Philip Kevin Paul

Poet's living Saanich Dream
By Tara Carman

Weekend Edition

The Saanich Dream is what inspires First Nations poet Philip Kevin Paul. "The Saanich dream is to live here with as little effect on our surroundings as possible," he explains. "We dreamed of and already loved the unborn. That affected our daily lives. We were what is called today conservationists, yet that was just the lifestyle. It didn't need a name."

Paul, 33, is the winner of the 2004 Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize, worth $2,000, for the best book of poetry by a B.C. author. Taking the Names Down From the Hill (Nightwood Editions) is Paul's first published collection. He is a member of the Sencoten (Saanich) First Nation, and lives on his family's titled land in Brentwood Bay.

"I've had the same address and phone number my entire life. My parents are gone now so I inherited the house and I'll be living there until I die," says Paul.

He recalls once being asked if he'd received any inheritances, and replied, "You're living on it. They were saving that up for me. I wasn't born yet, and they were saving that up for me, that whole land. That was our wealth."

Taking the Names started out as a project to travel across the Saanich territory, fusing the traditional with the contemporary through poetry. Paul says he drew inspiration from the ancestral names of places throughout Saanich.

The focus of the book changed when Paul experienced a series of very intense personal losses. Over seven years, his mother, father, primary mentor and cousin all died. Paul began seeing a psychologist who helped him through this difficult period, but she too passed away after they had become close.

"It started to become a book of mourning, an elegy for these people," Paul recalls. "But really, when I looked back on the poems I'd already written, it was an elegy for Saanich. For the old names, the old places, the old ideals."

Paul teaches writing at the University of Victoria during the academic year. Over the summer, he is working with the university's linguistics department to reactivate the Sencoten language. Only 24 people still speak the language, and many are over the age of 70. Paul said he was very surprised to win the award as the competition included prestigious nominees like Marilyn Bowering. "I'd practised my 'don't look disappointed' face all week," he joked. He added that the idea of awards is strange to him. "I don't know what it means to win a prize. It's a very confusing thing."

Paul is working on a second collection of poetry that he hopes to publish within the year. He says his work reflects a sadness that the traditional ways of his people are being lost. "The American Dream would have us strive for a particular lifestyle, and the pursuit of that lifestyle has created a particular atmosphere," he explains. "The Saanich Dream was different, and the pursuit of that dream had its own atmosphere. And that atmosphere is gone, and it's sad."
"Our people lived beautifully."