Conversation with Layli Long Soldier

Diana Whitney
April 17, 2017
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Layli Long Soldier’s first book Whereas was published in March by Graywolf Press. She holds a BFA from the Institute of American Indian Arts and an MFA from Bard College. Long Soldier has served as a contributing editor of Drunken Boat and is the recipient of a 2015 Native Arts and Cultures Foundation National Artist Fellowship, a 2015 Lannan Literary Fellowship, and a 2016 Whiting Award. She lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Her poem, “H^e Sápa,” the first poem in Whereas, can be found here.

What was the impetus for “H^e Sápa”?

In Lakota history, “H^e Sápa” is our place of origin, part of our creation story. For tens of thousands of years, our people have understood ourselves as coming from the Black Hills. The original spark for this poem was something someone told me: when the settlers came, they translated “H^e Sápa” into English and the place was referred to as “Black Hills,” but our word actually meant “mountain” not “hill.” Over time the phrase was re-translated back into Lakota and changed. That struck me as very important—to remember what we called it originally, to look at the influence of English translation. That little shift in language is what sparked that poem.

Whereas is a response to the US government’s “Congressional Resolution of Apology to Native Americans” (signed by President Obama in 2009 but never formally spoken or received). The poems deconstruct that document and its officious language, questioning the meaning of the word “apologize.” As a poet, you speak from your experience as a dual citizen of the United States and the Oglala Lakota Nation. “What did I know of our language but pieces?” you ask in one poem. In another, you describe calling your father to ask him the Lakota word for “tired.” How does the translation process between Lakota and English work for you?

I’m not fluent in Lakota—I’m a learner. I have to ask my family or friends who are fluent for help. I use dictionaries sometimes, and the whole process has been really funny. I’ve learned a lot about dictionaries, especially those created in native communities. The first draft of the “tired” poem didn’t have the stanza about my dad. For that version I relied on the Lakota dictionary, because on that day I wanted to be more independent— sometimes I feel embarrassed to always call and ask for help. So I used the dictionary and I made the piece. But after it was published in a journal somewhere I kept having this nagging intuitive feeling that maybe I should call my dad and double-check the word. When I told him what the dictionary said, he corrected me: “That is not how we say it.” Then he asked, “Who wrote that dictionary?” I named the person who’d compiled and edited it and he said, “Oh I know that guy—he was some missionary when I was a kid. That guy doesn’t know anything. I bet you he adapted this Lakota dictionary from Dakota.” I looked it up, and my dad was right. Lakota and Dakota are closely related but they’re not the same language.

In your poem “38,” about the hanging of the Dakota 38, you assert that you are not a historian. What is the relationship between history and poetry in your writing life?

A lot of readers come to the work of Native writers looking for some sort of artifact. They want to cut lines from particular pieces and reference those truths and the representations of Native peoples and histories in a factual way. That is not a role or a position that I want to take on. I guess it’s a kind of warning to the reader: I’m going to tell you what I know, but this is only one telling.

Describe your writing process and how it has changed over the years.

In some ways it’s the same as it’s always been. When I sit down to write, I still have to work through a certain amount of insecurity and self-doubt. It takes a little time to warm up to the page, to figure out what I want to do and how I want to do it. I still work really late at night—I start around ten p.m. and write until four or five a.m. A very important part of my process is having that block of quiet time, undisturbed. In terms of revision, I don’t get my poems workshopped anymore, which is a relief. I do rely on certain readers who I trust, and those readers change depending on what feedback I need. I send out drafts via email, I keep my own little community—but that doesn’t mean I take all their suggestions.

Which writers inspire you the most?

Native writers. I often turn to Simon Ortiz, who has a very bold and straightforward way of working with language. I went to a tribute reading for him and it was really interesting to hear others read his work—he seemed to me a very modern voice, so stripped down and plainly spoken. I also turn to Joy Harjo, a personal mentor who I read early on in my writing life. At the Institute of American Indian Arts where I was an undergraduate, Simon and Joy were part of the canon of Native literature. And I love reading my Native peers, especially Sherwin Bitsui and dg okpik.

Your sixth “Resolution” braids the words of two leaders and Protectors at Standing Rock in September 2016. How do you see the role of poetry within that movement and the connection between art and activism?

Honestly I can’t answer that question in a broad way. For myself, writing is what I can do—I write and I make art. During the movement at Standing Rock, I had some life changes and had to be here with my daughter in Santa Fe. But my heart was there, my spirit was there. I was sitting at home watching the news and reading everybody’s posts on social media. All I could do in a personal way was say: I can write, I can make something in their honor.

What project are you working on now?

I’m working on a really large-scale piece using sculptural work combined with text. It’s for a show called “Midakuye Oyasin,” a Lakota phrase that means “we are all related.” I’m collaborating with two other women artists, Mary and Clementine Bordeaux, to explore the meaning of the phrase, which is a strong teaching in Lakota culture. We want to understand the teaching in a deeper way, look at its history and various translations. So I’m making a 12-foot-high by 12-foot-wide star using a sewing pattern for a “quilt” constructed out of very heavy art paper. (The star quilt is something we give each other often in Lakota culture). Two hundred and eighty-eight diamonds form the quilt and I’m laser-cutting text into each diamond and stitching them together with copper wire. The piece will incorporate poetry as well as the star quilt and the idea of relationship. The show opens at Racing Magpie Gallery in Rapid City, South Dakota, on June 21, the summer solstice.

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