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: (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.


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