Adrian C. Louis interview, with John Hoppenthaler
The bio that you provided to accompany your poems begins in a way that might be seen as provocative; that is, to label yourself as “a half-breed Indian,” considering the cultural manifestations that such a label (widely considered a slur) might summon (from Injun Joe in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer to the Sonny and Cher song and beyond), such a choice, on your part, must be considered both political and an intentional way of positioning your poems within a wider poetic landscape. Or am I reading too much into this?
Injun Joe and Sonny and Cher… Yikes. I am a half-breed Indian. I am half Indian, but I’m an enrolled member of a federally recognized Indian tribe. Yes, half-breed is a term that offends certain people. It is a term that made me feel a certain amount of shame growing up. But I’ve come to accept the term, maybe embrace it to a certain degree. I am what I am. And, I might add, I’ve never viewed myself as any sort of spokesman for American Indians, for my tribe, for my relatives, or for poetry. There are plenty of other writers doing that.
Louis, I was intrigued by copy you, presumably, wrote on the web page for a volume you’ve edited, Shedding Skins: Four Sioux Poets (Michigan State UP, 2008). The copy states, “Here's the myth: Native Americans are people of great spiritual depth, in touch with the rhythms of the earth, rhythms that they celebrate through drumming and dancing. They love the great outdoors and are completely in tune with the natural world. They can predict the weather by glancing at the sky, or hearing a crow cry, or somehow. Who knows exactly how? The point of the myth is that Indians are, well, special. Different from white people, but in a good way.” How does your own poetry contend with this myth? Does the myth somehow hinder Native Americans in the way the myth of the American dream might arguably mislead the naïve via fantasy?
Hah! I did not write that copy. It was probably written by some underling savant at the Michigan State UP. When I first read it, it struck me as slightly goofy. Then I saw a YouTube video by Trevino Brings Plenty pimping Shedding Skins. In that video he read the same copy and the way he read it struck me as incredibly funny. I chortled into my wine glass. So, I can’t say exactly how my own poetry contends with the myth espoused in a text written by someone I do not know. I think the writer of the text was trying to say most Americans do not have the foggiest notion of what American Indians are. Many Americans have a romantic perception of Indians based on Hollywood, etc. etc. Maybe that’s what the writer of the copy was trying to get at. Kind of making fun of the New-Age co-opting of Indian culture. Robert Bly drumming in the woods…the Indian as archetype…Johnny Depp as Tonto.
I think that it’s fair to say that whites associate Native American culture with the tradition of story-telling. Perhaps this is part of the myth, I don’t know, but your own poetry tends toward free verse narrative or prose poems. This seems true of the poems of many Native American poets I admire. How do you think that current period-style poetics that have tended to privilege experimental stylizing and a more actively-engaged reader function (that is, a poetics that requires readers to assemble their own narratives from scattered shards of meaning) have affected (if at all) the poetic practices of younger (or older) Native American poets?
I don’t see myself as much of a “story-teller” although I guess that is what I do in one form or another. I see myself as a writer, a poet primarily, and you’re right. I deal primarily in narrative, somewhat confessional poetry. Much current period-style poetics, as you say, does privilege experimental stylizing. Without getting into an egg-headed discussion of poetics (which bores me) I will say that I prefer democratic vistas with all their ills as opposed to the inherent elitism of something like avant-garde poetry or even language poetry. Generally, language poetry lacks soul and heart and therefore is incapable of true vision. That’s my opinion, but I come from a different century. And I’m babbling, but yes, there are some younger Indian poets who have language poetry tendencies. I don’t get it. I have no idea who they’re writing for except maybe some professor who brain-washed or maybe corn-holed them at one time.
Martín Espada has written of your work that “the damned have no more eloquent voice.” Indeed, as I read through the three poems that represent your poetry in this edition of the Congeries, I’m struck by how the work zeroes in on the cultural and political sickness that defines our lives in 2012. “Cataclysmic Razzamatazz” begins with a sobering litany: Hurricanes. / Tsunamis. / Earthquakes. / Random blizzards / of crazed gunmen or GOP God-lies.” The movement is from natural catastrophes with which we can only contend, not which we can prevent, to “crazed gunmen or GOP God-lies,” manifestations that we can presumably prevent. In the syntactical construction, the GOP lies and the crazed gunman are given equal weight, suggesting that they are akin to one another. The poem ends in a moment of alienation and disenfranchisement that seems to echo the way many of us feel in today’s U.S.A. “Smoke ‘em If You Got ‘em” begins in the noxious corporate winds of Monsanto and ends in “a bar filled with veterans, / some dead, some working on it.” And the final poem, “Toxicity,” begins in impoverished ennui and closes with an ironic identification of “the sad, fucking flux of it all.” I certainly find that you temper what some might see as finger-wagging victimization with moments of implication; for instance, one chooses to seek “escape” in alcoholism or Facebook instead of pursuing an actively militant/political engagement against what’s wrong with this country. There’s a question in here somewhere, and I suppose it has to do with the role of someone who writes “political” poetry. To be the voice of the “damned” is one thing, but to be a poet who might seek to bring about political change and “save” the damned is quite another. How do you see your role as a poet, generally, and as a poet whose work seeks to put forth into public record facts about the life of Native Americans specifically?
This question is slightly crazed! I’m not quite sure what Espada meant when he wrote that, but I think it was written a long time ago. It makes me sound like I exist in one of the darker outposts of Hell. Hmm, ok, maybe I do understand what he meant. Anyway, I suppose on one level, much of the poetry I write could be construed as “political.” However, anymore I don’t think I write poems as any sort of call to arms, or wake up call, or anything like that. Deep down, I believe it’s too late for that. This nation is in a late stage of disintegration…at least I am. Besides, these three poems you cite here are relatively recent so I do not know if they can be used to represent my current trend. Maybe they can, I do seem to be writing much darker stuff these days…but then I’ve always thrived in the dark.
of crazed gunmen or GOP God-lies.
The latest cataclysms make it briefly
fashionable to weep & wail for Gomorrah
in its newest name so, we do, we do in
the sanitary sanity of Facebook updates.
OMG. Now someone has posted a pic
of a grizzly bear in a creek, holding
a cell phone to its ear. Photoshop?
Maybe, but now I’m fixated
on being devoured by a grizzly.
Might be a good way to go.
I’d prefer a head bite first, fangs
(do bears have fangs?) mashing
my eyeballs up into my brain
like how I take Thanksgiving dinner,
gravy, potatoes, dressing & turkey all
swirled together & topped with cranberry sauce. The pain would
be like the time I caught a finger
in a mousetrap, so intense that for a minute
or so I shriek-danced around the room & came
to consciousness on an orchid-scented planet
where flowers sang their usual razzamatazz
while I shimmered, face down on alien dirt.
Smoke ‘Em If You Got ‘Em
for Jim Northrup
Under the bleak Monsanto
skies of the northern plains,
he staggers & sucks in
his meat & potatoes gut.
Back bent into bitter wind,
he stops, lights a smoke &
stashes the pack in the pocket
of his nylon Legion windbreaker.
It's fifteen-fucking-below out
& frozen profanities clump
upon his untrimmed beard.
He takes a deep pull, tosses
the cigarette & then melts
into a bar filled with veterans,
some dead, some working on it.
Again, I awoke to
the stench of lethargy
imposed by poverty.
While I slept, God groped
his frozen wand & spewed
snow upon the enervated
reservation of my mind.
You are six years gone
from the twenty we had.
I awoke to the toxicity
of mundane memory.
Though we lovingly tried,
we failed to morph into
anything better than
a faux Currier & Ives.
We were born poor &
always would be so.
Hungry, a blackened sky
quaffed equally the quaint
smoke from woodstove &
our failed American dream,
a burnt chestnut miasma.
One Christmas, early in
our love, we saw behind
a moribund stand of spruce,
a wino Skin looking like
a dark Barry Manilow.
He staggered, his thick tongue
slurring “Silent Night” until
he fell quickly like St. Nick
had swooped in, knocked him
to his knees & monkey-humped
him on the chin-freezing earth.
We were drunk too & laughed
at his crazed toxicity & ours
& the joyous, seasonal harmony,
the sad, fucking flux of it all.