The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Linda Hogan about her poetry collection Indios.
This is an edited transcript of the Poetry Book Club discussion with Linda Hogan. Every month The Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts a discussion online with the club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. You can read the unedited discussion here. To learn how you can become a member of The Rumpus Poetry Book Club click here.
Camille: I find it interesting that we are talking about a book that is so steeped in the long now, in a sense of long history that is eternally present, but we’re having the conversation on such future-focused platforms: computers and iPads and iPods, oh my.
Mark Folse: Time is so central to this book, the anachronism,the “five hundred year wound.” It seems you were trying in fact to compress the entire history of European and and native conflict.
Camille: That wasn’t a question. A question would be how Linda created the sense of the long now in the book. What were some choices you made?
Not that I meant Mark’s point wasn’t a question, but that mine wasn’t. (In computer-land we talk over each other a lot)
Linda Hogan: The five hundred year old wound does relate to the indigenous world and the incoming Europeans. The story of Medea was on my mind for thirty years. I heard it, read it, the first time and it stayed with me as the story of a woman very much like a native worman, her father was a medicine man, although called a sorcerer back then, her aunt was a siren, if I now remember correctly. It related to myth, but it was more of a reality. It was like history here, even until the early twentieth century in Indian Territory, now Oklahoma.
Brian S: I think that’s something that lots of people don’t realize–that we’re not that far removed, historically speaking, from the Indian wars.
Camille: You say, “if I remember correctly.” That calls me to ask how steeped you felt you had to be in the “original” Medea story. What sort of research did you do? Where did your own knowledge take over?
Linda Hogan: I thought of the book first as a possible novel, then a play, but after all the years of thinking, when it finally came to a consciousness and to writing, it became a long narrative poem, the first I have ever done. But I also did see it as a stage performance. As for the Indian wars, it seems that the time is far away, but it isn’t. The Wounded Knee massacre took place when my grandmother was seven. And Native people, throughout the world, live with history as part of life in the mind, the heart, every day. We may live in modern America, hold jobs, but history is present. Time is different for us.
Brian S: It certainly works as a monologue. I heard the voice speaking from the moment I started reading.
Camille: it seems that many of the horrors suggested in the book are STILL happening to people somewhere. That’s part of the long now sense I get from the book. It’s not just calling me to remember but also pay attention to what’s going on now. Was that part of your idea, Linda? I did you intend more of a memorial?
Linda Hogan: Yes, I had to read the story. And then was surprised to see that she hadn’t killed her children, which was important and made much more sense, that the kind of politics of the time would not want her children in the picture. After all, she was unlike them. My own knowledge took over when I placed it in the present, thinking of people I have known in prison, of the kind of life a woman in her situation might have lived and how she would have used knowledge of a covert nature against a new woman, etc.
Brian S: I’d never heard that part of the story either, so when I read this one, I sort of assumed that you were reinventing it a little (which I was totally cool with). But it’s very interesting to see that it was that way from the beginning, and then the story was retold to fit the politics of the time.
Mark Folse: That part of the story made perfect sense, the mob killing her children. My unfinished question: did you set out to write it anachronistically, wandering through time. It gives the poem a fabulous, mythic quality.
Linda Hogan: No, I couldn’t forget what today is like. The history is repeated for certain. We have not learned. And it is all so recent in the memory, but continuing. I find that my writing now, in the softness I would like, looks at the political, and even when I don’t wish it. Because more and more the world is revealed to us. I am, have been, more of a writer who thinks about environment, but the kind of world we are living with now seems to require that we speak the words that open it and keep it in the minds of all people. The corruption of the past lives in the present and while I would prefer to talk about trees and their plant communities, their root systems, etc. I end up in the process writing about the root system of America.
Mark Folse: Someone on our prior email list discussion noted that the trees that seems so central, and the plants as well, are only identified twice (by my count, the cedar trees and the mulberry.
Linda Hogan: Also, in the book, I think the concept of land is interesting because in the indigenous world it is something to be protected and cared for, precious being. But the problems in history have been related to the different way of looking at its use, for income, for timber, for ownership, pasture, building. Very different notions.
Mark Folse: The cedar trees in the sense of the land trying to heal itself was clear (but I’ve been reading Aldo Leopold and he has a long section about the conquest of the prairie and how the natural environment reacted, including the advance and retreat of certain trees). But why, in your mind, call out those two?
Camille: We noticed that sometimes you speak of plants and animals in the specific (cedar, chambered nautilus, flying fish) and sometimes general. We thought this might have helped you move through time and space. What went into your decisions of when to specifically name a creature or plant and when to let the general stand? I’m curious about this because I do think of you as an environmentally attentive writer.
Linda Hogan: Yes, the cedar. A special tree for the atmosphere, but considered sacred by most tribal peoples. And the mulberry I mentioned was used in many ways, including weaving. Still, the global forest, the local forests, offer us so many gifts. We are still learning how they communicate, how they open and send out moisture, preserve water, aquifers. I only mentioned those two because it would have read like a list.
Brian S: Do those trees have specific meaning to you? Are they a part of your personal history?
Linda Hogan: I think they had to do with what was easily seen and remembered, but also metaphors in the work itself. So, I was more focused on the story and how it arrived in its own ways and that took the place of the environment which had been the loss of Indios and her father and their people.
Yes, those trees are a part of my history. But so are black walnut, oak, pine, etc. I study how forests work together. Or trees that keep others away, how they need other plants near them, etc. It is just my interest. Plants and animals are beings of great interest and mystery.
Mark Folse: The lack of specificity (trees, plants, time) certainly added to the mythic quality. Now, water: I don’t think of water as a central element of Native myth or world view, but it plays a large role in the tale.
Linda Hogan: The language that is around us, the intelligences of all things is something of great interest to me. I will study whatever I can, but not always for my writing. For example, I discovered black walnut shavings might kill a horse. It made me wonder about laminitis, but also about the power of everything in this world.
Kate: This poem is written in very plain language compared to some of your other poems. Was it a process to arrive at such a narrative voice and if there was a process, did it affect the development of the poem?
Linda Hogan: Water, too. What could we live with in water. And Indios came from a world surrounded by water. But it is an important element on our land and around the continent. Yes, the language is plainer and it is because it wasn’t just a single poem but someone speaking. She is just talking to the interviewer and telling her the story. So that is how it developed and the only way it really could, being a monologue instead of a series of poems.
Camille: I loved the way you brought water and child birth together. It seemed so crucial to show a different way of looking at life, at how to nurture life. And it’s about a connection to the body and the future. Water in child labor can be such a balm. But the women Indios describes are separated from their bodies, their children. That you focused on Indios’ preferred Childbirth method (in water) seemed such a great way to cover a big idea in a small space.
Mark Folse: I agree Camille, is probably the single most powerful image of the cultural gulf.
Camille: I’d love to go back to this question of the monologue, the performance aspect of this poem. I have some ideas about why this is important, necessary, but I’d love to hear why you found it important enough to mark the performance in the title.
Brian S: I couldn’t help but compare Indios to some of the bigger movies featuring Native Americans (or their tropes)–Indios was a welcome relief, I want to point out. Do portrayals of Native Americans in popular media drive you more toward the political in your poems? I know you said you don’t aim for politics, but it’s inevitably there.
Mark Folse: The azalea bloomed on campus in January, and the magnolias are about to bloom. We live in a changed world, and the images about the The stanza on pg 17 “They cleared their own trees for cattle and now the land began to dry up and burn” seems so relevant to our little tangent.
Linda Hogan: It was considered “savage” by the people around her and yet she had an easier time of birth. Letting gravity and water work. She knew more about the body. She is a woman who lives in the body and that is very difficult to achieve in a civilized society where the mind overpowers it, keeps us out of touch. We do not find ourselves whole so much of the time. And again, it is a cultural gulf, but most of us here in America, even those of us I work with, are more involved with our work than with being conscious of our whole body self throughout the day.
Camille: Brian, while she’s typing I’ll just add that I was in Iowa City on the 15th of March and it was already 80. Plus I was in Virgina this week and already got bitten by a tick. We are living in troubling times, and I get so angry that so many of our leaders prefer to keep their heads in the sands.
Brian S: I read yesterday that there’s a chance the apple crop in New Hampshire will be irrevocably damaged because it’s been so warm that the trees started to bud and then there was a cold snap (like there usually is).
Linda Hogan: Yet, when I see the differences in how bodies move in different cultures, I can tell who lives with and without that awareness. It is visible.
Mark Folse: The phrase “walking in beauty” popped into my head as I read this, but I’m also in a class called “writing American nature” and that phrase kept popping up as well for at least a few authors (Aldo Leopold, Annie Dillard).
Linda Hogan: I actually wanted it written differently on the title. But I do see it staged, with her talking to the invisible interviewer. And I hope to find a way to do that. It reads beautifully.
Mark Folse: I was going to ask if you have given it a “staged” reading: a chair, a single spot….
Camille: Can you tell us how you would have had the title written?
Brian S: It also seems like it would set up well for a movie, with a camera, a jail cell backdrop, the chance to cut away and show scenes, etc.
Mark Folse: Actually, Brian, I think that would distract from the beautiful text.
Linda Hogan: The portrayals of Indians in films is so complex. Sometimes they work and often not. My daughter and I used to like Thunderheart. I have friends who hate it.
Camille: One of our members shared your statement that you knew that the lack of poems wasn’t what was killing the salmon, the dams were. Please speak a bit about what you think poetry and literature CAN do. Why you keep writing in addition to all the other things you do?
Mark Folse: The least political line is the one that jumped out at me. “It isn’t comfort I search for now . . . it is to change time.”
Linda Hogan: I heard a speaker at a conference compare Thoreau’s observations and timing of blooms, appearance of insects with today and the difference is great. Yes, we do know that we are living in times of change, but so many kinds of change that it is overwhelming and I think people do give up, stick their head in the sand, because it is so much easier than paying attention, or becoming active, or doing anything. Most feel so powerless to change the rush of events and information.
Mark Folse: It seemed a subtle call to action, to change the path we are on.
Linda Hogan: Walking in beauty, from the Navajo. It is something I try to think of daily and feel very good when the thought can remain.
I have only read it. It will be staged for a small audience later this year, I hope.
Brian S: And there’s also the feeling that individual action can’t really change anything. I mean, I recycle and use low energy light bulbs and walk to work instead of driving, but I often wonder how much of a difference it makes compared to industrial polluters and the like.
Mark Folse: I hope you video it. I would love to see it performed.
Brian S: Yes, absolutely. Have someone film the production.
Linda Hogan: I wanted to accent both Poem and Performance. But the editor and publisher had set it up differently and we negotiated it.
Thelma: One statement in the book that struck me as especially significant is this: “It isn’t comfort I search for now, it isn’t forgiveness. It is to change time.” Which reminds me of something Leonard Peltier has said, that you don’t do time so much as time does you. My question for you is how you deal with this sense of urgency, this notion that there is so much wrong with the world and so little time (or so it seems) in which to make a difference.
Linda Hogan: I have to write. I love to write. From the beginning of my writing life I knew it was what I want to do and I can never find the time to do enough. I often envy people who don’t have to work at jobs or who have support, but then, maybe it is the other work, etc. that keeps me going. I do think poetry and literature can make a difference in the world and I have seen it. In fact, I am packing later today to go to a zoo to give a talk and reading. They began a program because of my work. It’s hard to imagine that a poem could start a program on american wildlife but it did. And it makes me feel like I have done something worthwhile in this little brief life.
Thelma: You just answered my question–thank you.
Mark Folse: Poetry was and still is politically powerful in other nations, other cultures. It’s one of America’s great deficiencies. I’m glad to hear about the program.
Linda Hogan: Yes, in revolutions, it is the poets that are taken away. Because it speaks a truth that enters more than just the mind. It conveys a life and a life of change, of possibility, into the whole self.
Camille: Seriously, though, it seems like you had so much to talk about and reference in this book that it could easily have gotten overwhelming. Did you find yourself at some part of the drafting process realizing you had to excise or leave out any idea or tack you wish you could have included?
Linda Hogan: Yes, I always have to leave much out. And it could have been longer, but I kept it to what seemed the most significant part of the story, the events, and the telling.
Thelma: How was the editing process? Did you do most of it yourself or did you get suggestions from the publisher?
Linda Hogan: Thank you for picking this book. I know we are running out of “time” and can’t change it or go back. How often I wish we could manipulate time a little better.
Brian S: You did say, at the beginning of the chat, that it started as a novel, then became a play and finally a narrative poem. That’s certainly paring it down as you go. But what it left is essential, which is as it should be, I think.
Linda Hogan: I usually do most of the editing myself. I am very strict with my own work. Once it is on the page, there is a separation and I can part with what doesn’t work. I usually can tell intuitively.
Camille: Which zoo? I spoke/read in the fall at the Jacksonville, FL and Little Rock, AR zoos as part of a Language of Conservation program. That zoos and parks and gardens are making poetry central seems important.
Brian S: What are you working on these days?
Linda Hogan: Ciincinnati. There is a cougar program there and I will be spending time not only with animals I have lived with, written about, but speaking and reading poetry about them.
I have a new and collected coming out next year from Coffee House. And I have a novel which wants to be finished so the next one, already starting to talk, can come through. This one was put aside once for People of the Whale and the characters are here, waiting, happy when I can work, which isn’t often enough. I long for the time to write. As I think all writers do.
Camille: Speaking of running out of time, we’re getting close. Post your final questions now! Please.
Mark Folse: I had to back and find the lines (pg 44) “You’ve seen it in the zoo, the look in our eyes . . ” Our being the curious and powerful word.
Linda Hogan: Also, I am putting all of my Chickasaw materials together to be reprinted in a new shape for the tribal press which is represented by U of Oklahoma.
Mark Folse: One I like to ask where I’ve really enjoyed a book: do you or Camille want to recommend another work of your’s?
Linda Hogan: Yes, the zoo. It is a place where animals are marginal beings, not in their own lives. And they know it. It shows in the eyes. People who are marginal, as well. Living not in the world of their own making but adapting to survive.
Mark Folse: Yes, but “our” eyes, Indios’ eyes, the prison and the zoo. Just wonderful imagery.
Camille: There is so much amazing language in this book. Mark’s reference took me to “All doors have closed/ on the wilderness of my heart.”
Linda Hogan: I very much like Power, a novel, but it hasn’t received much attention. And Rounding the Human Corners, my previous poetry book has been a bit under the covers. I think because of a change in the employees of the press.
Brian S: Funny how quickly things can disappear unless there are people there to shout and point at them.
One minute left–any final questions for Linda?
Linda Hogan: Thank you. Now that you mention that line, I like it too. The person and the land are the same in this book. What is done to her is done to their land.
I appreciate your interest and thank you for choosing this book.
Brian S: Thank so much for joining us today, Linda. And for such wonderful answers.
Mark Folse: Thank you, and of course our wonder PBC board who keep choosing such amazing books.
Thelma: Thank you for speaking with us.
Camille: You have blessed us with such thoughtful responses. In Indios and in today’s conversation. Thank you, Linda, for sharing your work and time with us.
Linda Hogan: You are also welcome. There it is again, the word “time..”
Camille: Time is of the essence.
Linda Hogan: I think ours is up but I am not certain.
Camille: Yes. This is when we all say goodbye. Goodbye.
Linda Hogan: Che pesa la cho. It means, I will see you later.