Anishinaabe poet from Rainy River First Nations longlisted for CBC Poetry Prize

Elisa Nguyen
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Shandra Spears Bombay, an Anishinaabe and a member of Rainy River First Nations/Manitou Rapids, has made the 2023 CBC Poetry Prize longlist for The Voice Of The River.

“I am really proud to be longlisted,” she said. “Whether I make the shortlist or not, it’s still a beautiful acknowledgement of my poems, so I’m very grateful.”

Thirty-two writers from across Canada have been longlisted for the prize. The winner will receive $6,000, a writing residency and have their work published on CBC Books.

The shortlist will be announced on Nov. 16 and the winner will be announced on Nov. 23.

Bombay is a Sixties Scoop survivor, second- and third-generation Indian Residential School survivor. The source of her poems’ inspiration came from an important cultural moment as she moved from Southern Ontario up to the reserves, returning to the community and working through what she doesn’t know or understand about rez life.

To describe her entry in five-ish words, she says, “jagged tumbling over the rocks.”

“I’m saying that the move has not been smooth,” she said. “Housing in Fort Frances is really tricky on the rez, and it’s really tricky around Fort Frances. Finding a place to live is a big thing. So the feeling of being jagged and tumbling over the rocks is very much part of my experience right now.”

The first lines of her poem are:

boozhoo ndinawe maaganok

says the voice of the river

that flashes over the rocks

the rapids that flash with sturgeon jumping

The piece was an “immediate piece” to write, a particular moment captured and crafted, but gathered about six months worth of experiences that all centered around the river, such as the time Bombay first saw the chief burn the tall grass by the river, a method of forest fire prevention. Within about three days, new shoots began sprouting again, she says.

In another moment, along with others who transplanted to the area, Bombay went down to the river and tapped maple trees.

“The rapids gave me a chance to look at all the other things that I have been experiencing,” she said.

Bombay has also shared her writing in anthologies including Strong Women Stories, Indigenous Women: The State of Our Nations and the Four Winds Literary Magazine. She was also part of a special adoptee anthology called Outsiders Within.

Her work often explores homelessness, precarious housing or other layers of instability, she says.

She is also working on a one-woman show about the Sixties Scoop. The one-woman show tracks the intergenerational connections with her birth father and grandfather, who are also both writers and artists, and the connection with her grandmother who also moved around a lot.

Shandra Spears Bombay – Submitted photo

“There’s a lot of connections between these three generations that are two generations of residential school and one generation of the Sixties Scoop, and this notion of tumbling around and coping with that,” she said.

Frustration that comes with trying to communicate layers of colonization and stereotyping can be a minefield many writers walk through, Bombay says.

“Sometimes it feels like there’s nothing you can write that isn’t going to be morphed by anti-Indigenous racism. So it’s like a puzzle, sometimes, for me to solve.”

Whereas her one-woman show explores the intergenerational theme, her poem The Voice Of The River shows that she physically sits beside the river, feeling the connection to the river that her ancestors live beside, and she is still tumbling.

“I definitely see myself always sharing stories in some way or another,” she said.