Revitalizing language: Michelle Sylliboy’s hieroglyphic poetry

Michelle Sylliboy blends together modern poetry, photography, and Mi’kmaq (L’nuk) hieroglyphic poetry in Kiskajeyi – I AM READY. | Photo courtesy of Michelle Silliboy

unique multimedia experience is coming to the Central Library (VPL) Sept. 19 as Michelle Sylliboy presents her book of hieroglyphic poetry, Kiskajey – I Am Ready. Sylliboy’s anticipated book is the first Mi’kmaq hieroglyphic poetry book ever published.

Sylliboy is an artist raised on unceded territory in We’koqma’q Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. She has always had a passion for art, as well as a love for teaching and has worked for almost 20 years in the Vancouver Public school system. Today Sylliboy is back in We’koqma’q territory in Nova Scotia, where she grew up, to work on her PhD research. It is the place where her love for artistry and creativity began.

“My mother that raised me loved taking photos and one of my father’s nephews was also a photographer and I really enjoyed what they did,” says Sylliboy.

Creativity presented itself as something that was always around her, as well as a distraction from the harsh realities of living on a reserve as a child.

“When I was a child I used to draw all the time,” says Sylliboy. “I didn’t realize I went to a Federal Day School, until recently. This is a sad part of history because it wasn’t a very pleasant experience at all, but I do remember drawing a lot trying to just escape.”

Going back home

Michelle Silliboy, poet from We’koqma’q Cape Breton. | Photo courtesy of Michelle Silliboy

Sylliboy went back to her reserve in Cape Breton two years ago to complete her PhD research and explore her idea of a hieroglyphic poetry book.

“I had to come home to talk with my community, not just with my community but with many community members,” says Sylliboy, “and try to get feedback: if they were interested in revitalizing the hieroglyphic language and if I was doing the right thing, so I started doing a workshop to get a sense if we were ready for it. Turns out that people are hungry for it.”

Sylliboy found Mi’kmaq people yearned to bring back the ancient tradition of their hieroglyphics, and she hopes that her new book will make it more mainstream in the communities in which she was raised.

“Part of my PhD dissertation was to see what I could do to revitalize it [hieroglyphics], and I realized I needed to create an example of what we can do with the language, and use it as an everyday tool as the way you use the English language,” says Sylliboy.

Sylliboy took that feedback and created Kiskajey – I Am Ready. It is the first hieroglyphic book of poetry and its release coincides with The International Year of Indigenous Languages, an event created by the United Nations in order to raise awareness of the endangerment of Indigenous languages all over the world and revitalize the link between language as well as peace and reconciliation.

Interactive book launch

Attendees to Sylliboy’s event will be in for more than a cut and dry reading of poetry. Kiskajey – I Am Ready was originally launched in the Maritimes where she decided to collaborate with local musicians, bringing a multi-dimensional feel to her work. She plans to do the same when her book comes to Vancouver.

“In Vancouver, I’m collaborating with local musicians and we’re going to communicate on different areas musically, emotionally, and visually,” says Sylliboy. “Like in the past, musicians played with the sound of their instruments and I would read my poetry; and during the middle of the performance I would go into the audience and randomly ask the audience to draw the hieroglyphic poetry from my book.”

Sylliboy wants the reader to interact with her komqwej’wikasikl poetry and through this interaction become more acquainted with the language form of her people.

“It’s quite unique and everyone walks away remembering that experience,” says Sylliboy. “It’s engaging and not the typical book launch. People walk away inspired from many different levels.”

For more information visit: