Old Crow poet and cartoonist Allan Benjamin caught himself when he said he carries a pen and paper in his pocket 24 hours a day.
“Actually, it’s pencil. A pen freezes.” Not something you want to happen out on the Flats when inspiration strikes.
The 56-year-old Benjamin, who is well-known by What’s Up Yukon readers for his poem cartoons Didee and Didoo, has two inspirations: the land and his grandmother, Martha John Charlie. Didee and Didoo, Gwich’in words for grandmother and grandfather, reflects the humour he learned at Charlie’s side.
“We were really isolated then. People used dog teams, everyone spoke Gwich’in, and there were lots of storytellers.”
Benjamin’s grandmother “taught me how to hunt and snowshoe and all the comical stuff is from Grandma. She taught me humour is a survival tool. You must laugh and have fun or life is empty,” he says.
This would become an important skill in Benjamin’s life, affected by two and a half years at residential school. “I was one of the students who survived.” But, he was still hurt by the effects on his community.
“I started in poetry because I was depressed at the breakup of the family and I thought if I tried writing the feelings and getting it on paper, it might be better.”
For young poets he says, “I’ll tell them everything comes from the heart. When it comes, I write it.”
It can take anywhere from a day to two years for Benjamin to complete a poem of 22 to 24 rhyming lines. “Maybe I’ll write a half sentence or two then put it away.”
In 1996, at the Vuntut Nation offices, he saw a poster for a poetry contest. “Two months later I got word they picked my poem,” he recalls. The contest was for the Poetry Institute of Canada’s collection Island Journeys: an anthology of Canadian verse.
His poems have also been featured as songs – one recorded by Wilbert Kendie – and as tributes, which happened with the verse he wrote about the recently passed elder John Joe Kyikavichik.
“When I wrote that [poem] he was living. His grandson read it and smiled so I gave it to him. After John Joe passed away they put it in the obituary. It was pretty humbling,” he said.
Otherwise, “out in the bush is where I get a lot of ideas,” says Benjamin. “I record it on my piece of paper in my pocket. Sometimes it’s just one word that sparks an idea, like somersault or anti-theft, and I can tweak it into a cartoon or poem.”
The cartoons “reflect how our old people dress. I picked up funny things from my grandma and I just recorded them,” he says.
He became this paper’s cartoonist after reading his first copy. “When I finished, I saw it was a positive paper and in colour, but it had no cartoons. So I wrote to [founding editor] Darrell Hookey and asked if he’d like to publish some.”
Upon receipt of the envelope of drawings, Hookey called asking for more. “I thought he might put it aside,” says Benjamin. “But he wanted it right away. I was pretty excited.”
Benjamin’s work has appeared ever since, “in bright colours to cheer people up.”