Tenille Campbell Reads #IndianLovePoems, Creates Community

 Campbell reads to the crowd.

Campbell reads to the crowd.

On Thursday, September 27th, at 5pm, members of the Swarthmore community gathered in the old Intercultural Center’s “Big Room” for a night of poetry with Dene and Métis poet and photographer Tenille K. Campbell. Campbell is from English River First Nation in Northern Saskatchewan and is known for her poetry book, #IndianLovePoems, which centers Indigenous erotica and sexuality, drawing on humor and storytelling. The event was sponsored by the Swarthmore Indigenous Students Association (SISA) and the Intercultural Center.

The idea for this event was born when Julia Wakeford ‘19, leader of SISA, messaged Campbell late one night last spring. Wakeford says, “I think it was 2am--this was last Spring--and I bring some books of Native poetry and fiction and stuff with me to school, just because I know that the library doesn’t have it, so it’s not going to be on my shelf unless I bring it. So I was trying to figure out what events to have, so I just found [Campbell’s] Facebook page and messaged her on Facebook, and she responded!” After Campbell responded, Nyk Robertson, the Intercultural Center’s Associate Director of Gender and Sexuality Initiatives and Program Manager for the Women's Resource Center, aided Julia and the rest of SISA in logistics for the event.

 The crowd reacts.

The crowd reacts.

Wakeford introduced Campbell by telling a touching anecdote about being back home in Oklahoma, driving in the car with her cousin, listening to a CBC interview with Campbell about #IndianLovePoems. She remembers tearing up sharing this moment of listening to Campbell with her cousin. Campbell then began the reading, which lasted about an hour. In between poems, Campbell told personal stories and jokes, addressing the audience, and frequently laughing at herself and her poetry.

Campbell read a series of poems from #IndianLovePoems. Some she described as “sweet,” others she described as “funny,” emphasizing that they were decidedly “not sweet.” After reading her first poem (one of the “sweet” ones), Campbell told the audience that the year her book was written and published, 2017, came after she experienced a difficult break up. The book, she said, was in part about her negotiating what it meant to be single and to begin dating after the end of a 12 year relationship, which lasted from age 17 to age 29 and resulted in the birth of her daughter. As Campbell began dating and experiencing sexual encounters as a single woman, and as she began discussing these encounters with other Native women to whom she is close, she realized, “Indigenous women have a hard time talking about sex without embarrassment or shame.” This realization, she emphasizes, contributed to her decision to write #IndianLovePoems. Campbell said the book is about “searching for a connection,” “kinship among Indigenous women,” and “loving oneself,” among other things.

Taty Hernandez ‘19, attendee and SISA member, felt this “kinship” throughout the reading. She said, “As a woman it’s really hard to talk about your sex experiences because you feel judged. So this was really cool to have a space where Tenille was talking about these things and we were laughing together.”

All of the poems Campbell read are titled “Love Poem,” followed by a number. She read several, including “Love Poem 114,” about the relationship between her cousin and her cousin’s mother-in-law, who haven’t spoken to each other in years. She also shared “Love Poem 45,” a “sweet” one about Dene love, and “Love Poem 11,” which compares the beard of one of her sexual partners to pubic hair, calling his face a vagina. She laughed hysterically as she read the latter of these two drastically different poems.

Throughout the reading, Campbell joked with the audience, teasing them for snapping (most of her audiences clap or laugh, she says), saying it makes her feel “bougie.” She also told them stories about her exploits on Tinder, laughing as she recounted one man on the dating app misguidedly telling her she “looks Korean.” She was very candid with her audience, asking questions that often elicit embarrassment or shame—she did not shy away from taboo topics. Prior to “Love Poem 79,” a poem about cheating on someone with their cousin, she asked the audience, “am I the only one who’s ever cheated on someone before?” and laughed at the tangible discomfort in the room. She later told an anecdote about one of her poems written about a man’s “big Dene dick,” explaining that when translating this poem for an audience member at another reading, she had to tell the head of Indian Act policies that her words directly translated to, “I like your big dick.”

Not all of Campbell’s poems are about her own sexual experiences. Some of them are born of conversations with other Indigenous women. Campbell emphasized that she always gets permission to write these poems, and always writes them in first person, so that she is “carrying the stories of other women forward” through her own voice, so as to protect them and avoid embarrassing them.

Campbell’s poems frequently switch between Indigenous languages and English, and deal with political themes as well as intimate, personal ones. For example, in “Love Poem 47,” Campbell uses colonization and Christopher Columbus as metaphors to describe one of her sexual encounters, providing juxtaposition between her consensual sharing of the body of her lover and the brutalization and violence of colonization on Indigenous bodies. She also shared “Love Poem 89,” which discusses her experiences bringing white sexual partners into “intimate spaces.” Throughout the evening, Campbell commented on political themes like race and colonization by detailing her interactions with both white sexual partners and Indigenous sexual partners.

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Campbell also discussed the mark of Catholicism on the lives of people on her reservation, lamenting how it “pushes back” against the preservation of “matriarchy” and “pride” in her beloved community. She cited this as a reason why she was “terrified” about how her sexually explicit book might be received by her peers at home. She remembered feeling nervous when the Chief of her tribe, who is also her cousin, asked if she had copies of her book. When she replied that she did, but did not wish to give these copies out, he told her she certainly shouldn’t give them away, but should sell them. He then bought 20 copies of her book to give to women who could not afford to purchase it. He also read one of Campbell’s poems aloud. After telling this story, Campbell read “Love Poem 671,” a sensual poem, finishing by stating, “now picture this old ass chief reading that.”

Towards the end of the reading, Campbell asked the audience if they’re “feeling brave.” When they say yes, she picks three volunteers to take her place and read poems aloud to the audience. Ian Ortiz ‘20, one of the chosen readers and a member of SISA, said, “I loved the intimacy of it...I felt really comfortable to go up there and engage with the crowd and read some of the poems.” Campbell gives the readers prizes, including a copy of her book, a collection of stickers, and a newly published collection of Indigenous art and literature.

Campbell ended the reading with two more “Love Poems,” after which she emphasized the importance of exploring “Indigenous sexuality as a positive and pure space.”

Wakeford said, “It’s always nice to have stuff like this on campus because it feels affirming in a lot of ways that most of the spaces here don’t. Even if they’re PoC affirming, it’s not the same as affirming your own, individual community. It’s just different.”

Hernandez felt inspired by the community oriented nature of the reading. She stated, “Everything was very communal and community based...When you do events like this for other student orgs, you do it with the intention of 20% or 30% of that org attending, but literally everyone from SISA except for two people were here...That says a lot about our community showing up for each other.”

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