As the one-year anniversary of her return to PEI approaches, Julie Bull has been making things happen. The Inuk performance poet, originally from Labrador, wasn’t sharing her poetry yet when she last lived in PEI (studying, working, and establishing UPEI’s Mawi’omi Centre). You might be excused for expecting her to pursue a career in academia… and, in fact, she picked up a PhD on her way back.
But whether writing for academia, or for her independent consulting work in Indigenous research ethics and health policy, or for love of poetry, her motivation is the same: “Change,” she says. “Justice. Giving back to the communities that have given so much to me…
“I’m motivated to keep up with creativity when I’m writing all the time for work—and poetry is more fun than policy briefs.”
When Julie moved from PEI to Toronto “for different life adventures,” she was writing poetry on the side. “It was a therapeutic pursuit,” she says. “In 2015, I started sharing poetry—by accident.” She left a notebook open, and a friend read what she had written. A “whoa” reaction led Julie to “dabble, sharing poems with small groups.”
By 2017, when she was working on her PhD in interdisciplinary studies, she included poetry in her dissertation, an unusual move met with scepticism before it led to praise. Academia loves boxes, but Julie recognized, “I don’t really fit in boxes, so I just make my own boxes.”
In the fall of 2019, she put her academic grant-writing superpowers to the test in service of her poetry and a dream she thought would be farther in the future: she applied to the Banff Centre for a program on Indigenous spoken word and storytelling—and was accepted.
“I was a super-rookie,” Julie says. “I had never even performed poetry, while another participant was the slam poetry champion of New Zealand.” (She had never published a poem on paper, either.)
Of the experience at Banff, she says, “‘Transformative’ is the #1 word I would use—not only for my creative work, but in a soulful way.” Then, “COVID happened—and we went home a week early.” Julie didn’t get to perform the work that she had prepared in Banff.
Audiences who saw Julie’s performance at the recent Island Fringe production Pounding the Pavement didn’t see the products of Julie’s Banff work—these are still waiting for the right audience—but they still got to see the products of her immersive Banff experience. “In the academic world, I am a good public speaker because I don’t have a script—I’m very conversational,” Julie says. Memorizing poems for public performance and figuring out how to express them through her body was new—but necessary.
“I love the writing, but now I’m excited to really perform it,” she says, talking about “the connection to some people in the audience—the shift I could see in their eyes.” The shift looked like recognizing privilege, connecting with injustice. The shift looked like change.
“Pounding the Pavement was meant to hear voices from the fringes,” Julie says, “But those are what I feel are in my face every day as issues. Racism, discrimination: they are not just personal, but collective issues.”
Julie was thrilled with the experience of “coming from the academic into the artist world,” where she immediately found “that sense of community and cheering people on.” The diverse performers from Pounding the Pavement are “already connecting each other with other opportunities,” personally and professionally.
Asked what brought her back here, she immediately says “water.” But on deeper reflection, Julie says her “here” is Atlantic Canada, and “It was the sense of community I missed most and that you can’t replace.” The turnout and energy for Black Lives Matter and Indigenous Lives Matter events in PEI represent “a shift” from the last time she lived here, and she feels she can be part of making change. She also wants to contribute her unique skills and talents to the artistic community.
Julie says. “Once I start something, I can’t stop.”
On her own shift to poetry, performance, and consulting, she says, “I think there are a lot more Indigenous people of my generation getting advanced degrees, but choosing not to work in the system—not choosing to be professors or lawyers or whatever we trained for. I’m interested to see how it begins to make a difference.”