This conversation between James D. Autio and b: william bearhart touches on topics of being Native American poets, the role of self-identity in creative work, childhood experiences with racism, and the importance of getting the work done. Autio suggested various topics as the potential starting point for a conversation, most of which were on somewhat stereotypical “Native” themes. bearhart mentioned that one day he feels one way and then feels something different at another time.
James D. Autio: It’s funny you mention your changing feelings. Right after I wrote my last message, I had some second thoughts about the topics I mentioned. I wondered if I came up with the ideas because they’re the sorts of things one might expect from a conversation between Native American poets. They are things I think about at times, but only as small pieces of a much larger picture: my interests in poetry and art, my drive to create, my political and social beliefs, my questions about spirituality, my desire to give my life more meaning.
I was recently asked to participate in a project called Narrative Witness, which was a collaborative workshop between a few dozen indigenous writers and photographers in the US and Australia. Despite the focus being on Natives, I intentionally submitted work that was more experimental and based on allowing intuition and randomness to drive content and meaning. I do write poems that are more narrative sometimes. I also write on themes that could be easily identified as stereotypically Native American. The thing that’s really interesting to me as an artist is letting everything churn together in my brain and then seeing what comes out when I make something. There are many threads muddled together in there.
Tell me about your manuscript. Do you think of yourself as a Native American poet or as a poet? What do you think some of the differences are in those types of distinctions?
b: william bearhart: It could be that people might expect Native poets to talk about those topics. Sometimes I think we need these conversations. Sometimes I feel like we should avoid what’s expected. Again, it depends on the day. I love that you intentionally submitted experimental work. I think that’s necessary. We need to move the boundaries of what’s expected. We need to make trouble and question.
My manuscript. In its construction, I’m not very far. I’m still revising individual poems while thinking about my sections. Actually, I have my sections and am trying to figure out how the poems fit into each part. What is the story that I am trying to tell? After spending two years writing poems, I look at them all and think How the hell am I supposed to make a book from these? I’ve written about family, some childhood memories, my body, illness (physical & mental), and ultimately love. I think a lot of my poems are about love. The brutal nature of it. The different shapes of it. Maybe my fucked up sense of it. My longing for it.
As far as being a Native American poet, I’m not sure what to consider myself. It’s interesting because I just recently saw some comments about how folks define what it means to be a Native poet. Like poets needed to write about “Native” things in order for their work to be considered Native poetry. I guess there is a group of people taking a poll someplace about which poems are Native and which ones aren’t. I write some poems that have Ojibwe stories woven in. Some folks might now know that. I’ve written about ricing and birchbark. But I’ve also written poems that you could look at and find nothing “Native” in them. I write about the things that I want to write about. A lot of times, when I think of the audience, I’m the audience. I’m writing to myself. I’m trying to work through a problem or a feeling or a truth that I can’t quite understand. So I guess maybe I’m a poet who happens to be Native. Maybe it depends on the poem.
JDA: I feel like if I call myself a Native poet, I’m using it as a shorthand way of saying something about my approach to writing, or my subject matter, or readers’ expectations, or something. But then, the question I ask myself is for whom do I use the shorthand? When I was growing up, I lived in a town in Wisconsin that was mostly Scandinavian, mostly White, and pretty openly racist, though I didn’t see it at the time. There were Native people around, but it was generally thought that they were mostly poor, alcoholic, glue sniffers. Notice how even now when I write that, I used “they” to refer to the Native people in my hometown? “They” were actually us (and many were extended family), but there was an interesting mix of pride about being Ojibwe and also embarrassment and anger about it. I didn’t start to more fully embrace my Native identity until my late teen years.
Your manuscript sounds fairly focused. I write many poems, but never with a sense of how they fit together into a larger narrative. Each one is more of a glimpse into my psyche: often confused, muddled, frequently repetitive, surreal. I’ve put together manuscripts that I’ve sent around, and which have not yet been picked up for publication. It’s tricky to read through poems that were created and intended as individual, independent pieces, and to forge them into a new format in which the poems are in conversation with one another. I sometimes bristle at that. Is it like the topic of Native poets? Do writers put together poetry manuscripts based on the expectation that the manuscript will look and feel and speak a certain way? Is it more a result of the needs of the poems? Maybe a deeper exploration of ideas and threads that are already appearing in the poems? I’m never really sure how to approach it.
When I was growing up, I had only a few models of what indigenous culture was: Tonto, the indian kid on the Brady Bunch, the crying indian man looking away from garbage.
I was recently having some question about submitting creative work to “Native” journals. Asking myself what the purpose is, when I actively question the role of that one part of my culture and background, as opposed to other parts. The thought that occurred to me, though, is that there is an element of community involved. Native people share some sense of identity and experience that may be unique, even though we are individuals, from different tribes, having had different experiences.
bwb: Identity. I certainly grew up with the identity of being Native. But my father was not traditional and so we didn’t practice any cultural traditions in our house. I took an Ojibwe Language class in elementary school for a few years. And we attended powwows. But nothing in the home was practiced. Eventually when my parents split, I stayed with my dad and we moved closer to his work. That move brought us closer to relatives. And these folks tended to be more traditional. At least in terms of practicing cultural traditions. So when I started to hang out with them, I started learning more about Ojibwe culture. It wasn’t until college that I really started to question identity and what it meant to be Native. I would say that both of the small towns that I grew up in were certainly racist. Both towns bordered reservations. As a child, I didn’t notice it but as a teenager I did. Some folks had no problem with identifying Natives as lazy, welfare folks. They’d bitch about spearing, per capita, or alcoholism.
JDA: There’s been an ongoing part of my experience as a Native person: feelings of disconnection and uncertainty. Alcoholism and social problems have an element of truth, but are not the complete picture, of course. Since I was never sure what it means to be Native, I’ve had to go back to the reservation, or to cultural events, and explore as an outsider. At some point though, it started to feel like my right to identify myself as I see fit.
bwb: Yeah, now I am comfortable with how I identify. It has a lot to do with age I think. As well as educating myself and going through traumas and tragedies that have made me not care as much about others’ expectations.
JDA: As a poet, the majority of my work is coming out of my brain and heart as an exploration of self. Questions of identity, whether Ojibwe or Finnish (my big two) are a small part of what I think about still. Nevertheless, there are many themes in my work. Personal traumas and tragedies have probably influenced my work more than skin color.
So what drives you to write? Do you imagine a reader’s experience while encountering your work?
bwb: Yeah, when I first started writing, I definitely wrote about identity. My confusion about it, the history of it, how it reflected what was happening to culture. When I started my MFA, I really started digging down, trying to confront what I really needed to. That brought my family into it and my personal traumas. It brought it into a much more personal sphere. Oddly, I think what ended up happening is it made my work also speak on a larger scale. It’s like the more personal my work gets, it ends up in some way reflecting the larger problems that are going on.
JDA: That’s great! That’s maybe true for many writers and artists: make art that is personal and self-empowering, but that speaks to larger themes. I hope that my work does that, or will someday. I do worry that much of my creative work is about me me me, and may be of little interest to others. I suppose time will tell.
bwb: Oh, one of my fears is certainly that folks will read my work as being super self-centered. But I’ve always written with this idea that the “I” is “we.” Because I know that I’m not the only one who is going through life and facing these issues alone (even though it certainly can feel like it). As far as what drives me to write. Well, I write because I don’t know what else to do. It’s cathartic. And in reading others’ work, it’s helped me get through a minute, a day, a month. While I tend to write to myself, I do think of a reader. I think of someone like me. Going through all the confusion, pain, anger, and beauty that is life. I didn’t start reading (really reading) until college. Very specifically, an American Literature course, 1865-present. It opened up a huge world. (And made me feel so small in it!) What I ended up discovering is this great conversation between writers. I wanted to share my experience with them.
JDA: When I was a young art student in northern Wisconsin, I got hung up on feeling that every piece of art I create should be mind-blowing and important. It got to the point where I stopped creating because I couldn’t do what I thought I should. Later in life, I stopped caring so much about the “importance” of creating, and just got to work making the next thing: painting, sculpture, drawing, poem, finger puppets even. I feel like I became an actual artist when I accepted that it’s what I do, what I have to do, and what I want to do. I love being a part of the conversation, and it’s not my job to judge what others think of my work. I try to do the best thing for me, and if it connects for others, great!
This has been my favorite Andy Warhol quote for many years: “Don’t think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it’s good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make even more art.”
bwb: A part of me still wants to create something completely new and mind-blowing. Ha. And I get bogged down in my own mind about the kind of work I need to get done. But I also end up paralyzed and stop writing altogether. I forget that it’s work. Like one line at a time. Chisel away. Attack something one word at a time. That Warhol quote is so good. And exactly what I need to post somewhere in my apartment. As I’m starting to put my book together, I find myself getting these thoughts like, How is this important? How is it different from all the other books out there? And here I should be focusing on creating more art.
Those questions are really about others’ expectations and how the world might perceive my book.
JDA: It’s helped (and changed) my writing to work with a group called The Grind, in which the only requirement is to complete a draft and email it to your group before midnight each day of the month. It’s forced me to overthink less, and to just keep generating new work. I’ve completed something like 57 months since 2009. It’s an enormous bulk of work, and there is a lot there that is not for public consumption. The best thing it’s done for me though is that I can easily access that creative wellspring from which the writing comes. I’ve learned how to turn it on quickly and easily.
Deciding what gets sent to a journal or gets included in a manuscript comes later, and is a different animal.
bwb: Wow. That is some commitment. I’m jealous. Lately I’m averaging one poem every three months. Maybe. Ha.
b: william bearhart is a direct descendent of the St Croix Chippewa Indians of Wisconsin, studies in the Lo Rez MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts, and currently works as a poker dealer in a small Wisconsin casino when not writing or editing. His work can be found or is forthcoming in Bloom, Connotation Press, cream city review, North American Review, PANK, Prairie Schooner, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, and Tupelo Quarterly among others.
James D. Autio is a poet and visual artist in Minneapolis. James’s work has appeared in Yellow Medicine Review, ditch, Poemeleon, North American Review, Drunken Boat, cream city review, Naugatuck River Review and other fine journals. James is the recipient of various writing awards and fellowships from Hamline University and the Vermont Studio Center. James is an enrolled member of the Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe. James’s art can be seen at www.mnartists.org/jameaut/.