Ambassadors of Poetry Prevail in the United States of Pandemica by Nancy Mitchell

Ambassadors of Poetry Prevail in the United States of Pandemica by Nancy Mitchell
March 25, 2021 Mitchell Nancy

In honor of National Poetry Month I interviewed five Poet Laureates: Tina Chang, Elizabeth Jacobson, Paisley Rekdal, Levi Romero and Laura Tohe. As the Inaugural Poet Laureate of Salisbury, Maryland I was eager to hear about the specifics of their appointments, their projects, how they met the challenges of fulfilling these during the Pandemic, what the impact the appointment has had on their own writing, and what the most surprising and gratifying experiences of their tenure have been thus far.

 


photo by Chris Taggart

 

Tina Chang Poet Laureate of Brooklyn, NY

 

NM:    When were you appointed and for how long is your appointment?

TC:    I was appointed in 2009 and I’ve held the appointment until present.

NM:    Is your appointment an inaugural appointment or one already established and supported by your appointee?

TC:    I am the fourth poet laureate, the first female of color to be appointed to the position. Previous Brooklyn poets laureate include Dennis Nurkse who held the position from 1996-2001 and Ken Siegelman who served from 2002-2009 when he passed away.

NM:    What are your major projects?

TC:    I have collaborated with the President Street Garden to place poetry in public gardens. I’ve also worked with The Community Word Project, to train teaching artists to serve in underrepresented communities.

With a generous poets laureate fellowship from the Academy of American Poets, made possible by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, I’ve most recently established a yearlong initiative with the Brooklyn Public Library whose mission is to ensure the preservation and transmission of knowledge, history, and culture to provide Brooklyn’s 2.6 millions residents with free and open access to education, community, and recreation. I founded a Poet-in-Residence program that offers support, funding, workspace, and artistic collaboration to a rising poet. In turn the Poet-in-Residence teaches classes, is mentored by me as they finalize a collection of poems, and spearheads a National Poetry Month event open to the Brooklyn community.

NM:    How well have you been able to meet your project goals during the pandemic?

TC:    The pandemic posed specific challenges to my project goals. Poetry is meant to be spoken out loud and, by nature, gathers readers and audiences together. Due to continued lockdown, I’ve conducted my collaborations and mentorship online. While the feeling isn’t as personally intimate as it once was, there is also the benefit of being able to collaborate with more people across the country and around the world, the convenience of solidifying and working on projects from home, and gathering audience members for events who otherwise would not be able to attend. Once the pandemic is over, I think there will be much that we learned and some approaches, methods, systems that we may hold on to. This time challenged all of us to think creatively, beyond what we once knew. I believe we all learned that art survives, no matter the circumstances.

NM:    What have been the most gratifying and surprising experiences during your appointment?

TC:    I’ve been a poet laureate for over ten years now and there have been so many heartening, beautiful experiences I’ve had. I will always remember Poets House’s annual walk across the Brooklyn Bridge at sunset to be greeted by Galway Kinnell reading “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” by Walt Whitman.  Spending a whole afternoon with the organization Still Waters in a Storm was particularly memorable. Still Waters is a one-room schoolhouse in Bushwick, Brooklyn where children ages 5-17 gather to read, write, and share their lives. They come together in solidarity, in community and each person’s story is fully heard. When I arrived, they had written my name in pastel colored chalk on the sidewalk. We spent an afternoon talking about spirits, faith, and the unknown and they approached the topic with immense maturity. When I taught them, they listened with such care and wrote as if their lives depended on it. Through them, I could feel the imagination fiercely at work.

NM:    How has your own writing changed since your appointment?

TC:    When I was appointed as the Poet Laureate of Brooklyn, it was the year I also became a mother for the first time. These two events collided quite suddenly and my world became much more expansive. I spent my days running from one event to another, sometimes with my son in tow. As he grew older, he had a deeper understanding of my role in serving the public. It was particularly notable to watch him grow year by year and each fall at the Brooklyn Book Festival, marked a year of change and advancement for the both of us. I could see in the faces and expressions of the literary community who greeted him that he was a part of something bigger. I was struck by how these worlds meshed so seamlessly. My laureate work and my experiences with my son resulted in my third collection of poetry, Hybrida. It is impossible to separate any of it.

 

Astroturf

 

Before my son was born, I had been inside my home often and, one spring day, sat myself on the astroturf behind a playground close to my home. I laid back, allowing the plastic grass to prick my arms and wrists. A few feet away, three girls sang a string of songs about heartbreak, all the while the lyrics broke and remade themselves on the edge of each spring leaf. I listened and I didn’t listen at once which felt like my fullest attention. The girls were so casual in their beauty, legs entangled in one another, fingers braiding each other’s teen hair. They seemed like one animal of burnished light and I tried not to stare. It was the kind of beauty that held its own attention, needed no validation, long eyelashes and pale arms gestured toward wholly bright selves. I closed my eyes hearing their laughter. I heard, too, from afar someone approaching. I heard a small thud and a boy’s voice. They talked, they joked, and then a silence that made me open my eyes. After a longer pause, they asked him to please leave. I now saw the boy was black and I registered an expression that was slow rain coming down hard as he grabbed his backpack swinging it so fiercely, it almost hit one of the girls. As he walked away, they laughed past him. Their laughter was the long shadow that followed him for years, their laughter forced him to round the corner, almost gone from view. Before he disappeared, he yelled, “Bitch,” but the memory of him left not a trace. The girls continued to sing except now there were thorns falling on the imagined grass, some of which landed close to me. When I sat up, I felt a strong kick inside me. My boy would be here soon. Six more days into the future I would meet him. I touched the area that moved. I waited.

 

 

TINA CHANG, Brooklyn Poet Laureate, is the author of Half-Lit Houses, Of Gods & Strangers, and Hybrida (W.W. Norton, 2019). She is also co-editor of the Norton anthology Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia, and Beyond. Her poems have been published in journals such as American Poet, McSweeney’s, The New York Times, and Ploughshares.  She has received awards from the Academy of American Poets, the New York Foundation for the Arts, Poets & Writers, among others. She is the Director of Creative Writing at Binghamton University.

 

 

 

Elizabeth Jacobson, Poet Laureate of Santa Fe, New Mexico

 

NM:    When were you appointed and for how long is your appointment?

EJ:    My two-year appointment is from July 1, 2019 – July 1, 2021 – give or take a few weeks.

NM:    Is your appointment an inaugural appointment or one already established and supported by your appointee?

EJ:    The City of Santa Fe had four Poets Laureate in succession from 2006 – 2014 and then there was a five-year hiatus until my appointment.

NM:    What are your major projects?

EJ:    Pre-pandemic:

Beginning in June, 2019 (just slightly ahead of my appointment) through October, 2019, I taught 14 community poetry craft workshops in conjunction with the Railyard Art Project, sponsored two student readings and published a chapbook of participants’ work. Fortunately, I had some in- person time before the descent into Covid-19. I also had the opportunity to host an in-person Poet Laureate and Friends Reading Series at one of our local bookstores, OP-CIT, including an event for the newly appointed Youth Poet Laureate and her contemporaries.

During pandemic:

Everything Feels Recent When You’re Far Away, is the name (taken from a line of a student’s poem) of a collaborative community civic poetry and visual art project that we are just winding up. This project was supported by a generous Poets Laureate fellowship from the Academy of American Poets and included poetry workshops for high school teenagers, T-shirt design and screen-printing, photographic portraiture, newspaper inserts, anthology publication, a group show, a dynamic billboard installation of student work and a virtual public reading. https://www.axleart.com/everything

Poetry Pollinators is an eco-poetry public art initiative to support habitat growth for native nesting bees. Bee “hotels” will be crafted by local artist(s) with poetry frames and educational panels to be installed in a variety of locations along the Santa Fe River. These sites will be utilized for educational and creative workshops and will be maintained for at least 10 years, alternating local adult and youth poetry. This project is collaboration between me and poet/activist Julie Chase-Daniel. https://vimeo.com/468778480 www.poetrypollinators.org

Poetry of the Pandemic was the heading for a special feature I curated for the Santa Fe New Mexican’s Friday Pasatiempo magazine, which included 21 New Mexico poets and their 21 poems running from April – October, 2020.

For the NEA Big Read, I have partnered with Santa Fe Public Library, which received a grant for this program. I have written a poem in response to Luis Alberto Urrea’s novel, Into the Beautiful North, to read at the kick-off, am judging the poetry contest the library is sponsoring and I will be teaching two poetry workshops, one for youth and the other for adults.

FRAMED is a collaboration with poet Miriam Sagan of interchangeable framed poems on wood posts on a path at Santa Fe Community College. Curated by me for one year, this project represented six Santa Fe female-identifying poets.

NM:    How well have you been able to meet your project goals during the pandemic?

EJ:    When I received a Poets Laureate Fellowship from the Academy of American Poets in April, 2020, the pandemic was full blown and we clearly had a lot of re-organizing to do for our civic project, but our vision was large and each aspect of the project— the poetry workshops and poem writing, the T-shirt design, the T-shirt screen-printing, the photography and portrait making, the group shows and readings— was reconfigured. Our community partners shifted around as we continually updated what was available to us in light of Covid: I taught poetry classes in public parks and workshops on Zoom; Matthew and Jerry, the artists of Axle Contemporary, my primary partners, generated innovative videos and in-depth PDF instruction guides for T-shirt design and portraiture, enabling students to complete these phases at home; David Sloan from YouthWorks Screenprinting Studio generously printed all of the t-shirts himself as students could not visit the facility; the Railyard Performance Center donated their prominent railing in the bustling Railyard, an epicenter of the arts in Santa Fe, for a sizeable billboard installation of images and poems from the project; Collected Works Bookstore kindly offered to host our book launch and reading; and Axle will present a Broadsides series on the exterior of the their Mobile Artspace in lieu of the show we had planned at the shuttered downtown Community Gallery. While we were presented with unforeseen and unprecedented challenges throughout the span of this project, the perseverance, creativity and resilience of everyone involved sustained us, and in some ways, actually enhanced the project by affirming the significance of artistic expression to education and well being.

NM:    What have been the most gratifying and surprising experiences during your appointment?

EJ:    Receiving a Poets Laureate Fellowship from the Academy of American Poets to fund Everything Feels Recent When You’re Far Away (the collaborative project noted earlier) was certainly a highlight of my term. I applied for this fellowship before Covid-19 was a reality and received it in April. Although it was really disappointing not to work in person with the majority of the students involved in this project (often during a Zoom session I would see only a mouth or an eyeball!), I think the project was fun and supportive for them during this isolating time, and I hope to meet many of the students at the book launch and live outdoor opening of the show at Axle’s Mobile Artspace. It will be exciting to see all the students’ poetry and artwork displayed as broadsides on the exterior of the retrofitted van. In addition, we are showcasing a selection of student work from Everything on a billboard at the center of the Railyard, which was a kind of last minute gift, and this installation is visible not only to pedestrians, but people will be able to see it from their cars as well. As I mentioned earlier, we are publishing an anthology of the student poems alongside their portraits and pictures from various stages of the project. This book has turned out to be an exquisite tribute to their work and a poignant commentary on the pandemic. As the beginning of my term was pre-pandemic, I feel lucky to have been able to teach and host readings in that other world, and grateful for my community partners who were all gracious and easy to work with during the continuous restructuring of our projects. It was also gratifying to be contacted by many different creative organizations during my term, like Santa Fe’s Center for Contemporary Arts, where I taught several Zoom poetry workshops and hosted a poetry reading.

NM:    How has your own writing changed since your appointment?

EJ:    So much has been going on in the world during my Poet Laureate term— all the political tumult, the pandemic, the rapid onset of climate change, my children’s lives in need of reshuffling, that it has been dizzying at times to focus on what absolutely must be done each day. Although working most days, for some hours, on poems is essential for me, it is this time that tends to get thrust aside when other matters are pressing. Although, I have had some satisfying writing time these last two years, it has not been enough, and that sense of not being able to keep up with myself is disheartening.

 

Three Phases of Friendship and Grief

ABRAXANE® (albumin-bound paclitaxel), Gemzar® (gemcitabine), 5-FU (fluorouracil), ONIVYDE® (irinotecan liposome injection)

 

I was wondering if your eyelashes had fallen out
when you emailed this morning
to tell me when you woke
they were on your cheeks,
and on your pillows.
Fine little piles of butterfly kisses
for the fiends who race around in your body,
with their fast balls
and beloved game of hang, draw and quarter.
A delicate pile of commas,
that when brushed off
began to squirm like the legs of pale spiders
accidentally broken from their bodies.
You wrote how you licked the tips of your fingers,
pressed them to the eyelashes now fallen
to your chest, and blew them
out your open window into the devilish spring wind.
Looking toward the Ortiz Mountains
at the gold mine in the distance,
you realized the sandy place,
just under the highest peak,
wasn’t sand at all,
but an abandoned exploration site
where the trees had not yet reclaimed
what was undoubtedly theirs to make wild again.

 

2.

Square Watermelons

 

At my house all the female spiders are running around with egg sacs on their backs
and all the males have been eaten—

their insides drained as if with a straw.

My friend emails: My arms are getting skinnier and skinnier.
Not something I want.
Really.

In Japan they grow watermelons in boxes to achieve identical square fruit
which stacks easily.

Actuality and absurdity— two containers, one lid.

My friend emails: We must accept the disorganization of consciousness as the natural fact.
This makes utter sense to me now—
not measuring.

When listening to thunder, I email back,
most people don’t know that what they are hearing

is the shape of the landscape

 

3.

Elegy with Birdhouses

 

In just a few hours each autumn all the gold leaves
drop off the mulberry tree

like a brief, heavy snowfall, and land in drifts
at the base of the trunk.

Grief moves this way— lyric in its enthusiasm to settle beneath.

The cadmium yellow birdhouse, sits slightly lopsided
in the branches of my tree,

its round portal black as a scream, its slanted roof
piled now with snow

will soon have tiny icicles hanging from the eaves.
You left other birdhouses

painted hot pink— painted a blue pale as cold lips—
in lanky aspens

growing by the banks of an arroyo where neighbors walk.
Some say you sing

solitary in the late afternoon, sounding like the mockingbird
that sounds like a killdeer, calling

untroubled
into the softening rime.

 

 

Elizabeth Jacobson is the Poet Laureate of Santa Fe, New Mexico and an Academy of American Poets 2020 Poets Laureate Fellow.  Her most recent book, Not into the Blossoms and Not into the Air, won the New Measure Poetry Prize, selected by Marianne Boruch (Free Verse Editions/Parlor Press, 2019), and the 2019 New Mexico-Arizona Book Award for both New Mexico Poetry and Best New Mexico Book. Her other books include Her Knees Pulled In (Tres Chicas Books, 2012) and two chapbooks from Dancing Girl Press, Are the Children Make Believe? (2017) and A Brown Stone (2015). She is the founding director of the WingSpan Poetry Project, a not-for-profit which from 2013-2020 conducted weekly poetry classes in battered family and homeless shelters in New Mexico. WingSpan has received four grants from the Witter Bynner Foundation for Poetry. Elizabeth is the Reviews Editor for the on-line literary journal Terrain.org and she teaches poetry workshops regularly in the Santa Fe community.

 

 


Paisley Rekdal, Poet Laureate of Utah

 

NM:    When were you appointed and for how long is your appointment?

PR:      I was appointed May 2017; my term was for four years but it was extended another year due to the COVID pandemic.

NM:    Is your appointment an inaugural appointment or one already established and supported by your appointee?

PR:     I’m the fifth Utah poet laureate: the first poet laureate was Kenneth Brewer in 2003.

NM:    What are your major projects?

PR:     I’ve done a number of big projects. The biggest is Mapping Literary Utah (www.mappingliteraryutah.org), a web archive of Utah writers and poets, past and present. There are poets, prose writers, playwrights, spoken word performers, cowboy poets, storytellers and Utah State Poetry Society members on the site. The second big project is the Utah Poetry Festival, which (this year) is obviously virtual, plus a month-long (virtual) celebration of Utah poets and poetry via social media. The third was a commissioned poem about the transcontinental railroad for the 150th anniversary of its completion in Promontory, Utah. The poem, “West: A Translation,” is a multi-media poem I’m currently turning into a website with poem-videos, and also a book. Beyond that, I’ve been doing a number of K-12 workshops and visits, along with workshops in the community and in the prisons.

NM:    How well have you been able to meet your project goals during the      pandemic?

PR:     Fortunately, some of my projects are virtual. But almost all of the workshops and work in the prisons has been put on hold. Other things, like the festival, have transitioned to Zoom.

NM:    What have been the most gratifying and surprising experiences during your appointment?

PR:      I was terrified about teaching kids, but that has turned out to be my favorite thing about the position. Visiting kids, talking about poems and having them get excited about writing poems has been a true joy. I’ll miss that forever.

NM:    How has your own writing changed since your appointment?

PR:     Well, I’m writing a book-length poem about a train (along with creating videos!), so I’d say this appointment sent me into a creative direction I would NEVER have anticipated or chosen on my own.

 

Psalm

Too soon, perhaps, for fruit. And the broad branches,
ice-sheathed early, may bear none. But still the woman
waits, with her ladder and sack, for something to break.
A gold, a lengthening of light. For the greens to burst
into something not unlike flame: the pale fruit
blushing over weeks through the furred cleft creases:
a freckling of blood. Then the hot, sweet scent
of August rot, drawing wasps and birds and children
through the month. So much abundance, and the only cost
waiting. Looking at the tree, I almost expect the sound of bells,
a stone church, sheep in flocks. But no sound of bells,
no clarion call. The church is far down in the valley.
This tree should be a revered thing, placed at the ancient
heart of a temple. Instead, it is on a common
lot, beside a road, apartment buildings, a dog
sleeping in its yard. The woman has come here
neither as master nor supplicant. She simply plans
to fill a plastic sack with whatever she can take:
the sweet meat giving under the press of a thumb,
covering what is its true fruit: the little pit, hard
and almond-brown that I’ve scooped out,
palmed and planted, but to no avail. A better gardener
could make demands of such a seed, could train a tree
for what desire anticipates. But here the tree grows
only for itself. And if it bears no fruit for the killing
frost, or if it flowers late because of a too-warm winter,
what debt am I owed? At whose feet should I lay
disappointment? Delight no more comforting
nor wounding than hunger. The tree traffics
in a singular astonishment, its gold tongues
lolling out a song so rich and sweet, the notes
are left to rot upon the pavement. Is this the only religion
left to us? Not one only of mortification or desire,
not one of suffering, succor, not even of pleasure.
The juice of summer coils in the cells. It is a faith
that may not come to more than waiting.
To insist on pleasure alone is a mark
of childishness. To believe only in denial
the fool’s prerogative. You hunger
because you hunger. And the tree calls to this.
But the fruit is real. I have eaten it. Have plucked
and washed and cut the weight, and stewed it
with sugar and lemon peel until the gold
ran rich and thick into jars. I have spooned it
over bread and meat. I have sucked it
from my husband’s fingers. I have watched it sour
in its pots until a mist of green bubbled up
for a crust. I have gathered and failed it, as the tree
for me both ripens and fallows. But now, it is perhaps
too soon for fruit. The winter this year was hard,
the air full of smokes, and do I know if spring
reached the valley in time? Who planted this tree?
How long has it stood here? How many more years
can such a thing remain? The woman reaches a hand
up into the branches, palm cupped, weighing
the leaf knots. She is looking to see
what instincts, what weathers still grow here.
She snakes her hand through the greening branches.
Up from the valley, come the golden tongues of bells.

 

Copyright © 2016 by Paisley Rekdal. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on November 3, 2016, by the Academy of American Poets.

 

 

Paisley Rekdal is the author of a book of essays, The Night My Mother Met Bruce Lee; a hybrid-genre photo-text entitled Intimate; and six books of poetry: A Crash of Rhinos; Six Girls Without Pant; The Invention of the Kaleidoscope; Animal Eye, winner of the UNT Rilke Prize; and Imaginary Vessels, which was a finalist for the 2018 Kingsley Tufts Prize, and Nightingale. Her book, The Broken Country, won the 2016 AWP Nonfiction Prize, and her newest work of nonfiction, Appropriate: A Provocation, was published by W.W. Norton in 2021. Her work has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Fulbright Foundation, the Amy Lowell Poetry Traveling Scholarship Trust and various state arts councils. Her poetry has been included in multiple editions of The Best American Poetry series, and she was guest editor for Best American Poetry 2020. She is Utah’s poet laureate.

 

 

Levi Romero

Inaugural Poet Laureate of New Mexico

 

NM:    When were you appointed and for how long is your appointment?

LR:    I was appointed Inaugural Poet of New Mexico in Spring 2020. It is a

three-year appointment. New Mexico is the 2nd to the last state in the union to have a State Poet Laureate.

NM:    What are your major projects?

LR:    Currently, I am working on a book project for the New Mexico Poet Laureate program, “Anthology of New Mexico Poetry,” (working title). Other major projects include featuring a diversity of poets on my FB timeline. I mainly feature poets that have not had much previous exposure, but on occasion have also featured established poets. I have co-hosted several poetry readings with various poet laureates from various town/cities across the state.

NM:    How well have you been able to meet your project goals during the pandemic?

LR:    Zoom readings have enabled me to fulfill some of the proposed poet laureate duties, “engage with poets and cultures statewide.” Zoom has created opportunities to reach broader audiences locally, regionally, nationally, and in some instances internationally.

NM:    What have been the most gratifying and surprising experiences during your appointment?

LR:    While it has been disappointing to not be able to do in-person readings, the Zoom readings have brought a sense-of-community, nurturing, and healing to audiences during the pandemic. It has shown, again, why poetry is essential to our overall wellbeing through human interaction.

NM:    How has your own writing changed since your appointment?

LR:    The introduction to a multitude of varied voices has been inspiring, and it is insightful to see how other writers respond to a particular subject.

 

Nightstand Testimonio

A bulto of Santo Niño on the nightstand
The beloved safe-keeper of infants and children

 

            Oh Niño Precioso
            De Atocha Llamado
            Tu Socorres Siempre
            Al Desamparado

 

Propped up by their spines
A row of books supporting each other
Two book jackets Caramelo and
Underground: My Life with SDS and the Weathermen
Orphaned and sandwiched between una biblia and books long ago half-read
Whose titles keep open the doors of procrastination

 

            Echoes of the Flute
            The Old Man’s Love Story
            Salvation on Mission Street
            Keeping the Quiet
            Meatballs for the People
            Manuel Bandeira: Selected Poems

 

Magazines thumbed through
Saved for what purpose?

 

The History of Rock
The New Yorker
Lowrider Magazine
Selena, Newsweek Feature
Rolling Stone, Bob Dylan: His 100 Greatest Songs
Time Magazine, 100 Photographs: The Most Influential Images of All Time
Tattoo Marque

 
A flap-open envelope with two photographs
Tío Alfonso and tío Antonio on grandma Juanita’s porch, summer 1970
Cousins Hilary, Valerie, Panchita, Jerry, and Gerald, summer 1970

 

One comic book
The Amazing Spider-Man: Secret Origins

A pair of dulled-lens reading glasses
A dog-eared anthology submission
A Sudoku number puzzle
A For-The-Love-Of-Lavender pouch gifted from a friend
A keepsake museum brochure from San Miguel de Allende

 

An unused writing journal for poems that came in the night
But were gone by morning

 

            Oh Niño Precioso
            De Atocha Llamado
            Tu Socorres Siempre
            Al Desamparado

 

the cherry end of your cigarette
against the pale sky

 

outside the prickling air burned hot
against what we’d left behind

 

and all that we scraped and cupped
ourselves for while trying to catch

 

the last vestiges of someone’s history
their life here and back and somewhere

 

in that hummed and whistled journey
across the plains and valleys and state lines

 

invisible to hunger and thirst
and the pursuit of want and need

 

tomorrow the railroad tracks
will shimmer in the heat

 

of the summer that arrived
as we were heading out of town

 

because as in those things past
we too have someplace we need to go

 

what does it matter
that there are no words

 

to compensate for the longing
and emptiness of the evening’s solitude

 

brought in by the winds
of our own stormy reluctance

 

unwilling to settle for anything less
than what we give in our taking

 

our own words muted by a laughter-less language
rattling bucket-empty like a windmill

 

spinning against a prairie horizon
that does not distinguish between

 

yesterday or tomorrow
them or us

 

his or hers
yours or mine

 

it was what you didn’t say
that caught my attention

 

and how you pressed your lips to the wind
your eyes blazing in the moonless night

 

 

Levi Romero was selected as the inaugural New Mexico Poet Laureate in 2020 and New Mexico Centennial Poet in 2012. His most recent book is the co-edited anthology, Querencia: Reflections on the New Mexico Homeland. His two collections of poetry are A Poetry of Remembrance: New and Rejected Works and In the Gathering of Silence. He is co-author of Sagrado: A Photopoetics Across the Chicano Homeland. He is an Assistant Professor in the Chicana and Chicano Studies department at the University of New Mexico.

 

 

Laura Tohe, Navajo Nation Poet Laureate

photo credit J. Morgan Edwards

 

Laura Tohe Navajo Nation Poet Laureate
Poet Laureate Questions

 

1. When were you appointed and for how long is your appointment?
My appointment began in 2015. I was given a second appointment but haven’t learned when it will end.

 

2. Is your appointment an inaugural appointment or one already established and supported by your appointee?
I am the second Navajo Nation Poet Laureate which is supported by Navajo
Technical University in Crownpoint, NM.

 

3. What are your major projects?
I developed two Zoom programs with support from the Navajo Nation Poet Laureate Committee and a generous fellowship from the Academy of American Poetry Fellowship for which I am deeply grateful. The poetry program I developed, Poetry from Four Directions, was a day for Professional Development for teachers of English and Navajo language on the Navajo Nation homeland at the middle and high school levels. Three of us poets gave readings from our work and gave a poetry writing workshop to the teachers that they could apply to their teaching. One of the activities was conducted in the Navajo language, as a way to vitalize our language. All the teachers received certificates for Professional Development credit. The second part was holding creative writing workshops for students via Zoom at several schools. Winners were selected by me and the winning poems were published in the local newspaper for which they were thrilled. They also sent a recording of their winning poems dressed in their native clothing. They looked beautiful. The recordings will be posted in the Navajo Nation Poet Laureate website which is under construction and be sent to the Academy of American Poetry.

As part of my community service, I also supported the Emerging Dine Writers as a sponsor and presenter at their annual four-day institute for young Navajo writers. This year the presentations took place as Zoom events with creative writing workshops, speakers, storytelling, Zine making, and panel discussions. Emerging Dine Writers supports beginning and young Navajo writers from all over the Southwest.

 

4. How well have you been able to meet your project goals during the pandemic?
Zoom has helped but working live with students would have been better and I think the poets would have had a larger audience. I didn’t get as many male
students as I would have liked. Zoom enabled more teachers from all over the Navajo Nation homeland to attend Professional Day. I’ve met my project goals to hold poetry writing workshop to the Navajo Nation students.

 

5. What have been the most gratifying and surprising experiences during your appointment?
The gratitude of the teachers and their interest in what the Poetry from Four
Directions program offered them was most gratifying. It was an opportunity for the
teachers and students to be poets and to express their creativity. They loved the
Zine workshop, and some teachers said they would work it into their language
classes. Most surprising was the teacher who wrote that winning a poetry prize
made her male student more confident to share in class discussion. A couple of
also mentioned that workshops made them think more critically about poetry. The
students were thrilled to have their poems published in the newspaper.

Many Indigenous languages are diminishing, including the Navajo language. I’ve
incorporated using our language in the presentations as much as possible. And I
was thrilled when several students submitted their poems in the Navajo language
Writing poetry is a way to help save our language and leave a legacy for the next
generations.

 

6. How has your own writing changed since your appointment?
Since part of my appointment happened during the pandemic, it’s made me more introspective about when and where I grew up. I find myself writing more about my younger years growing up on my rez and how things haven’t changed that much since. The conditions that made the virus spread quicky and widely still exist. Simultaneously, I grew up at a good time in a beautiful little community that I appreciate more, including my family and the people who were part of it. At the same time, my writing is branching out; I’m experimenting more with language and form, listening and opening myself for what the poem wants instead of me wanting to control it. I’m writing to reclaim and vitalize my Navajo language through poetry. Knowing more than one language opens up all kinds of possibilities. My grandmother used to say that knowing more than one language is being more than one person. The language that you learn is dressed how you want it. For me, my languages are dressed as poetry.

 

Mud Cracks

 

Late
Summer rains poured
from female clouds that left
chocolate puddles and ponds upon the
thirsty earth and curls of delicate, dried mud
like a jigsaw puzzle that crumbled in our hands whenever
we tried to move a piece no matter how carefully we lifted
them, like they were only meant for admiration
not meant to be disturbed, not to be
touched by hand or
foot.

 

Alliterate Skinwalker


She said never sweep the floor at night or the skinwalker will visit you.
“Yiiyáh! Yeenaaldlooshii
tł’éégo naaldloosh.
Beware! The skinwalker
walks at night on all fours
foraging for fallen hair
floating like a feather
to the floor.

 

 

Laura Tohe is the Navajo Nation Poet Laureate.  An award-winning poet, her books include include No Parole Today, Making Friends with Water, Sister Nations, Tséyi, Deep in the Rock, and Code Talker Stories that have appeared in the U.S., Canada, and Europe with French, Dutch and Italian translations.  Her commissioned librettos are Enemy Slayer, A Navajo Oratorio on the Naxos Classical Music label and Nahasdzáán in the Glittering World with performances in France in 2019 and 2021. Among her awards are the 2020 Academy of American Poets Fellowship, the 2019 American Indian Festival of Writers Award, the Lila Wallace Reader’s Digest Fund Award, the Dan Schilling Public Scholar Award, and was twice nominated for the Pushcart Award.  She is Professor Emerita with Distinction from Arizona State University.

Nancy Mitchell, a 2012 Pushcart Prize recipient, is the author The Near Surround, Grief Hut and The Out-of-Body Shop.  Her poems have appeared in Agni, Poetry Daily, Salt Hill Journal, and Green Mountains Review. She is the Poet Laureate of Salisbury, Maryland and hosts the reading series Poets on the Plaza.