As a renowned Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg scholar, writer, artist, activist, thinker, and mother, Leanne Simpson models a life in which all of one’s energies is applied to work that matters.
I’ve had the extraordinary privilege of working with Leanne Simpson over the last few years, both as the editor of her forthcoming book of stories and songs, This Accident of Being Lost (House of Anansi Press, April 2017), and through the performance series The Basement Revue. She is an artist who has introduced me to an entirely new dimension of commitment. She is a living example of what self-determination and integrity within the cultural and literary world looks like.
The first time I saw Leanne Simpson perform her work was at the book launch for Islands of Decolonial Love where she read poems and stories from the book backed by musicians such as Nick Ferrio and Tara Williamson. As a poet who often works with musicians, I was amazed at how seamless and natural she made this blend of genres appear; I had never seen anything like it before. She is her own genre. Onstage she radiates all of the qualities you find in her writing: she is magnetic, incisive, brilliant, fierce, and hilarious.
But this is only one piece of why Leanne Simpson rules. When I’m speaking to US American poets and the conversation turns to the crisis of the environment, or pipelines, or #NODAPL, I tell them to read Leanne Simpson. I send them to this extraordinary interview she granted to Naomi Klein about the Idle No More movement. It’s a few years old now and yet it speaks directly to the immediate moment. And then I direct them to her books. They are always blown away.
Confronting colonialism isn’t comfortable, especially for those of us who benefit from its structures in ways that some would rather not dwell on. I’m a white settler — that language alienates some of my fellow white people, but it’s a pretty straightforward description of how I got here. I moved to Toronto from the US in 2002. Reading Leanne Simpson’s Dancing on Our Turtles Back and Islands of Decolonial Love provided a window into how much I don’t — and in some cases, can’t — know about the territory where I now live. She protects Indigenous knowledge while at the same time providing important context for non-Indigenous audiences who choose to do the labour to challenge their own teachings and to evolve in their own thinking. She has already amassed a remarkable body of work across multiple genres and forms, and she is just hitting her stride.
In the blurb for her new story and song collection, Naomi Klein hits it on the head when she says that Leanne Simpson “writes irresistible love stories in the jaws of genocide.” She makes me want to be a better human in all that she does. She shows me how to be a better mother by her refusal of dominant expectations that women with children will hide their role as a mother if they want to be taken seriously. Her work inspires me to take more risks in more own writing and to push my own perceptions. And when it comes to setting one’s own rules as an artists, she sets the bar.
Damian Rogers is the author of two poetry collections, Paper Radio and Dear Leader. She is currently working on a memoir about mothers and daughters, dementia, and art, among other things, called An Alphabet for Joanna. She lives in Toronto, where she works as the co-artistic director and co-host of the performance series, The Basement Revue.