Interview with Poet Saanii Adil’ini (Tacey M. Atsitty)

Saanii Adil’ini (Tacey M. Atsitty) will be a keynote speaker at NALS 2012. She was last year’s winner of the The Morning Star Award in Creative Writing, which honors those early Native writers whose voices guide us today.

What sparked your interest in poetry?

Writing has been a part of my life since I could grip a pen in my hand. My mother kept journals for all of us children and while she wrote in them we drew. I attribute the genesis of my affinity for the written word from her. Even after her death I sensed the gravity of record keeping.

It wasn’t until I was in an eighth grade class, for a project of text and image that I took a whiff of something I really liked: poetry. A year later I attended Navajo Preparatory School in Farmington, NM, where I joined the poetry slam team. There I wrote under the direction of Scott Nicolay. Poetry had an appeal to me that was insurmountable. Since then I’ve been writing poetry regularly.

Poetry and language are challenging for me, and that’s what I love about.

What school of poetry has been your favorite or what one has influenced you the most?

I have a T-shirt from the National High School Poetry Slam Competition in San Francisco some years back. It reads, “The poems are waiting.” I understand poems to be like children. When they are born, they have their own personality and quirks. They know what they want to be in terms of structure, diction, and feel. It’s my job to chip away and expose the poem for what it really is or wants to be. Sometimes when I push what I want on the poem, I have a difficult time getting back to what the poem wants. This view falls in line with various views from the Black Mountain poets and, in terms of the content of my work; perhaps it dips in with the Confessionalists.

What was it like to set your poetry to music and sounds when you did a reading of your poetry with composer Joseph Klein?

Initially it was peculiar to hear my words juxtaposed with electroacoustic music. I no longer felt the poem “Evensong, part 1” was the poem I had written; the tone had changed entirely and it became something more haunting than I had intended. It wasn’t until after the entire process that I came to a realization that my poem, as set to Joseph Klein’s music, was no longer the poem I composed; it had become a part of a whole new entity. Once I understood that I could appreciate the piece more fully. I was happy with Klein’s understanding of the poem and his decision to keep the sounds totally organic. All the sounds that accompanied the poem were manipulations of my voice, made to sound like the rush or trickle of water, rocks falling, and other sounds found in nature.

Link: http://www.cornell.edu/video/?VideoID=1242 (her reading starts around 26:30)

How do you incorporate Diné culture and history in your poems? Is it conscious or does it just happen?

There are a few select poems in which I’m looking for understanding or clarification or definition about an experience, and in those cases, it is a conscious decision to go to what I am, what I know: Christianity and Diné culture and history.

Most other poems it’s subconscious. I do see the world and people from the perspective of a Diné person and a Christian. There are shadows of understanding from both ways of life that often make their way into the poems.

What do you want people to get from your poems? A feeling? An idea? Something else?

I strive to evoke emotion or feeling in most of my work. Even if the reader doesn’t find the cultural allusions accessible, I hope that she can feel the essence of the poem through its tone and still appreciate what is on the page.

Who are some poets you are reading right now?

As I’ve just begun teaching at San Juan College, my focus has been with my Native Studies class. So in addition to re-reading Custer Died for Your Sins by Vine Deloria, Jr., I’m reading Real Indians: Identity and the Survival of Native America by Eva Marie Garroutte, along with various anthropological essays.

Before I left in Ithaca I picked up some books from a book sale that happens in a warehouse. So from that cardboard box full of books, I’ve picked up Ralph Waldo Emerson, Allen Ginsberg, and John Donne, random, I know. It’s like a pickle and peanut butter sandwich. But they’re all potent in their own ways.

Q&A with Eric Gansworth

Eric Gansworth’s latest book Extra Indians won a 2011 American Book Award. He has published nine books and a collection of poems and visual art. He is a Professor of English and Lowery Writer-in-Residence at Canisius College in Buffalo, New York.

Some of the stories in your latest novel sound fantastic and absurd, yet they are grounded in real life events, such as the Japanese woman looking for buried treasure in Fargo, N.D. Is reality stranger than fiction and does that impact your writing?

I suppose I’ve always been interested in odd news stories.  When News of the Weird started being syndicated, I was a huge fan from the beginning.  That said, I don’t generally prowl the news for ideas, or prowl anywhere else for that matter.  Much of my work has some seed in memory, which something in my current life has triggered.  I get preoccupied by whatever it is, and if it stays around long enough, I develop work around it to discover for myself why I’ve stayed interested.

That story, the death of that woman looking for a treasure that didn’t exist, I found in a standard newspaper, The Buffalo News, just flipping through it one day.  I was drawn to it immediately, cut it out of the paper that day and tacked it to my bulletin board.  It’s still there, now, yellowed in the ten years it’s been on my wall.  It might be that I am drawn to stories where just one error in judgment causes one’s world to crash.

What I recognized in the story of that woman’s death was that I’ve probably done similar naive and dangerous things at different points in my life, and thus far, I’ve been lucky enough to survive them.  It made me wonder if this is true for most people and they have no awareness of the dangerous things they do because they’ve obliviously averted danger by just a few minutes, or a few feet, by not getting in the wrong car, etc.  I wanted to go inside one of those stories where the person didn’t make it back from the edge.

What is your favorite topic or subject to write about?

I tend not to think about those things on a conscious level, or set out to write about some subject.  When I do, the work falls flat.  I like the tightrope, the exciting place where I don’t know the direction and only discover what I’m interested in by the process of writing.  But if I look at the work I’ve published, with the distance afforded by time, I would say there are a couple of themes that continue to show up.  The first is examining the ways history informs the present.  I don’t mean history with a capital H, necessarily, as I was never any good at that subject in school.

Instead, I’m interested in family history.  Whatever things, good or bad, that happen to someone, the baggage of those events gets manifested in their children’s lives as well.  I see that showing up in almost all my fiction.  I’m also really interested in entertainment culture.  I’d like to say “pop culture” but that wouldn’t be entirely accurate.  I love and will continue to revisit the Beatles and Pink Floyd, for example, but I’m not sure you could accurately classify the films of David Lynch or David Cronenberg or George Romero as “popular” in the broadest sense.  And for the record, my awareness of current entertainment culture that’s actually popular is sorely lacking.  I’ve never seen Jersey Shore or Lost and for a couple years there, when I started seeing the name Kardashian everywhere, I thought the reptilian aliens from Star Trek the Next Generation had somehow gotten their own reality shows.

What are you reading right now?

Because the semester has started, much of what I’m reading right now is connected to that.  Stewart O’Nan and Joyce Carol Oates are coming for campus visits this semester, so I have the distinct pleasure of re-reading their work for class.  I also chose some material I hadn’t read before so that I would discover its pleasures with my students.  That can be risky sometimes, but so far, O’Nan’s THE CIRCUS FIRE has provided much energy for discussion, and as I randomly open Oates’ HIGH LONESOME, a collection of stories, I am struck by the perfection of each one.

Our Creative Writing Major students have developed a movie night social event for their peers–focused on films about writers–and they’ve asked me to introduce Rob Reiner’s adaptation of Stephen King’s MISERY.  I decided to reread the novel as well in prep, and continue to be amazed at the Post-Modern tightrope he’s walking throughout. He actively makes fun of the potboiler, all the while constructing a truly remarkable example of the form, but with depth and subtlety and richness.

I also recently read KNOCKEMSTIFF by Donald Ray Pollock, a grim but compelling and periodically over-the-top collection of linked stories about a very small, very dysfunctional town in Ohio.   I enjoyed SHOCK VALUE, a book of film criticism by Jason Zinoman that examined the evolution of horror cinema, during the New Hollywood period–the repealing of the Hayes Act and the invention of the MPAA rating system–and the ways this cultural freedom allowed for the genre to move away from the Gothic and into the anxieties of modern America.  I was pretty familiar with all of the films, but I thought Zinoman had contextualized them in surprising and interesting ways I hadn’t seen before.  I also reread S.E. Hinton’s THE OUTSIDERS late this summer and was pleasantly surprised to see it had held up, for me.

How do you know when a piece of writing is complete? What are the signs you look for?

I’m not sure how to answer that one.  I draft a fair amount.  Usually, a novel has gone through seven drafts before it’s done.  I’m not superstitious or anything.  I would prefer the process to have fewer steps, but I accept the skill levels I have.  All the overhauling that happens in that process, though, is meant to sharpen the work that already has a meaningfully thorough arc.  I don’t tend to rewrite endings.  So maybe that is the answer.  The moment when I know a piece is complete, is when I have found that last sentence that just sings.  It has to pull every sentence on the previous 300 or so pages together into a satisfying resonance, like that lingering piano chord at the end of the Beatles “A Day in the Life.”  When I have the sentence written that gives me that sensation, I know it’s done and I can start the long process of making sure all the other sentences are up to that standard and working toward that moment.

Does Context Help A Poem?

Just tonight my poetry class had a discussion about the importance of context in understanding a poem. There were two fairly clear viewpoints. One side said a poem does not require any context to give it some meaning or better interpretation. The other side said it is easier to get a meaning out of a poem when there is some context about the poem, such as biographical information or the inspiration for the poem.

Both sides raise good points, but does providing context help a poem? If a poet gives the reader or audience a guiding hand in what the poem is about, does that make it harder for the audience to view the work in an unbiased way?

Quite typically in a written work we aren’t given a context in the piece itself. Poems don’t often start with long introductions to the poems, nor do novels. I just read a book called “The Nine Guardians” by Rosario Castellanos. It is set in the late 1930s in Mexico. The political atmosphere and socio-economic oppression of the indigenous population were historical fact. I went into the book without any context, and when the book ended I had more questions than answers. Despite the lack of context, the book still made an impact.

On the other hand, I’ve been to a number of plays where they provide a bit of context about the setting and events surrounding the play in the program. The play “Yellowface” by David Henry Hwang confronted social stigmas and stereotypes faced by Asian Americans. Much of the play would have been hard to follow if there was no context provided.

Perhaps it varies depending on the medium. We don’t always expect to know the context for a painting, while we do for a play. Maybe poetry falls in the middle somewhere? Maybe all art falls in the middle and it’s up to the artist to know whether the context is needed for the art to be understood?

I’m not sure there is a right or wrong answer, but personally I want a poem to capture me right away without any context. I want something–image, metaphors, rhythm, musicality, a strong voice–to hook me. I don’t mind knowing the context afterward, but I also want something that can stand on its own as an excellent, well-crafted piece of writing.

Brick and Mortar vs. Digital

So, there was a very interesting discussion recently on MPR about how Amazon is becoming a bigger player in the publishing business and how traditional publishers and book stores are a little nervous about all of this.

Amazon’s move raises some fundamental questions about where our books come from and who we do or do not support. I know personally I’m not a huge fan of reading lots of texts on a screen, but the popularity of Kindles and iPads and other e-readers is on the rise. It seems the publishing industry needs to keep pace with technology or lose business.

The conversation on the program turned to the topic of independent book stores vs. online retailers. Some independent book stores are going to boycott anything published by Amazon, but is that a smart move? Shouldn’t they be keeping pace with what consumers want or is there something admirable in their steadfast anti-Amazon position? Who do you support, brick and mortar book stores or online retailer/publishers?

I’d love to hear from other people about this topic.

Link to the radio segment: http://minnesota.publicradio.org/display/web/2011/08/18/midmorning3/

Website Updates Coming Soon

More content will be added to the website in the next week. There will be media galleries of past NALS conferences, expanded awards information, and more hotel and travel information.

Here we are!

There will be a link on our new home page to this blog, so we’ll use it to update conference events and showcase publications and other activities of our group.  Thanks to Jason!