Fort Smith-born performing artist Reneltta Arluk has travelled the world, telling her peoples’ stories through inspirational theatre. She’s starred in Tomson Highway’s Rez Sisters, theatre company Human Cargo’s production of Night, will appear in Maina next year, her first feature film. She also runs Akpik Theatre Co. in Yellowknife and returns to the city as often as possible. This year she released Thoughts and Other Human Tendencies, a book of poetry. Most recently, she’s been organizing a workshop reading of Yellowknife playwright Ben Nind’s work, Fawdor, in Vancouver, where EDGE YK caught up with her.
EDGE YK: What brings you to Vancouver?
Arluk: I did one feature film last year and after 10 years of doing theatre I thought I’d try doing film and television so I’m giving it a go. I’ve got an agent and I’ve got a really sweet place to myself. I’m giving myself a year. But I’ll be back north. I still have my theatre company in Yellowknife. I just kind of swing back and forth. I don’t really stay in one place too long.
E: What prompted you to write a book of poetry?
A: I’ve been writing my whole life and I always carry a journal. I bought this journal back in the day, like in ‘96, that I couldn’t afford, so to justify it I said I’ll put the best of all my writing into this journal. And when that journal’s done, I’ll submit it for publishing. I was doing a show in Toronto and the book got filled. And then Richard Van Camp posted on Facebook that Bookland Press was looking for writers and I thought that’s very serendipitous because I have my book with me, I’m in Toronto, so I went to a photocopy place and I photocopied all the poetry and I sent it to them. And they said, can you type it out first because we can’t really read it. That took about a month. I sent it off and then about a month later they said, you know with some editing we think you’ve got a very good book of poetry, and we’d like to publish it. And I was like, oh f#$k, that’s incredible!
E: How was that process different than creating something meant to be performed live, on stage?
A: I think they both include being vulnerable and exposing vulnerabilities that the audience can see themselves within. But because poetry is ultimately just me, and I never expected it to be published, I never made choices about how I was going to write this or from what perspective I was writing this. I just wrote it from where I was in that moment.
E: And because you were so open and vulnerable and you weren’t expecting these poems to be released publicly, a lot of them are about very intimate subjects. There’s a lot of sex in there. How do you feel about that?
A: (Laughs) Ah, I’m ok with it. I’m not really sure yet, I’ve been asking people for feedback. Like what pieces really resounded with you, what captured you in those moments, and I gave one to my ex and I said ‘did you read the book yet,’ and he’s like ‘yah, I read your little sex poem,’ and he was kind of smiling … like you’re such a child and I was like, ‘whatever, it’s fun.’ And I like the rhythm, like I think I write with a rhythm, and it’s easy to get motivated. I just find that it’s fun to write about sex sometimes. Because it’s quick and it’s like fun, and it’s exciting. I don’t know. (Laughs)
E: The poems are about Aboriginal experiences, but they reflect feelings and thoughts that are universal. What are the universal themes you feel hold people together?
A: I think exploring the love and the sex is across the board and having those pains and those attractions and those connections. I think environment. Whenever you go somewhere you’re always experiencing that environment for the first time, and you’re always assessing yourself in that environment and what’s different, what’s not different, what do you connect to what don’t you connect to? So I think our humanity within the earth is a very universal theme. Our humanity within each other, I think that’s a huge theme. And I think the family is very important. I think those are the major ones.
E: You’re Chipewyan/Cree on your mother’s side, and your father is Inuvialuit/Gwich’in. Does that make it harder or easier to tell stories of your ancestors?
A: Yah, I’m totally northern. I should just marry a Metis man and have a little kid and we’d be the all-NWT nation. (Laughs) I think my mom’s a little uncomfortable with this stage I’m going through right now, but because I was raised by a single mom, I was raised the Dene way and so all of my spiritual beliefs really come from that perspective, of smudging and from the land, and then like believing in the creator and the ceremonies she introduced me to. And then as I got older, because I wanted to know more about the Inuit side of myself I’ve really dove into this recently, looking at it from an adult perspective. And so I’m working on the language aspect of it, I’m connecting more with my relatives, and I changed my name to Arluk, and all these things. So I think the perspective of storytelling is the same – I haven’t really noticed a difference, and I think in the perspective of the writing, I just write where I am and how I see it and I’m both, so then I just assume that it’s going to connect to both.
E: When you’re on the road, what do you miss most about home, the North?
A: I always know when it comes around wintertime if I don’t get a nice cold, cold winter experience then I feel as if I’ve really missed out. Sometimes I get it in Whitehorse, or Yellowknife, but if I don’t have a really bitter cold feel at least once a year, I feel like I miss home.