A Conversation with Heid E. Erdrich
Don Share: This is The Poetry Magazine Podcast for the week of June 4th, 2018. I’m Don Share, editor of Poetry Magazine.
Lindsay Garbutt: And I’m Lindsay Garbutt, associate editor for the magazine. On The Poetry Magazine Podcast, we feature poets in the current issue. This month, the issue is dedicated to Native poets.
Don Share: We’re talking now to Heid Erdrich, who guest edited the issue. Erdrich is a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe. She was born in Minnesota and raised in North Dakota. Both her Ojibwe mother and German-American father taught at a boarding school, run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Lindsay Garbutt: Erdrich writes short stories and non-fiction, and she’s the author of several collections of poetry. She’s also deeply involved in promoting the work of other Native writers, by teaching, by editing anthologies, and by editing the June issue of Poetry. She joins us by phone from her home in Minneapolis. Hi Heid.
Heid E. Erdrich: Hello!
Don Share: Heid, you say in your introduction to this wonderful June issue, and maybe this is controversial in a wonderful way, that there’s no such thing as Native American poetry, that there are poets who belong to Native nations. I wonder if you could explain that difference to our readers and listeners.
Heid E. Erdrich: I wasn’t the first person to say this, or to say this about other ares of Native literature, but the idea that there could be some umbrella term that really fits over 570 Native nations is just a little bit shaky. I like to say there is no Native American poetry, you cannot find the consistent theme or consistent style that evokes a Native American poetry. There are many Native American poetries just as there are many Native nations.
Don Share: I was also interested in something you say that I think will resonate a lot with our readers and listeners, and that is that Longfellow is long gone, and new poets from Native nations arise each day. Tell us what you say about Longfellow. That was interesting to think about Longfellow’s “Song of Hiawatha” as being the most memorized poem in the English language. Tell us how that both connects and disconnects us from the work you did on this issue, and the work that you’re doing with poets in editing anthologies and other work you do.
Heid E. Erdrich: Yeah, I think Longfellow’s “Song of Hiawatha” is a good emblem for what has happened to Native people and the arts they construct. We get stuck in the 19th century because we’re always comparing ourselves to the production of images by others, non-Native folks. And Longfellow in fact went about the country gathering the information for his poems from Native informants, and they don’t get named but they’re our literary ancestors.
Lindsay Garbutt: You mention in your essay Joy Harjo, who is among maybe the best known Native poets writing today, and you quote a poem of hers where she says “We have just begun to touch the dazzling whirlwind of our anger”. Could you tell us a bit more about that poem, and why you memorized it, and why as you say in your introduction it has guided you for many years?
Heid E. Erdrich: Yeah, that poem is “For Anna Mae Pictou Aquash, Who is Here and In The Dappled Stars”. I hope I got that right, it’s one of those long titles that I love. Joy Harjo in that poem … it has this moment where she asks us to grow our sense of righteousness. She uses the word anger, “the dazzling whirlwind of our anger”, knowing the notion of what a whirlwind is for many different groups of Native people will be evocative. The poem is so beautiful because there’s many layers of social content about an AIM activist who was murdered, probably by other AIM members, who was violated by the FBI when they did the investigation. She’s a very evocative figure for us in particular, to Native people. And I love that about it, it really asks us to build something beautiful out of something difficult.
Don Share: And you do say that the poem is not a call to turn anger outward, but to tap it as a source. But in your introduction you mentioned that in three decades of introducing people to Native American poetry, poets of Native nations, that you’ve encountered a fear of anger in what poets have to say. Can you talk about that a little bit?
Heid E. Erdrich: Yeah, I think there are two different expectations. One that poetry will be very beautiful and spiritual and natural, kind of lump those things together because it comes from Native people and we’re some sort of nature children. Or that we be fierce and political and full of righteous anger, and people feel guilty when they get approached by that level of anger or righteousness. I think we’re growing as a society. Things like what happened at Standing Rock allow us to be more accepting to righteous anger, and understand that it also includes others living here. Our desire to protect lands that we’re living in is also a desire to leave them livable for the generations, and that includes everyone living here. I think that sort of level of anger is more accessible now, but for a long time it was very hard to teach Native literature of all kinds, because people would get caught up in their own sense, probably of guilt.
Lindsay Garbutt: You mention that the poems in this issue will challenge the reader in pleasurable ways. I was wondering if you could talk a bit more about how they challenge readers, and maybe don’t fit with their expectations of what Native poetry might be.
Heid E. Erdrich: For me it’s fun to see something very formal like the “Lacing” sonnets that Tacey Atsitty creates, beautiful meditation on what lace is and what lace means and various ways that’s important to women. Or somebody like Sy Hoahwah who writes the poem “Hillbilly Leviathan”. I don’t think most people connect the idea of the Ozark to Native people, or even Southern Christianity that he refers to. They definitely don’t usually think about the characters he includes inhabiting the exorcisms, and monsters, zombies in his work. There’s unexpected things such as inclusions of things that are in popular culture but are also important to these particular Native artists.
Don Share: I love that in your introduction you say “When non-Native readers see our poetry gathered together, they might think there’s no common style or subject. You might not see what we see. I say this not to be mysterious, but to stress that we have close connections and shared understandings that we do not always want to explain”. Can you talk about that a little bit, and also help our non-Native readers find out more things? Our ignorance of this wonderful, lively tradition is really shameful. I know that when people read these poems they’re going to want to learn more; not just about the poems and the poets but about Native life in general.
Heid E. Erdrich: The image might be of Native people as rural, as being from the planes of South West, but we have writers from Alaska, from the East Coast, and from people like Arkansas, the Ozarks. We are everywhere, that’s one thing I think people don’t recognize. There’s a great photograph in this issue by Sherwin Bitsui that shows the poet Trevino Brings Plenty sitting in front of a tipi, but he’s sitting on a bouldered chair looking like he could be at a café in New York. I think there’s looking at the work on it’s own merits for each piece having it’s own world that it defines, having it’s own poetic moment, which is how I chose most of these poems; because they felt to me like they had a complete moment, they didn’t need the context outside of them. And then other things become of interest to people that might lead them to understanding what Native people did in the Ozarks, what is a Bison hide bundle, those sort of things. Those are all things you can find out though, on the beautiful internet. We don’t need to inform them in our poems anymore. I think that’s really important.
Lindsay Garbutt: You mention too that the issue isn’t a sort of one and done approach, it’s you hope the beginning of further reading for our readers and further writing for all of the poets involved. What do you see as the future, or what do you wish for the future of Native poetry?
Heid E. Erdrich: This is a great moment to talk about this, because we are seeing more poets published by presses with a larger reach. My hope is that the future includes many more books from literary presses by these poets who are really prolific. I hope too that their names are noticed even though they might not have the same cache as some of the poets who publish under one Native sounding name who are not Native. I’m really hoping people look at these and think, this is a Native poet. Somebody like Cedar Sigo who uses amazingly inventive language and rarely mentions anything that would commonly be considered Indian.
Don Share: I would say Heid, that of all the issues we’ve worked on in recent memory, this is really one of the most absorbing, eye opening, fascinating, wonderful collections of work I think I’ve really encountered. I just can’t thank you enough for editing the issue, and also for being on the podcast with us.
Heid E. Erdrich: Thank you, I’m so tremendously grateful. This is one of the most fun things I’ve ever done in my life. I couldn’t believe it. Every time something fit, I felt like I was playing Tetris. It was a beautiful game of Tetris.
Don Share: (LAUGHING) It really was. Thank you so very much.
Heid E. Erdrich: Thank you very much.
Don Share: You can read Heid Erdrich’s introduction to Native poets in he June 2018 issue of Poetry Magazine, or online at poetrymagazine.org
Lindsay Garbutt: We’ll have another episode for you next week, or you can get all four June episodes all at once in the full length episode on Soundcloud. Let us know what you thought about this program. Email us at [email protected], and share the podcast on social media.
Don Share: The Poetry Magazine Podcast is recorded by Ed Herman and produced by Curtis Fox and Catherine Fenelosa.
Lindsay Garbutt: The theme music for this poem comes from the Claudia Quintet. I’m Lindsay Garbutt.
Don Share: And I’m Don Share. Thanks for listening.