, territory and ownership are very important Indigenous issues that are often unaddressed or under-addressed in contemporary poetry.”
The first section of the book is a section of distinct poems each surrounding a single word. “It really is a strange reading experience because you are reading all of these sentences that have one thing in common and that one thing they have in common, is this one particular word,” said Abel. “What you end up reading is a piece that looks very closely at what surrounds certain words and how certain words were used and deployed. Essentially what the greater meaning is surrounding those particular words.”
The second section is made up of visual or concrete poetry that superimposes bodies of land over text, resulting in a type of cartography made from words.
The third section is called Extracted. “It responds to the idea in this book of imagining the public domain as an inhabitable body of land,” explained Abel. “So as I am going into the source text and taking out large chunks of the texts, this section responds to what that source text might look like after all of this other stuff has been extracted from it.”
Conceptual poetry is a type of writing that tries to grapple with very specific constraints and can take many different forms. “For me one of the main constraints I work with is the use of found text,” said Abel. “Essentially what that means is that I use other people’s writing or other people’s works to refashion a project that comments on their work. In this case I am primarily concentrating on the Western genre. My conceptual work uses the words from those Western novels to critique that genre.”
The critique is not a positive one, it points out how the Western genre is problematic towards Indigenous peoples. One such negative example gave rise to the title of the book.
“The title came up because there is a thing that happens in Western novels where they talk about a space or body of land as being uninhabited, as in no one being there,” said Abel. “However, it is often the case that there were Indigenous peoples there, but they are just represented as this blank space. From the protagonist’s position, they are seeing Indigenous peoples as nonexistent, or kind of blank. They’re seeing that space as being uninhabited, when it actually was inhabited by Indigenous people.”
Abel’s next book which will come out in spring 2016 is titled Injun and will be published by Talon Books. It is a part of the same conceptual project as Un/Inhabited, the two books are complimentary works. Where Un/Inhabited looks at land and ownership, Injun looks at race and identity.
Un/Inhabited can be purchased at the Castlegar News office for $25.