Indigenous Artist Spotlight: Jennifer Alicia
Ontario Presents and its member presenting organizations recognize the importance of presenting Indigenous artists, stories and culture as part of their presenting practice. As we continue to encourage the respectful presentation of Indigenous art, we will be featuring an Indigenous artist each month in our e-newsletter and blog. Our sincere thanks to Denise Bolduc for conceiving of and continuing to support this Spotlight Series.
Started in 2018, the Indigenous Artist Spotlight series is intended to foster greater awareness and understanding of the strength and diversity of Indigenous art available in Ontario and beyond. As Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists face an incredibly difficult time, we will continue to spotlight inspiring Indigenous artists.
Find all of our past Spotlight interviews here.
This month we spoke with spoken word artist Jennifer Alicia.
Hi Jennifer, please introduce yourself with your name, your profession, and what you do to our audience?
Hello, my name is Jennifer Alicia Murrin, and I am a queer, mixed (Mi’kmaw/Settler- German, Irish, Scottish) multi-disciplinary artist. I’m originally from a small community called Cox’s Cove, which has about 600 people located on the west side of the island of Ktaqmkuk, which is colloquially known as Newfoundland. I moved to Ontario with my mom 22 years ago, and I’ve been living here in Dish With One Spoon territory or Toronto for about 11 or 12 years. I’m constantly homesick and a lot of my art revolves around home. I’m just a homesick person.
Can you tell me a little bit about how you got started in storytelling and poetry?
I kind of stumbled into art. I started writing when I was a kid. I was an only child for a very long time - the only child between my mom and dad. And there were things happening in my community and family, like violence and alcoholism. So as an only child, who was living in this world and trying to navigate my way through it, I was having a difficult time trying to process those things. So I would write about it, in a journal diary, because I had no one else to talk to.
I don’t know how I got into poetry but there are poets in my family. So there’s some sort of intergenerational transmission happening there. On my dad’s side of the family, there are poets and storytellers. The first poem I can remember, and I have evidence of writing is when I was about nine or 10 and my pop passed away. I wrote this cute… Oh, it’s not cute, but… When he passed away, that was my way of expressing myself and my grief. There’s a short poem that my aunt saved for many years and gave to me as an adult. I was like, “Oh, wow, I have evidence that I’ve been writing since I was a kid.” So writing was an outlet for me to process and to heal, and to talk about all of the things that I was experiencing as a child. I always just wrote and I always loved performing as well. As a four or five-year-old, I remember putting on shows for my family. I’d come out and start dancing to Cher or like New Kids on the Block, or Tom Petty was one of my favorites. And so I would come out and just sing and dance and perform.
It wasn’t until I went to university, I met some friends who are into spoken word. And at the time, I had no idea what it was. And so I showed some of my poetry to one of them. And they were like, “You should say this on the microphone.” And I was like, “I’m really awkward and shy.” But I tried it out. It made me feel good to share what I was experiencing, but it also felt good to have folks witness it and listen to my story and react. It’s not always positive reactions, because sometimes people have some negative things to say, which is, fine, everyone’s different but, for the most part, it was just a really great experience.
So I just kept doing it. I started performing my spoken word at activist scenes, marches, rallies and all the open mics, because I had a lot of anger- and still do. I don’t look at anger as a bad thing either. I think our rage is necessary and it does come from a place of love. And I got on the Toronto poetry slam team for two years. And now I’m here!
I think it’s beautiful to share your experience through art. And, you have a way with words. Your story’s inspiring. I’m just processing.
Can you tell me about a memorable moment or a turning point in your career or life as an artist and what you learned from it, that maybe others can too?
One of the biggest things that have helped me is getting into the Indigenous spoken word and storytelling residency at the Banff Centre. I was really excited to be accepted.I didn’t know what to expect. I’m a kind of shut-off, a very quiet person. So I didn’t know what would happen when I decided to go all the way to Alberta and join a group of strangers for three weeks. I was terrified.
But when I got there, it’s so… you’re in the mountains! You’re surrounded by nature. It’s very quiet. And I shut everything else out for three weeks. I was just there, present, with the people and learning. It was a weird experience because that was the first time that I had, in a long time, got the chance to sit in the quiet and just listen to what comes. And I know that might sound weird. But when I was there, I was thinking a lot. And I was talking to my family a lot. So I was calling them and messaging them and asking them questions. And this memory popped into my head. Something I haven’t thought of in a very long time, just like poop. Here I am, here’s a little seed, I’m starting to sprout - this memory of hearing the story of my pop seeing a mermaid, when he was out fishing because my pop was a trapper and a fisherman. So he would go out on the Atlantic Ocean to fish and trap lobster, and fish and squid and stuff. And so I remember this random story that I heard a long time ago as a child just popped into my head, and then I became fixated on it. So I started asking my family questions, and we started talking. So that was the beginning of the development of this play that I’m working on. It’s been a few years, and I’m still writing it, and it’s probably going to take a few more years, and that’s okay.
But Banff and the quietness and just being there in that space was so powerful and transformative because it allowed me to unlock and maybe unblock some things. I’m just thankful that I was able to have that opportunity because so much has come out of that.
That’s amazing! I can’t wait to hear that story! Ok, so this is our last question, can you tell me about your current profession, your art, and any events that you have coming up?
My full-time gig, Monday to Friday, nine to five is actually at the University of Toronto; I’ve been an administrator there for 11 years. I love it. But outside of that is where I do the real heart work for myself. I do get a lot of like gigs and I host a lot of workshops and programming for different organizations within Toronto, mostly queer and mostly Indigenous organizations.
I host poetry, spoken word, creative writing workshops, and programming activities. And then on top of that, I like doing performances and writing. So my art is kind of my side gig, even though I wish my art was my main gig.
Otherwise, there’s the Nogojiwanong Indigenous Fringe Festival, which is in June, that’s something that I’m working towards. I’m presenting a part of my play that I’m currently working on. This will be the first time performing it as well. So it’s an excerpt of this play called Restoring Identity. Overall, it’s like this general overview of what could happen if you forget to tell your stories.
So it’s a story of someone who’s moved away from home. Which, you know, it’s not me, but it is me. And this person does not go back home that often but something bad happens and they have to go back home for a little bit. So it’s the story of the journey of returning home, and how, when they get back home to their community, all of these weird, strange things start happening to them, and it reawakens something within them that they didn’t pay attention to before. So it is about how that person reconnects with their homeland, their culture, their family, and stories.
And also, June’s very busy because it’s Pride and National Indigenous History Month. So as a queer, Indigenous person, I get a lot of gigs in June. So I do have a few features for different city events and things like that, coming up.
Thank you to Jennifer for sharing with us!
Photo Credits: Country Roads Photography