Audio

Three Native American Poets

March 21, 2012

Ed Herman: Welcome to Poetry Lectures featuring talks by poets, scholars and educators, presented by poetryfoundation.org. In this program, we hear a conversation among three Native American poets: Allison Hedge Coke, Linda Hogan and Sherwin Bitsui. Allison Hedge Coke grew up listening to her Father's traditional stories as she moved from Texas to North Carolina to Canada and the Great Plains. She is the author of several collections of poetry and the memoir, Rock, Ghost, Willow, Deer. She has worked as a mentor with Native Americans and at-risk youth, and is currently a Professor of Poetry and Writing at the University of Nebraska, Kearney. Linda Hogan is a prolific poet, novelist and essayist. Her work is imbued with an indigenous sense of history and place, while it explores environmental, feminist and spiritual themes. A former professor at the University of Colorado, she is currently the Chickasaw Nation's Writer in Residence. She lives in Oklahoma, where she researches and writes about Chickasaw history, mythology and ways of life. Sherwin Bitsui grew up on the Navajo reservation in Arizona. He speaks Dine, the Navajo language and participates in ceremonial activities. His poetry has a sense of the surreal, combining images of the contemporary urban culture, with Native ritual and myth. This conversation was recorded in March 2012, in Chicago. It begins with Allison Hedge Coke, who serves as moderator.

 

Allison Adelle Hedge Coke: Let's just begin by speaking to aesthetics that you might feel are particularly Native and then if we could follow up maybe with some influences, different poets that spoke to you from those decades that, sort of complicated the way that people began to look at poetry from Native America and took it from a historical since into the now. If you could begin, maybe, by just speaking to an aesthetic that you feel is profoundly Native and I'll open up with you, Linda.

 

Linda Hogan:    Well, first of all, I think it's important to mention that we are three generations, three different generations of Native writers. I get to be the older person, get to be, have to be. But I think the things that carried over that I've noticed and that I've thought a great deal about is first of all, the ceremonials, which in a way, which I have to say are a form of literature and prayer combined. And they are incantatory sometimes and sometimes not. Sometimes they're mythical; sometimes they are storytelling. But ceremonial literature was actually my first influence and my first introduction to Native poetry. I found that that's something that has continued and that we have all been influenced and looked or heard it through other Native writers and carried on certain traditions within that. There were a lot of things happening with Native writers, not only in the 1900's, but in the 1800's, so we have literatures that go way back and go back much further even than that. Birch bark writing and of course, our writing was mostly, because of the environment that the southeastern tribes lived in, most of the things that we did that would have been considered writing have decayed, long hundreds and hundreds of years ago. So we don't have a tradition that we can look at and say this is our writing but we do have certain symbologies that are writing and they do tell stories and so they are also linked with astronomy. It's very complex. So when people think oh, this is not Indian people, think oh, primitive writers, primitive work from early times, it's like when they say songs have meaningless vocables. We actually have a very complex and systematic form of literature, carrying over from the 1900's.

 

Allison Adelle Hedge Coke: And Sherwin, maybe an aesthetic value from the 20th century. Anything that speaks to you now from that era that you can recall for us?

 

Sherwin Bitsui: I think when I read and hear the poetry from the 20th century, I immediately feel that the poets are speaking to a type of aftermath; like there's a yearning for story and there's this need to give voice to oppression, Colonialism, and to recreate the world as whole again. There seems to be this desire and this push to make sense of the atrocities that occurred the century before and that are occurring right now. So really, aesthetically, the power of all of my forbearers resonates today and we just continue that voice. And I also think about the continuation of a Native aesthetic and what does it mean in my generation. What does it mean to me as I'm writing, primarily, in the 21st century. So I think like Linda said, there is a continuation of the song, the chanting, but also there is a real urgency in the 20th century work, and there still is now, but I think the urgency is political and very activist.

 

Linda Hogan:    I really agree with that. I didn't mean to omit the forces of Colonization and that how, I think, non Indian people in America rarely think of history and I think of history daily. It's part of my life. Our work today is a continuation of ... I mean, there is no post Colonial literature in my mind because we're still not post Colonial and we're still fighting colonization. But many of the writers in that time period gave up on being Native and wrote poems about, I would take my chair instead of a tree stump and which is sadly a case that many people took that position. And then others took the other side that you're talking about, which is how do we fight this thing that's happening to us.

 

Allison Adelle Hedge Coke:      It's really interesting, too, because during the 1900's, people were, at the beginning of the 1900's, still getting used to reservation or just going to reservation, and the seventy or so years before that where people were being placed on reservations was a period of internment and misery; very complicated dark ages in the United States and Canada. Some of the poets that really spoke to me when I was a child, for instance, Maurice Kenny, James Welch, poets that were already breaking through boundaries, moved me when I was very young to look at some of the things that I still look at today. There is one poem by James Welch and I am not sure, I think Sherwin might also have an influence with Welch, but Harlem Montana. Are you familiar with that one?

 

Sherwin Bitsui: I just saw it in the book.

 

Allison Adelle Hedge Coke: Did you just see it? Linda, do you remember Harlem Montana?

Linda Hogan:    Yes, I do and being of James Welch's generation, of course I knew him and we hung out together.

 

Allison Adelle Hedge Coke: Oh sure, yeah. He's a wonderful guy. Really wonderful guy.

 

Linda Hogan:    He was really the best, the best human.

 

Allison Adelle Hedge Coke: Hopefully just pull a couple of lines here. The reason is really spoke to me, too, about this era is because people were starting to leave the reservation. So 1968, there were people who were moving into cities. There was a big push in the mid '50s and early '60s to relocate people and get them off of the reservation. So first there's a push to put people on the reservation, then there's a push to put them in cities and get them off the reservation almost just as soon. So he composed this poem Harlem Montana just off the reservation. I'm just going to read the opening lines here. "We need no runners here. Bruise is law and all the Indians drink in the best tavern. Money is free if you're poor enough. Disgusted, busted, whites are running." So looking at the onset of the poem, we get this feel of change. We get this feel of the opening line, "We need no runners here," which is kind of interesting because there's this long tradition of runners carrying messages, which of course were written word back in the day, whether they were on deer hide or birch bark or whatever the parchment used at the time. So there's an indication there of runners giving messages, even oral message, so I thought it was really interesting in the poem. So in the '60s, and there's this onset of moving forward or moving away from and looking at things that were not necessarily transient at the time but were already an affect. Of course, alcohol and misery already an affect here. Some of those early poems, I thought really captured that movement. Linda, as you say, you were a colleague of James'. Do you want to speak to that a little bit possibly?

 

Linda Hogan:    Of course, there was a government relocation act in the 1950's, which was when my Uncle moved to Denver and began the White Buffalo Council there and it was to help people coming into Denver from different reservations who were basically dropped off into cities and then left on their own to try to find food, clothing, houses and places to live; apartments or whatever. So he started an organization which was there to help people coming in in the '50s. So I mean, I was thinking as you were talking about so many things, the runners. The Pueblo Revolt was carried out by runners and sent the Spanish back to Mexico for 12 years, but the poem that you began, I had never thought about the real runners were the whites. They had to run away from the-

 

Allison Adelle Hedge Coke:      The ones who were running.

 

Linda Hogan:    ... the people coming. Yeah, we're coming now.

 

Allison Adelle Hedge Coke:      The white flight.

 

Linda Hogan:    There's humor there that I had not really thought about before in that line. And that money is free. So, look out, we're going to take your money. And actually we are taking their money, casinos.

 

Allison Adelle Hedge Coke:      Sherwin, did you want to maybe go a little further into-

 

Sherwin Bitsui: Yeah, I'm reminded of a ... I mean, from that generation so I'm an Ortiz Acoma poet is a major figure and major voice. And I really discovered ... I almost have to rediscover Native poetry in the literary form later on in life. It wasn't something ... Because I grew up on the reservation and the nearest library was in a town 40 miles from my community. And to this day, I haven't been in there, but I can see that it's a small, little building. So really, access to books was very, very limited, if anything. I mean the books that we did get were the checkout stand books, like the detective stories and stuff. So my whole exposure to Native poetry came until way later and when I was in school and growing up going to school, taking the bus ride out and then going to school in Holbrook, Arizona, I noticed that there wasn't any Native poetry or Native literature being taught in the English classes. The majority of students there were Navajo. So there was almost this silence and when I first found Native poetry, it was in a bookstore in Flagstaff, Arizona. I remember seeing Ofelia Zepeda's book and then I pulled it and I looked and it's Ocean Power and Sun track Series, University of Arizona Press. To pick up the book and to look on the back and to see her picture on there was pretty revolutionary for me because I know it was like, oh. Then I started looking around the little bookstore and I found Luci Tapahonso book and then also Simon Ortiz.  I think Simon Ortiz from Sand Creek really gives voice to this idea of speaking back into history and speaking forward and really naming the new space that they occupied. And really, really charging it with some real power. This is from Sand Creek: "They crossed country that will lay beyond memory. Their selves would no longer bother to remember. Memory was not to be trusted. They had plans fortuitous for those who had designs. They had plans that they could have matched the land like those who had searched the plains and tied themselves to stars, insects, generations and generations, instinct for millennia. When they didn't, starlight fractured became predictable. Aimlessly, they crossed a memory.” This little notion of aimlessly crossing memory, I think all of us as indigenous poets, we have this connection to this place that our ancestors found and it's continuous. It was never broken. So we live in this land and we're giving voice to something that is inherently ours.

 

Linda Hogan:    Well, in a way we are our ancestors. It's like when we talk about we came from Mississippi to Oklahoma, we say we came. We don't say they came. It's as if the people, the history is still living. It's still with us all the time. I think of a poem by Scott Momaday that ... He sent it to me and I had it up for a while. It was heartbreaking. It was about the killing of the ponies and about Satanka and the killing of the ponies. That there were so many of the horses, that was easy to keep Native people in one place if you could kill all the horses. So General Miles, I think it was, killed 21,000 horses, and Custer and his men killed almost that much, maybe more. It was about how he bit himself out of his cuffs, his rope cuffs, when he heard the horses screaming, when he heard their ponies screaming. And you know, I mean, I think that the writers in that particular generation, I know we're talking really about 1900's, but the writers in his generation are looking back only a century ago at events that happened and making them present-

 

Allison Adelle Hedge Coke:      That's right.

 

Linda Hogan: ...and still breaking our heart.

 

Allison Adelle Hedge Coke:      Yeah, and Momaday was doing film at the time too in the 1900's. So there's some great film evidence with poetry. Really beautiful work. I was thinking, too when you brought up Ortiz and you were talking about Pablo and it brought to mind a poem that I had brought in an excerpt from. It's a poem from Leslie Marmon Silko, who is an influence on me, definitely an influence on me, and this poem is called, 'Toe'osh' it's a Laguna coyote story, so it does have this essence of oratory and placement or how things work. There's ceremonial element to it and it's dedicated to Simon Ortiz, and it was written in 1973 almost in a letter to him. So I'll just read a few lines from that. "And it happened to him at Laguna, and Chinle, and Lukachukai too, because coyote got too smart for his own good. But the Navajos say he won a contest once. It was to see who could sleep out in a snowstorm the longest and coyote waited until chipmunk, badger and skunk were all curled up under the snow.” So there's this lovely sort of incantation of story maybe from time ago but why not from this moment as well? I always feel that there's a certain really nice resonance of lyric in native oratory that's not necessarily present in non-native oratory. At least in non-native meaning non-tribal. So I find that for a lot of populations the poetics that come when you move into epic poetries the narrative is much more prosaic and not so lyric. But if you look back at tribal peoples from around the world there's a lyric sense to the narrative, and one doesn't preclude the other. And I find that's present in this as well, there's a sense of the epic, there's a sense of something that predates us in this time if you can look at that as something that's real and yet carries on through us so we can speak to it, and it does have the presence of song as well which Linda began with. Linda did you want to talk a bit more about that?

 

Linda Hogan:    Well as you were talking I was thinking about, we had a woman Te Ata, who traveled around the country and was very famous for telling stories, carrying on different kinds of traditions, but she incorporated many it wasn't just Chickasaw. I was thinking also while you were talking about in the 70's when you were reading, being influenced by all of these poets, I came from a completely different background and we didn't have books and I went to school as an older person. I didn't grow up with an education so I didn't know that there were native writers, I didn't discover that there were native writers until much later in my life, so I thought I'm going to write down everything that everybody says because I'm going to be the only person that does this, you know? So I didn't know, I didn't know that I had people that were a little older than myself, Scott, Momaday and people who were writing and had been writing. I thought the only thing there was, was the really old literature. It's funny that the second thing you picked also has a sense of humor, coyotes waiting for them to go to sleep under the snow so he can eat them of course (LAUGHING). But looking back on the traditions there was Gertrude Simmons Bonnin, Zitkala-Sa, who was Lakota and she was a mixed blood person, and she was a poet and she started a newspaper with Carlos Montezuma which was still in print not that long ago. They were educating native people all over the country about poetry. Alexander Posey who was a Cree poet back in the 1800's who was writing books, editing a newspaper.

 

Linda Hogan:    We have really a long tradition that we come from of writers and I have looked at some 18th century, I mean 1800's, writers of the southeast. But the thing is it's as if it didn't matter, by the majority literary world there was suddenly a discovery of native writers around the 70's, and we used to say every twenty years they rediscover native writers. They do, every twenty years or so they rediscover us and we are recognized again for a while and then it kind of drops out. Someone wins a major award and they say, "Oh, they're a native writer." then after a while it kind of drifts away, and so we have to be constant in our work and hope that the people who are working with us, our publishers and everything, that they're still keeping us in the eye of the public, in the ear of the public, because the ear is also so important.

 

Allison Adelle Hedge Coke:      Sean do you want to speak to maybe a lyric nature, perhaps imagery in poetry that you see from the 20th century?

 

Sherwin Bitsui: Certainly. Its hard to really just say that we write the way we do because of who we are but something, I'm not sure what it is, maybe the relationship to the land. But I do a lot of work in the schools and I do know that many times when I'm working with kids and students, native student, Navajo students in particular because that's where I work, there seems to be real attention to the images and the movement of the images in the imagination, and it seems to be a natural thing. That's rather dangerous to say because then somebody could say, "All you natives do this." but I think there is real relationship to story and I think Linda you brought this up at the beginning. This foundation from which all our stories have come from are stories that speak to the cosmos, and to the spirit, and to the rootedness of being from this place, from this land, from this landscape.

 

Linda Hogan:    Well maybe you can expand on- I wanted to ask you a question about what you were saying, which was movement of the imagination, because I find that at least in my sense with that rootedness we need less imagination because the image is always with us. So we don't need to make things up. Our lives themselves are so luminous, so ancient and long here on this land.

 

Sherwin Bitsui: Yeah and also the freedom to imagine, and I think some of us come from such hardship that the imagination takes on a different kind of life.

 

Allison Adelle Hedge Coke:      Coping.

 

Sherwin Bitsui: It might be a way of coping, it might be a way of filling the void with stories, and making it so loud and impossible to ignore.

 

Allison Adelle Hedge Coke:      I think I have a selection here from “Going Home” by Maurice Kenny who was born in the 20's, it's still publishing. Maurice Kenny of course is a really brilliant Mohawk poet, he's been teaching at Buffalo for many years, and he does speak to that in this poem “Going Home”.

 

cold graves under willows and pine

home from Brooklyn to the reservation

that was not home

to songs I could not sing

to dances I could not dance

from Brooklyn bars and ghetto rats

to steaming horses stomping frozen earth

barns and privies lost in blizzards

home to a Nation, Mohawk

to faces I did not know

 

So there's this sense of moving back and forth and a sense of longing or lament maybe, a sense of void as you mentioned, that I think he's speaking directly to and trying to give us a sense of what that is for him moving back and forth. So it actually speaks to what Linda was speaking about and in a way to what you're speaking about as well and sort of brings both of those together. The actuality is enough image and yet there is a longingness for something that's missing maybe in a more modern sense.

 

Linda Hogan:    Well in the sense of loss in that is so great, it's painful thinking about being born in the 1920's which was so early, and I'm thinking that my grandparents were alive and aware of the massacre at Wounded Knee. I come from an older generation and they come from an even older generation than I do, and him being not that far removed really physically or emotionally from the reservation, but having already lost the ability to know his dances, know his songs. One of the things that's so significant and that I'm working on now and that I think we need to is to think about not just the past but carrying that past into the future so that no one ever has to go through that experience of being so broken off and fragmented again.

 

Allison Adelle Hedge Coke:      I think that brings us very nicely into Diane Burns work. Burn died a few years ago, she was very well known in New York, particularly as an orator or a literature poet, performance poet if you will. Her loss was significant to people in poetry in New York, but she wasn't really known outside of the native community.

 

Linda Hogan:    Except for when she was young, she was well known.

 

Allison Adelle Hedge Coke:      When she was young she was well known?

 

Linda Hogan:    Yes.

 

Allison Adelle Hedge Coke:      There's a few lines of her first and only book of poetry which is, Riding the One-Eyed Ford which we all know from 49er's songs (LAUGHING), and a lot of her lyric poetry came from the impetus or jist of it was a 49er, and then she'd break up from the lines that existed and open it up and create a poem there. And it says, "Our people slit open the badger to see tomorrows in its blood, now look at me and see what our tomorrows hold.”            So there's a sense of prophecy that's available in the DNA, in the marrow, in the blood. We come from this, we move from this, and there's this sense of continuum in her work that I find really brilliant and interesting, and again that was from '81. Would either of you like to speak to performance aspect of poetry from a native sense or native community of poets who you feel have been really great at bringing that sense of oratory as far as entertainment goes for the people, but also historical information. Do either of you have a poet that might do that very well?

 

Sherwin Bitsui: I've seen Luci Tapahonso read and perform and her presentation always involves song, so sometimes she'll break into a song, and these will not be necessarily ceremonial songs but a lot of them mimic and sound like social songs, and also a song for her grandchild. There's something about the notion of making the connection between the tradition, it doesn't seem to be irrelevant to the larger world that we have this old tradition, or this continuous poetic tradition and that they do exist in songs. So when I've seen her perform that comes out, that comes forth. I always think about my own experience and where I learned poetry is really from the way my grandfather would even speak at times, and that he was very poetic and he never spoke English. The way he would create images in music with words was really something I saw as poetry, I heard it as poetry, because he would give me that same feeling I would get from somebody reading a poem in a public space.

 

Linda Hogan:    Well your language also is very different from English and much more complex and has many more words. You'd need an OED type dictionary (LAUGHING).

 

Sherwin Bitsui: Yeah (LAUGHING).

 

Linda Hogan:    And many meanings to the words and everything. My new book is a performance poem and so I'm a bit shy about doing it myself, so there's some other people that may, but our readings in a way, our performances and those of us who have courage can and do sing. Some of us may sing but we don't want to do it in that particular context or anything but I think that we do perform every time we stand up on a stage to give a reading, or every time we read our own work, we're doing that. We're carrying on a tradition that's like the speaking of the grandfathers, and the speaking of the people who came before the grandfathers. We are taking that past and bringing it into the present.

 

Allison Adelle Hedge Coke:      And of course we have Joy Harjo who has spent her career of teaching herself not just the poetry that she came to at a very early age in life, but different music. She would play clarinet as a child and as an adult later on decided she wanted to move into saxophone, and began to ask questions of various musicians and trained herself to play sax, put together different bands, different musicians she's worked with, and several engagements over a period. She was also a very early influence of mine, one of the first visiting writers that we had when I was a student at IAIA, Institute of American Indian Arts, and her poem, "Eagle Poem" from In Mad Love and War came out, I believe, in about 1991 when I entered and she came through with the book. And this is a little bit of "Eagle Poem”:

 

To pray you open your whole self

To sky, to earth, to sun, to moon

To one whole voice that is you.

And know there is more

That you can’t see, can’t hear;

Can’t know except in moments

Steadily growing, and in languages

That aren’t always sound but other

Circles of motion.

 

And even in the poem we get this whole sense of the eagle beginning to move before we even address him or her. We have this sense of motion, we have this sense of openness in the sky and everything heavenly bodied that's above us there, so we move into a different space or a counter space from our own space. And of course when she's performing, she tends to engage both in a sound effect visually on the stage, she takes on a characterization of herself as a great performer would do and moves into a different level of being. The enactment of that is also very close to some traditional forms of performance, which I have really appreciated, especially as a younger poet. I don't know if she was an influence for either of you during those years when she was starting out publishing, I think in the 70's and then moving on. Of course Linda, you're her senior. But it is possible for someone to be influenced as well by someone who's younger?

 

Linda Hogan:    Yes, of course, everyone is an influence for me. I go to the poetry panels, I hear poets read, and of course that influences my poetry. What they say, everything is an influence. I'm an environmental writer, so the world influences it, the past history, we're talking about the 1800's or the 1900's, but we've got a little away from that. But that past history is an influence, but what doesn't go into your poetry? What isn't there in the world? Everything is there. There's even dark matter, there's no empty space.

 

Allison Adelle Hedge Coke:      That's right. Yeah, I'm with you there. Sherwin?

 

Sherwin Bitsui: Yeah, definitely Joy is an influence on my work. But again, I go back to this time and when I started writing poetry and reading poetry, it was towards the end of the 20th century, the century we're talking about. At the time, the entrance into native poetry, for me personally, was Sherman Alexie. I think for my generation, he is a major figure because he was writing about, and for somebody like myself who grew up on the reservation all his life, for him to name that space and to write from a reservation space was really important. That he wasn't relocated, that it wasn't about a relocation experience. But it was happening in our time that he would write about basketball players or res border towns and the border town bars and the 49 songs, and all of these things that we grew up with. So when I came of age, it was certainly Sherman who ... I read his first book and he dedicated it to Joy Harjo and Simon Ortiz and Adrian Louis. That was my entryway, then I found all of you, Linda and Allison, all through this. And it was just a wonderful, blossoming of story. The more I reached out, the more your voice's came toward me, and from that space is how I entered into new century with all these words and I carry them with me today.

 

Allison Adelle Hedge Coke:      Do you have some of Sherman you'd like to read?

 

Sherwin Bitsui: Yeah, I'd like to read the beginning of "The Summer of Black Widows" which came out in 1996.

The spiders appeared suddenly

after that summer rainstorm.

Some people still insist the spiders fell with the rain

while others believe the spiders grew from the damp soil like weeds

with eight thin roots.

The elders knew the spiders

carried stories in their stomachs.

We tucked our pants into our boots when we walked through the fields

of fallen stories.

An Indian girl opened the closet door and a story fell into her hair.

We lived in the shadow of a story trapped in the ceiling lamp.

The husk of a story museumed on the windowsill.

Before sleep we shook our blankets and stories fell to the floor.

A story floated in a glass of water left on the kitchen table.

We opened doors slowly and listened for stories.

The stories rose on hind legs and offered their red bellies to the most

beautiful Indians.

 

Linda Hogan:    I love that.

 

Allison Adelle Hedge Coke:      Beautiful. I think, too, that Sherman was name checking people who would stop by programs that he was also in and I'm gonna follow up by name checking Linda Hogan because she was one of the other writers that came through when I was first at IA, so it's kind of interesting because we've all come to poetry in our own unique ways of getting there, and our own poetic may be deeply rooted in our families, our lineage, our landscape. But there's this viable force around us of other native poets carrying the lineages in as well, and I think they're mutually responding to one another, there's conversations there.

 

Linda Hogan:    Even though we're all from different nations.

 

Allison Adelle Hedge Coke:      Of course.

 

Linda Hogan:    Completely different traditions, histories, and stories.

 

Allison Adelle Hedge Coke:      Exactly.

 

Sherwin Bitsui: Language.

 

Allison Adelle Hedge Coke:      And Language.

 

Linda Hogan:    And languages, astronomies, and you name it.

 

Allison Adelle Hedge Coke:      And Linda, when she came through had just published "Mean Spirit" and we were reading it in class. A brilliant novel, I still love it. And some of her poetry included The Book of Medicines, Coffeehouse Press, and this early poem that I really loved, "Breaking". I'm just gonna give a few lines from it Linda. Pardon me if I don't have a deep enough reflection beforehand, it's a beautiful piece."Breaking: Water grew between two lands that once were one. That was the first breaking. And stories in each grain of sand older than we are come apart. Not even a trace of the first ones, no job turning over and the great salt of blood and brine.” A really beautiful piece. There's a lot of intonation with the body and your work that I've always been really interested in. It's probably not the time and place for it during this particular interview, but maybe you could speak loosely to how you feel on native poetry in general. The aspect of embodiment might be reflected in the poetics.

 

Linda Hogan:    I think that when we began, this is a little bit of a circle, we we're talking about wholeness. And I think the idea of wholeness includes being solidly in the body, and poetry does not exist only in the mind, poetry exists in the whole self. I don't think a poet is fully engaged unless they are able to reach into that space where they have some kind of embodiment. Yes I do work with the body, I think what would my feet write if they were writing, or what would my heart say, or what would my legs say? Why does it always have to be people think with the mind? Who thinks the mind lived in the head? Where did that idea come from, where does the mind really live? Then you think where does the poem really come from? It's a magical event. Thinking about being an environmental poet, being a native poet, being an activist poet, being all those other things, I just keep doing. I'm deeply rooted with the earth and the poems are like part of a forest.

 

Sherwin Bitsui: There's always this aspect of restoring, of reconnecting, remaking one's self with words and with language. Personally for me, in the thought and language and being, there is this aspect that we're always re harmonizing ourselves and reconnecting ourselves to our place. Poetry has that within, it's not a disembodied thing, it's an embodied experience.

 

Allison Adelle Hedge Coke:      There are a lot of poetic forms that are particularly indigenous. Several poets doing an encoding, if you will, of poetics so that the form is very much representative of indigeneity, depending on the tribe, and depending on the cosmogony. I notice you have some James Thomas Stevens over there and I know he's a poet that is using a lot of different forms that are influenced by rowing songs and working songs, and his poetic carries that sense of native form. Would you like to read a little of James to close?

 

Sherwin Bitsui: I'll read a little section from "Tokinish" and it starts: "To walk the periphery of islands as if knowing the border of body. To maul the well muscled curve of your back. Modeled of river weeds hanging red on the scarp. Water run down river rock. The calm beneath your arm. Skin shining stone as the sun settles into it's own dumb orthodoxy.”

 

Allison Adelle Hedge Coke:      Beautiful. Thank you.

 

Linda Hogan:    I'm just thinking about the poem you read and I'm not here in this contained space, I'm in a world thinking about rowing songs. And that's the power of poetry, it takes you back to the rowing songs and the chants and announcing your nation when you row and come over the horizon in your canoe.

 

Allison Adelle Hedge Coke:      Exactly.

 

Sherwin Bitsui: I'm just thankful that there were voices in that time that are informing the present and thankful to everyone of those poets speaking from this new generation of poets. I'm really honored that they spoke.

 

Allison Adelle Hedge Coke:      I'm really honored to work with both of you. Thank you.

 

Linda Hogan:    Likewise.

 

Allison Adelle Hedge Coke:      Thank you. Linda Hogan, Chickasaw poet. Sherwin Bitsui, a Dine poet. Thank you very much!

 

Ed Herman:      That was Allison Hedge Coke speaking with Linda Hogan and Sherwin Bitsui. The conversation was recorded at the Poetry Foundation in Chicago on March 2, 2012. The program was part of International Poets in Conversation sponsored by the Harriet Monroe Poetry Institute.  Sherwin Bitsui has written two books of poetry. Shape Shift was published in 2003 and Flood Song in 2009. Allison Hedge Coke's poetry collections include Dog Road Woman, Off Season City Pipe and Blood Run. She is also the editor of numerous anthologies. Linda Hogan's recent works include the poetry collection Rounding the Human Corners and a novel, People of the Whale. You can read more about these poets and some of their work at PoetryFoundation.org. Also at the Poetry Foundation website, you'll find articles by and about poets, the Harriet Blog About Poetry, an online archive of more that ten thousand poems, the poetry learning lab, the complete back issues of Poetry Magazine, and other audio programs to download. I'm Ed Herman, thanks for listening to Poetry Lectures from poetryfoundation.org

The Harriet Monroe Poetry Institute hosts a conversation between Allison Adelle Hedge Coke, Linda Hogan, and Sherwin Bitsui.

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