I’m writing this blog post minutes after dragging myself out of bed, where I hit the snooze alarm twice. I can see pink in the sky out the window over my writing desk. The birds are singing. The tea kettle is on, and it can’t heat up fast enough. I am exhausted, but the only way to get through this moment is to write.
For the last month, I’ve been up early every morning, no excuses, to work on my novel. Lately, as I sink down at the desk, I find myself thinking about something I wrote recently for Poets & Writers. The essay, “Tell Me I’m Good: The Writer’s Quest for Reassurance,” examines how praise affects writers. It includes this line about the writing process and its potential rewards: “The difficult answer is yes, you really can do that work and not receive the kind of payoff you probably dream about—literary agents, book deals, starred Kirkus reviews.”
I have to force myself not to think of potential payoffs as I revise this novel. As I wrote in that essay, “. . . the publishing industry offers no shortcuts or guarantees. The only variable a writer can control is how hard she works.”
Which I why I’m here, at my writing desk, still half-caught in a dream I had last night about a group of anxious writers. They didn’t have enough time to write, or they wasted the time they did have, or they were too paralyzed by the fear of failure to put actual words down on the page. It was a dream about all of us, really. It reminds me of the advice I recently gave a writer online, someone who struggled to write regularly. I told her that writing is work, and you have to sit down and do that work even if you don’t feel like it, even if you’re not inspired, and even if you are afraid of failing. It’s the only way anyone ever gets any writing done.
The sky is turning from pink to orange. The birds are still singing. I step away to make a pot of tea and return to see my computer glowing in the dim room, the paragraphs I’d just written running across its screen. New words, fresh as dew.
I sit. I pour my tea. I open the latest draft of my novel. I’ve blogged before about early morning writing sessions, about not getting enough sleep, about having to pull myself from bed to get to work. But I don’t think I’ve clarified how much I love it. These quiet morning hours when it’s just the writing and nothing else, when my mind is still half a breath away from sleep—this is my payoff.
This, right here, is everything.
The old creative writing class imperative to “write what you know” may have its place, but lately I’ve been thinking of the power of poetry not to “know,” but to “no”—the ways in which linguistic negation can imagine an alternate reality, draw a line in the sand, or simply contradict received knowledge or assumptions to see the world more clearly.
While the mental exercise of putting creative focus on what things are not can lead us into the wonderfully absurd (think of Humpty Dumpty referring to his “un-birthday” present in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass), I’ve been returning to William Stafford’s poem “At the Un-National Monument along the Canadian Border,” a poem in which the initial absurdity of the premise of an “un-national monument,” like an “un-birthday,” allows the poem to disarm (pun intended) the reader into absorbing the author’s commentary on our societal values and priorities.
The poem begins:
This is the field where the battle did not happen,
where the unknown soldier did not die.
Immediately, the repetition of “did not” reminds us of how and why our usual monuments come to be: battle, death. But here:
This is the field where grass joined hands,
where no monument stands,
and the only heroic thing is the sky.
Our gaze turns to the sky (its own kind of no-thing-ness) and stays there for the first two lines of the second stanza:
Birds fly here without a sound,
unfolding their wings across the open.
And then our gaze returns to earth, which we now see as the monument of “no monument,” as the poem ends with three strongly enjambed lines, a kind of release of breath and formality after a poem of tonally stately (or faux-stately) end-stopped or end-paused lines:
No people killed–or were killed–on this ground
hallowed by neglect and an air so tame
that people celebrate it by forgetting its name.
While the repetition of “did not” and “no” (“no monument,” “no people killed”) clearly defines this space by what did not happen here and thus what it is not, Stafford laces his lines with other, more subtle negations and reversals of expectation, from the sky as the “only heroic” figure, to the birds flying “without a sound” (no cannons, no military bands), to the almost Lewis Carroll-esque celebration of the final line, in which we memorialize this place of no-memory, honoring it “by forgetting its name.”
Even in individual words, Stafford embeds the work of imagining our world otherwise. Echoing the “Un” of “Un-National,” we have the “unknown soldier,” a sadly familiar figure, but here, “the unknown soldier did not die,” inviting us to bring a kind of double negative to life. Can we imagine the solider not only alive, but known, not just reduced to an abstract, symbolic “heroic figure,” but returned to personhood and individuality?
While the “un-” in the image of birds “unfolding their wings” is even more subtle, my mind follows that action of folding to the flag-folding ceremony we might imagine occurring in a more traditional “national” paradigm. Here, the national gives way to the natural – no flag to fold as a mere symbol of freedom, just the actual effortless freedom of the birds.
Whether Stafford intended a nod to Auden in this poem, it feels like it’s in implicit conversation with Auden’s now famous statement that “poetry makes nothing happen” in another poem of “commemoration,” “In Memory of W. B. Yeats“:
For poetry makes nothing happen, it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.
In our political moment, there is some comfort and hope in imagining what we might make not happen – what walls we might not build, what wars we might not initiate, what protections we might not dismantle in the perverse name of “progress.”
Recently an essay by a student at the school where I teach was named one of sixteen finalists in the Facing History and Ourselves essay contest. I had given him a gentle nudge to write and submit after reading another piece of his writing that I found compelling. He’s a motivated, responsible, and thoughtful student, so I felt confident that, with a good effort, his short 500-word essay about ethical decision-making could reach a large audience.
Part of the brilliance of the structure of this essay contest is that it involves the public in choosing the contest winners; of those sixteen finalists, ten will receive awards, and those awards are determined by online voting. So that our own community at Western Reserve Academy could commend Charlie and hear his work, he read his essay to the school in the chapel (the same one where Frederick Douglass spoke during a commencement). Though I had read and commented on his essay through the writing process, hearing his delivery in that space with the community changed the way I heard (read) and experienced the essay.
Charlie writes about his coming out as gay a couple of years ago and how he stays visible. He discusses how his visibility—his openness with regard to his sexuality—allies him to other people whose identities cannot be hidden. He clearly subscribes to the belief that relationships change people and that sharing who you are is just as important as the ideas you share as well.
I forget that this young writer is only seventeen and has the wisdom that some spend lifetimes pursuing. And while his essay is brimming with queer optimism, I don’t think that it’s purely naïve. It’s impossible to live even in a supportive community and not recognize moments that attempt to stifle or silence queerness.
The other day, I was reading Richard Wilbur’s “The Writer” with my tenth grade students. It’s a poem that I usually read with seniors as a sort of benediction, but this year I thought it right for the sophomores. As Charlie read his essay before our community—when he used his visibility to make 400+ people think about what it means to be gay or to be an ally for a few minutes—I thought of the father, who is also the speaker, of Wilbur’s poem.
The speaker hears his daughter writing a story on a typewriter and wishes her “a lucky passage” using an easy metaphor of life’s struggles = cargo. He then interprets his daughter’s interruption of typing as her rejection of the too obvious metaphor before revising his comparison. He thinks of a starling that flew into a bedroom and kept trying to escape through the window again and again: exemplifying the resilience and grit he wishes for his daughter.
I always applaud my queer students who decide to come out and be visible to their communities. And, like the speaker of “The Writer,” I think of the difficulty and urgency that those students will face because they are people and because they are queer. The hope and pain of knowledge in that last stanza resonated with me through the applause as Charlie finished reading:
It is always a matter, my darling,
Of life or death, as I had forgotten. I wish
What I wished you before, but harder.
So now as I vote each day to support the success of his essay, I am also voting for a lucky passage for all the students who choose visibility, pride, and courage.
Mister Ego is a ten-part novel by Anouk Asghar, serialized in the Egyptian literary magazine Weghat Nazar, about a Western man incapable of bringing his inquisitive mind—e.g., his meandering self—to rest. Ms. Ashgar (Alexandria, 1959) works at the Wylie Agency.
1. “Midrash on Truth.”
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.
On Joyce Carol Oates’ Wild Nights! Stories about the Last Days of Poe, Dickinson, Twain, James, and Hemingway and Christopher Benfey’s A Summer of the Hummingbirds: Love, Art, and Scandal in the Intersecting Worlds of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, & Martin Johnson Heade
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