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Simon Ortiz talks about his work, his life

October 28, 2009

Q & A with Simon Ortiz

Q: How do you teach someone to write poetry? Do you have students write poetry, then critique it in class?  Do you talk about what form poems should take?

A: Poetry is innate in language. That's basic I think. I really feel that is true and correct. Poetry is what makes language effective, powerful, meaningful, and distinctive.

So what is poetry anyway? You know, I really don't know what it is, but I know it's there in language. Sounds abstract, doesn't it? Yes. It's like the little epitaph at the bottom of your email note: "There were bells...but I never heard them ringing...'til there was you."

That's an excellent example of poetry in language. The first two sentences or phrases, "There were bells" and "but I never heard them ringing" are literal and factual; technically, they are fact and information. But the third phrase, "'til there was you" makes the whole passage "poetic" because the language effect/impact is powerful, meaningful, and distinctive. You can actually hear and feel the bells ringing literally and figuratively.

A powerful and subtle force is triggered in the imaginary that literally brings language alive in a vibrant way! That's the poetry in language! But can you teach that? Yes and no, but mostly no. You can teach the fundamentals of language and communication, and poetry is inherent in that fundamentally. But whether or not you actually can teach and learn poetics is hard to say.

For me, I think and feel I learned the poetics of language incidentally and even kind of accidentally. And providentially. Sometimes I feel as if I don't start out trying to be poetic in language composition, delivery, and effect. It just happens. Almost without plan or design, poetry happens.

Technically, if one is aware of language and its power, one can technically be aware of it and be on the lookout for it. But I don't know if one can teach poetic effect.

When I teach poetry writing, I ask students to write poems focusing on something familiar to where they are, i.e., in the immediate locale where they are, perhaps sitting at a desk. So they can focus on their desk, the floor under their feet, a pencil or pencils on their desks, the blackboard in front and/or around them. Impressions of things, factual notation, listing of items around them, such things. And then we discuss what we noted, recorded, chose to write about. And then we may discuss what we feel about "things" because that's what poetry is: impressions and factual observation and notation and feelings.

You can teach these things but is that teaching poetry? Yes, sometimes it is. Looking at what has been written is critical examination and investigation. Questioning and analyzing--hopefully without being boring--is a critique of language; that's really part of learning about language and its effect and impact. So that's part of learning poetics.

And form? Let's see. Most of my own poetry is free form. To me, free form is deliberate and distinctive. I mean it is not a casual, informal, lackadaisical, undisciplined form, but rather free form has to do with rhythm, meter or beat, breath, effect, and tone. It is deliberate and effective speech as spoken word which on the written or scripted page is represented as free form that sometimes, in effect, is a misnomer.


Q: How do you feel about the new book about you? Have you read it all? Does it make you humble or proud? Did you ever expect such a book to be written about you and your work?

A: I like the book because it offers me perspectives about myself and my work that I don't consider or think about. Or that I may not have considered and thought about while doing my work as a writer. Perhaps I've over-looked a perspective or two. Yeah, I'm sure--in fact, I know--I have!

The attention critics pay to a writer and his thoughts (intellectual dynamics) is invaluable to me. I try hard to learn from others. In the classroom, I tell students I learn from them and their perspectives and ideas as much as they learn from me, perhaps sometimes even more than they learn from me or other teachers.

Actually, it's the dynamic of exchange of ideas we all learn from. The dynamic of dialogue and interaction between author and critic is a teaching-learning space and source. Because I learn from that teaching-learning space and source, I appreciate the perspectives expressed via viewpoints, reflections, questions, analysis that others have of my work.

I haven't read every single word in the book yet but most of it--and I've read most of it because I think I learn from what others think and feel about my work. Sometimes an author can get arrogant and egotistical--"uppity" and "elitist"--about his writing which can be self-defeating; over the years, people have praised my work sometimes, and that has added to my feelings of self-confidence and self-worth but it also can cause inflation of ego.

So I've tried always to be watchful and on the lookout. This, of course, leads to your " humble or proud" question. I admit I, like others, feel self-conscious about attention paid to me although I'm open to it. In fact, a friend--or two--has said I don't take compliments and praise well. Okay, that's true, more or less. And I admit I am sensitive to negative views about my work but I am also receptive and open to criticism and mindful of it.

I feel that's being honest; it's necessary to my work, principles, and peace of mind. I've said above I like the book; it is a fair portrayal of me and my writing; and it's a thorough-enough depiction of my social, political, and cultural beliefs. I've never been quite sure about the applicable meaning of "pride" when it comes to myself, so I won't say whether or not I'm proud of the book about me. Thanks so much to the editors and contributors to the book.

However, I will say I'm glad it was done and that it came about because there has been some mention of the fact that I, a major Indigenous American writer, have been overlooked extensively by critics over the years. I've felt that's been somewhat the case, and, needless to say, I've been mystified and perturbed about it.

My views on colonization of Indigenous lands, cultures, and communities and the struggle for Indigenous liberation have always been strong and apparent, and I've always emphasized that colonialism happened not only in the historical past but is strongly continuing to take place in the historical present!

I'm happy that writers-critics-interviewers in this book focus on that emphasis in my present and continuing work and my insistence upon it. Over the years, I've hoped that scholars-critics, especially Indigenous ones, would notice that emphasis-insistence in my and others' writings. As Indigenous peoples of the Americas, we have to be ever mindful of it, in other words be watchful and on the lookout for continuing colonialism. I hope other books like the one done on me and my work are written and published especially by Indigenous critics-intellectuals-scholars who allow themselves to look at present on-going colonialism.


Q: You talked about land a great deal. I'm sure you mean more than just dirt or a lot to build a house on. How do you define land?  And how does it inform us?

Stai howbah hanoh haatse skai-eetyah-tih. All of us peoples are held by the land. In other words, all peoples are supported and sustained by the land; we are all within the province of the haatse, the land. The concept also obviously has to do with the concept of sustainability. And it works two ways: 1. We are sustained by the land, and 2. The land is sustained by us. It's the idea that land is part of all things, and that land is a part of the concept of the wholistic nature of all creation. Land and its abilities sustain life; people and their abilities sustain life. This is an Indigenous world view.

Land represents and is symbolic of all of life. It is not "just dirt" and it is not just "a lot to build a house on." To Indigenous peoples of the Americas, land represents the whole of living. Land is life. Life is land. That's how I consider and use the term "land" when I speak about it and when I consider and use it in my writing.

When I refer to a mantra-like idea I've been repeating in the last 15-20 years: land, culture, and community, I mean to say that land, culture, and community rhetorically-ideologically articulate the whole of life. Combined together and considered as a whole, land, culture, and community symbolize the whole of creation. This is the philosophy or the cultural way of Indigenous peoples' belief or world view.

Obviously land is very particular and distinct to peoples wherever they live; traditionally, Indigenous American peoples see the land of the Americas as one with them; and they are one with the land. Before Europeans came to the Americas, the continental lands of the Americas represented to them the whole of their Indigenous lives because the lands sustained them. And in turn they sustained the land with their cultural manner of living.

Indigenous peoples sustained the land, and the land sustained them; all life existed within the province of this relationship based on sustainability. Today, the philosophy is still at the core of the Indigenous world view, i.e., in the present modern or contemporary time, Indigenous peoples try to maintain this world view of sustainability but it's very difficult to actually put into practice a way of life based on a philosophical concept that requires a people and their abilities to sustain land and in turn the land and its abilities are required to sustain the lives of peoples.

Although it sounds simplistic, the land informs us by the sustainable relationship it has with us as a human community by providing us what we need to thrive. Unfortunately, as we have come to learn and know more and more, the land is not sustaining us--so many people, so irresponsible as a human civilization, so wasteful, so greedy--like it used to.

Our task now is to be totally honest. Admit the reason why the land is not able to sustain us so we--the land and human civilization, especially modern technologically-top heavy civilization, can both be healthy again.

In other words, admit that modern civilization, especially that which spawned Western colonialism, has devastated, ruined, and killed the life-sustaining abilities and capacities of the land. Only then can we, the land and Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, have a chance to be healthy and be able to practice sustainability.