So to Speak, founded in 1993 by an editorial collective of women MFA candidates at George Mason University, has served as a space for feminist writing and art for nearly twenty years. So to Speak: a feminist journal of language and art publishes poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and visual art that lives up to a high standard of language, form, and meaning. We look for work that addresses issues of significance to women’s lives and movements for women’s equality and are especially interested in pieces that explore issues of race, class, and sexuality in relation to gender.
Filed under: Nonfiction, Poetry, Reviews, Uncategorized
Guest post by fiction writer, Shelby Settles Harper:
What Joy Harjo has done through Crazy Brave: A Memoir, a heartbreaking and unflinchingly honest mural of her life story, is what sportswriter Paul Gallico described when he wrote, “It is only when you open your veins and bleed onto the page a little that you establish contact with your reader.” A poet and musician, Harjo guides the reader on a journey, some parts non-linear, through myth, mirth, and survival, from pre-birth to Harjo’s salvation through poetry and art. She’s strips down, opens a vein, and bleeds onto the page.
Reading Harjo’s memoir was for me a sort of homecoming. I grew up in Muskogee, Oklahoma, not far from the towns of Tulsa, Tahlequah, and Okmulgee, which factored into Harjo’s early years. I, too, was born to a mixed-blood mother, though my family is Caddo. Harjo and I share the landscapes of the southern planes that formed and created us.
“Harjo,” is a Muscogee/Creek word for “reckless in battle,” or “crazy brave” and gives the memoir its title. Harjo structures the book using the American Indian concept of “four directions,” common among a number of tribes, and which symbolizes the totality of the universe. East represents the direction of “sunrise” and “beginnings”; North, the direction of “difficult teachers” and “cold wind”; West, “the direction of endings”; and South, where “release,” “fire” and “creativity,” are found.
“East” begins in the womb of her beautiful, mixed-blood Cherokee mother, in which Harjo enters the world “choking and kicking, fighting for air.” The early years were filled with hard work and near-poverty, as well as love and disappointment for her alcoholic and mostly-absent Muscogee/Creek father. Harjo writes of the day he left: “My father disappeared. And so did I in this world without father. Emptiness took the place of everything I had known to be true.”
“North” tells of Harjo’s escape from her white, abusive stepfather and his “house of bad spirits and pain,” to the Institute of American Indian Art in New Mexico. There, she finds an outlet for her talents in theater, music, and painting – talents she had been forced to suppress in her stepfather’s home.
Readers encounter many heartbreaking characters at the boarding school. One such character is a boy from a South Dakota reservation who runs by Harjo one afternoon. She writes:
He leapt onto the hoods of every car in the administration parking lot, crushing in the roofs, one by one. He kicked in a set of windows lining the academic building. Around him a whirling halo glowed a brownish red. Within the whirlwind were racial slurs, his abandoned baby self, the running-away ghost of a father. Two teachers grabbed him and threw him to the ground.
“West” begins with Harjo meeting and falling in love with a Cherokee Indian in the boarding school postgraduate program. Soon afterwards, she returns to her mother and stepfather’s house, still a teenager and secretly pregnant. Harjo’s new life in Oklahoma is no easier than her young life there, and she struggles as a new mother with a distant, alcoholic husband who can’t keep a job, and a mean-spirited mother-in-law. She writes that her days were “consumed with the drudgery of survival.” Her life was once again devoid of art.
I was struck by Harjo’s casual mention of visiting the Indian clinic in Oklahoma shortly before the birth of her first child and being asked if she wanted to be sterilized. She chose not to sign paperwork authorizing her sterilization, and writes that she didn’t think much about it at the time. Harjo later realized that many Indian women were sterilized – some without even the formality of signing consent papers – and others, not fluent in English, signing without understanding what they were authorizing.
The first time I read this passage in the memoir, I sat the book down and paused. Sterilization? Before I could move forward in the memoir, I researched this horrific period in our country’s history, barely one generation earlier than mine, in which the Indian health services improperly sterilized thousands of native women. During the 1960s and 1970s, the Indian Health Services sterilized an estimated 25 percent of American Indian women who were between the ages of fifteen and forty-four. The allegations include the failure to provide women with necessary information regarding sterilization; use of coercion to get signatures on the consent forms; improper consent forms; and a lack of an appropriate waiting period between the signing of a consent form and the surgical procedure.
I remained stunned that I hadn’t heard of this before Harjo’s memoir, that this wasn’t covered in Oklahoma history classes or in United States history classes.
I’ve always believed in fiction as education, in fiction as a means of social change. Inspired to bring more awareness of this horrific practice, I wrote a short story about a Native woman who, as a teenager, is forcibly sterilized following the stillbirth of her child. Before this mutilation of her body, she was a gifted painter. Afterwards, she loses her desire and ability to create art, and slowly goes mad. I am forever grateful for Harjo for teaching me about this shameful government practice committed against Native women.
In “South,” Harjo and her husband return to Santa Fe, to rekindle their dreams of being artists. She begins to paint again and eventually finds freedom from her cheating husband, only to replace him with a physically abusive Pueblo poet, with whom she wakes next to with a hangover nearly every morning. Harjo eventually leaves her abuser, but beneath the functioning student and mother roles she plays, panic attacks and inner demons consume her.
Harjo writes, “I believe that if you do not answer the noise and urgency of your gifts, they will turn on you.” She begins writing poems, and uses them to survive the panic, alcohol, monsters, and dreams that threaten her existence. “It was the spirit of poetry,” she writes, “who reached out and found me as I stood there at the doorway between panic and love.
Be sure to read StS’s interview with Joy Harjo!
Shelby is a yoga teacher, former lawyer and unabashed country music fan. She lives with her husband and three children in the Washington, D.C. suburbs, where she has learned to embrace the minivan. She is a candidate for an MA in Writing from Johns Hopkins University and is working on her first novel, Persimmon. Shelby is a citizen of the Caddo Nation of Oklahoma, and American Indian themes feature prominently in her writing. Shelby’s latest endeavors include training for a half marathon and triathlon, learning French and home brewing hoppy pale ales.
Her work can be found in Bethesda Magazine (July/August 2013), Outside In Literary and Travel Magazine (March 2013), Defying Gravity: Fiction by Washington Area Women (fall 2013), Gargoyle Magazine #61 (forthcoming spring 2014) and on her blog.
Filed under: Interview, Nonfiction, Poetry, Politics, Post by: Sheryl R, Uncategorized
JOY HARJO’S first book of poetry, The Last Song, was published in 1975, during a time period often referred to as the Second Wave of the Native American Renaissance. Born in 1951 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Harjo’s ancestral Mvskoke (Creek) Nation roots weave effortlessly throughout her many books, books that include nine works of poetry, a poetry collaboration with photographer Stephen Strom, two children’s books, two anthologies, and the memoir Crazy Brave (W. W. Norton & Co., 2012), which describes her journey to becoming a poet. Crazy Brave recently won the 2013 PEN Center USA literary prize for creative nonfiction.
How is it possible to do appropriate justice to an introduction for Joy Harjo, award-winning writer and musician? Harjo’s accomplishments span almost four decades. Her body of work is iconic, diverse.
Harjo never shies away from tough topics; she addresses inequalities and injustices through her writing, interviews, and public speaking. And this interview is no exception. Her razor-sharp intellect sculpts the heart knowledge that she channels effortlessly into prose and verse. Harjo’s imagery slowly reveals to the reader a vantage point that has been there all along, as if mists clear and the reader is shown an expansive vision, a vision each of us earns by virtue of confronting the simple truth that we are human. Harjo reminds us of this. That through our shared humanity, with all of its imperfection and suffering, we can see the wider truths of the universe.
Many contemporary poets are quick to mention her work as inspiration for their own writing. Words like “never afraid,” “quality of voice,” “mythic and timeless,” are used to describe Harjo’s writing. Her literary and music awards include the PEN Open Book Award, the American Indian Distinguished Achievement in the Arts Award, the Josephine Miles Poetry Award, the Mountains and Plains Booksellers Award, the William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America, and fellowships from the Arizona Commission on the Arts, the Witter Bynner Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts, and the 2009 NAMMY Best Female Artist of the Year.
In addition to wielding a mighty pen, Harjo is an accomplished saxophonist and, at sixty-two, still performs regularly with her band Poetic Justice, finding time for writing while on the road between shows. She has performed on the HBO Def Poetry jams internationally and in the US, and she has produced four award-winning cds of music. Harjo currently teaches in the American Indian Studies program at the University of Illinois and lives in the Mvskoke Nation of Oklahoma.
Joy shares with StS her thoughts about the political, cultural binds, creativity, and writing:
Sheryl: What do you feel being a feminist in today’s world means?
Joy: I am wondering what the term feels and looks like from a younger generation. Does it smell like mold or dust? Feminism is just a term for equal rights for all, including women.
Sheryl: I read that you write to give voice to all parts of yourself, your sources: the Creek, the Anglo-European, the woman. Is there one body of work in which you feel you most give voice to each of these parts?
Joy: Your reference sounds like it came from an interview response from my younger self. I do not now consider myself “several parts,” though each human takes on several roles, and each of us bears streams of obligations, from our families, generation, people, earth, and so on. I have never called myself “mixed-blood” though DNA reality would affirm this. DNA reality would affirm everyone on the planet as mixed blood. My response about giving voice to so many parts most likely came at an age in which I was called on to represent my tribe (though I do not serve in an official capacity), all indigenous people of the U.S., of the world, and…women. I still am! But when I was younger the responsibility was overwhelming, and I used to suffer extreme stage fright.
I am a Mvskoke person of Hickory Ground tribal town, and female. The voice of my poetry, my music, of that which I was given to do here, is one voice. It speaks through the experience of my physical vehicle. All of my creative work embodies this voice. I have had a European-American education, as has everyone who has attended public schools and universities in this country. I have also had an Indian school arts education, and have been educated traditionally. And, like all of us, these times, and life, are a constant education. The poetic forms I employ have been influenced by all of these educations. I do not feel schizophrenic when I write, rather, hooked in to larger, wild, yet coherent meaning and shape. The creative self is beyond the binds of culture, yet, employs cultural forms.
Sheryl: You have been described as a feminist poet, writing of personal and political resistance through unconscious imagery, as well as a storytelling form. Are you conscious of political and feminist ends when writing your poetry?
Joy: I am taken by the phrase “unconscious imagery” in your question. My imagery is often intuitive. Fresh or unknown images then might be “unconscious.” Some of the imagery is very conscious, and springs from utterly conscious moments, like witnessing bullet holes in the houses of people in Estelí, Nicaragua and listening to the testimony of family members who had lost their relatives to American-speaking soldiers, or a sunrise over the desert on the Navajo reservation being born by twin gods not far from a coal-producing plant.
It can be argued that everything is political in that our dreams, thoughts, and words have been nourished or starved by political movements and weather. I responded to a PEN survey a few weeks ago that questioned writers about the impact of U.S. government surveillance on what we write, how we write, and where and how we publish. The results were startling. Nearly everyone agreed they were more careful these days and many had even backed off from writing about certain topics. Like most writers surveyed, I am very aware that anything I say or do on the Internet is being watched.
I have backed off from speaking about my bullying last year at this time, mostly by members of the academic left, because I refused to sign a petition for a cultural boycott of Israel on behalf of the Palestinian people. There is tremendous injustice against Palestinians by the Israeli government very similar to that of indigenous people in North America. I have seen it first hand, not just during my visit last December but other visits. I have seen the fences, checkpoints, the ugly spread of fresh Israeli settlements on Palestinian lands, the ongoing repression. Of course I don’t agree with this injustice.
But, I was faced with an “either/or” proposition, by the proponents of the petition. If I signed I was on the right side of ethical law. If I didn’t, I was a murderer. There was no room for any other stance.
A campaign to force me to sign flared fast and ugly. A Change.org petition circulated nationwide. One of the instigators of the campaign even called up my friends and colleagues personally to urge them to go after me, to force me to sign. There was no room allowed for anyone who does not believe that a cultural boycott is the most productive way to force Israel to human rights. Our arts, our crafted words and ideas in story, poetry and song connect us beyond politics. We need to speak across harsh political lines, against injustice, through any barriers of artillery or hatred.
Anything I spoke in response was immediately discredited and stomped on by a finely tuned rhetorical machine. I was the subject of hate mail. I feared for my life on my return from Israel. I made enemies of people who will always hate me because they see my stand as a betrayal. I was bullied to sign. I fled Oklahoma as a teenager because of this kind of bullying. You were forced to be Christian, or to roast in hell. There was no other point of view possible in that self-righteous template. And the people behind it were and are well meaning. They truly believe that Christianity is the only path and any other path is evil and punishable. So it was and is around the petition issue.
I still receive emails and Facebook messages by well-meaning people, mostly from the academic realm, who bear that same self-righteous tone. They ask, “When are you going to do the right thing and sign the petition? When are you going to acknowledge your wrong doing?”
I was not the most graceful in the middle of the controversy. I am not always quick with responses, or a word pugilist. I figured that anyone who knows my words, my body of creative work and my actions in this world knows that I work on behalf of justice. Many stood by me through the attack, and one of the most vocal for the boycott took her name off the petition after witnessing the bullying.
We must remember that many Israelis have worked against this injustice, this repression of their Palestinian relatives. I understand. I once suffered a hatred backlash in South Africa because I was introduced to an audience solely as an American, when Bush and his family were killing and maiming on behalf of Americans. I was seen as a collaborator because of my citizenship. I attempted to reintroduce myself from the point of view of my tribal citizenship but nothing I said or sung made it through the barrier of judgment. I was reviled. The audience remained set against me.
Sheryl: Take us into your process of writing. How do you start? Where do your ideas come from? What does revision look like for you?
Joy: Each poem, play, song or story starts in its own unique manner. Each teaches me how to write it. For poems, I often start with journaling. “Prompts” are a relatively new concept. I just…write. Who knows where ideas come from—some of them are very visceral. I literally feel a nudge. Or I hear a phrase, or some notion from a literary or esoteric source. Or I listen to John Coltrane. As for revision—writing is revision.
Sheryl: How do you avoid the sentimental in your writing?
Joy: I try to—what I loved so much about James Wright’s poetry was that he stayed in the heartscape. When he dipped into sentimentality, which he did often in some of his later poems, the poetry went soft and runny. Maybe that’s what it is, how to identify it and then avoid it—when the effect is too soft, you lose the edge, the power. I am constantly working on that heart/head balance. I tend to intellectualize, am too analytical. Most people don’t know that about me.
Sheryl: “Minority literature” is very popular. A re-balancing is taking place in the literary world, although its institutions still remains patriarchal. You’ve been a celebrated author for several decades. Can you reflect on what you’ve seen change and what you think still needs to change?
Joy: This question is a book, not just a quick answer, but I will give my best quick answer. I haven’t heard anyone say “minority literature” in a few years. “Minority” in America meant anyone who was not Euro-American. I began writing as a student at the University of New Mexico and inadvertently caught that wave, which morphed into the multicultural literature movement. When you’re in it, you’re in it, like being in the middle of an artistic revision or ocean wave. It has power and trajectory. You don’t always see it or know where it will take you until you’ve come out the other side.
The term “minority” is a pejorative term that preserves the notion that there is one real literature, and everyone else is on the periphery. Or that English has proprietary issues and belongs to those born to England. English will always return to the roots for nourishment, just as any language. I pause to consider the Mvskoke language taken away from its roots. Meanings would shift. It would get lonely for certain places. Languages are different and some languages have roaming spirits. English has certainly elbowed its way all over the world. It has changed us and been changed in return. English moves about and finds delight in fresh use, like red English, the creativity of the pidgin I heard when I lived in Hawaii, the rhythms of Jamaican English. The Jamaican poet Linton Kwesi Johnson had us all moving to poetry as he spoke sang the first time I saw and heard him at an Amsterdam poetry festival in the Netherlands in the late seventies. Change is always happening whether you are a language or a literature.
Universities don’t always mirror or keep up with these changes, even as some faculty are at the forefront, thinking a little ahead. Revolutionary minds don’t tend to park themselves in the academy. Their eyes and ears are usually out in the streets, in the community, synthesizing the creature of culture. Culture is always evolving.
Sheryl: Tell us about your music. Are you still writing and performing?
Joy: Yes, I am still writing and performing. These last two or three years I have been on the road at least three weeks a month performing. My performances usually include music. When I’m lucky I have a whole band. My Arrow Dynamics band performed to a standing ovation at the Krannert Center at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign a few months ago. I am working on a new album, and am at work on a musical that will show how the Mvskoke people are part of the origins of jazz and blues. I am also working to get blues and jazz education going for my Glenpool Creek Indian community. I’ve hired the incomparable Selby Minner to put on blues jams every Tuesday. I’m learning blues bass. Community members come to learn and play. This Saturday we’re playing for the community Christmas party.
Sheryl: Congratulations on your PEN Center award for best creative nonfiction! We’ll be featuring a review of your memoir on the blog this month. Can you tell us what it was like to write a work of nonfiction? How did your writing process differ from your poetry writing?
Joy: The memoir took me fourteen years to write. Much of that time was settling into a form, which was unlike any other memoir form. The memoir taught me to write it. It was in three different forms before I found the one that became CRAZY BRAVE. The first was jazz riffs and memories. The second version was Indian school stories and teenage mother stories as short stories. The process of poetry is language driven. Narration is driven by event and perception. I have applied for grants to begin work on the next version, an exploration of generations, my generation, and the seventh generation before us.
Sheryl: What are you working on now?
Joy: I am working on the musical. Excited about sitting down with it after Thanksgiving and traveling. Traveling almost non-stop on top of teaching eight weeks this fall at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign put a crimp on creativity. I just had to keep up with my duties. I’ve let my saxophone have a break too, but it was wailing away at blues practice a few weeks ago, and at a Michigan gig with Grayhawk Perkins from New Orleans. I am also working on poetry, new songs, and conceptualizing the next memoir.
Sheryl: What advice do you have for writers just beginning their writing journeys?
Joy: Honor the writing spirit, that which is compelling you to write. Take time with it. Writing in journals helps. For me journal writing and note taking is about listening, and writing down what I hear. And feed the spirit. Listen to music, poetry, and stories. Listen to the tree people, animals, and the elements. History has many voices, as do mythic roots. And…write!
Joy Harjo received her BA from the University of New Mexico and her MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop. Visit her website for more information about her writing and music. Next up on the StS blog, a review of Joy Harjo’s award-winning memoir Crazy Brave. Be sure to listen to her reading of She had Some Horses!
So to Speak is so excited to announce that Michelle Lee’s poem “The Myth of the Mother and Child,” which is included in the anthologyWriting That Risks from Red Bridge Press, was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her poem, “Milk: A Year in Chapters” was published in So to Speak’s 2013 Summer Issue, which can be found here. Lee’s nomination is a reminder of the boundaries that are constantly pressed and pushed as a feminist writer today. Thank you for sharing your work with us, Michelle, and congratulations on such an accomplishment!
As I read Heid E. Erdrich’s Cell Traffic: New and Selected Poems (University of Arizona, 2012), I follow the method I use when reading critically, especially with an eye for writing a review. Throwing book lover no-nos to the wind, I dog-ear the pages that exemplify the poet’s perspective or style, and write liberal marginalia. I star the poems that seem most universal or most personal. My interactions with the poems become a permanent part of them. I use a pen.
A few nights ago, as I sat down to read the last of this book, I realized that I dogeared more than two thirds of Cell Traffic. I scrawled across these pages “lineage!” and “family of humanity!” - “YES!!!” more than one page exclaimed. It was clear that in mapping the tightly knit poems, they had worked to become part of me. Erdrich’s writing does this.
To read Erdrich’s work is to get caught up in the rapids of a powerful river. She transverses broad landscapes easily. Images from the Chinese zodiac, Ojibiwe stories, and Biblical icons rush past, all put to Erdrich’s purpose – that while weight is genetic “…the thrifty gene makes sure/our bodies warm through spring” – she claims it as good fortune – “Spiral of fate, chain of code,/luck genes must match up/with thrift genes somewhere.” So much ground covered in a difficult to discuss topic, body image and heredity, and that’s only the first poem, “Thrifty Gene, Lucky Gene.”
Recently, I watched a TED talk about storytelling, given by Andrew Stanton, the creative mind that brought us Wall-E and Finding Nemo. He claimed that the single most important thing that a storyteller must do – and must do quickly – is to make the reader care (or the listener/viewer in his case). He does not broaden this beyond storytellers, but I believe it’s true of any powerful writing. Erdrich makes her reader care by identifying the role that all of us have in the family of humanity. Again and again she returns to this subject of our common denominator of genes, “a strand of maternal code, thinner than hair,/stronger and lasting long as humanity.” (from “Mitochondrial Eve”)
How generous her beginning, via Walt Whitman. How inclusive. – “For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” In “Seven Mothers,” she writes:
“Imagine an engine
in each cell, the furnace
of flesh built in each of us.”
Our mothers, then. I am brought into the family in this poem, which spans the entire book, which reaches out its arms into the world and invites all readers everywhere. How better to make me care, than to help me see that we are all part of this family? Her past is my past is your past.
Her work provides a deep sense of connection because she has connected herself to her readers on the cellular level: her stories become our stories.
“In Search of Jane’s Grave” and the “Kennewick Man” series deepen our understanding of the insidious nature of the sins of the distant past. How difficult they are to right, if not impossible. She doesn’t place blame, she merely retrieves the pieces of history from the floor – finds Jane, whose headstone doesn’t reference her importance to her tribe as war chief’s daughter, her writings, or her place historically as a Native American whose mother’s family stories were taken by Longfellow as inspiration for Hiawatha. Erdrich sweeps up the scattered facts, and arranges them in their proper order so that we can join her in thanking the ancestors – because, she asserts – these are our ancestors, too. To read of past wrongs, done to our grandmother is to take ownership of a story that’s done generations dis-service, to want the story to be corrected. The stories she seeks to mend, to tell fully, are our family stories. We know history has appropriated and contorted these stories, when they have not been outright stolen and purposefully obscured. With Erdrich’s poetry there is a move to relocate and restore the facts.
One of the great treasures of this book is the conversations the poems seem to be having with each other, and the subjects that Erdrich returns to repeatedly. Some are similarly titled, some have an echo feel. This happens in the poems she has translated into Ojibiwe and back into English, done collaboratively with Dr. Margaret Noori. On the other side of this translation, as in reading her paired poems, lines translated assert something subtly different, some deeper meaning than if it was only ground covered on one level. (Although none of her poems are mono-level to begin with.) In “This is the Way We Walk”
We walk this way.
Mii sa ezhi-bimoseyaang.
(This is the way we walk.)
The first line speaks of direction. The second line as translated speaks of mode. I am not a linguist, but in this set of poems, this was an ongoing feeling – that the English language communicates direction and constraint, and as translated, the Ojibiwe communicates mode and quality. In this cascade of language, the lines seemed to open up further, to stretch out for the reader to interpret the myriad of images and nuances.
Part of the two-way highway of this book involves Heid E. Erdrich tenderly talking to her own daughter and her ancestors. Though these poems are deeply personal, she speaks with the voice that we all need to hear coming to us across the pages – inviting us to find our place on the continuum far beyond our individual lives, our lifetimes. That which has been severed and forgotten for generations can be mended, even after the fact, even when the repair may show, even when the lines of communication are knotted and difficult to untangle.
These ideas are part of the literary DNA of this book, which shares links to Frost, and William Carlos Williams, among many other poet ancestors. By the end of the book I have returned to her dedication page – Indinawemaaganidog – all my relations. I somehow feel a part of that.
The Selected Works section begins with “Guidelines for the Treatment of Sacred Objects,” which instructs the reader, whether Ojibewe or not, how to read and reread these poems. They are something all are welcome to honor, all are welcome to invite inside, to allow them to become part of all readers. The poems should not be put behind glass, remain only admired from a distance, and othered. Even in a poem ostensibly about the cells moving back and forth between mother and child, “Microchimerism” situates the self in a larger sense. The “blood river once between you/went two ways/what makes us/own sole and sovereign selves/is only partially us.// The search for God can be called off.” “Forgive me, I am not my self.” Fortunately, with Erdrich, you are with family.
*Be sure not to miss Indigenous Elvis Walks the Medicine Line, HERE .
Sarah Winn is the 2013-2014 Completion Fellow at George Mason University, where she is an MFA candidate in Poetry. She was a 2012 runner up for the Virginia Downs Poetry Prize. Her poems have appeared in Chimes, Crux and most recently in Egg.
She has reviewed and blogged for School Library Journal during her time as a school librarian, and currently teaches writing in Fairfax and Arlington County Schools through a Sally Merton Fellowship.
Read more of her work here or follow her on twitter @blueaisling.
Filed under: Art, Interview, Movies, Nonfiction, Opinion, Poetry, Post by: Sheryl R, Uncategorized
When I first set out to find Native American writers to participate in So to Speak interviews, I aimed high. With my first tentative emails, I received warm and positive responses from the two poets I contacted. I couldn’t believe my luck!
Our first poet, Heid E. Erdrich, was raised in a large literary and academic family by parents who were boarding school teachers for the Turtle Mountain Ojibwe. Her father, from a German immigrant family, and her mother, a member of the Turtle Mountain Ojibwe tribe, were “precise namers of things” who encouraged their children to pay attention to the details in life. Her mother sewed handmade books for her then elementary school children to fill with their own creations. These early lessons in observation and creativity stuck: three of the eight children went on to achieve literary success.
Heid has published four collections of poetry and one book of nonfiction, written plays, and curated over a dozen exhibits. A four-time nominee for the Minnesota Book Award, Heid received the 2009 award for her collection National Monuments. She has been a finalist for the Montreal International Poetry Prize and the recipient of the Minnesota State Arts Board Fellowship. And she has received awards from the Loft Literary Center and the Archibald Bush Foundation.
In addition to writing, Heid has taught at three universities (Johns Hopkins University, Augsburg College, University of St. Thomas), run writing workshops, and curated visual art and community literary events. Her latest creative endeavor is Artifact Traffic, a collaborative, multi-discplinary exhibit and performance. Heid also runs the Wiigwaas Press, an Ojibwe language publisher.
Heid’s poetry integrates the everyday world with the mythical; her poems blend universal themes of life, death, and spirituality as easily as a baker sifts together flour, salt, and leavening. Whether discussing laundry on a clothesline, her grandmother’s hands, or the sounds of nature, she creates powerful images that connect unlike experiences in surprising ways. She has described her poems as conversations and views her thoughts and feelings as not just belonging to herself, but rather to her readers and community.
Recently Heid has begun collaborating with other Native American artists, creating visual performance works of art that include her poetry. Her poem films have been screened at the Imaginative Film, Headwaters Film and Co-Kisser Poetry Film (where she won an award) Festivals, as well as the 2013 Native American Literature Symposium.
Wherever there are lines dividing literature or art (even dance), Heid challenges our assumptions:
A tad less than 5’8” and quite round. My hair is long and just a little gray. There is something bear-like about me, of which I am proud. I laugh a lot.
I am also a feminist poet, professor, scholar, and playwright—also a curator of visual arts exhibits and multi-disciplinary performances for the past seven years. And a publisher of the world’s only mono-lingual Ojibwemowin press. AND a laundress.
Sheryl: Tell us about the Ojibwe language and Wigwaas Press. Did you grow up knowing Ojibwe? How does the Ojibwe language inform your poetry, written in English? What projects are underway with the press?
Heid: Indigenous languages were much disrupted, deliberately, by the U.S. education system and by the churches. My grandfather spoke and understood several indigenous languages, but he spoke Ojibwemowin only with his sons as they worked in the field. My mother did not learn her language, although she understood conversations as a child. I began studying Ojibwemowin as an adult. My studies coincided with the births of my children, so I created an entire book about language acquisition, The Mother’s Tongue. Many of those poems are selected in Cell Traffic.
Wiigwaas Press publishes mono-lingual Ojibwe-language books for use in language revitalization efforts. We are about to publish our fourth book. We are pretty much alone in our field.
Sheryl: When did you first know that your path was that of a writer and teacher?
Heid: Books were always magic to me and both my parents were teachers, so it seemed like the ideal life. I taught college English for twenty years, left to work in the community in 2007, and I am returning to an MFA program in 2014.
Sheryl: In addition to being an accomplished scholar and writer, you are a mother. How does motherhood affect your writing?
Heid: The secret about Moms is that they do not mess around! My writing comes faster, is more sincere, and is much more a focus of my day than before I had kids. I have to make it count, because I know it is taking away time I could use to, say, wash their socks.
Sheryl: You’ve recently begun experimenting with poetry expressed in video form. How did this come about? Tell us about your experiences using this form.
Heid: A few years ago I started to see book trailers in which the poet read a bit from the book—just like a movie trailer. You’ve probably seen them. It occurred to me that one could make a film of a poem—and I have often thought of my poems as little films or exhibits. The fit seemed natural and I knew filmmakers, actors, animators—all Native American artists—so I knew my team. I got a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board and was able to give everyone involved a little fee. It was a joyful creation and I want to keep making these films now.
The poem films feel like they give my poems reach in a way I never could have imagined. Students who “don’t get poetry” are more interested in poetry after seeing the films, and the films have gone to other countries—most recently Brazil. We’ve won awards and spots in competitive film festivals, so obviously, the quality of the artists I worked with (R. Vincent Moniz, Jr., Elizabeth Day, and Jonathan Thunder) shows through.
Heid: Creating community is what my curatorial efforts and my playwright work is about. I needed to get out of my box and feel connection to others to expand my audience and my understanding of my work. It has been wonderful work and my love of visual artists has really grown. Performers are a bit too, well, too dramatic for this introverted poet. I might be done with that part of my community work!
Sheryl: Tell us about your writing process. Where do you find the most inspiration? When do you write and what is your revision process like?
Heid: Usually I write in the morning, just get down to it with coffee and as much quiet as I can get. Sometime I write after a nap. I write to and with voices I have read from a variety of sources, often sciences articles. When I am creating and revising, I like to walk. If I can find the beat of the poem while I walk, I can memorize it a bit and get it on paper in a more complete form than if I just try to dump it out of my brain on to a page.
Sheryl: Who do you feel are your greatest writing influences? Personal influences?
Heid: There are so many. Adrienne Rich, Joy Harjo, Gwendolyn Brooks, Kimberly Blaeser, my teachers at Johns Hopkins, my teachers at Dartmouth. Roberta Hill was my mentor in the Twin Cities and the novelist Jonis Agee really mentored me, too. But my friends who write are my biggest influences: Eric Gansworth, Leslie Adrienne Miller…I will get in trouble if I name more than two and leave anyone out. Of course my sisters influenced me. Both Louise and Lise always wrote, so I thought it was normal and did not get any romantic notions about the process.
Sheryl: What are you working on now?
Heid: At the moment, a multi-disciplinary show with “poem skits” and poem films, including at least one starring my sister Louise. The show is called Artifact Traffic and it is about collaboration between artists, the traffic of ideas as artifact, and contemporary Native American art. My next two books of poems are begun and should be done in 2014—hopefully published in 2015. First I have to do PR for my books of stories and recipes on indigenous foods, which just came out from Minnesota Historically Society Press. That was a labor of love, for sure!
Sheryl: What do you feel it means to be a feminist in today’s world?
Heid: Such a hard question. At a recent book festival, I was lucky enough to sit next to Susan Dworkin, the author who wrote reviews for Ms. Magazine back in the day—not Andrea, who also worked at Ms.. Susan was wonderful to meet and very interested in my generation of feminists—the little sisters of the First Wave. We talked a little about early feminism and today. There’s an easier feminism today that looks at work mostly, and ignores everyday life. There’s less risk in talking about work and politics. I’d rather talk a bit about every day life. We have a feminist marriage and it is hard. My husband is a researcher, his name is John Burke. We are really 50-50 in our domestic work. But since most women do 100% more than they need to domestically, or feel they should do more—always more—it is hard to let 50-50 stand. Stuff does not get done. Housework is not a priority. We have issues, but they are minor. Most women writers who talk to me about their marriages or partnerships have taken on way more than the male partner or even their female partners. There’s an imbalance that comes from early training, but also from being the lesser-wage earning person as most writers/teachers end up being. I see that easing with my younger friends. They expect more from a partner in terms of the work of the home and relationship—and they sometimes get it.
My poetry continues to have a feminist bent—it is always about the body, the way we relate to the world, and increasingly about women’s relationships to the natural world and the Ojibwe woman’s role as water keeper. I may not take a traditional woman’s role, but I hold sacred that women protect and relate to the waters of the earth.
Check back soon for Poet Sarah Winn’s review of Heid’s Cell Traffic. Still to come on StS, an interview with Poet Joy Harjo and fiction writer Shelby Settles Harper’s review of Harjo’s award-winning memoir Crazy Brave.
Heid E. Erdrich received degrees from Dartmouth University and the Johns Hopkins University (Writing Seminars). Visit Heid on her website to keep up with her latest creative endeavors! Discover Heid’s books at Birchbark Books.