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“I am here for resurrection”
On August 10, 2023, Medgine and I decided to meet on a quiet afternoon at Deville Cafe on MacEwan Campus to discuss her new work, Waiting in the Land of the Living, which was published by The Polyglot, a new magazine based in Edmonton. Medgine has had many performances since she came to Canada, but Waiting in the Land of the Living is her first major published chapbook. She has lived in Québec and Calgary, but she is currently residing in Edmonton. Customers are streaming into the Deville Desk to order cups of coffee and snacks; workers on the sidewalk are fixing the furniture ahead of the start of Fall term; and people are walking up and down stairs as we pick a spot where we can talk about Medgine’s poetry, life, and vision.
Medgine, I have been scouting for a while for poets I can invite to my bench at Read Alberta — a place where I host Alberta-based poets/writers to discuss their works, the growth of their craft in Alberta, and the vision that guides their artistic project. Well, it has been obviously enriching. You will be my third poet at the bench. I spoke to Matthew Weigel who is a friend and colleague at the Department of English and Film Studies about who I should feature next in my Read Alberta chat and he suggested you. I know you have a number of performances on YouTube and your delivery has been incredible. Can you remember the first poem you wrote or performed?
I do because it is a specific memory. I want to say this is 2010 or ’11. I was in the middle of study for a bio middle term exam at the University of Alberta, French campus. At that time, as far as poetry goes, I have always admired the poets but never really considered that it is what I will be doing. But for whatever reason, I just felt the impulse to start writing. Long story short, the poem ended up being how Jesus was a poet.
I didn’t even realize it was a poem until I finished writing it. It was like a performance poem. I kind of dismissed it. Shortly after that, an earthquake happened in Haiti in 2010. It was just really hard to express myself. I tend to internalize a lot of things. It was just hard finding the vocabulary to use in the midst of that. And since that poem, I kind of write to release all of those frustrations.
I was looking at your performance at the Canadian Spoken Word event at Saskatoon, which was published on YouTube by Kathryn Lennon. That was ten years ago. It was a duet with an artist I cannot recognize, but the narrative in the enactment gives us a moment of reflection on American sex capitalism and the cultural industry invested in commoditization of the female body. How would you describe your craft growth since then? What are your losses and wins? How has the road encouraged you to learn?
Yeah, hmm. It is funny because in the question you brought back the video I had performed. I remember that time. It was like the first time I shared my poem. I was part of a poetry team and I was so terrified of public speaking. For me, it was like an internal struggle; it was like me versus me, where I just wanted to confirm my fear and what I have to share. I feel like when I think about the losses, I think a lot about all the time I bumped on stage. All the time I was so nervous, and people didn’t know what I had to say. Despite the fear, the words that didn’t come on the page have value. It has been a journey since then. It was like just observing other poets as they share their works. I learn from poet’s vulnerability in sharing their work on stage.
Let’s talk about your new book, Waiting in the Land of the Living. First, congratulations! As I read “Valiz Manman’m” and enjoy the anaphoric force of the poem, I feel there is a debt of lineage and family pedigree in your work. But importantly, you are quick to announce your mother as a woman with agency. That has served the logic of the work partly in the present collection. When did you start working on the collection? What role did your mother play in the birth of the book or in your becoming of an artist?
One of the oldest poems in the book is actually, “Dear Stranger.” And that poem came as a result of a collaboration with a singer called Sierra Jamerson. She had a song she was working on titled, “Back to Body.” And all she had was like the chorus. It was basically a song of returning back to the body she once loved, and at the time I was just dealing with a lot of body shaming. Especially since I was just growing up in the church, in a purity culture. In the media in a way the body was also being objectified. Out of that experience came, “Dear Stranger.” And at the time, I wasn’t yet diagnosed with chronic illness. I think when I look at my trajectory as a writer it always tells about the body, healing. “Dear Stranger” is for me making peace with the part of me I didn’t value. The poem evolved over the years as I navigate chronic illness and as I deal with a different level of strangeness within myself, and learning to be at peace with my body and myself. The poem is always like an exercise of reconciliation, and reclaiming a love that is lost and a kind of struggle too.
Your work reminds me of Waiting Laughter by Niyi Osundare, a Nigerian poet who is known for his force of language, poetic polemics, and as a prominent member of the second-generation Nigerian writers. Waiting, I believe, is more political than we think. It is not a cessation of mobility, but in fact an enactment of mobility. Actually, waiting can be a refusal, resistance, and an invocation of resilient attributes against an oppressive structure, which you have described beautifully as, “your mother’s birthmark.” What informed your choice of “waiting” as a kind of framework?
That is a very interesting question! When I look back to my old work, when it is not centred around chronic illness, there is always a sense of waiting for what I wanted to happen within myself. Just like when I think about my mother’s immigrant journey, especially as the eldest of the family of five. You’re just kind of extra sensitive in the use of observing how much she has to put her dream on hold. It reminds me of my own journey as I moved from Calgary to Edmonton. It was something she kept reminding me. It was the beginning of me finding my own footing apart from my family. Remember the line, “Child remember why you are here.” It was me using my mother’s waiting to build the resilience that I now hold on to.
In “Time,” one feels the menacing hand of time that has programmed immigrants for labour and survival. Time “never let my mother unpack/too weary of 12-hour shifts for her to work on herself/and now I carry…” Is this a lamentation of Black migrant mothers?
Yes. Hmm. I think definitely as children of immigrants we watch the sacrifices that our parents make. And it also feels like responsibility. It looks like so much of their decision is based on survival. I think of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and you have time to think about these different things. And I think for the longest time I resented my mother; I resented my parents for not having the time. There are a lot of things about my relationship with my mother, and my parents in general, that I wish we had deeper conversations about. But it was not a priority for her. You know it is not her fault, because she is also caring for her parents too. A lot of journalling helped me recognize different vantage points. My own understanding of waiting is different from hers. The sacrifice she has made in her waiting has given me the opportunity to wait. The reason why I wanted to frame the work with the theme of waiting is that anytime you are navigating healing, it is a waiting. There is always a degree of impatience when I think about the frustration I had with my mom. When you want her to get to a place she doesn’t want to get to. I think I wanted to have a poetry book for such a long time…
Now you have it!
…Now I have it and I am glad it came out at a time it needed to.
Who are your favourite Canadian poets? How have they influenced your writings/performances?
Yeah, I would say two of my favourite poets are Titilope Sonuga and Brandon Wint. One of the reasons those two poets are my favourite is the way they tell their stories and make me see how the world is visceral. I think their work extends my understanding of what language can do. And also in a way that shares a story and translates to those who may not have the experience. And it is something I learn and draw on. As far as performance poetry I would say your body is awake to share poetry. All of these make me more intentional. So I wrote what I wrote and hope it gets received in a way that it is received. Because poetry is in a way subjective. I found out that when I had the chance to share my work, I tried to make people know where it came from.
In “langue maternelle,” you note, “Alberta/first province to show me how to tuck my french in and wear english like second skin.” This is language compelling you to switch identity. Earlier in the poem, you have stated how survival ties one to the burden of language. Yet, one’s authenticity is always questioned. How can we challenge the tyranny of colonial language?
That is a big one! Because the poem itself . . . it was literally me confronting the loss of my French. Like it was me confronting the shame of having to assimilate. I think even in the making of the poem I remember wrestling with the burden of translation where French is a colonial language, but it was just like I felt the pressure to translate the lines to English for the majority. But I became aware and free that I don’t need to translate. And so, as soon as I let out the force of obligation to translate, it has been so freeing and enjoyable to play with language. What I find especially when I share my multilingual poems is that they become almost like a secret code that I have with people who receive and understand that language whether it is chaotic or not. The pressure to be understood can be obstructive. You know it is the assimilation process, and I realize I don’t need to do that. In not having that, it is a way to rebel against tyranny.
The power of this collection is its multilinguality. Particularly your use of Haitian Creole leaves a huge imprint of your identity in the entire project. Is this language decision to invite your Anglophone audience to your Haitian heritage?
Yes, you know when I first moved to Canada, I moved to Québec. You know Québec has a French majority and there are many Haitians. And then having to move to Calgary and Edmonton, it became increasingly difficult to find other Haitians. So sharing Creole is for me to reclaim my heritage, and to challenge those who are familiar with English to be exposed to another language. To make people move out of their comfort zone. To take more space in the way that I am.
What happened when you wrote “Stranger”? Who is this stranger?
I remember specifically when I first wrote this poem. It was me confronting body dysmorphia. I will watch these commercials where you have to do this and that. And it is like women just bending ourselves backward to suit this narrative. The poem is therefore a kind of letter to myself, to my assimilated self. It is also a kind of communication to the body I once recognized as I navigate chronic illness.
The weight of trauma and guilt illness inflicts on the body resonates in the last part of the collection when one’s body acts like a stranger. From the “pain that hides in plain sight” to the constant stabbing that leaves scar on the body during medical assistance. How has poetry helped your resurrection?
That is such a great and proper question! I think it allows me to regain agency on a lot of things that are happening. I think writing is for me a way to release and lament. But also in that lament it is always for me to recognize the beauty that is still there in the mess. Writing was a way for me to recognize my body’s difficulty to find a vein for the nurse. It is also a way for me to say, no. This body refuses. It is also a way of bringing life into the dead. It is reclaiming language, reclaiming a narrative that was not necessarily a choice.
Tell me about your future projects in Alberta.
Yeeaaah. So many exciting projects actually. I want to go beyond Edmonton to share my work. The other project I am nursing is a poetry album. I grew up in the church and almost by force I learnt music and song. And I want to be able to play with that upbring. The gospel and song. I feel like it is in my blood that I have not tapped into. That is slowly what I am working on.
Haitian-born spoken word artist and advocate, Medgine Mathurin is a person for whom the love of language and the alchemy of words is second nature. Her multilingual upbringing (French, Creole, English) not only prompted her to begin experimenting with the potential and magic of language but naturally compelled her into a deep love of poetry. Over the years, Medgine became a Lupus, CIDP, Polymyositis, and Raynaud’s warrior, all of which fuels her desire to merge storytelling and her power of language into patient advocacy especially for those living with chronic illness. Medgine currently serves as a Patient Advisor and is working on her first collection of poetry. She was one of the editors of the nationally distributed From the Root Zine, which explored matters of identity, consciousness, and resilience from the perspective of Black womanhood.
Medgine was selected as a participant in the 2022 Mentorship Program with the Writer’s Guild of Alberta’s and recently completed her role as mentor with the 2022 Horizon Circle Writers Program, a writing mentorship program for Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour (BIPOC), ESL, and underrepresented writers living in Edmonton. Her debut multilingual chapbook Waiting in the land of the living Attendre dans le monde des vivants was published in July 2023