Hope, History, and the Land: An Interview With Tosh Sherkat

Tosh Sherkat is a writer attending the University of Victoria. He was raised in Nelson, BC (Sinixt and Ktunaxa territory). His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in CBC, EVENT, Existere, Plenitude, PulpMag, and This Side of West. He is a fiction editor for This Side of West, and a reader for Watch Your Head.

Hannah Macready: Hi Tosh! Lovely to be chatting with you. I was really drawn to your poems in EVENT 50/2 titled: “The 1998 Avalanche Of Kokanee Glacier Park” and “Someone Show Me Planet B.” Even from the titles, you get the sense of a deep love for nature and a desire to protect it. In my research leading up to this interview, I also learned you recently resigned from Canada’s National Climbing team citing the climate impacts of travelling to competitions and ethical qualms representing a country steeped in Indigenous oppression. Maybe you could start by telling us a little bit about these poems and your connection to the ongoing climate crisis?

Tosh Sherkat: First off, I’m really flattered that you took the time to research me. I’ve never been interviewed about my writing before. I wrote these poems in the fall of 2019 during my first poetry workshop at UVic. Both of these poems were “assignment” poems. “Someone Show Me Planet B” was the “Poetry as Witness” assignment (which I believe was developed by my prof in reference to Paul Celan’s poetry), and the avalanche poem was a persona poem. 

That fall was when the Wet’suwet’en protests and blockades were getting increasing media coverage. Reflecting back on that time, it was the first moment in my life where I was being exposed to that rhetoric about Land Back and decolonization and also to the imminent threat of the climate crisis. Growing up in Nelson, there’s a type of isolation from that rhetoric that basically meant I didn’t learn about that stuff until I was in university. I mean…I learned that the icebergs were melting and that we shouldn’t drive our cars so much. The protest that “Someone Show Me Planet B” is set in is probably the first protest I had ever gone to, and definitely the first one where we marched through the streets of a big city. I think both of these poems sort of originated out of this rhetoric that was new to me, and also this threat that was new to me: that climate change was going to change our lives, not in the future, but right now. As it relates to my resignation from the national team, these poems (in my mind anyway) begin to represent those types of thoughts becoming more pertinent for me.

HM: I’m also from Nelson! Of course, after reading your poems and learning more about you, I wasn’t surprised at all to know you come from the Kootenays. Kokanee Glacier Park is in fact the subject of your first poem in EVENT. It’s clear that nature and home inspire you, can you tell me a little bit about your writing process and what prompts you to start creating?

TS: Home and nature are complicated things! I’m very privileged to have spent lots of my life in nature, especially in areas around the Kootenays. My dad has worked as a ski guide my whole life, and so I spent a lot of time in the mountains growing up. But this access to nature is a political thing. Part of my heritage is Doukoubour, a group who settled in the Kootenays in the early 20th century and in doing so displaced and dispossessed the Sinixt people. And of course, the industries that support adventure tourism that sustained my family while I was growing up are only possible because of the continued colonial practices of dispossession on that land and in Canada. 

It doesn’t really feel like there needs to be all that much of a writing prompt when you look around the place you’ve known your whole life and see so much natural beauty, but it’s also engulfed in this historical backdrop of colonial violence and dispossession. My writing process (which is definitely still under development) is really just trying to render things as they are, as clearly as I can, bearing in mind my responsibilities to telling the truth about the place I live in, and who and where I come from. 

HM: Beyond climbing and writing, you also create music. Do you ever turn your poems into songs, or songs into poems? How do your various hobbies and art forms intersect?

TS: I didn’t really write poetry before I came to university. I was more interested in writing music. In my first or second year, I wrote, recorded, and produced an album; it was a blast. Very hard, but very rewarding. But I probably wouldn’t have pursued poetry if not for songwriting. I had a few friends, family, and teachers who really encouraged me to go into writing while I was doing lots of songwriting in high school. Now I don’t write as much music as I used to; I think I fell into a poetic practice that seemed to satisfy that itch. I do write short stories as well, as that is a part of my degree, and often some poems that aren’t quite working out get turned into short stories. 

HM: In  “The 1998 Avalanche Of Kokanee Glacier Park” you used morse code “​​-… .-. . .- – …. .-.. . … …” which translates to BREATHLESS. I read up a bit more on this event and learned that six skiers were tragically killed by an avalanche on this date. What drew you to this event as the inspiration for this poem?

TS:  As I’ve mentioned, the avalanche poem was an assignment poem for a workshop where we were expected to “inhabit” someone else for the poem’s POV. In January of 1998, six skiers were killed in an avalanche in Kokanee Glacier Park; three of those people were some of my parents’ closest friends Patrick, Mary, and Geoffrey (Lumpy). I know that those deaths really affected my parent’s lives; it was one of the reasons my dad got into ski guiding. Growing up, I felt a hole in our lives where those people would have been. I was born exactly eleven months after the accident, and my birth was really hard on my mom. I’ve been told that there were some complications with my birth and that at a certain point the doctors weren’t sure whether either of us were going to make it. These two events, both so close together and so hard on my parents, just seemed to have some kind of charge between them in my mind. I definitely feel a loss for those three people who might have been in my life, especially Patrick, who my mom has always said would have loved to be an “uncle” to me. The poem came about as a way of creating a line of communication with him through time, for just this tiny moment where both our lives were hanging. The line of morse code becomes this sort of non-dialogue that we share, that connects us through time. It was a way of honouring my family’s histories while also connecting with someone I never got the chance to meet who was very important to my parents and shaped who they are, sort of sequentially shaping who I am.

HM: In, “Someone Show Me Planet B,” the poem takes a more direct stab at the climate crisis, stating “our mother is dying. / how dare you” and ending with the sombre thought of, “and you are naive / if you think we can do it. / like throwing gold bricks in a wishing well.” Side by side, these poems give hope and take it away, leaving the reader with what I believe is an honest depiction of what it feels like to be an activist. Was submitting these poems together intentional? What do they mean as a unit to you?

TS: It’s funny, but I really had never read the avalanche poem as much of a “climate crisis” poem before, but I do see what you mean. There is hope there. For rebirth in some way, after all this death and destruction. I’d love to say that submitting these poems together was intentional, but I think I literally submitted every poem I had ever written to EVENT as part of one of my first-ever lit mag submissions. 

“Someone Show Me Planet B” is a very angry poem. Some of the italicized lines are pulled directly from climate justice chants and cardboard signs that I saw at a protest here in Victoria. Greta Thunberg is responsible for that line, “how dare you.” I think I was feeling, like a lot of young people, that the structures that hold the system perpetuating the climate crisis are just too powerful for an individual to do anything about. That anything we do just won’t be enough. I think one of the ways that that poem counters that nihilistic narrative is by witnessing the protestors on the street. 

You have to have hope to show up, even if you are just grieving the fact that this might be all over and done with—which it isn’t. Having hope and then having grief is all a part of it. We’re living in a time where there has been serious harm done to people and the environment that has resulted in the current climate crisis. It’s important to be angry about that. It’s also important to be grieving the way we live life right now because it can’t continue the way that it is. These emotions about what is happening to the planet need to translate through us for us to really be able to know what to do about them. I think that’s what also gives me hope.

In this weird way, I think that if we grieve the way that we live right now, we can envision for ourselves a better way of living on this planet, and so out of climate grief can come hope. That grief is intersectional too, and varied. I think that everyone will experience grief differently, and that will be important for how we structure our world moving forward. Our grief is very much shaped by our connection to the past, which I’m trying to explore in the avalanche poem. 

My connection to the land in the Kootenays has been shaped by that tragic event, as much as it has been shaped by my heritage and my education. In some way, we have to understand our connection to land if we are to have grief, if we are to have hope going into the future. Perhaps that’s what these poems mean as a unit together. Grief and hope. I think in a very bland and less poetic way, these are the two poems I am most proud of. 

HM: Now that you’re no longer competing with Team Canada. What’s in the works for Tosh Sherkat? Music? Poetry? More great outdoor feats?

TS: As of now I’ve got one year left in my undergrad in creative writing at UVic. I’m certainly still really excited about climbing and exploring a new aspect of it for me outside of the very goal-centric relationship I had with it before. Now that I don’t have as much commitment to dedicated training time, I can put more energy into initiatives to make climbing more accessible, which I’m very passionate about. Right now I’m working on a number of writing projects including a couple of chapbook ideas and a collection of short stories. Being in close proximity to the mainland has allowed me to spend more time with my grandmother, my dad’s mom, and I’ve been learning Farsi from her. I’m very excited to continue to learn and explore that part of my heritage as well.

Hannah Macready lives in Vancouver, BC.