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'How to live as a poet in the world:' a conversation with visiting writer Pam Uschuk

Pamela Uschuk
August 29, 2013

Young poets everywhere: take note. Writer Pamela Uschuk has sage advice for those wishing to devote their lives to written art.

“My advice is to persist, to write and to read, read, read. Read the classics as well as contemporary poets. Listen to rap and hip hop as well as read academic poetry,” said Uschuk. “I would also tell young poets to stay grounded in their senses ... to observe the physical world around them ... We are not in this alone. We are part of everything, and everything is a part of us, and that is sacred, in life as well as in poetry.”

Uschuk’s earthy wisdom comes from a place of deep knowing – she is a political activist and environmentalist as well as an author of six books of poems, including “Crazy Love,” winner of a 2010 American Book Award. Her work has been translated into a dozen languages, and it appears in over 300 journals and anthologies worldwide.

Poet Alfred Corn has said of Uschuk’s work, “[She is] one of the few able to confront the uninterrupted crisis of our era with tragic joy and an unshaken faith in the instrumental efficacy of art." A prominent theme in Uschuk’s poetry is that of human suffering and injustice, and in the political climate of today, the poet isn’t lacking in material to draw from.

“I am not alone in being affected by these critical human issues,” said Uschuk, “How can I help but write about them? I have always believed that my poetry needed to be bigger than me and my petty concerns ... As a poet, I have a duty and a responsibility to confront, describe, witness and respond in my work to social injustice, to suffering.”

Uschuk’s career has led her to work with students from all over the world – from members of the Salish, Sioux and Yaqui Nations in Montana and Arizona, to incarcerated writers, to students in India and Israel, and from numerous universities around the world. As an educator who has heard the voices of young thinkers from all corners of the globe, Uschuk certainly has her finger on the pulse of the up-and-coming generation of writers and poets.

“Students everywhere write about age-old themes – the search for love, for beauty, for understanding, for a vital tie with ancestors and community, the search for truth in a world where truth is elusive,” said Uschuk, “[but] what surprised me working with indigenous students were the myths and ancient stories that would turn up as metaphors in their poetry, even when they were not aware of these myths and stories. There may be something in our DNA that carries the stories of our ancestors,” she said.

“What  ... continues to delight me are the success stories of students who had been failing academically, failing in life, whose lives were turned around [and] changed for the better by their discovery of, and writing of poetry. They were empowered in meaningful, life-altering ways. The power of words gave them power.”

Uschuk’s husband, William Pitt Root, is Tucson’s former poet laureate. He has published poetry in The New Yorker, Nation, The Atlantic, APR, Harpers and Poetry magazine. He has been awarded grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, National Endowment of the Arts and US/UK Exchange Artist program, and was a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. His work has been translated into 20 languages worldwide.

The poetry of both Uschuk and Root frequently features images of nature and a strong interest in humanitarian issues, but Uschuk says, “our styles are totally different. I love catalogues of dense imagery and language, while Bill's imagery and language are leaner. We do sometimes share drafts with each other during the writing process, but not always.”

Both poets find themselves incredibly busy these days, with Root currently working on an anthology of poems in honor of, in Uschuk’s words, “those most necessary of beings, trees,” along with several other collections of poetry and a memoir. Uschuk is in the process of revising her manuscript, “Blood Flower,” a collection of poems due out next year via Wings Press. She is also working on a multi-genre book, dealing with her year's journey through cancer, major surgery and chemotherapy.

“This book combines interviews with the many healers who have helped me along the way,” said Uschuk. “My doctors at the Mayo Clinic, a curandera [shaman or folk healer] from Albuquerque, energy movers in New Hampshire, Colorado and Arizona, a Tohono O'odham medicine woman, touch and psychic healers ... formed a lifeline pulling me through this challenging vortex of life.”

Pamela Uschuk and William Pitt Root will read from their work at 7:30 p.m., Sept. 5, in the Memorial Union Pima Auditorium at ASU's Tempe campus. The event, which is free of charge and open to the public, kicks off the MFA Reading Series, hosted by the Creative Writing Program in ASU’s Department of English and co-sponsored by the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing, both units in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

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Written by Jake Adler