James D. Autio with Heid E. Erdrich

James D. Autio and Heid E. Erdrich
James D. Autio and Heid E. Erdrich

This conversation between James D. Autio and Heid E. Erdrich took place from February to November, 2016.

James D. Autio: Boozhoo, Heid. Tell me a bit about your current projects. New writing, art, shows, readings, etc.?

Heid E. Erdrich: Daunting. It scares me to list out everything I do because then my life splays out before me. But, here it is and I must own it: I have final edits on a book of poems due out in 2017, I am editing an anthology, I have poem films screening as part of exhibits and festivals, I have some essays due in a month or so, and I am working with an MFA cohort in the low-res program at Augsburg. All of that is eclipsed by my stint as Interim Director of All My Relations Arts. Whew! Oh, and family, dog, cookbook stuff, too.

JDA: Is that all? You must find yourself with a lot of free time.

I have the feeling that there’s actually even more going on than the many things you’ve listed. If this is true, how much do you think is intentional and planned, as opposed to the literary and artistic opportunities that seem to build on each other and present themselves through a natural progression?

I’ve seen quite a bit of your work, from written poems and essays to edited anthologies, readings, cross-genre collaborative work, videos, and other creative avenues. Even more interesting, perhaps, is that you often serve as a community hub. By this I mean that you seem to be well-connected in several distinct communities: literary, artistic, Native, Twin Cities, and probably your family and personal friend networks. You’ve given me the impression that you enjoy drawing together disparate threads, and then stepping out of the way to let what happens happen through that new connection.

HEE: Now you’ve challenged me. You’ve outsmarted me with analysis of what I can sometimes sense, but don’t look at directly. Afraid to. You really have a remarkable intelligence and maybe see more than I can let myself see about my “work” – maybe because you do so much yourself: poetry, drawing and painting, photography, carving, study and teaching and playing guitar–all while kicking my ass at Scrabble.

But yes, I do like to see what patterns appear when I open up the field of my activity. It’s something like how the Guild Navigators take the spice and dream us through space in Dune.

What is it like for you? What is it you do when you do all you do?

JDA: Wow. Several stories come to mind as responses, and they shoot off in different directions.

(1) I like to post little updates about what I’m doing on Facebook and Twitter. I often receive comments from friends saying that I do a lot and I’m always making art, writing, etc. I DO do those things, but from my perspective, I spend vast amounts of time splayed on my couch, feeling like I should be doing something more productive. My impression is that I could be a lot better.

(2) In the early ’90s, I was coming to the end of about 10 years of heavy drinking. I was beginning to wonder if I might be developing alcoholism. Though it was very difficult, I decided that I needed to get away from the booze, cut off friends with whom I had built a life of partying, and begin to explore spirituality. As an Ojibwe, I felt drawn to the reservation as a means of trying to build a new base for my self-identity. I had never been to my reservation before this. For my first visit, I fasted for four days and felt confused and pure. I went to Lac Courte Oreilles in Wisconsin, and spent half day driving around and feeling lost and embarrassed about my intentions. I happened upon a man who ended up being my distant cousin. He was heading out to the new sugarbush site where a noted Mide storyteller was building a new wigwam. My cousin brought me out there and I ended up having a powerful and transcendental experience. My point here is that I made amazing connections and had unexpected experiences that would never have happened had I not connected a series of dots and had faith in chance and the goodwill of the spirits around us.

(3) Shortly after kicking booze, beginning my Ojibwe spiritual journey, and returning to Minneapolis, my longtime girlfriend got pregnant. We both were totally positive that we wanted to have our baby, and begin our life together as a trio. For perhaps the first time in my life, I felt I was ready to be a father. It’s been nearly 22 years since then, and more than anything else, being a daddy to my little 21 year old and being a husband to that former girlfriend have defined me.

(4) I’m reminded of synchronicities and The Celestine Prophecy. I’m more Ojibwe than New Agey, but I definitely feel that many threads came together and connected and knotted (and continue to) and that regardless of the terminology and ceremony, there’s a clear spiritual dimension to everything that happens.

(5) I think I first met you when I was a middle-aged undergrad at Hamline University presenting a paper at an English majors’ conference, and you were a professor at … St. Thomas? I began to see you at poetry events, and then we connected through social media. Besides having enjoyed some literary, artistic and cultural opportunities through having met you, I also feel there is a complex web of connections that we’re both part of and that the vibrations are sometimes indirect. Leto Atreides II would not have had the opportunity to serve as God Emperor (and semi-worm) if not for countless choices of many people, politically motivated machinations, seemingly random occurrences, and his own disposition. He probably had to slither up off the couch and get some work done once in a while.

HEE: Oh, worm! This is priceless. But I have to wait a bit to respond. I am in Alaska, doing a brief residency. So beautiful here. I have been talking about collaboration (in playwriting, in poem films, in editing, in curatorial work) but I talk around it a lot. Maybe I don’t want to look too closely at the pattern for fear I’d have the urge to pull a thread. It is good to feel the web and the vibrations, but not think of it as finished or encircling. In this way I resist the established understanding of the spiritual in favor of the mystery.

JDA: I seem to remember reading a translation of the Ojibwe phrase, gichi manido, as great mystery. Whether manido is better understood as spirit or mystery, it is likely just two different ways to conceptualize the same experience or force of life. My wife identifies as Lutheran and I identify as Ojibwe, but our interactions with the spiritual mysteries don’t feel to be at odds.

I find collaboration interesting, particularly in the creative arts. I’ve done some writing and some art with others, and what is often a highly solitary pursuit becomes something very different and very new. Some of my collaborations have failed spectacularly, but there are also some amazing things that have occurred, things that could not have happened without the interaction of ideas and people and approaches. It’s an exciting thing to do and to be a part of those conversations.

JDA: (Heading to Duluth this AM. I’ll be back around later today.)

(March 2016)

HEE: James, I have so much to catch up on. Might be able to chat again over the weekend?

JDA: Sounds great, Heid. Be well!

JDA: What are your thoughts on using Native languages in poetry and literature as a means to maintain or revive the tribal tongues?

I remember as a young poet back in the early ’90s, I was writing my early work around the time I was getting more interested in exploring and embracing Ojibwe culture as part of my self-identity. Because it was really pre-internet (at least for me), information mostly came from public libraries. At the time I could find a lot of information on Lakota history and language, but not Ojibwe. I have these odd early poems in which I mix tribal words, ceremonial practices, with almost generic cultural and social traditions. This came out of my need to embrace Native identity while I was at a position of ignorance about which traditions I would claim as my own. From my perspective now, I see that struggle itself as an important part of my experience as a Native person. Culture and traditions and language should not have been taken away from my family, but they were. To reconstruct and reclaim is an unnatural state, but one that has been handed to many of us by American history, anti-indigenous legislation, broken promises, and social pressures.

HEE: Tomorrow I am in a car trip and can answer. Sorry I got so distracted.

HEE: My second book, The Mother’s Tongue, focused on language acquisition in infants and my own attempts at learning anishinaabemowin, the language of Ojibwe people. I engaged in two years of study and learned enough Ojibwe to know I would never be fluent. After that, I turned to publishing Ojibwe language materials through Wiigwaas Press.

(September 2016)

JDA: There is often a question of who is an authentic Native person, as opposed to “pretendians,” people who have no actual cultural or familial ties to a given tribe. This strikes me as tough to ascertain for a number of reasons: Is blood quantum the indicator? Is it tribal enrollment? Social connection? Knowledge of traditional practices? Fluency with the tribal language? Embrace of the spiritual practices? Or could it be something different, such as continued effort to identify as a Lakota, Anishinaabe, Cherokee, or whomever, in spite of generations of US government effort and policy to divide and conquer, displace, assimilate, sever from cultural roots, and simply kill off?  It seems like a highly complex issue.

HEE: Agreed, a tricky and complex issue. Also simple. It is an issue of sovereignty. It is not an issue of blood quantum or even enrollment. But if a person cannot connect themselves in any way to an indigenous nation, cannot show one relative mentioned in all of tribal history–when tribes are the most well-documented people on earth–then they should not claim that tribe. They should not say they are from that nation. I have a friend who says it is as if she would use her French heritage to claim she is French when she is in France. As if I would say I am German and want a German passport. That would not fly.

Really, it is just about how people identify themselves. There are a lot of options, even for “pretendians.” But let’s start here: my children are not enrolled. They have descendent status and that is how they can identify. They can also say their clan and who they are in Ojibwe. That’s a cultural and social identity. It is not a claim to a citizenship that they are not allowed. Every tribe is different, so every tribe decides their protocol for how we should speak of ourselves. When someone is falsely identifying, it is usually painfully obvious because they shift their identity repeatedly and do not use the same language as the actual tribe does. And they often align with others whose tribal status is more secure to legitimize themselves.

My sense is that a lot of people who falsely say they are Native are self-deluded. I feel for them. But they are also dangerous to actual indigenous nations and a threat to sovereignty and tribal members’ own identity, especially youth.

JDA: Nicely put!

I’m reminded of a recent conversation I had with a friend, another Minnesota writer. We were talking about how our writing has evolved over the years. My poems have gone through quite a few distinct stylistic trends, near-obsessions with subject matter and approach to my use of the written word. My earliest work was very direct and personal, free of allusion and nuance and imagery. I was almost just writing Dear Diary entries. Later, I got much more into the performative aspects of the written word: creating new voices and personas, exploring different ways to suggest an idea. When I look back on some of those older poems, I seemed to be exploring my personal, social and cultural identity more than anything else.

Currently, my approach to writing is usually to try to have spontaneity, juxtaposed images and language, and random association reveal something from my psyche that I still need to process. My hope for a reader is that my search may reveal some truth or some question that is more universal, and not merely personal.

Being a male person of mixed heritage (Ojibwe and Finnish) has always been a large part of my identity, so it naturally appears in my poems in many contexts and forms. The consistent piece for me over the years has always been the fluid nature of identity and self-knowledge. Sometimes I’m floating peacefully in that water. Sometimes I’m thrashing around, trying not to go under, and probably making a spectacle of myself in the process. Most often I’m somewhere between those two extremes.

Heid, what would you like your poetry to do? (I know that’s a broad question!) Maybe, what does it do for you in the writing? What are your thoughts about the relationship between Heid E. Erdrich, the poet, and someone who picks up your latest book?

HEE: Great question, one it takes another poet to ask. Or another writer/artist. My first thought is always that the voice of my work is not mine. But it is generated from me, so it IS mine. Let me think on this…Also, I did not know you are a Finndian. My favorite kind.

(October 2016)

HEE: Getting back to your question at last. My poetry has a couple of jobs lately, and one is knowing where it is on the page in relation to my voice as I will present it when I give a reading. The first half of my new book Curator of Ephemera at the New Museum for Archaic Media has very little punctuation. I used tabs to create space where I breathe. These are voice scripts, poem film scripts, and also visual scripts for my responses to visual artwork by artists who are also Ojibwe. Sometimes the point the words hit the page is like the point I am looking at in the artwork. My poems are often conversations or statements, so now they look more like that on the page.

There are, of course, so many Heid E. Erdrichs. The one speaking through poems is an intimate, someone who wants to tell you how she sees the world so you feel, perhaps, less alone. YOU meaning the reader. There is also the Heid E. Erdrich who is commenting culturally and critically and politically. Hers is the voice who more often moves off the page into poemeos – poem film collaborations. Her voice is insistent in a broader field, so broader forms are also suitable to the poem.

It is interesting that you used a water metaphor, James, because I have long thought that poetry is speaking through water. Creating vibration and ripples and reflection. It is not a direct communication at times, but an appeal to project into a space, conversation, landscape, art experience.

What is different for me, I think, is that my identity is less important to my work and I find myself doing much less “thrashing,” to use your word, than in my early poems. My first book sought to connect my experiences as a mixed blood Ojibwe woman (that was how I thought of myself then) to a universal with all Native Americans and indigenous people. I touched on ancient myths to ground me. It was not the most original work, but it is still in print since 1997, so maybe it worked.

I’d like to go back to the beginning to end this, since it took months to have a simple conversation, so, as my muse David Bowie said, where are we now?

(November 2016)

JDA: I’ve read quite a lot of your published work and I love what you do. As I read poetry, I’m never entirely sure how much of my experience is coming from the words on the page and how much is coming from me. I have found truth and honesty in your writing. I’ve also seen questioning and searching…exploring. There is space for the reader to exist within the work.

In most of my recent poems, I play with stream-of-consciousness, random association, and suggestion to try to arrive at some sort of insight about myself. I’m sometimes delighted to find unexpected ideas and feelings coming through my words. Sometimes it’s also confusing and off-putting, of course. Nevertheless, it’s the work I currently enjoy doing, and I imagine that I’m creating wide spaces for the readers to bring themselves to the poems and to help create their own meanings.

I’m nearing the end of another year of writing a poem every day. I only have another sixty or so to go, and then 2016 will be complete. And it was a leap year! It’s a lot of poems and it will take some time before I can objectively look back and gauge what I have done. I seem to love the relentless routine of writing a “completed” poem everyday. It takes commitment to make myself sit down and do the work, particularly when I’m tired or crabby or just wanting to veg on the couch and watch Brady Bunch reruns. It also takes an enormous amount of patience and support on the part of my family.

I’ve also been trying to get my artwork into galleries. You’ve been very supportive in that respect! Thanks! I currently have drawings, woodcut prints, and paintings showing in three different galleries: All My Relations Arts (Minneapolis), Intermedia Arts (Minneapolis), and Marshall Area Fine Arts Council (Marshall, MN). I’m also appearing around the Twin Cities in festivals celebrating arts and cultures, and doing painting activities with kids.

This is a busy time for me, but a good time. I’m looking forward to reading your new book too! What are you up to lately, Heid?

HEE:  Every month I think my pace is going too slow and I’ll get on top of everything and then it is the next month and I think the same thing. I am fooling myself, perhaps, but just behind me, and something I will reflect on in my writing, is Skin(s), a multi-disciplinary work by Rosy Simas Danse in which I played a collaborative part interviewing Native people in three cities and making a very short film with Elizabeth Day that was part of a visual art exhibit that I curated. Rosy’s dance performance began in the gallery where works by Native artists, you among them, were installed. Skin(s) visual art exhibit was one of my favorite I’ve ever worked on. Too many artists to list, but one part that thrilled me was seeing Marlena Myles, who is Dakota, create a mural on a 24 foot wall that told a Dakota story.

As part of the work for Skin(s), I wrote a poem and the composer recorded my voice speaking the poem and reading facts from web pages. My voice was abstracted to form a layer of sound that the dancers moved to at one point in the performance. My words were also projected, along with Rosy’s film, onto the dancers. Together we explored the notion of what our skins tell about us, how we relate to one another when we are all so different looking, and how we identify. For me, it was a thrill to play with abstraction. Poets rarely get to abstract—at least not in the way visual artists can. The work was liberating, uplifting to me as an artist. It was also a complex and absolutely consuming work that left me depleted. It’s odd, but as we close the visual exhibit, I feel liberated from the desire for collaboration. For the first time in a long time, I do not have a collaboration planned.

So today, in early November, I once again think I have a couple months ahead of me to work. Free to work or fooling myself? My plan is to write some lyric essays, as my little prose habit can be called. Also, I am editing an anthology for Graywolf Press, New Poets of Native Nations. Pretty exciting!

My new book of poems comes out soon and I have final copy to respond to next week.
It is a time of family demands and sweetness before our son goes off to college and we try to see our elder folk as often as possible, too. I am trying to stand with the Water Protectors at Standing Rock by getting writing from the camp out through a group other Native writers have asked me to help with and fundraise for the school there. That’s enough. If I say more, I will think we never got anywhere since those busy days when we started this chat months ago.

James D. Autio is a poet and visual artist in Minneapolis. James’ poems have appeared in Conduit, Sleet Magazine, Yellow Medicine Review, Ditch, North American Review, and many other fine journals. James’ artwork has been shown at All My Relations Arts, Intermedia Arts, Minnetonka Center for the Arts, Minnesota State Fair, Owa’mni Falling Water Festival, Marshall Area Fine Arts Council, and other venues. James is the proud recipient of fellowships from Hamline University and the Vermont Studio Center. James is an enrolled member of the Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe.

Poet Heid E. Erdrich is author of seven books including Curator of Ephemera at the New Museum for Archaic Media (2017) and National Monuments (2008). She also makes poem films with fellow Ojibwe and Indigenous artists and has curated dozens of visual art exhibits featuring Indigenous artists. Heid is Ojibwe, enrolled at Turtle Mountain. Her work has won awards from the Minnesota State Arts Board, First Peoples Fund, the Bush Foundation, among others. Heid teaches in the Low-res MFA program at Augsburg College.


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