Deborah A. Miranda is the author of four collections of poetry, Indian Cartography (Greenfield Review Press, 1999), The Zen of La Llorona (Salt Publishing, 2005), Raised by Humans (Tia Chucha, 2015), and, most recently, Altar for Broken Things, released from BkMk Press last month. She is also the author of a memoir, Bad Indians: A Tribal Memoir (Heyday Press, 2012). Her father was of Esselen and Chumash ancestry, nations indigenous to the Carmel/Santa Ynez, California area, and her mother was of French and Jewish descent. Miranda is the Thomas H. Broadus, Jr. Professor of English at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia.
It’s been almost two decades since I first read Deborah Miranda’s poetry. Her language is often dazzling and breath-taking, but even more, it is the irresistible force of her honesty and empathy that inhabit her work. Whether discussing history, family, violence, or the beauty of the natural world, there is always the sense of deeper currents moving through poet and reader—deep silences, immense griefs, and urgent desires to restore and heal.
The Rumpus: The first poem, “Offerings,” in your most recent collection of poetry, Altar for Broken Things, is absolutely stunning. We were several months into the pandemic/sheltering in place when I first read it. I hadn’t expected to find such comfort in it. To feel embraced by it. It beautifully encompasses the range between the heart breaking and the heart breathing.
At dawn the songs begin again as if never sung before,
as if the jet stream has not wandered from its path,
the Arctic ice shelf does not melt at accelerated rates,
Sudden Oak Death does not leapfrog across the continent;
Shenandoah Valley songbirds lean into the indigo air/as if two thousand snow geese did not fall from the sky
We’re confronted by the realities of living on this world—the enduring beauty of nature even as we recognize that nature is being devastated. How many of us—throughout our lives and even now—take refuge in nature, in birdsong, in the green of trees, in blossoms, in the energy of small creatures? Nature, it seems, is always a lesson in the endurance of our communities, of hope, and of resilience.
Deborah A. Miranda: Thank you for those comments about “Offerings.” I agree that human beings often turn to nature as a form of restoration and rejuvenation. After all, we are human animals; “the natural world” is our natural habitat. When our bodies are locked up in offices or houses, confined for weeks or months or years, we go a little mad. Sometimes, a lot mad. We stop breathing deeply, become angry, sad. I’ve been living in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley in Virginia now for seventeen years, while teaching at a PWI with a lot of old Southern money and Confederate legacies at every turn. I wouldn’t have survived the microaggressions and politics without getting outside those buildings!
It’s odd to call that space “the outside world,” because it is, in fact, the world. Our world. The place our bodies were created, the place we are related to by chemistry and DNA; it is a part of us, it is us. To own that relationship is to own our responsibility to it, too. When I wrote the first draft of “Offerings,” I was sitting on the front porch of our house in Lexington, two blocks away from downtown. It was very early in the morning, and very early in the spring. Our neighborhood, and our yard, are bird sanctuaries—lots of black walnut trees, oaks, and in our yard, fruit trees and bushes. In other words, birdsong is nonstop, diverse, rowdy, lustful, and incredibly refreshing. But I also knew that catastrophic damage to the environment was happening all around us in that very moment. And I wondered if the birds knew. How could they not? Yet they kept singing, nesting, mating, hunting, raising young, migrating. I didn’t want to call it courage; that felt too anthropomorphic. But to think of this kind of living as an offering, as a response to the gift of being alive—that felt right, felt worth trying to express.
Rumpus: As a long-time fan of your work, I definitely felt a change in tone in this book as compared to your earlier collections of poetry. There is something calmer and more joyful—not to say that you shy away from grief or loss or the necessity of healing, but I did feel a greater sense of peace informing this collection. What do you feel that shift is centered around? And then I want to ask you the question I always love to ask writers: what has each book taught you?
Miranda: I’ve noticed that change as well. I don’t have a good answer for it. Maybe some of it is age. I just turned fifty-nine, and have been working to process the traumas of my early life, and speak out against larger forms of injustice, for a very long time. That’s hard work, but I can honestly say that on a personal level, I see results: a lessening of grief, an understanding of why and how I was damaged, how I was taught to harm and hate myself, and a kind of waking up to the potential of joy in my life.
Some of this shift is conscious: social, legal, and cultural change comes slowly, when it comes at all. Racism and injustice, homophobia and poverty, have been the focus of my poetry and research for most of my life. I don’t think I’ve burned out, at least not for more than a day at a time! A few years ago, I started asking myself, What am I fighting for? And the answer was, of course I’ve been fighting to communicate systemic injustices through my writing, hoping to effect change in my own way, but—I’ve also been fighting for the right to know beauty, to give and receive tenderness; that’s what makes the struggle worthwhile. We lose sight of beauty in the day-to-day battles that eat up our energy, or take all our energy to negotiate.
Righteous anger over injustice will never leave me, but learning to rest and remind myself to take care of my body’s needs, my soul’s hungers, is becoming more a part of my daily life, and my writing. And maybe there’s the answer to your question about what writing this book has taught me: I’ve spent a lifetime disassociating from my body, from other people, and from allowing myself joy. Reintegrating my selves means having relationships with all of these things, and relationship means connection…sensory, sensual connection that affirms beauty, a need for it, a reveling in it. This collection turned me in that direction of reintegration, of reunion with myself and my relationship to the world.
Rumpus: We once touched on the difficulty of speaking about spirit when so much of the language has been appropriated and twisted and used to turn life-giving ways into consumable concepts. I’m interested in the fact that Altar of Broken Things is organized into four sections—“Bird Church,” “Altar for Broken Things,” “The Hand of God,” and “Prayer of Prayers”—that invoke Christianity, but then confound expectations by being composed of poems that range from colonization to family scars to the violence in relationships to violence against LGBTQ communities, to police brutality to the violence of healthcare in the US, to the search for wholeness to the relationship of spirit to time, to nature, to story, to art, to nature. Grief moves deep and slow in this collection, in ways that I think demonstrate how we mourn together and alone.
Miranda: Yes. Just this morning, I started to join in an online conversation about what it means to be a memoirist if the best spiritual practice is to be, as a quote from someone said, “in the now.” I wrote out a long paragraph about my issues with that term, “in the now,” which all relate to the ways it has been appropriated by many in ways that mean willful ignorance of the suffering of others, acceptance of violence, and a lack of responsibility to take action—all of which rely on large amounts of white privilege and inherited protection behind patriarchal constructs. The more I wrote, the more I worried that every word or phrase I wanted to put on the screen would be misinterpreted and misread because my definitions of those terms differed so radically from the white women and men on that forum.
At last I got smart. I looked up the bio of the white woman being quoted; part of it read, “A Spiritual Synergist, Ceremonialist, minister and high priestess…” At that point, I deleted my post and got off the internet. This speaks to your question: I am a mixed-blood, Indigenous woman trying to communicate with the world in the colonizer’s language, English, which is a deeply Christian, patriarchal, straight, hierarchical conglomeration of conquest. If I have to use the colonizer’s language, then I am going to bend it, tweak it, break it, rework it to serve my needs.
Some of that work comes in the surprise of a non-Christian using Christian images or words, the juxtaposition of unexpected image to over-used word, using a familiar-looking door that opens onto unknown territory. In some ways, I use English as a vehicle for turning colonization back on itself, making it look in the mirror. I am certainly not alone in this; the most powerful poetry being written right now comes from Indigenous poets playing Coyote with the colonizer’s concepts—Layli Long Soldier, Tommy Pico, Joy Harjo, Heid Erdrich, Natalie Diaz, Billy-Ray Belcourt. I’d say this is both an instinctive and strategic move on our part; not using the master’s tools, but reforging the master’s tools.
Rumpus: I’m still reeling from the poem, “Indigenous Physics: The Element Colonizatium:”
Obviously, the half-life of a substance/depends upon the substance itself—
measure for toxicity, fierceness, sheer venom.
The research at hand for us today, then, is clear: what is the half-life of Colonization?
Does Colonization reduce to half
its initial impact in 500 years?
In 1000 years?…
Is the half-life of Colonization constant over the lifetime
of an exponentially decaying/Indigenous body?
If colonization is “an unequal mixture of toxic events” with traumatic events being added on an ongoing basis, then is it ever possible to measure the wound? To expend energy towards healing the wound that is left over after surviving the constant barrage? We hear a lot these days about “decolonizing,” but I’m always left wondering if our minds—these products of colonization—retain the capacity to free themselves? If they can ever—in a hundred or a thousand years—live in a way not dominated by the Wound?
Miranda: That last question goes right to my heart: how to “live in a way not dominated by the Wound.” This is a question for many of us, even if we can’t quite articulate it with such clarity. I think it goes to the intent of that poem, too. I’ve written a lot about scars, about wounds, and about functioning in the world as someone whose body has been personally and historically a container for violence. As much as I have hated it, and resisted it, I do not think there is a way to be a survivor of violence, whether it is as an individual or as a colonized community, without walking through the aftermath of that shit for a very long time. Make no mistake: this is an act of bravery. It may not look like it or feel like it, but walking through is as courageous as it gets.
Realistically, though, forward movement happens at a snail’s pace.
Let me back up for a moment. My current situation is much different from my childhood. I jumped through the right hoops at the right time. And I was lucky in a thousand different ways. I’m a tenured professor. I’ve managed health issues, and though I teach full-time, I still get a variety of breaks throughout the year in which I can do serious personal and writing work. However, for most folks, living in a capitalistic society means that almost every minute of every day is spent earning money to pay the rent, buy food, gas, basic medical care. What we most need to recover from trauma is time and space, two of the least available luxuries.
When we have large communities of Indigenous, colonized, formerly enslaved peoples who have been in a state of trauma for over five hundred years, without a single second to catch our breath, or rest, let alone try to process what’s been happening—that’s still more violence. The wound needs time to close, yet whole communities live in a wound actively reopened, infected and antagonized, for hundreds of years. We wonder why relationship and community are so hard to achieve! We all know the stats about poverty, incarceration, life expectancy, mental health. We hear a lot about “resilience,” as if it were a magic tonic to chug when the going gets rough. In reality, resilience is finding thirty minutes to work on a poem between your first and second jobs. Resilience is creating ritual to cherish yourself and your loved ones. Resilience is never losing sight of your right to beauty, your right to know beauty, your right to be beautiful. Resilience is a self-perpetuating act of love. “Indigenous Physics: The Element Colonizatium: Indigenous Physics” is a kind of thought experiment about carving out those spaces in which to heal, about returning/relearning the ritual technologies (dance, storytelling, song, dreaming) that generate resilience and healing.
Rumpus: “Prayer of Prayers” is a powerful call to action dedicated to the Water Protectors at Standing Rock. You write:
You think prayer
cannot change this war?
Then redefine prayer:
it is clothing frozen
to the bodies of warriors
who do not carry
any weapon but sovereignty
So often, we hear that the writing of poetry and the reading of it is a passive, contemplative thing—as if living poetry wasn’t a daily challenge, as if seeking to keep the spirit present and engaged wasn’t one of the most difficult tasks there is—because spirit is what fuels everything else. Teaching, supporting, protesting, fighting, surviving, thriving, growing—all of those flounder without spirit as the foundation. What lessons or reflections or messages did you most want to impart with this collection?
Miranda: Sometimes a poem does have that element, that need, to serve as a rallying point, or to share some hard-won knowledge or revelation. But honestly, I’m also just asking questions that come from my own searchings, which are not all that different from what many of us wonder: How do we survive abandonment? What do we do with all this loneliness? What can we do to support our community? What’s my place in the universe? How can we express gratitude? What’s in my heart that I don’t have words for, but is pounding at the gates to be spoken? What does beauty look like and how can I honor it? How do we navigate love, desire, grief, anger? What does healing look like? Asking those questions of the spirit, trying to reach some understanding. As you say: spirit is what fuels everything else. So tending to our spirits, our well-being, our sense of selves as human animals in relationship to our communities and our environment, is the hinge on which everything depends. Poetry is both my way of talking to myself, and a kind of pathway into prayer. Redefining prayer, of course! The poems in this collection are Deborah on the page, with all of her flaws, trying to be better, wanting to connect, finding her way through all that shit, believing that there is an “other side,” trying to believe that she will get there.
Photograph of Deborah A. Miranda by Margo Solod.