Friday, February 27, 2009
Is that salty wafer really a piece of Jesus?
Is that grape-juice-for-wine in that Dixie cup his blood?
Communion has always creeped me out.
Did Jesus really look like Jeffrey Hunter or Max Von Sydow or
Jim Caviesel, some handsome lean Aryan dude with flowing locks?
Or did he look more like a Jewish spear carrier on Broadway in
“The Merchant of Venice”; hook nose, nappy hair and all?
Yes, there is love and Christ-consciousness in the Koran, some
of it reads like the Gnostic scrolls, yet it is painfully evident
that when a zealous 14 year old Muslim boy will strap five pounds
of C-4 to his bony chest intending righteously to martyr himself
by murdering 50 Infidels, expecting sex with 30 naked virgins in
his warped and terrible vision of Heaven, awaiting his hurrahs
as a warrior and hero, where is Allah and the love?
We now have a President who plays basketball, and he is pretty
good at it, running unafraid into opponents with flying elbows.
It was fun to watch Magic Johnson on CNN rate his moves.
Still I hope Barack reads Sherman Alexie too, and clearly
acknowledges another rabid B-ball spirit, and soon will beg him
to come to the White House for an intense game of Horse.
Perhaps he can appoint him to be the new Director of the BIA.
I believe, if our family genealogy charts are accurate, that
my great great grandmother, on my departed mother’s side,
was a Cherokee princess, or not; perhaps more realistically
a dark-skinned woman who was short, and stout, and flat-faced;
a brief liaison of passion with one my white pioneer ancestors,
and when the heat faded, we were left with Indian blood seeping
into our gene pool. Hey, now I am just like Johnny Cash, enit?
Every time I hike miles from a road, up into verdant mountain
meadows, while standing ankle-deep in thick clover, staring up
at the impossibly white cumulus headgear the jagged peaks sport
I swear I hear singing, an angelic choir, a massive Gregorian
Buddhist Catholic chant, just marvelously blended voices
heralding my presence, without words, yet clearly
thrusting a message of welcome straight through my heart.
Glenn Buttkus February 2009
The Absolutely True Interview With Sherman Alexie, an Amazing Part-Time Indian
By Jesse Sposato
Sadie Magazine Winter 2009
Native American writer, Sherman Alexie, really clarified this age-old myth for me about whether or not Native American people secretly roll their eyes at white people when they use the “I” word, “Indian,” rather than opting for the surely PC term, “Native American.” But you know what, no one really cares. No, that’s not true. “The only person,” according to Alexie, “who’s going to judge you for saying Indian is a non-Indian.”
When he’s not busy breaking down barriers, Alexie is probably writing—he’s one of those people who is every kind of writer: a poet, a fiction writer, a memoirist, a young adult novelist, and soon-to-be a murder mystery writer. Or maybe he’s off presenting a movie, working on a board for an at-risk youth organization, or helping out with a fundraiser of some sort…you know, the usual.
Alexie grew up on a reservation in Wellpinit, WA across from the tribal school, which he later swapped for Reardan High in order to break out of the pre-determined lifestyle set for him on the reservation. He takes you to this scene in the mostly autobiographical young adult novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, like you’re going home with your new boyfriend or girlfriend for the first time to see the house, meet the pets, and of course, get to know the parents.
Sherman Alexie manages to single-handedly create an entire world for you, offering such sharp insight and detail into Native American Indian culture, that you start to feel like you should be keeping a diary as a part-time Indian yourself.
One book in, not to mention two or three, and you’re easily hooked…on fry bread, and ghost dances, and the rez. On tales of dreams and hopes and failures; the true emotions, self consciousness, beauty, and humanness of his characters; and the magical words Alexie uses to describe these things, words that dance off the pages and melt in your mouth like all the M&M's you ever wanted, but better, and more. In his books, Sherman Alexie welcomingly invites you to be a purveyor of his tell-all world; don’t miss your chance.
Jesse: Hey! Thanks for doing this, I’m really excited. I’ll just start asking you some questions.
Sherman: Okay, great!
Jesse: I have this theory that people generally have three talents, or three areas in which they excel. What do you think yours are?
Sherman (laughing): Wow, probably writing, basketball, [and] public speaking.
Jesse: Nice. You’ve written novels, young adult fiction, poetry, and even screenplays. Did you ever feel like it was hard to do all these different things at once; and even more so, do/did you feel like you could only really pursue one of them, (or that anyone can only pursue one thing) because of time, and the amount of dedication you need to really excel at any one thing in particular?
Sherman: Well, I’m sure a lot of it is just being a workaholic and obsessive compulsive. But one of the strange things about Native American writers—you know, who I was studying when I first started writing, it was them I was emulating—and all of them, (all of us) [work in several different mediums]. There is no Native writer who is what you would call a specialist.
Culturally speaking, I’m not sure why that is. You know, when I’m working at colleges, I keep suggesting to graduate students that somebody needs to do their Master’s or Ph.D. on the topic, but nobody has yet.
Jesse: Yeah, seriously! I wonder if there’s an actual connection there, or if it’s just a coincidence...
Sherman: You know, now that I’m thinking about it, there are more specialists. I’m thinking about the generation below me, the up-and-coming writers, [and] there are a lot of specialists. Oh, that’s interesting. See, now you’ve got me thinking about something else!
Jesse: That’s really interesting. Do you ever feel like it’s hard to juggle all of those things, or are they kind of intertwined, making it easier to do so?
Sherman: Well, I mean, it’s always tough. I always feel beleaguered and battered by my job. It’s a good feeling I guess…every book is competing for my [your] attention, and then you end up feeling like you’re neglecting one for the other. In other words, when it comes to my books, I feel like a terrible parent!
Jesse: That’s a really great analogy!
So, how “Native American” did you grow up, and how much of your knowledge comes from later research? Did you always feel really in touch with your Native American roots?
Sherman (laughing): I grew up on the reservation across from the tribal school. So, I mean, in terms of geography and actual placement, I am way rez! But, you know, I was a basketball player growing up so I wasn’t—I’m still not very religious—so I wasn’t a ceremonial guy.
Jesse: Did you find growing up, that you faced a lot of prejudice for being Native American?
Sherman: You know, that’s one of the things that’s definitely changed, certainly in Eastern Washington. There was a lot of random racial slurring growing up, and there’s far less of that now in Eastern Washington than there was when I was a kid.
I remember once my mom and dad and my brothers and sisters and I were walking in Spokane and a truck pulled up and the guy inside leaned out and called us dirty Indians and spit on us.
Sherman: I can’t imagine that happening now.
Jesse: Yeah, that’s pretty crazy, especially being a kid.
Obviously growing up on the reservation, you were surrounded by other Native Americans, but did you feel like when you went to Reardan [High School], there was a change?; was there prejudice there?
Sherman: Oh, yeah, there were still segments of the town that didn’t necessarily like me, but, by and large, whatever stereotypes they held about us, I broke immediately because I didn’t fit any of them.
I think it’s still the case that, because they knew me and they knew how Indian I was, it changed their ideas about Indians in general. Just to give you some idea, my high school’s twentieth year class reunion was held at an Indian casino.
Jesse: That’s awesome!
Sherman: Yeah, so the whole [dynamic] between the two towns has changed dramatically. There’s about sixty or seventy Indian kids who go to that school now. I was the pioneer, but nobody remembers that now.
Jesse: That’s a good trend to start!
What do you think is one of the largest myths or misconceptions about Native American culture and the way people perceive it in today’s day and age, and also just in history?
Sherman: That we have magical, spiritual powers. That we are environmental superheroes…
Jesse: You do write a bit about things that seem sort of magical, like ghost dancing…but I guess that’s just kind of Native American myth?
Sherman: Yeah, it’s [they are] myths that feel real. Or I should say that, you know, our ceremonies are not any more or less metaphorical than anybody else’s. When I do communion, I don’t really believe I’m eating Jesus.
Jesse: You don’t?
Sherman: No. Some people do. I’m not one of them.
Jesse: Yeah, that’s interesting. Okay, more specifically, where did you get the idea for the main character in Flight, Zits, with all the journeys he takes and the different characters he becomes in each place?—I thought that was really interesting. I also wondered how you knew so much about the foster care system, and if you learned it for this book specifically, or if you knew about it already.
Sherman: Well, I’ve done a lot of work with fundraising and then being on boards for various homeless and at-risk youth organizations; and also, growing up, my family—my mother and father—were foster parents. …We ended up helping raise all sorts of cousins along the way.
Jesse: That’s awesome.
Sherman: Yeah, a lot of kids stayed with us over the years, so that was part of what I knew, I didn’t have to do much research. The idea for the kid [Zits] actually, I had reread Kurt Vonnegut’s book, Slaughterhouse-Five, [and] his character traveling through time is very interesting to me, so I thought, I’m going to have an Indian do that...
Jesse: Yeah, that was cool. I really liked all the different places he went to. There was a lot of violence in that book too. Violence appears in a lot of your books—especially in this one I think—is this a hard subject for you to write about?
Sherman: Well, you hope it will be, but it’s not necessarily. Certainly I deal with violence because it’s real, but also, kids these days, they end up playing video games—and I have nothing against them—but they end up seeing and participating in a lot of violence that has no repercussions, whether it’s fake death everywhere, fake violence everywhere…
And so I thought, by writing a book about real violence and the real repercussions of violence, I think it plays an important role. I think play violence does too, but I want to make sure that people are also thinking about violence seriously.
Jesse: Right. Your characters definitely show remorse and real emotion. In fact, the main characters in your books, even as teenagers, are really smart and all-knowing, brave and sensitive, and just really self-aware. I’m thinking of Arnold Spirit in particular, and also Zits, I thought really had that quality as well. A lot of your characters have similar sensibilities. Is this reflective of what your personality is like, or just the type of character you’d like to portray?
Sherman: Well, I’d like to think I was as smart as those kids were. I don’t think I was.
Jesse: I don’t know if anybody was! They were pretty smart.
Sherman: But the idea of writing about smart Indians, I like doing that, period. Smart, intellectual Indians, that’s always interesting to me. And, you know, talking about my circle of friends in the Indian world, we’re all brainy geeks. There’s an unexplored genre of literature, the Native American geek genre.
Jesse: I love that idea, Native American geek genre! Where do you get ideas for your characters; are they based on you and your friends?
Sherman: You know, the original influence is always this particular person, but by the time you end up writing ten or twelve drafts, they [the characters] change completely. But the original inspiration is usually a person.
Jesse: Yeah, it seems like a lot of writers do that. In particular, the friendship between Rowdy and Arnold in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a rich and interesting one filled with such pure love. Is this friendship based on one you know or one that you had?
Sherman: Yeah, it’s based on two of my friendships growing up on the reservation with the[se] two guys. True Diary is really a love story between two boys, [it’s about] their friendship. It really interested me to write an emotional book about young males’ friendships. We always think about girls being devoted to each other that way, but boys are too.
Jesse: Yeah! I thought you did a really, really good job. It was such a great and realistic portrayal of friendship, and especially because the characters were sooo different—they showed their love in such different ways, but it was clearly equivalent.
Did you think of that book as an autobiography, like did you set out to write something like that, or did it just kind of happen?
Sherman: It was actually part of a larger family memoir that I [quit writing and then] pulled out. So, I think in the end, I wrote a giant family memoir in order for me to be able to write this little novel.
Jesse: Wow! Do you ever plan on coming back to the memoir?
Sherman: Oh god, I hope not.
Jesse: Obviously your books are mostly about Native American culture, and aside from the often heroic, smart main character we just discussed, for the most part, you portray Native Americans as poor, kind of sad sacks with not a lot of hope, or chances. Do you feel like by painting such a negative picture of Native Americans, you perpetuate that sentiment at all, or more like just the opposite?
Sherman: I think most literature is about sad people. I mean, look at that happy-go-lucky, War and Peace.
Sherman: Literature is the study of human weakness. I just happened to write the Native American version of it.
Jesse: Interesting. I never thought of it like that before. Good answer!
What do you think of artists of any kind—like authors, painters, and media makers, etc.—making work about a race, gender, or nationality that’s not their own? Like, if non-Native American people were to write about Native Americans and vice versa?
Sherman: Well, artists can follow whatever path they want to, but they should also realize that they’re gonna be held to close scrutiny by the people they’re [making] work about. They have to expect it, but it also should be seen as what it is. You know, when non-Natives write about Natives, that’s colonial literature.
It can be great literature…it can be wonderful, amazing, but it’s still colonial literature. And I think the United States forgets it colonized the Native Americans, and you know, I should say, by and large, it’s white liberals that forget that. I think white conservatives are happy they colonized Native Americans, but white liberals forget that and don’t think of themselves as being colonial.
Jesse: That’s a good point.
Sherman: And that’s not to say it can’t be great, but let’s make sure we define it.
Jesse: Yeah. On that note, do you celebrate Thanksgiving?!
Sherman (laughing): Yes! My standard response to all that is yes. You know, white folks brought me Custer, but white folks also brought me Bruce Springsteen, so I’ll be giving thanks for Bruce Springsteen.
Jesse: Do you do all of the traditional things like make a turkey and stuff?
Sherman: Yup, [we] make a turkey, invite our lonely white friends over. We live up to the spirit of Thanksgiving ‘cuz we invite all of our most desperately lonely white [friends] to come eat with us. We always end up with the recently broken up, the recently divorced, the broken hearted. From the very beginning, Indians have been taking care of broken hearted white people…we just extend that tradition.
Jesse (laughing): You have created an entire world through all of your books—themes of place, people, names, attitude, and problems often intertwine. It’s really nice; I think the connectedness makes it feel like your collection of works could read like one long book or kind of like a family tree or a series of photo albums passed down from one generation to the next. Did you always set out to make these common themes like bridges from one story to the next, or do you think of them sort of separately?
Sherman: I love the whole idea of William Faulkner writing about the same place over and over. That whole thing appeals to me, so it’s a combination of being influenced by Western literature—by Faulkner and others like him—but it’s also very tribal to focus on just this small little piece of the world, so I think I’m influenced by both things equally.
Jesse: That’s interesting, and very “write what you know.” Aside from Faulkner, what other authors or filmmakers or any kind of artists influence you or your work?
Sherman: John Steinbeck, Tim O’Brien, Toni Morrison, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, James Wright…I can go on and on.
Jesse: So, it seems like inspiration from other artists plays a big part in your own writing?
Sherman: Yeah, I was on a panel with Junot Díaz a few weeks ago in New York, and he said an interesting thing. He said that he really thinks his job is reading. He said he just writes so that he can read more.
Jesse: That’s interesting. It totally makes sense.
Sherman: Yeah, you know, being a freelance writer gives him a lot of time to read. I like that. I’m stealing that from him.
Jesse: You have a new collection of poetry coming out next year, and another young adult novel, Radioactive Love Song. Can you give us a sneak preview?
Sherman: Fate, how to describe it—that’s the first time anybody’s asked me about a book of poems! It’s far rowdier. I think because I was working in the young adult world, poetry became an outlet for my very adult thoughts, so I think you would call it a very political, very…it’s an NC-17 book. It’s about sex and Mount Rushmore.
And then the young adult novel is about a kid dealing with the death of his mother by going on a road trip…with his mother’s iPod, so it’s a road trip novel.
Jesse: Cool. Do you plan on sticking with young adult novels for a while, or just continuing to do kind of whatever you feel like?
Sherman: I just added another genre! (laughing) Yeah, it’s been so fun to be in the young adult world. I’m gonna stay there definitely, and I’ll keep writing my other stuff too.
Jesse: How did you make the transition in the first place?; what was the motivation behind starting to enter the young adult world?
Sherman: They just kept asking! Well, that was part of it, and also, young people are so excited about books and so anxious and eager. I just looked back to myself as a sixteen-year-old and how much I loved reading and how a book could completely change my life…so I just like the idea of trying to write for all those versions of me out there, wherever they are.
Jesse: Right, totally. That’s sort of the way I explain starting Sadie, like the idea is trying to speak to sixteen-year-old me.
Sherman: There you go, exactly! And that was just confirmed when I went on a book tour and I visited all these high schools. [There are] just all these amazing kids out there, so it’s fun! And it’s fun in a way that…I certainly love my adult audiences, but, I don’t know, I just end up feeling like I matter more to the teenagers.
Jesse: You probably do in a way! Because teenagers are so malleable... Is there anything else you’re working on, or do you know what you’re going to work on next?
Sherman: I also have a book of short stories coming out next year, that’s called, I Just Can’t Get You Out of My Head. And then a new adult novel called Fire with Fire.
Jesse: Wow. You’re very prolific! What’s that about?
Sherman: It’s a murder mystery.
Jesse: Another new genre, huh! You know, speaking of a different genre, the movie you wrote, Smoke Signals is so different than The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. I realize now that it was only kind of based on the one short story, which makes sense, but it seems to sort of encompass other things throughout the book. Was it hard to turn that book/story into a movie?
Sherman: It wasn’t that tough really. I just ignored the book in a way, and started all over. It’s never been hard for me to write a screenplay, it’s just that nobody wants to make the movies!
So, I’m either really a terrible screenwriter, or I’m a great one because nobody wants to make a great movie, I don’t know. I could, in fact, finish a screenplay today. They’re only 120 pages, and everybody’d love to read it and nobody would make it.
Jesse: Do you think there are any (aside from your own obviously) movies, books, or examples of Native American culture in the media that seem to show an accurate portrayal of (Native American) culture as you know and understand it?
Sherman: Yeah, but novels and fiction and poetry and short stories, it’s still just one person’s idea of what “Indian” is. I think Frozen River, an independent movie out there right now that deals with the Mohawk reservation, is an amazing movie.
Jesse: Oh, cool. And I was reading about The Exiles , the movie you have been presenting with Charles Burnett, and that seems like it would be pretty close to your heart.
Sherman: Yeah, the exiles, the first generation of people who left the reservation for urban areas. My mom was relocated for about twelve hours: got off the bus from Sacramento, had a bowl of soup, got on the bus, and went back home.
Jesse: Nice. What does it entail for you to co-present a movie, and what has that experience been like so far?
Sherman: At a lot of film festivals in my region here, I’ve introduced it and then done Q&A about the film. And then I’ve done a lot of media—interviews on NPR, [in] magazines. And also having my name on the box for the DVD when it comes out—Charles Burnett and I—so it’s just been a lot of media, which I think just makes people pay more attention. Also, they really wanted to have a Native American person sort of give it the Good Housekeeping seal of approval, so that was part of it.
Jesse: Okay so, I have to ask…what about the Native American vs. Indian thing, like is it really uncouth for people who are non-Indian to use the word Indian?
Sherman (laughing): Just think of Native American as the formal version and Indian as the casual one.
Jesse: So, you’re not going to be judged if you’re not a Native American or Indian person and you say “Indian”?
Sherman: The only person who’s going to judge you for saying “Indian” in a non-Indian.
Jesse: That’s such a good point. Okay, great, that’s good to know! Is there anything else I didn’t ask you or didn’t touch on that you’d like to share?
Sherman: I like your magazine.
Jesse: Thank you! I’m glad you checked it out. Thanks so much for doing this!
Sherman: Thank you!
Photo and Prose by Alex Shapiro
Well, Tofino, plus the wild, mountainous midsection
of Vancouver Island one traverses to get there,
is nothing short of stunningly beautiful.
Like so many of the villages up here,
summertime tourist crowds swell the size
and the local economy, altering the vibe
for a four month period of warm air and long nights.
But the rest of the year offers a peace and solitude
that few July visitors can experience.
Wintertime on a beach is always magical to me.
I remember when I lived at Paradise Cove in Malibu,
and this time of year I’d have a mile-long stretch of sand,
cliffs and raging tides all to myself.
I’d walk up and down the empty beach completely alone,
occasionally wondering whether a bomb had gone off
in Los Angeles and I was the last to know,
and perhaps the last person left standing.
My twisted psyche sort of liked this thought.
Experiencing that kind of solitude within reach
of one of the worlds’ busiest cities is fascinating.
Experiencing it as I did this past weekend,
many hours of travel away from any such metropolis,
is another fantastic form of isolation.
Alex Shapiro February 2009
Linebreaks by Glenn Buttkus
Thursday, February 26, 2009
Dancing With Dinosaurs
Before we came to earth,
before the birds had come,
there were dinosaurs,
their feathers were a bright idea
that came this way--
see: two tiny creatures weighing
two ounces each keep quiet among
the ferns observe bright-eyed
the monsters tear each other
and disappear; these two watch
from the edge of what, some fifty billion spires
of the cooling earth ahead, will be
called Nova Scotia--now, with reptilian
whistles they look southward as
Pan-Gaea breaks apart and lets
a young Atlantic send its thunder crashing
up to the pines where they cling
with miniscule bodies in a tossing wind,
September night in the chilly rain and
they sing, as they spread
small wings to flutter out above
surf-spray and rise to
twenty-thousand feet on swirling
winds of a passing cold front that lift
them over the grin of sharks southeastward
into sun and all day winging under him
pass high above the pink and snowy beaches
of Bermuda, flying through zero cold
and brilliance into darkness,
then into moonlight over steel
Leviathans with the mimic pines
that calm them down to rest and die--
southeast steadily but the Trade Winds
come and float them curving
back southward over the Windward Islands
and southwestward into the marine and scarlet of
their third day coming down
to four thousand feet still winging over
Tobago, descending till
the scaled waves stretch and widen
into the surf of Venezuela
and they drop through moonlight
down to perch on South America's shoulders,
having become the Male and Female Singers,
having put on their feathers, and survived.
When I was named
a Thunder person, I was told:
here is a being
of whom you may make your body
that you may live to see old age: now
as we face the drum
and dance shaking the gourds, this gourd
is like a rainbow of feathers lightly
fastened with buckskin,
fluttering as the gourd is shaken.
The eagle feathers I
have still not earned, it is
the small birds only
whose life continues on the gourd,
whose life continues in our dance,
that flutter as the gourd is rattled and
we dance to honor on a sunbright day
and in the moonbright night
the little girl being brought in,
becoming one of us
as on a war done for me,
for each of us who dance,
the small birds only, who have given
their bodies that a small girl
may live to see old age.
I have called them here
to set them into song
who made their rainbow bodies long before
we came to earth,
who learned song and flight, became
beings for whom the infinite sky
and trackless ocean are
a path to spring.
Now they will sing and we
are dancing with them, here.
Carter Devard.......from How The Songs Come Down
Whoever broke a rock first wasn't trying
to look inside it, surely
was looking for an edge
or trying to just hammer with it, and it broke--
then he saw the glitter;
how BRIGHT inside it was;
noticed how things unseen are fresh.
Maybe he said it's like the sky,
that when the sun has crashed down
through the west breaks open to the Milky Way,
and we see farther than we are seen, for once,
as far as light and time can reach,
and almost over the edge of time;
its spiral track like agate in rock
from when it still was water-stains,
had not yet found its non-solution
to the puzzle of dissolution,
keeping within its darkness
the traces of its origin
as day keeps night
and night keeps stars.
dust wrinkles over darkness.
What shines within?
Carter Devard........from How The Songs Came Down
Painting by Robert Bateman
Coyote Tells Why He Sings
There was a little rill of water near the den,
that showed a trickle all the dry summer
when I was born.
One night in late August it rained--
the Thunder waked us.
Drops came crashing down
in dust, on stiff blackjack leaves, on lichened rocks,
and the rain came in a pelting rush
down over the hill;
Wind blew wet into our cave
as I heard the sound of leaf drip,
rustling of soggy branches in gusts of wind.
And then the rill's tune changed--
I heard a rock drop that set new ripples
gurgling, in a lower key
where the new ripples were, I drank, next morning,
fresh muddy water that set my teeth on edge.
I thought how delicate that rock's poise was
and how the storm made music
when it changed my world.
Carter Devard.....from How The Songs Came Down
Lefties Need to Love, Love, Love the White Working Class
by Sherman Alexie
While fundamentalist Christians crusade against fundamentalist Muslims in a postmodern holy war, a few liberals weep for the oppressed cows and lab mice of the world. During a recent San Francisco antiwar protest, a young woman carried a sign that read "Vegetarians for Peace."
When are we left-wingers going to learn that we are losing the cultural and political battle with conservatives because we are fractured into narcissistic special-interest groups? Why should an antiwar protestor be so concerned about her dietary identity? The political opinions of vegetarians and meat-eaters are, after all, equally important. And what does it tell us about vegetarians that it would never occur to meat-eaters to carry a sign that reads "Pacifist Pork Chop Lover for Peace" or "Backyard Rib Barbecuer for International Nuclear Disarmament"?
But maybe we should start carrying those signs. In fact, if we meat-eating pinkos ate medium-rare hamburgers while we marched against war, I think the conservative politicians and pundits would find it difficult to completely demonize us.
"Well, Rush, most of those antiwar commies are treasonous bastards, but the ones eating 100 percent All American beef can't be all bad."
We liberals have become elitist bastards out of touch with the white working class, but conservatives have been smooching the WWC for years. So, in order to defeat the conservatives, we liberals have to enter into the Great American Love Triangle and somehow win the hearts, minds, and votes of the WWC. But how do we do that?
First, we liberals must eat meat. We must eat asses, lips, and balls. Proudly celebrate the genetic superiority of humans! We don't have these opposable thumbs by accident. In the beginning, we were McPrimates hunted by Tyrannosaurus chickens. But we've worked our way up the food chain, and we should not dishonor our ancestors' struggles by becoming vegetarians.
George W. won the presidency by pretending to be a carnivorous and inarticulate member of the WWC. "Yep, I might of masticulated at Yale, but I ain't from Yale. I eat pork rinds drenched with Tabasco sauce, just like my daddy. But that Al Gore, he was born with a Yale spoon in his mouth. I bet you Al Gore ain't never et a pork rind."
Despite the fact that liberal social programs primarily benefit them, WWC folks are completely bamboozled by rich conservative propaganda. "Well, my millionaire Republican senator just voted to send my job to Sri Lanka, but he hates the fags and towelheads as much as I do, so I'm going to vote for him right after I pick up my very last unemployment check."
As liberals, we must suspend every other progressive cause except one: the liberation of the WWC. We liberals must sing "The Star Spangled Banner" and recite the Pledge of Allegiance at every gathering. You anti-American bastards want to prove your patriotism? Then sing patriotic songs! Hey, maybe God did bless America. And hey, maybe Allah did, too. According to my limited research, every God and god in the history of the world has reportedly blessed the USA, so the Pledge of Allegiance is not necessarily inaccurate.
WWC folks join the military in large numbers, so the least liberals, pacifists, and peaceniks can do is admit to at least loving war movies. Soldiers are cool! Sure, most WWC soldiers joined the military because they had no other economic choices, but let's not blame the soldiers for their poverty--let's not hate the WWC for doing what it has to do to survive. Instead let's create a national service system designed specifically to employ, train, and educate the WWC, and they won't have to fight rich men's wars.
We liberals must stop marching for our own rights. At the next liberal protest, I want to see signs that read, "The NAACP for the WWC!" and "The American Indian Movement for the WWC Movement!" and "Lambda Legal for WWC Justice!" and "Jesuits for WWC Souls!" and "Atheists for WWC Education!" and "Communists for WWC Jobs!" and "Poets for WWC Literacy!" and "Nostalgic Deadheads for WWC Bluegrass!" and yes, "Vegetarians for WWC Carnivores!"
WWC people believe that rich white conservatives care about them, so we liberals must teach them a contradictory lesson: To the rich white ruling class, working-class whites are actually working-class blacks. After all, Sam Walton might share the same melanin content with his slave-wage employees, but he certainly doesn't love them. We liberals should love the WWC. We're liberals, damn it. We're supposed to love everybody. And if we want to defeat George W. Bush in 2004, we better become the best lovers the WWC has ever known.
[Damn, this article was written in 2003. Bush rigged another election in 2004, and we had to wait for the emergence of Barack Obama to bring the House of Bush down. I love the points made in this article from THE STRANGER.]
When I was seven years old,
living on the Spokane Indian Reservation,
my family moved into a new house,
built by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
We had been living in an ancient house
that didn't have indoor plumbing
so we felt like we were finally joining
the twentieth century. However,
the front and back porches of our new HUD house
were not built when we moved in,
so for the first three months,
my family had to climb up and down ladders
to enter and exit. So for a brief and hilarious period,
we salmon-fishing Spokane Indians were transformed
into mesa-dwelling Hopi Indians.
I Can’t Get You Out of My Head
“A bird-organ is a small barrel-organ used in teaching birds to sing.”
-John Ogilvie, The Comprehensive English Dictionary, London, 1865.
Ah, canary, you chronic mimic,
Do you find any joy in the cover song?
Of course, you must. You’re an echo addict
Who can’t stop himself from singing along
With the bird-organ. It’s an odd machine,
Rather arrogant, in fact. What asshole
Believes a wooden box’s melody
Is more beautiful and original
Than the canary’s indigenous croon?
What kind of blasphemous, hell-bound dickwad
Thinks a man’s hands are more clever than God’s?
Well, I’m a sinner in love with iTunes
And that lovely manmade box, the iPod.
And if that gets me in trouble with God,
Then may God’s lightning fingers choke me dead,
Because I think the Flaming Lips’ cover
Of “I Can’t Get You Out Of My Head”
Is filled with far more fear, lust, and wonder
Than Kylie Minogue’s worldwide dance hit.
Okay, now, maybe you don’t give a shit,
But my theory (and it’s a betrayal
Of my tribe) is that art is colonial,
And the best art is imperialistic.
I know it’s wildly masochistic
For an Indian to advance this belief,
But I’m also a Picassoesque thief,
A carnivorous and scavenging bird
Who’ll echo, borrow, and steal your words
If given the chance. There is no treaty
I will not bend, bust, ignore, or screw.
But, no, wait, that’s not exactly true.
I don’t write about sacred ceremonies,
And I rarely speak the names of the dead—
Though I’m going to violate those taboos
Right now in this poem. I suspect you knew
That I break promises with each breath,
But trust me when I tell you this story:
Years ago, a white archeologist
Recorded a tribal ceremony
On my rez. The tape crackles and hisses,
But one can clearly hear my grandmother
Singing. O, her voice comes from some other,
Alien place in her body. That song
Died with my grandmother, or so you’d think,
But whenever I want to hear her sing,
I just press play on my boom box. It’s wrong,
I suppose, to worship a duplicate,
But I think, “Screw you, it’s decades too late
To save the original.” I’ll worship
My grandmother’s voice and the Flaming Lips,
Live or recorded. I guess, near the end,
I am arguing against nostalgia.
I will not believe “it was better then.”
After all, each of us is a replica,
And I think God gave us these music toys
So we can create and hoard glorious noise.
The sun illuminates only the eye of the man,
But shines into the eye and heart of the child.
-Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature
My wife wanted to give my sons the chance
To see my tribe’s powwow with transparent eyes,
And maybe fall in love with the chicken dance,
But I stayed home. They wouldn’t hear my crazy rants
About the powwow bullies who made me cry.
My wife wanted to give my sons the chance
To enjoy themselves. “Listen, I just can’t
Go with you,” I said to my wife, who was unsurprised
By my need to spin a different chicken dance.
“They can hang with their uncles and aunts,”
I said. “And my mother, she’ll be so surprised
That my sons have been given the chance
To powwow.” And so my wife and sons drove, sans
Father, to my rez on a Saturday night
And spent hours watching the chicken dance.
And, yes, I remembered pissing my pants
When I saw the reds of my bullies’ eyes,
But my wife gave my sons an aboriginal chance.
“Your boys saw joy in their uncles and aunts,”
My wife said, “And the pride in your mother’s eyes,
So be thankful I gave your sons this chance
Because they fell in love with the chicken dance.”
In a rush, we used an assigned parking space,
And upon our return, the displaced stranger
Said, “That’s my spot, you jerk.” His rage
Surprised me, but I didn’t sense any danger
Until he took five steps toward us. My wife
And sons were suddenly targets, so I knew
I had to protect them. Maybe he had a knife
Or gun. Maybe he was crazy. But his mood
Changed when I stepped out of the shadows.
I’m a big guy, all shoulders and gut and thighs,
And I was not afraid. I grew up trading blows
With bullies, and the man quickly realized
That I would fight hard. Chastened, he retreated
Back toward his car, and with a softer tone,
Said, “Next time, you better leave me a note.”
My anger bloomed as my fear receded,
So I stepped fast toward him, and reveled
At his sudden meekness. “Just leave it alone,”
I said, possessed by some childhood devil
Who wanted me to snap and burn the man’s bones.
“Stop it,” my wife said. “Just get in the car.”
She and my sons hurried into their seats,
But I thought I would be admitting defeat
If I did the same. I wouldn’t let down my guard
For a moment. I would kill this stranger
And eat his lungs, stomach, heart, thumbs, and eyes.
I became the one in love with danger.
Ashamed, I shouted, “Have a safe Fourth of July!”
And looked at the man for the first time.
He was rude, Napoleonic, and weak.
Just back from work, he didn’t want to fight.
He wanted to sit on his couch and watch TV.
The man gave me the finger, but I just waved
And climbed into our car. Contrite and dazed,
I mumbled an apology to my wife,
“I thought the man was threatening our lives.”
“I know,” she said. “You had to back him off.
And you did that. You proved you were tough.
But then you got mean.” And yes, it was shitty.
I took the man’s space and his dignity.
Is it surprising that I know how to be cruel?
My entire career is based on revenge.
I think of my sons, so tender and new,
And how they’d witnessed me walk to the edge
And nearly begin the long, harrowing drop
Before I heeded their mother’s call to stop.
I know my boys had so many questions
But I failed to give them this lesson:
Sons, what I did to that man was wrong;
There can be that much weakness in being strong.
Sevenlings | Sherman Alexie
Sherman Alexie is the author of 21 books of poetry and prose, including The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, the winner of the 2007 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, and Face, a book of poetry from Hanging Loose Press. He lives with his family in Seattle. For more information on Sherman please visit his official website at fallsapart.com. And for an account of the sevenling as a poetic form, its derivation and description, have a look at APJ, The American Poetry Journal, edited by J.P. Dancing Bear.
This is the last poem I will write about salmon,
My tribe’s Jesus fish, our God fish, bedamning
And bedamned. I will no longer examine
And reexamine the sins that doomed our fish.
I will not weep. My pain and fear are banished.
This is my last lamentation, my last wish:
Let my people’s famine become our Eucharist.
The Agricultural Report
Dear Banana, my son loves you green,
Unripe and slightly tough, or he won’t eat
A bite, but you taste too sour for me.
Dear Banana, my wife loves you degraded,
Bruised and black, but I think you’re tainted
With botulism. I taste death and danger.
Dear Banana, my family, my beloved bunch, can be such strangers.
Saturday Night Fever
Most folks remember the film for the florid dancing scenes,
John Travolta’s white suit, and the Bee Gees’ harmonies.
My young students think it is a musical comedy
Because the soundtrack resonates with old school disco.
But what about the rage, suicide, rape, and loss of hope?
The film teaches us that Americans become heroes
Only when they faithlessly escape their ancestral homes.
After Building the Lego Star Wars Ultimate Death Star
How many planets do you want to destroy?
Don’t worry, Daddy, this is just a big toy,
And there is nothing more fun than making noise.
My sons, when I was a boy, I threw dirt clods
And snow grenades stuffed with hidden rocks, and fought
Enemies—other Indian boys—who thought,
Like me, that joyful war turned us into gods.
Pow Wow Wow
Who’s the drum group? Northern Cree! Those rock star
Indians wear cowboy hats. Who’s that old man
Dancer? That’s Everybody’s Uncle! His scars
Have secret names. Damn, there are more RVs
Than teepees. Damn, there are so many white
Folks, but that ain’t wrong. We’ll let them dance,
Intertribally, to every seventh song.
Sherman Alexie 2008
A Fibonacci Sequence Poem
by SHERMAN ALEXIE
Leave his lovely wife,
And abandon his preschool kids?
He told me once, "I hate my life." So who knew? I did.
(I am vaguely Catholic, so I am prone to believe that any confession, however casual, is a Holy Confession. Isn't every secret a sacred possession? Shouldn't I honor any intimacy with my silence? Or am I just defending my friend? But, damn, what kind of man leaves his family without kissing them good-bye? And what's more, he left them not for another woman or man, but for a studio apartment with a big-screen TV. Should I feel guilty for remaining friends with this bastard? Do I become a liar whenever I conceal the lies of another man, no matter how much I love him like a brother?)
X said. She
Waited for fifty-
Six minutes then sent X this text:
"I love your forgetful ass, but we'll never have sex."
(There was a time, twenty-one years ago, when X romantically loved her—when he drunkenly waded through a shallow pond in his haste to get to her. He could have walked around the water, but that would have involved a deviation from a direct line. He pursued her like this despite the fact that she was—and is—a lesbian. Romance has always been an impossibility. And yet, these days, whenever she flirts, he remembers exactly what it felt like to want her so much—to dream of kissing her beneath a streetlight while unkissed strangers wander past them.)
For rape and car theft
Before a new DNA test
Exonerated him. He says, "Freedom hurts my chest."
(The prosecuting attorney still believes the right man was convicted. "I have no doubts, none at all," the attorney said to a documentary crew. "And I will go to my grave knowing that a guilty man has been set free." The case depended on eyewitness testimony. The rape victim, an eight-year-old girl, first told police that she was attacked by a man who looked like her neighbor. After hours of questioning and coaching, she changed her statement and swore that it was "actually" her neighbor who raped her. Another witness, a different neighbor, swore that he saw the accused man steal a car. The witness was allowed to make this claim despite the fact that he was extremely nearsighted, it was nighttime, and the suspect was sixty feet away. The nearsighted man swore that he recognized his neighbor's "eccentric gait." The jury took only three hours to deliver a guilty verdict, and the judge sentenced the accused to seventy years. But all of them were wrong. They convicted an innocent man. Does that make them liars? Must one purposefully lie in order to be called a liar? Or can a mistake—an accidental misidentification—also be a form of lying? And whom do we become when we are confronted with the truth—with a direct refutation of our closely held beliefs—but still refuse to admit to our wrongs? During a press conference the day after his release from prison, the innocent man swore that he held no grudge. He said he just wanted to get down and kiss the ground, though the ground remained unkissed. He said he forgave everybody and that he wished all of them his best. But he kept repeating—said it three or four times—that freedom was hurting—was killing—his chest.)
Passed by my
Desk. I wanted her;
She wanted me. We never kissed.
Twenty years later, I still dream about what I missed.
(She loves her husband and sons; I love my wife and daughters. Neither of us wants to change our lives. I don't want to kiss her now, except, I suppose, in my fantasies. But I am still curious about all the reasons why we never acted on our passions. Why didn't we ever take that first step toward removing our clothes? Were we afraid? Were we in denial? Perhaps we just didn't want it enough. Or is there a larger question? Do all of us become liars when we don't kiss those people who make us tremble and who tremble for us?)
Shouted to the sky
Then madly climbed into his ride
And promised us that he'd only drink a few. He lied.
(My father only talked about broken treaties when he was drinking. He died six years ago of alcohol-related kidney failure. But I was not at his bedside. I'd never promised him that I would help him die, so, technically speaking, I didn't lie, but whenever I talk to my mother about my father's death, I have to avert my eyes. I also had to avert my eyes when I first saw my father—no, my father's body—lying in the coffin. My sisters—twins—leaned over to kiss my father, but I could only imagine the coldness, the taste of absence, so I did not kiss him. I only held his hand, and only for a moment, before I fled back to my chair in the front row, where I grieved alone and yet so publicly.)
Sherman Alexie won a Stranger Genius Award in 2008.
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby in the basement bar
Of the Seelbach Hotel. A few years later, he traveled
First class to Hollywood and let them mutilate his soul.
The great Scott died drunk, penniless, writing-blocked, and alone.
Only after his death did Fitzgerald become a star,
As English Literature professors sought to unravel
The Great Gatsby’s tapestries. The slim novel has sold
One hundred million copies since Fitzgerald turned to bone
and is widely regarded as The Great American Novel. I love the book, but I didn’t know that Fitzgerald wrote it at the Seelbach until the night I checked into my room in Louisville, Kentucky, and read it in The Luxury Hotel Guide to Famous Alcoholic Writers. I was at the Seelbach to give a keynote speech for an American Literature conference. I spend a lot of time in hotel rooms preparing to give keynote speeches. It’s my job. My speech was scheduled for eight the next morning---The Breakfast Club for Adjunct Professors---so I went to bed early, around eleven, but
At three or four in the morning, I heard Fitzgerald’s ghost
Drunkenly stumble and mumble down the sixth-floor hallway.
“First you take a drink,” the ghost said. “Then the drink takes a drink,
Then the drink takes you.” I heard Scott’s cocktail glass clink
Against his wedding ring. I heard him toss his tweed raincoat
To the floor. Then he knocked on my door. I said, “Go away,
You bitter fuck.” Goddamn, I hate the sweet and sour stink
Of alcoholics. I hate how those damp bastards can shrink
Like mice---no, like rats---and squeeze through the smallest holes
In our walls. “Go away,” I said to Scott. “Go back to your grave.”
But the ghost slipped under my door, smiled, threw me a wink,
And shambled into my bathroom and threw up in the sink,
a disgusting and hilarious act that made me wonder if this ghost was actually my father’s ghost hiding behind a mask that made him look like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ghost. Can ghosts be that convoluted? I would guess that the haunter is only as complicated as the haunted. And things did become more complicated when Fitzgerald’s ghost squeezed some of my toothpaste onto his pointer, and finger-brushed the vomit taste and smell out of his mouth, and staggered back into the living space and sat beside me on the bed. I wondered if Fitzgerald’s ghost was going to make a pass at me. I searched my literary memory for any reference of Fitzgeraldian homosexuality. Well, I think it’s safe to assume that Nick Carraway, the narrator of The Great Gatsby, certainly enjoyed a Platonic and homoerotic crush on Jay Gatsby, so perhaps Fitzgerald had enjoyed a few homoerotic crushes of his own. Maybe Fitzgerald and/or his ghost had a homoerotic crush on me. Wow, I was flattered that the great writer had risen from the grave to rattle his chains in my bed. Or maybe he was just drunk. I remembered a Fitzgerald quote: “Often people display a curious respect for a man drunk, rather like the respect of simple races for the insane.” Was I that simple? Was I in awe? Shouldn’t I have chased that drunken ghost out of my room or perhaps run screaming in terror down the hallway and into the elevator? Or wait, perhaps one should use the stairs in event of a haunting. In any case, I neither booted Fitzgerald nor made my own escape. Instead, I wondered how a man is supposed to make love to a man, and I doubly wondered how a man is supposed to make love to a ghost, and then I laughed and awoke
From my Gatsbian dream. “How strange! How lovely! How funny!”
I thought, but soon recalled Fitzgerald’s advice to “Cut out
All those exclamation points. An exclamation point
Is like laughing at your own joke.” Well, fuck that noise!
I am a funny writer! I get paid tons of money
For my jokes! But more than that, I write gorgeous poems about
Chocolate cream pies in the eyes! And wicked kicks to the groin!
I write villanelles that celebrate the counterfeit coins
Nailed to wooden floors! And the fake wasps trapped in honey
Cubes! I once gave a stuffed parrot and eye patch to my gout-
Stricken brother---a limping Captain Kidd---and he enjoyed
The prank so much that his funny bone fell out of joint!
O, his humerus was so humorous! It was punny!
Ah, I wrote a poem about the joy of laughing out loud
While having sex! There’s no need to be serious or coy
When one is engaged in that dampest and deepest of joys,
in that most revealing (and concealing) of acts! God, I love to fuck just as much as I love to write poems! Hooray! Hooray! Hooray! Hooray! And I hope my readers are celebrating my hilarity (and pornography), because I also need to tell you something sad and serious. After I woke from my dream about Gatsby’s ghost, I sat at my hotel room desk, and I wrote most of the poem you are now reading. And after falling back asleep for a few hours, and being startled into the world by an alarm clock playing Donna Summer’s “Bad Girls,” I ate a room service breakfast of biscuits and gravy---a subject that deserves one thousand heroic couplets---and walked downstairs to give my keynote speech. As usual, I improvised my talk, because that feels more genuine, more relevant to the moment, and more tribally influenced. When I improvise, I feel like I’m standing around a campfire. Which campfire? Any and all of them! So, yes, I told my story about Gatsby and his ghost to the gathered professors of American Literature. I told dick jokes! I told vagina jokes! I insulted Democrats, Republicans, vegetarians, vegans, Indians, and white people! I made fun of my enormous skull, my fat stomach, and my bowlegs! Over and over, I said, “I have so many weaknesses! I am fragile and finite!” I told them that Jay Gatsby---James Gatz---was the first Native American, even if he was actually a German Jew from North Dakota. Yes, Fitzgerald had written the first Native American novel, and in creating a character who believed in the “green light, the orgiastic future that year after year recedes ... ,” Fitzgerald had given me the vocabulary to describe my own Native American identity. Oh, yes, I am the genocided Indian who is also the dream-filled refugee! I am indigenous to the land but an immigrant into the country! Oh, yes, I am the ironic indigenous immigrant! Yes, I told the room filled with the tenured, soon-to-be-tenured, desperate-to-be tenured, and never-to-be tenured
That, damn, I was full of various kinds of shit and gas,
But that I was desperately trying to convey hope
In our futures, even as I knew that we were “boats
Against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past,”
and you better believe that I improvised and used the final and powerful sentence of The Great Gatsby as my final sentence. Hell, I didn’t consciously know that I was going to use it. As I rattled my way to the end of my speech, Fitzgerald’s tragic wisdom just spilled out of my mouth. I realized that Indians are now and will always be walking backwards. We will always be contrary. In my mind’s HDTV, I saw two million Indians walking together, with their big faces pointed toward the past and their flat asses pointed toward the future, and I laughed. It was sadly humorous! Or humorously sad! And what is humor anyway? Victor Borge said, “Humor is something that thrives between man’s aspirations and his limitations.” Mel Brooks said, “Humor is just another defense against the universe.” Golda Meir said, “Those who do not know how to weep with their whole heart don’t know how to laugh either.” Jesus, I gave my heart and soul---and all of the humor in my bones---to that keynote
And, yes, once again, I was paid a shitload of money,
But I tried to create passionate and hilarious art,
So all I could do is weep when I read the comment card
That fatally declared that, “All Alexie was, was funny.”
Well, that comma between the “was” and “was” was comedy,
But it also conveyed an insult that I can’t ignore.
It implied that I’m mediocre---that I’m a laugh whore.
The bastard declared that, “All Alexie was, was funny,”
As if delivering a punch line was somehow easy.
Jesus, that comment card made me feel naked and raw,
And illuminated all of my open wounds and scars.
The asshole declared that, “All Alexie was, was funny,”
And I drowned in a tsunami of insecurity.
I wanted to go find that pretentious professor and choke
Him into unconsciousness with a book of dirty jokes.
The fucker declared that, “All Alexie was, was funny,”
And I turned that little note into a tragedy.
But, no, that won’t make me quit. I’ll still resist convention;
Yes, I will disprove the professorial contention
That a serious man is not supposed to be funny.
Here I Am
I am deep in memorizing and rehearsing my one woman show.
I have to get it to the level muscle memory.
I will be deep in show until it opens on March 12th.
Then I'll be doing five shows a week
at the Wells Fargo Theater at the Autry Museum in Griffith Park in LA.
I am more challenged than I have ever been in my life.
I am learning focus and belief.
As I move through the script, a one woman show I wrote:
Wings of Night Sky, Wings of Morning Light, as an actor,
I can see more than ever how these stories we bring into the world
are not just us. The writer is the catcher, the caretaker.
Most of what happens during creativity is below
and way above the surface. We are not the sole author, of anything.
I remain in awe of the process.
The story is a being.
An actor becomes the story,
along with the production crew, the stage and the audience
as well as the atmosphere of each performance.
And in this story the actor will also play saxophone and sing,
with Larry Mitchell on guitar and effects.
Exciting, and absolutely terrifying!
Joy Harjo February 2009
Wednesday, February 25, 2009
A Trinity Riddle
by Carter Revard
I spread, descending, a samite of stars.
White fingers bring me for breakfast Mont Blanc,
and I develop on earth's negative
the prints proving a presence absent.
Rainbow-dancing, my restless soft-self
teaches the sun at his summer turn to
reprise in dawn-prisms the light-praise of plants,
or stars in winter the still song-homes
with brittle jewels dropped bright from darkness,
or shifts my shape to a shimmering self-trap.
NOW Speak, if you spy it, the spECIal name
I bear in spring when I baRE TAWdry alleys
to wear till dawn night-diamonds, till dusk the jewel of time.
Copyright © Carter Revard, 1992.
First published in Cowboys and Indians, Christmas Shopping.
Reprinted by permission.
Cape by Helen Smoker Martin
What the Eagle Fan Says
A poem by Carter Revard
I strung dazzling thrones
of thunder beings
on a spiraling thread
of spinning flight,
beading dawn's blood
and blue of noon
to the gold and dark
of day's leaving,
circling with sun
the soaring heaven
over turquoise eyes
of Earth below
her silver veins,
her sable fur,
heard human relatives
calling me down,
crying their need
that I bring them closer
to Wakonda's ways,
and I turned from heaven
to help them then.
When the bullet came
it caught my heart,
the hunter's hands
gave Earth its blood,
loosened light beings,
and let us float
toward the sacred center
of song in the drum,
but fixed us first
firm in tree-heart
that green knife-dancers
gave to men's knives,
ash-heart in hiding where
a deer's heart had beat,
and a one-eyed serpent
with silver-straight head
strung tiny rattles
around white softness
in beaded harmonies
of blue and red --
now I move lightly
in a man's left hand,
above dancing feet
follow the sun
around old songs
soaring toward heaven
on human breath
and I help them rise.
This poem offers thanks for the honor of being given eagle feathers which were then set into a beaded fan. It tells how the eagle in flight pierces clouds just as a beadworker's needle goes through bead or buckskin, spiraling round sky or fan-handle -- and how the eagle flies from dawn to sunset, linking day and night colors as they are linked on a Gourd Dancer's blanket (half crimson, half blue), and as they are linked in the beading of the fan's handle. The poem's form is the alliterative meter used by the Anglo-Saxon tribes, and its mode is the Anglo-Saxon 'riddle,' in which mysterious names are given to ordinary things: here trees are green light-dancers, wood is tree-heart or ash-heart, clouds are thrones of thunder-beings. I hope the one-eyed serpent will find its name in the reader's memory.
Carter Revard is an Osage Indian, Rhodes scholar, and professor of medieval English literature.
Skins as Old Testament
Wonder who first slid in
to use another creature’s skin
for staying warm – blood–smeared
heresy almost, Hunter becoming
Deer, Shepherd the Lamb as in flamelit
Dordogne caves or dim cathedrals –
crawling inside the deer’s
still–vivid presence there
to take their lives from what had moved
within, to eat delicious life
then spread its likeness over a sleeping
and breathing self, musk–wrapped
inside the wind,
the sleet –
to roll up in a seal–skin self beneath
a mammoth heaven
on which the sleet would rap and tap,
to feel both feet
grow warm even on ice
or in the snow – hand–chalicing
new tallow flame as spirit
of passing life
and every time a tingling
revelation when the life
came back into a freezing hand or foot
after the fur embraced its flesh, still deeper
when human bodies coupling in
a bear’s dark fur
found winter’s warmth and then
within the woman
Hashi mi Mali
Each morning, Hashi, the stark red creator rises,
she passes over the ground,
spilling a drop or two of her blood
which grows the corn and the people.
Okla are we.
Naked, she goes down on us,
her flaming hair burns us brown.
Finally in the month of Tek Inhashi,
the Sun of Women,
when we are navel deep in red sumac,
we cut the leaves and smoke to her success.
Sing her praises.
Hashi won't forget.
When Ohoyo Ikbi pulled
freshly made Chanta Okla
our of her red thighs,
we were very wet, so
she stacked us
on the mound,
and Hashi kissed our
bodies with her morning lips
and painted out faces with afternoon fire;
and in the month of Hash Hoponi,
the Sun of Cooking,
we were made.
It is said that
once-a-month warriors can kill a thing with a spit.
So when the soldiers came
our mothers stood on top of the
ramparts and made the Taska call,
urging their men on.
Whirling their tongues and hatchets in rhythm,
they pulled red water and fire from their bodies
and covered their chests
with bullet-proof blood.
When it was over, they made a fire bed
on the prairie that blew across the people
like a storm;
melded our souls with iron.
And in the month of Hash Mali,
the Sun of Wind,
we listened for the voices
that still urge us on
When we leave our body
the sound is so potent
it cracks open the stars
and our momentum ricochets around.
Then the fichik heli, streams of radiance
shoot across the darkness
and we speed up motion.
Our mind is space unbounded.
Everywhere we are, everything is.
Time becomes a deep breath,
a pause in the telling
as rivers of ash collide with memory.
And for us nothing will ever be over
and done with.
We circle the heavens.
Then one day we create something unexpected.
A pulse, a hot flash;
and it flows through the veins of space.
and tiny beads of perspiration
form on the brow of heaven
We are hot, we say!
Soon we spasm in a spiral of passion,
mounting and arching, expanding and contracting,
we expel volumes of water
the size of blue green oceans.
We are born.
**IT in the title stands for Indian Territory.
The Indian Sports Mascot Meets the Noble Savage
INDIAN MASCOT: I think of us always as a couple.
NOBLE SAVAGE: Have we ever been together? Are we ever
going to be?
INDIAN MASCOT: But here we are. You with a bow and arrow
And me with a headdress.
NOBLE SAVAGE: We've never been together.
INDIAN MASCOT: Do you ever dream of us?
NOBLE SAVAGE: No.
INDIAN MASCOT: I do. And when I do, you look just like me.
LeAnne Howe.......from Evidence of Red
Half-breeds live on the edge of both races. You feel like you're split down the middle. Your right arm wants to unbutton your shirt while your left arm is trying to keep your shirt on. You're torn between wanting to kill everyone in the room, or buying 'em all a round of drinks. Our erratic behavior is often explained away by friends and family as "trying to be." If you're around Indians, you're trying to be white. If you're around white friends, you're trying to be Indian. Sometimes I feel like the blood in my veins is a deadly mixture of Rh positive and Rh negative and every cell in my body is on a slow nuclear melt-down.
- "An American in New York"
LeAnne Howe, an enrolled member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, was born on April 29, 1951. She was raised in Oklahoma City, and educated in Oklahoma as well. In addition to being an American Indian author, she is a scholar, and she has read her fiction and lectured throughout the United States, Japan, and the Middle East.
As an American Indian scholar, she has presented programs on recruitment and retention of American Indian students at higher education institutions. She is currently teaching at colleges and universities around the country, and she is finishing a novel.
Howe has led an extraordinary professional and academic career. From 1977 to 1989, Howe worked as a newspaper journalist, Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex. In 1984, she worked for four years on Wall Street in Institutional Sales, selling and trading government bonds. She worked the two professions at the same time. During the day, she sold bonds, and at night, she wrote for the Dallas Morning News. Over the course of the next 8 years, Howe's career shifted towards the academic world, and she began teaching, lecturing, and developing courses in Native American studies at the University of Iowa and Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota.
Her numerous publications range from short fiction anthologies to literary journals, and her work has included theater, films, and radio. In a span of ten years, Howe has been involved in five theater productions, with one radio production entitled "Indian Radio Days" in 1993. Howe wrote and directed this production, which was broadcast on American Public Radio stations throughout the Midwest, and uplinked via satellite to Alaska Public Radio stations on Columbus Day.
Her work has been anthologized in several collections of short fiction. "Moccasins Don't Have High Heels" appears in both Native American Literature, edited by Gerald Vizenor, and American Indian Literature, edited by Alan Velie. "Danse de L'amour, Danse de Mort" appears in Earth Song, Sky Spirit: An Anthology of Native American Writers, edited by Clifford Trafzer. Another short fiction piece titled "Indians Never Say Goodbye" appears in Reinventing the Enemy's Language, edited by Joy Harjo.
Howe's 2001 book, Shell Shaker, received the American Book Award for 2002 from the Before Columbus Foundation. She is currently on tour promoting her most recent book, Miko Kings: An Indian Baseball Story.
Painting by Anita Endrezze
Song for the Shell Shaker
For LeAnne Howe
The stones in the hills outside Durant
are silent this evening,
But so are those
in the river near Nanih Waiya.
Tonight, even the wind is weary.
It's worn shoes press against the limbs of the cedars,
A wounded body
on a secret mattress.
the wind stopped
Believing in God long ago, or maybe
It was just yesterday, or
The moment before this poem.
Maybe it was the day when something passed
between the woman
And the words she spoke,
A private understanding,
like the silent nods of the blind,
Or an absence that blows
through the winds themselves.
Or maybe, it was when the wind rose from its black bed,
Pushing the river rocks
toward their memory of ocean
And the stones in the hills
toward their premonitions of river--
Turning within as the spheres might turn,
a music of sediment drums
and sticks of water--
To a place on the other side of the mounds
Where you stand,
Painting by Howard Terpning
Evidence of Red
First, night opened out.
Bodies took root from rotting salt
and seawater into evidence of red life.
Relentless waves pumped tidal air
into a single heartbeat.
In the pulp of shadow and space,
water sucked our people from sleep.
That’s how it all began. At least
that’s all we can remember to tell.
It began with water and heartbeat.
In minutes we tunneled through
corn woman’s navel into tinges
of moist red men and women.
Yawning, we collected our chins,
knees, breasts, and sure–footed determination.
A few thousand years before
Moses parted the Red Sea, and the
God with three heads was born in the Middle East,
the Choctaw people danced
our homeland infra red.
Finally when the stranger’s arms
reached to strangle the West,
on the three–faced deity
who said that chaos was coming.
When he turned his lips and tried to kiss her
she made it rain on him.
“Maybe you’ve forgotten
you were born of water and women,”
she said, walking away laughing.
A pregnant woman painting
by Alexia Lound
If she craves clay or chalk, or coal, she should be given
cooked beans with sugar.--- Tortula
She drove the Honey-bun delivery van
well into her ninth month.
What she wanted to get hot off the rack;
coffee cakes, cake doughnuts, sweet rolls.
That cake, she says, brought my grandmother's
house right into my mouth. Yellow, yellow
as a kitchen in the fifties.
Her eyes glaze.
No one could stop her from dunking for comfort
as she drove.
Her tiny frame took the weight
in sweet elastic rolls.
Dough, she sighs, egg-dough--
that's what I made my girl of.
Water calls them to the edge
to watch the wash and smell how
earth gives in, suffuses, makes them flare
at damp spring scent from underground.
Dry horses can follow their noses miles and miles
to what they need.
It's that old instinct asserted early in pregnancy;
see them down by the lake,
women walking by the marshy margin of the bed;
hungry women with one appetite,
women up early
to bend and touch mud to their tongues,
women out to eat the world.
Heid E. Erdrich.......from The Mother's Tongue
Sparrows up the column of the maple
make a god awful racket first thing,
first light, ever since April.
The little twerps are easy to read:
I need, I need!.
The adults, hysteric with lusty pride
simply shriek and shriek without message.
They wake the newly pregnant woman,
who can't at first identify her feelings,
but remembers another dawn, an outing
by sea to watch for whales.
Who ever honestly expects to see creatures
so ancient, so huge?
Now she rides the same unexpected waves
of sickness in unstoppable rhythm, in swells
that tossed her hanging wretched at the rail.
No one else saw the great humpback whale
who eyed her, alone there
at the back of the boat.
The birds persistant racket, the jets at take off,
sound to her ill brain like doom.
She blocks it all,
hangs on her emblem of relief;
the rolling water,
the great being revealed, real,
watching her from the deep.
Heid E. Erdrich.........from The Mother's Tongue
Tuesday, February 24, 2009
The Red Toad
One morning in a girl's bed,
a red toad, a lump, hopped
right into her lap.
She felt sorry for it--
helpless, bubbly, ugly,
yet hinting of transformation.
She's no fool,
she senses the myths
at work in the life.
She puts the creature to her breast.
In a while it smiles up at her--
then she is caught,
she feels a catch;
the red lump latched in her chest.
She knows what it is they won't tell us,
how we are born women without hearts,
born only the body
that will go on making other bodies
until blood and muscle
become spirit within it.
And we too must trust transformation,
know it is our only story--
we are sea fissures that suffer change,
lava caves, vats to cast raw materials,
that cast up treasures in forms
smooth and glowing as red gold.
Heid E. Erdrich......from The Mother's Tongue
In The Belly
of my baby
I breathe rushing water,
his blue air;
and I do not even miss the land,
though sometimes we swim close enough
to see creatures very much like me.
They sin and love it,
sin and forgive and go on.
In the belly of my baby
I am born and born and born
into the world a convert
whose old way had a tang;
who wanted to walk in the dust
tagging the powder-heeled minds.
In the belly of my baby
I have escaped the old suffering,
the self no longer dogs me, her teeth
dull as knitting needles against a silver blade
even now swinging to infant need.
In the belly of my baby
I grow another stroke, a hand
as clumsy as another set of toes.
My mouth learns to paint,
and pigment tastes the same
as ink--a bit more rich and rank.
In the belly of my baby,
I am home not alone.
In the belly of my baby
I have not forgotten sin and the city,
the mission I flesh, and the purge
still to come one day and spit me out.
Heid E. Erdrich......from The Mother's Tongue
Motherhood as First Language
The mother's tongue speaks
and the realm we are returned to
with our pregnancy
and giving birth;
returned as transported visitors,
gone through the portal,
reborn we birth there,
all of these,
but not always the mystical journey;
sometimes we returned as kidnapped,
hostage in a world of children.
The mother's tongue is the language
of that realm'
our voice as both rule and guide,
heeded and non-heeded,
some sound we outselves can hardly hear,
and often voice beyond sound;
gestures and sensations,
the things at the tip of our tongues
we cannot say.
It is the language of the female body.
We laugh, my friends,
as we become "old mothers"
in our late 30's, even 40's.
Nursing babies, we bookish women,
we near spinsters, laugh
because we could not have known,
living so long in our heads,
how powerful our bodies could be,
once they had made other bodies.
Heid E. Erdrich.....from the preface to The Mother's Tongue
Painting by Anita Endrezze
Not the African bird, not the Honey Guide
who dives the honey badger,
or any human who comes near.
Not the bird who leads beasts
to the bee tree, and then begs for its share.
Not the bird calling "eat with me",
whose people, now forced from the bush,
ignore its cry in the rush of African suburbs.
No, not the bird, but the printed path,
the iris landing strip marked to show bees
right into the nectary, to drops
deep in throat-open flowers.
Not what we expected--that bees need a map.
Still our search for sweetness can go hard,
the signs often uncertain, the comb
when we find it, locked in a wax tough to crack.
Not what we always thought
that the blue flag unfurling meant to lure us
when all along the iris wanted only bees.
Not the bird, not the flower.
No mystic hint of what it is we want.
Only a line in print on furred petals.
Only the beeline.
Only what points the way to.
Heid E. Erdrich.....from The Mother Tongue
Pictured from left: Heid, Louise, and Lise
Louise, Lise and Heid Erdrich -- sisters first, writers second -- look back on their parents' hand in fostering a shared love of language.
By SARAH T. WILLIAMS, Star Tribune
Sisters curdling with hatred, envy and jealousy abound in literature: Psyche's spiteful siblings, King Lear's jockeying progeny
But literary sisters Louise, Liselotte (Lise) and Heid Erdrich -- all published authors with varying degrees of honor, praise and glory -- betray no such sentiments.
"Ribaldry, maybe, but no rivalry," said Lise, the middle sister, who loves to crack wise. "We enjoy taking salacious interest in one another's love lives and teasing about our different dysfunctions."
Even novelist Louise, with her considerable canon, inspires no envy in her sisters.
Said Heid, who has two collections of poetry and a third coming soon: "[Louise's success] just made me think that it was possible to write, that it wouldn't be a crazy or silly thing to do, that it would be something that might be taken seriously."
Said Lise, whose short stories have been widely anthologized and whose first collection is just out: "They [Louise and Heid] have taken all the pressure off me so that I can continue to be a slacker and a goofball."
How did three gifted literary writers come from the same family?
"A genetic tic," said Lise.
But push the sisters to reflect on this question, and a moving, uncommon portrait of American family life emerges.
The sisters were born to Rita and Ralph Erdrich and raised in Wahpeton, N.D. Both parents, now in their 80s, were boarding-school teachers for the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe. (Dad is German, mom Ojibwe.)
To hear the parents tell it, the Erdrich children seemed to absorb knowledge while their backs were turned, like those ferns that live on air. "They were all self-motivated," Ralph said. "There really was no 'strategy,'" Rita said. But the sisters remember their parents' clever hand in fostering reading, writing and language skills.
Rita designed flashcards and affixed them to objects in the house: "couch," "television," "refrigerator" -- even one for her friend "Bernice." With her Pfaff sewing machine, she made colorful zig-zag bindings on folded pieces of paper, "books" that the children would write in and illustrate. She still has one, Rita said, written by Heid:
"Horses and dogs are the best and loveleyest in all the world," it begins, with a dedication to her friend Carla Sims. ("Hmm ... already she knew she should dedicate," Rita said.)
A nickel a poem
Besides Louise, 53, of Minneapolis; Lise, 46, of Wahpeton, and Heid, 44, of Minneapolis, the couple have four other children: Mark, of San Diego, a pharmacist; Louis, of Bemidji, an Indian Health Service engineer, woodworker, winemaker and beer brewer; Ralph David, of Sisseton, S.D., an Indian Health Service nurse manager, and Angie, also of Sisseton, an Indian Health Service pediatrician. Louise is the oldest, Angie the youngest.
With seven mouths to feed, Rita and Ralph did not have many books in the house, but they took their children on frequent trips to the library. And the few odd books that were at home made a deep imprint. There were botanicals, copies of "Animal Farm," "Marjorie Morningstar" and, perhaps most important, "A Narrative of the Captivity and Adventures of John Tanner" (who lived among the Ojibwe from age 10, beginning in 1790), which the children mined for evidence of their Ojibwe forebears.
Ralph committed to memory and recited to his children the poems of Robert Frost, Robert W. Service, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Alfred Lord Tennyson. He'd pay the kids a nickel for each poem they memorized. "He just gave me a roll of nickels last summer," said Louise, "all buffalo heads." He apparently thought he was in arrears, she said.
Both parents were precise namers of things. On their outdoor excursions, the children learned to distinguish the birds (bluebirds, tree swallows, nighthawks, blue jays, woodpeckers and finches), plants (juneberries, chokecherries, wild asparagus, wild plums), mushrooms (elm caps, inky caps, shaggy manes) and the endless variety of apples cultivated on the nearby Wodarz farm (Haralson, Duchess, Prairie Spy, Chestnut Crab, Rome, Lodi, McIntosh, Cortland, Wealthy).
In doing this, said Louise, "my parents gave us an appreciation for the richness of the language, especially in relation to the natural world."
With two teachers as parents, a high value was placed on education.
The three writer sisters hold a total of at least eight higher-education degrees: Louise from Dartmouth and Moorhead State (English and creative writing), Lise from the University of North Dakota and Mankato State (linguistics, community health and chemical-dependency counseling) and Heid from Dartmouth and Johns Hopkins (English and native studies). Loans, wages, scholarships and help from Mom and Dad got them through.
The education of the Erdrich children continued after they left home, in the form of letters from Mom and Dad. Rita's letters were newsy, full of recipes and "fun and practical advice," said Louise. Ralph's were witty, anecdotal and intelligent. To Louise at Dartmouth, he wrote:
Your mother is making every sort of apple concoction known to man with the eleven tons of apples I harvested. She finds time for all of this because you left clothes behind. She only has to slightly alter those duds for your sister Lise who is rapidly becoming the best dressed eighth grader of all time as she inherits your ex wardrobe. Our house is steeped in apple juice and attracts half a million bees from all parts of the county. The insides of our compost cans have the fattest ants in all of entomological history. These critters have achieved their corpulent state as the result of the presence of apple crap -- peelings and such -- which comes from the extra time Mom has -- which she got because she sews less -- which is because Lise gets your duds. See how your going to college has upset the balance of nature?
Magnum est vectigal parsimonia. [Thrift is a great revenue.]
And again to Louise, when she was studying in London in 1976:
We did appreciate the description of the death-obsessed poets in London. Stay away from them. Have you ever read the entire unexpurgated "Song of Hiawatha"? Longfellow employs eight-syllable trochaic verse. Before television, radio, and movies, before the telegraph, telephones, and the Battle of Little Big Horn, Hiawatha was a smash. Every literate and semi-literate on the face of the earth knew Hiawatha. These were the days to have been a poet. Longfellow became wealthy. Imagine that! A wealthy poet! When you mail things from London, use commemorative stamps, why don't you?
Magnum est vectigal parsimonia.
The sisters' maternal grandfather, Patrick Gourneau, a truck farmer and council member for the Turtle Mountain Band, also encouraged a love of language. Lise remembers that he always carried a notebook and pen in his shirt pocket and that he would record any intriguing word, encounter or occurrence. When she was teaching herself Ojibwe, Lise found that she had acquired a sizable vocabulary but lacked a way of putting sentences together. She'd send practice tapes to her grandfather, who in turn would offer suggestions and corrections. She was just 10 years old.
"He was overjoyed that I wanted to learn Ojibwe," she said.
With these familial gifts, both artistic and spiritual, the three sisters have moved ahead, through tragedies and successes. Today they have rich, full lives, as do their siblings.
Louise has just finished a new novel, "The Plague of Doves" (her 12th for adults), to be published in April. Her four daughters are doing well: One is showing promise as a writer in Hollywood, another is working at Birchbark Books (the Minneapolis bookshop owned by Louise) and two others are in school.
Louise admires Lise's "wildly marvelous" stories and Heid's "fierce" poems. More than the writing, she treasures her sisters' friendship and support: "As the oldest, I suppose I had to make a lot of the mistakes. ... When I've gotten in over my head, they've been there."
Lise, who has four grown sons, is taking time off as a community health worker to write a "geographical memoir" with the help of a grant from the St. Paul-based Bush Foundation. She feeds her sons, her sons' friends and their friends casseroles and souffles that are as inventive as her prose. The only rule in the house: "Don't take the Tater Tots off the top."
She's pleased to be getting her short stories published, but she's not looking forward to the attention. She deflects all praise: "Heid was kind enough to call me a 'savant' once, but she left off the word 'idiot.'" She's happy, very happy, that when she Googles herself now, the search engine no longer asks, "Did you mean: Louise Erdrich?"
Heid, who has two young children, has left her post as an English professor at the University of St. Thomas and is curating art shows at Ancient Traders Gallery in Minneapolis. Her new book of poems, "National Monuments," is inspired by a question: Why is it all right, in the Western world, to display the bones of indigenous peoples? She admits to tiny moments of exasperation with her hard-to-organize sisters.
"We are all bears," she said, "but I am the snuffly brown kind who will come out of hibernation for peanuts. Louise is a wild black Makwa who shies away from humans and who has not tasted garbage. Lise is a flat-out grizzly who guards her young and can take down prey with one swift swipe of her mighty paw.
"We'll never not be sisters. We have a beautiful, shared history."
Sarah T. Williams is the Star Tribune books editor.