Al Hunter has been many things. He has served as chief of Rainy River First Nations in Ontario and is a member of the Anishinaabe Nation in Treaty No. 3. He has been a land claims negotiator, a researcher, high school counselor, university instructor, an expert on treaties and environmental issues, and a healing and wellness coordinator. Not to mention project coordinator of Native Teachers for the Seventh Generation at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, Minnesota.
Hunter, who walked around Lake Superior in 2000, was named an Anishinaabe Achiever of the Treaty No. 3 Nation that year for his work on behalf of the environment and education.
He is a father and grandfather.
And through all of that, Hunter has remained a poet.
He wrote his first poem at age 10. His third collection, Beautiful Razor: love poems and other lies (Kegedonce Press, 2013) is out, and book launches and reading events are on tap in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and throughout North America.
“What lies here are the vagaries of a heart wounded, shattered, and redeemed by love,” wrote author, journalist and storyteller Richard Wagamese. “Such generosity of spirit deserves acclaim. A bravura work.”
Busily on the road promoting the book and other projects, Hunter took time to answer a few questions about poetry and its rewards and challenges.
You wrote your first poem at the age of 10. Do you remember what you wrote about then?
I think I was in grade 3 or 4. I wrote a poem for my mother that the teacher liked; she had it published in a local paper at the time. I still have a copy of it.
What kept you with poetry rather than prose as your chosen expression?
I’ve written some prose. However, the muse for poetry still works strongly for me. I go with the flow. I let the spirit move me.
So much of poetry involves rhythm and often echoes rhythms in our lives. Are there any rhythms that you return to as you work—the lapping of the lake, drumbeats, heartbeat, hoofbeats?
By nature I’m a pretty solitary creature, and I find comfort, solace and inspiration in the natural world. I go there because it’s where I feel the most comfortable. The natural rhythm of creation moves me, resonates inside me, inside my soul, it moves my spirit, it heals me. I also listen to a lot of different kinds of music, read a lot of different poets, and that all swirls together somewhere inside me, in my unconscious. It all inspires me to write, to communicate, to create.
There are a few recurring images in this set of poems that struck me—birds and flight (especially hummingbirds) and stars. What is it about these images that attracts you?
Sometimes it’s the very spirits or actual beings that come while in thought or action. In turn, words come, images come, metaphors come, messages come. I listen, I remember, I write, I revise and revise until a three-dimensional image emerges which is the poem or poems. The poems are homages to the beings that come to bring healing.
Do poems heal and free you from hurts of the past, or do they cement them within you?
They definitely have healing powers. Poems are meant to be read aloud, to be given voice. By doing so, the poet, the writer, heals. If the poems help one move beyond pain, then it’s a good thing.
How do you know when a poem is done?
I know when a poem is done, to me, when it just feels right or when I see the three-dimensional image of the poem.
In the first section of the book, most of the poems are about loves lost. They read as reflections of hurt more than anger—disappointment, loss and loneliness more than vengeance. Is that because these were written after some time has passed, or did you begin some of them shortly after breakups?
In order to evolve and not just change, I think it’s necessary to deal with life’s struggles using our own Creator-given gifts. I accept that the Creator and spirits have provided a way to deal with them in a creative, healing way. We cannot escape pain, we can only choose to live with it or move beyond its paralyzing hold on one’s spirit. It’s an ongoing, evolving way.
Did any one poem in this book take you by surprise—either because of the topic or because it turned out so well?
I am sometimes surprised by what can emerge because it comes from the unconscious, the spiritual, realm, I think. If that’s the case, then it must be something that needs to be said or told. If not for my own sake, then for someone else’s. Maybe that person is on Earth now, maybe they’re not. Who knows?
Since this is your third book to be published (the other two are Spirit Horses and The Recklessness of Love, both by Kegedonce Press), I’m wondering if some of the excitement has diminished. Or do you know more what to expect of the signings and events?
That’s not what it’s about for me. I write because I have to, not always because I want to. It’s not something that I can turn off like a tap. It constantly flows like blood, like life.
You’ve done a lot of interviews recently. Is there any question you wish someone would have asked you because you have a great answer—and what would that be?
“Where did you find that hat?” Hahaha.