I first met Arielle Twist IRL, in Tiohtiá:ke/Montreal last fall. She was touring for the launch of her newly released book and running a writing workshop at a café. Read any of Twist’s poetry and you’ll feel your heartstrings being tugged, it’s raw and poignant. She has major auntie energy: knowledgeable and assertive, paired with cutting eyeliner comparably sharp as her wit. A group of us sit in a circle, scribbling responses to her deeply profound writing prompts,
“What part of myself did I have to kill to exist in a colonized world?”
In her newest collection of commanding poetry, Disintegrate/Dissociate channels human vulnerability, sensuality and the reflections of rebirth and death. Her work stands grounded in opposition to colonial violence that continues to undermine sex, gender, and sexuality. As she states: “the post-colonial world is of filth and fire, but racialized LGBTQ2S+ continue to persevere as the apocalypse persists.” In landscapes leached with white settler ideology, she reclaims her own sacredness, her relationship to the land, and her two-spirit trans femme realness. The voices of queer Black, Indigenous, and people of colour have been challenged by the atrocities of systematic oppression. But Twist’s poetry nurtures crushed identities by untangling the knots of trauma and survival.
I talked with Arielle about her swift entrance and rapid success in poetry, desirability in the apocalypse, inclusivity in art institutions and those who are changing it up. We also converse about her work in sex education and poetry, her enthusiasm for video-games, and what writing in the future, for those who have been coping with the horrors of the past (and present) looks like.
i think as racialized people we are and have been surviving apocalypse after apocalypse. There have been many great ends that try to destroy us, our culture and our hope. I think we are facing the reverberations of these ends and beginnings constantly, [We are] healing not only for us but for our ancestors. This is exhausting and hard work but I am proud and I am hopeful to be in this moment of love, care, and rebuilding in the art world.
What was your draw to poetry as a medium?
Poetry was my first love. I didn’t want to be an artist – or more, I didn’t think someone like me could be an artist. When I met my mentors Kai Cheng Thom and Gwen Benaway they both were publishing their collections of poetry Passage and A Place Called No Homeland and I just started with poems and it stuck. I think poetry brings a different life to words. It is really transformative to work with words in a different way than I have been using in my everyday life.
Your work is through writing and sex education, do you find the two overlapping? if so, are there complications to this?
I tried to keep these two things apart during the first phase of my career. Sex education was work I did in my everyday life through Venus Envy in Halifax. Writing was an existence which wasn’t attached to one area, almost an escape of everyday life and I was always worried that mixing the two would make my art into my work. Art eventually turned into my work, as I need to survive and create simultaneously, but it is still an escape. I realized the two can be married and now most of my art practice; visual and literary, is rooted in asexuality.
Your writings have these ideas of sexuality threaded within it. Escapism can be healthy of course, but can also suggest avoidance of reality. But your published poems really confront trauma, the actuality of pain and joy explicitly. I am wondering now that your life and art are mixed, what helps you escape from the everyday? Do you think your escape tactics have found new forms?
I think writing specifically has a way of forcing me to confront reality. I am trying to write fiction right now and I find it a completely different task. I find visual art a more hopeful way to create. I think about love and hope. And I focus on centering family, kin, and sexuality in a more playful way – I also love video games as a way to escape.
In your workshop in Tiohtiá:ke/Montreal, Ferocity & Filth, there is a big emphasis that the colonial world is also a post-apocalyptic world. Which in mainstream media, it seems like doomsday preppers or white survivalists are always waiting for some kind of impending global catastrophe…when in reality, the apocalypse is now. It’s both grim and hopeful, that yes, it is from a place of destruction but also healing and rebuilding. Can you speak to this narrative?
I think as racialized people we are and have been surviving apocalypse after apocalypse. There have been many great ends that try to destroy us, our culture, and our hope. I think we are facing the reverberations of these ends and beginnings constantly. [We are] healing not only for us but for our ancestors. This is exhausting and hard work but I am proud and I am hopeful to be in this moment of love, care and rebuilding in the art world.
Language and slang used in queer and racialized circles often get used by members that are not a part of either respectively. How do you think writing and poetics function for people that have had their words, the land, and their identities appropriated?
I think this question needs to be more specific – slang used by queer and racialized circles is often appropriated from queer black culture, specifically AAVE, so we need to be more accountable and intentional about words used while also understanding the aspects of poverty we all face as queer people of colour and having more space for mistakes and healing. Learning and unlearning takes time and I will always recognize that I, as an individual, can and will strive to be and do better.
As for my experience with appropriation, misuse, and disrespect of culture and identity, writing and specifically poetics function as a vessel of reclamation. Also, I use poetics as a way to practice autonomy over my body and existence, the words I am choosing to call my body and her experience whether that is monstrous, fat, and filthy, are mine to choose and writing has reminded me of this.
So in a sense, it’s like a reclamation of both the physical body and its weight, to the words and their weight. No wonder you’re a poet… it’s really beautiful. Enabling the choice recentres the power. This reminds me of your book title, “Disintegrate/Disassociate” and thematically in the content of your poems – the healing possibilities in physicality. Do the themes of transformation and embodiment resonate with you?
Absolutely – I am trying to be kinder to my body through transformation and embodiment, and reclaiming these words is an act of kindness to myself and my physical body.
Your practice has many connections to collaboration, I am thinking of your group exhibitions and workshops – but it is also deeply introspective and inward-looking. Do you feel these two components to your practice complement each other? What does community mean to you?
Collaboration is how I think we should all start our careers – I love working alongside other artists, and it has taught me and inspired me to delve into other avenues. Community is my kin, they are family, so they mean everything to me.
i use poetics as a way to practice autonomy over my body and existence, the words I am choosing to call my body and her experience whether that is monstrous, fat, and filthy, are mine to choose and writing has reminded me of this.
Are these new avenues an extension to your writing? Or are they something you see as totally different?
I think I will always think and process through poetics, I want my visual art to move like poetry. I want it to have weight, cause thought, discomfort, and desirability. I want my art practice to complement each other, and I hope they do.
You’ve written for CanadianArt and CBC Arts. In these major Canadian art platforms, there are these unwritten codes of conduct, like a format of how to talk about art politics and critique. How did you navigate this as a poet?
I don't give in to most things and edits. I just write what I feel and what the art makes me feel without thinking too much about it. I want my reaction and critiques to be immediate, what stuck with me, the things I loved, and write about those. Maybe I'll never be a good art critique, but I’ll always be an honest one, which I've been told is refreshing.
We both live/lived in K'jipuktuk/Halifax. How are things there in terms of “inclusivity” in the art community? How has whiteness challenged this work? Or beyond that, challenges desires?
I don't "see" a lot of inclusivity within art communities – we are still seeing white folks in leadership and long-term roles in institutions and artist-run centres, places like Eyelevel just hired another white woman as their Artistic Director while hiring QTBIPOC folks as summer staff or contract jobs to have them occupy space conveniently. I want to see queer and trans people of colour hired long term in spaces specifically Indigenous people instead of white people claiming to decolonize.
True. It’s so insidious for artist collectives, galleries, and centres to say they prioritize multivocality but continuously use the labour of those marginalized to the means of leveraging cis whiteness. It’s tokenizing and performative.
Because of institutions damaging systems, there is a real imposter syndrome at play when QTBIPOC enter historically inaccessible spaces. It can be like, “are they just using me to meet an inclusivity quota? Am I worthy of this? Do I want white validation? Do I even want to be a part of a place that has hurt me and my community?”
Has accessibility and belonging grounded and/or challenged how you feel about your work? Are there art spaces, collectives that you admire or are a part of?
I definitely have been challenged on whether or not my work is important, or worthy. I also think this comes from how quickly my art career has evolved. I think there is a thought that I am just being tokenized, but also fuck that. If I am being tokenized, then let it be, so space can be made for kids like me. Call me didactic, tell me my work is a product of the time we're in, but it will always be there now. Maybe this isn’t about me, and maybe it shouldn’t be.
I love the Khyber Centre for The Arts for everything they've done for me and my community of QTBIPOC artists.
i am seeing the future, our ancestors dreamt of this time and I hope it’s more than a fleeting moment.
Lindsay Nixon curated the exhibition, “The Ethical Etherealness of Fuck and Love” at La Centrale, which features one of your poems. How did this show come together? Also, can we talk a little about what it means to decolonize desires?
This show was curated by Lindsay, so you'd have to ask them how it came together as I can only speak to how I was asked to be involved. In the show, my poem was titled Constellations which is also in my debut collection. This piece is about creation, sexuality, and desire. It has many layers, but the most apparent theme is sex, specifically sex with this person who I wanted to love. Lindsay asked me if I would like to be too included in their exhibition and I was excited to have my work exhibited alongside artists I had admired for so long like Dayna Danger and Kama La Mackerel.
Decolonizing desires to me feels like the unpacking and deconstruction of desirability - we need to confront the colonial ideals of desirability. I often talk about breaking down these ideals and traits of beauty and desire. White, Cis, Heterosexual, Thin, "able-bodied", masculine and feminine traits need to be unpacked and we need to challenge ourselves to not see these as the norm or perfection. We need to find desirability in ourselves before we can find desirability in people like us which sounds cheesy, but I’m not saying love yourself first because that’s unrealistic and hard for Queer and Trans folks and a bullshit thing we are told – but we need to find the desirability in our bodies and hold those thoughts close so they can grow and we can learn to love and care for people who reflect us.
You have been touring around a lot this past year. How do you ground yourself and deal with this transient nature?
I am still learning how to. It's lonely and exhausting, but I do think it’s important for poets specifically to be given a chance to travel since so much of our practice is in performance.
What would you like to see from Canadian literature and are there writers that are inspiring you now?
I am seeing the future, our ancestors dreamt of this time and I hope it’s more than a fleeting moment. I am so inspired by my kin, people like Lindsay Nixon, Billy Ray Belcourt, Joshua Whitehead, Jaye Simpson, Jessica Johns, Brandi Bird and of course my mentor and sweet friend Gwen Benaway have all inspired me to write more and more these past couple months.
How has working with publishing houses been? What was the push to get your pieces published?
Working with Arsenal Pulp Press has been incredible - they have been caring for me and my work for the past couple of months and it has been such a dream working with them.
I have had the joy to read your newest collection, Disintegrate/Disassociate. Is there a piece in this collection that you are most pleased with?
VACANT and D/REAM ME are two of my favourite pieces in the collection. They were poems that came quickly, from a raw feeling, and I am proud to share that.