Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Books of Interest by Writers of Color—Allison Adelle Hedge Coke

This week and next week, I have a special two-part Writers of Color post for you. In celebration of the publication of a groundbreaking new anthology, SING: Poetry from the Indigenous Americas (University of Arizona Press), I have an in-depth interview with the editor, poet Allison Adele Hedge Coke, and next week I will post a review of the anthology.

Allison Adelle Hedge Coke is an acclaimed poet of Cherokee and Huron extraction, but she is almost as well-known for her activism. Just check out all the activist projects listed in her bio below and realize that the listing is not comprehensive. Hedge Coke is another of the many writers of color who give back to the community selflessly. She was named Mentor of the Year in 2001 by the Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers. Of particular interest is her work with the sandhill cranes at the University of Nebraska Kearney. Check back here in a day or so to find a link to an NPR radio show about Hedge Coke and the cranes. A poet and activist also heavily involved with labor and the Indigenous mound structures that network across the continent, her work reverberates with dreams, myths, history, and a true sense of life lived into something more sacred than its sometimes brutal or desecrating events.

Photo of Hedge Coke courtesy of the Maturin Cultural Center, Venezuela World Poetry Festival


Allison Hedge Coke has been an invitational featured performer in international festivals in Medellin, Colombia, Venezuela, Argentina, Canada, and Jordan and foreign visiting professional in for Shandong University in Wei Hai, China. A 2010 Split This Rock Festival featured poet and 2011 Lannan Writing Resident (Marfa), she is a MacDowell Colony for Artists, Black Earth Institute Think Tank, Hawthornden Castle, Weymouth Center for the Arts and Humanities, and Center for Great Plains Research Fellow, is a former National Endowment for the Humanities Appointment Distinguished Visiting Professor at Hartwick College, holds the Distinguished Paul W. Reynolds and Clarice Kingston Reynolds Endowed Chair in Poetry as an Associate Professor of Poetry and Writing at the University of Nebraska, Kearney where she directs the Reynolds Series and Sandhill Crane Migration Literary Retreat & Cranefest. She is core faculty in the University of Nebraska MFA Program and regular Visiting Faulty of the MFA Intensive Program at Naropa University. Hedge Coke is a regular keynote lecturer/performer and was the 2008 Paul Hanly Furfey Endowed Lecturer, in Boston. Her books include: Dog Road Woman, American Book Award, Coffee House Press, 1997; The Year of the Rat, chapbook, Grimes Press, 2000; Rock Ghost, Willow, Deer, AIROS Book-of-the-Month (memoir), University of Nebraska Press, 2004; Off-Season City Pipe, Wordcraft Writer of the Year for Poetry, Coffee House Press, 2005; Blood Run, Wordcraft Writer of the Year for Poetry, Salt Publications, UK 2006-US 2007; To Topos Ahani: Indigenous American Poetry, Journal Issue of the Year Award (ed.), Oregon State University, 2007; Effigies, (ed.), Salt Publications, 2009 and Sing, University of Arizona Press, 2011. She has edited five other volumes. Her long poem "The Year of the Rat" is currently being made into a ballet through collaboration with Brent Michael Davids, composer. Recent literary publications include Kenyon Review, Florida Review, Connecticut Review, Sentence Magazine, Prometeo Memories, Akashic Books, and Black Renaissance Noire. Recent photography publications include Connecticut Review, Future Earth Magazine and Digital Poetics. She has also authored a full-length play Icicles, numerous monologues, and has worked in theater, television, and film. Hedge Coke has been awarded several state and regional artistic and literary grants, fellowships, and tours; multiple excellence in teaching awards, including the King Chavez Parks Award; a Sioux Falls Mayor's Award for Literary Excellence; a National Mentor of the Year, a Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers Award; has served on several state, community, and national boards in the arts, a housing board, as a Delegate, in the United Nations Women in Peacemaking Conference, Joan B. Kroc Center for Peace and Justice, University of San Diego, and as a United Nations Presenting Speaker (with James Thomas Stevens, Mohawk Poet), Facilitator, and Speaker Nominator for the only Indigenous Literature Panel of the Indigenous Peoples Human Rights Forum. For many years she has worked with incarcerated and underserved Indigenous youth and youth of color mentorship programs and served as a court official in Indian youth advocacy and CASA. Hedge Coke has edited five additional collections and is editing two new book series of emerging Indigenous writing. Hedge Coke has continually taught various creative writing, literature, environmental writing, cultural philosophy, Native American Studies/Literature, education, and other courses for pre-school, K-12, college, university, and professional institutions since 1979. She came of age working fields, waters, and working in factories.

Here are the links to her books, Blood Run, Off-Season City Pipe, and SING:Poetry from the Indigenous Americas. Please patronize these university and small presses. They are the ones who bring writers of color to the world.

In Nebraska, you have founded a writers retreat and festival to celebrate the Sandhill Crane migration which centers near your school and the connections of the cranes with Indigenous peoples throughout the continent. What impelled you to do this and what have been the results?

As a child, my father told us stories of bird councils. We witnessed some as well as councils by other animals. We were mesmerized with his stories of the first time his parents had taken him to see a bird council and were raised knowing well the impression on language, song, cultural approach, and ceremonial impact such gatherings have on Indigenous peoples. We were raised with it. In addition, the sense of messages in bird culture, is highly significant for many peoples. In North Carolina, I'd come up witnessing cranes passing. I worked with them a bit in Tennessee later, and lived, at times in Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Colorado, California, Canada, again witnessing the passings.

While teaching in Northern Michigan, on the Upper Peninsula, the Greater Sandhills there were impressive to the point of days spent in search of between teaching and hosting visiting writers at NMU. I spoke with some people there, and in Wisconsin, who were crane clan and they detailed the links to written language that they have historically based in the migration and flyway populations. Once the position opened up at Kearney, a few people sent to me and noted the call looked like me, yet all I saw was the location and I applied immediately actually telling the search committee I was coming for the cranes, if hired. As soon as I saw the call I imagined the retreat and gathering. I'd been traveling to South America, recently, and noted that the university hosted a world affairs conference. This seemed to me a perfect union of possibility for bringing many Native peoples, and other crane related cultures (China, Japan, Egypt, Africa) together, over periods of time, to work to relearn these significant connections and to explore our own connectivity during gatherings immersed in the flyway epicenter with 600,000 cranes who have been coming here for 45-60 million years, not to mention the 7-10 million other birds that migrate the same path with the cranes serving as guard birds for many.

All of this was an obvious and pleasurable task, necessary and natural.

You've had an obsession with the network of earthworks and mounds of the original peoples that criss-cross this continent and worked and written much of them. I'm especially interested in the ways you've connected them and the work of their ancient citizens with contemporary labor in your own writings. What prompted this interest in two seemingly disparate topics?

In additional to environment, I am a labor poet, perhaps first and foremost. As I worked in the environment as a sharecropper, grower, construction worker, builder, landscaper, commercial fisher, you name it. My collection Off-Season City Pipe, with Coffee House Press, demonstrates fully the connection to labor in my life. The mounds are built earthworks, for the most part, and we not only have the heritage and upbringing of knowns associated with moundworks, but we traveled to see many as children and were raised with the significance they reveal of our lives and lives past. That many of these cities have been erased and looted is simply criminal. That it still goes on is as diabolical as it was at contact. That people are not given credit for their ancestors' work is ridiculous. That civilizations are not credited is equally ridiculous. I had lived near mounds in several places and spent a great deal of time in the southeast with mounds. When I taught in South Dakota (where there was no mention in any curriculum of the ancient city that pre-existed there), regardless of previous failed attempts to acknowledge and protect a moundsite ten minutes from my home and that of my new grandchildren tribally related to that state, I could do nothing less than lobby myself and encourage my students to lobby by letter as we worked together to push the state to protect, preserve, and admit the actual history of Indigeneity in the area, pre-reservation.

This included tribes now in Nebraska (where I currently teach) and in Oklahoma, where they were pushed from South Dakota, some time ago. Some of my profs, as a student, and some of my teachers along the life line, were of those nations, and I felt the absolute need to do what I could to move the place to reckoning.

The poems in Blood Run resulted from my time on site and the verse-play resulted from the need to portray in tribute. The mathematics underpinning were my attempt to pay actual tribute to the builders and the cosmogeny they held, to the ceremonial design and astronomy relevant factors in mound sites, to let my father know I remembered this, my sons to see the way in, to affect the reader by the influence therein, and to work my way from brain trauma suffered in an accident during the making of the book. Chadwick Allen decoded a good deal of this in the text, or I would not mention it now. I intended the prosody to move the reader subliminally. The tribute was the most important feature of the prosody with my familial duty and my own recovery in the process challenge being personal process. A recent DNA test on my parents demonstrates the migration from the south with our bloods being inclusive of tribal blood as far south as Patagonia and marks from the Andes, Bri Bri in Costa Rica, Yucatan, and many other associative areas as well as North America. The migration from the south is significant. On our northern side the lines trace the other migration ways, so there is evidence we carry in us that we are united after all. Story is everything when it comes down to it.

You curated and edited the remarkable collection, Sing: Poetry from the Indigenous Americas. This came about after an invitation to read in Medellin, Colombia. How did it all happen?

Thank you for the kind words. This has been a six year project for me, beginning while I was in Medellin, by invitation of OSU to guest-edit To Topos International (Poetry Enterprises), in the edition I named Ahani. They invited me to do a U.S. collection of Native poetry. The day prior, one of the poets from Colombia and another from Ecuador had both approached Sherwin Bitsui and me and we'd made fast friendships. Hugo Jamioy Juagibioy told me he was told, at home, that I'd be the one to connect them with North American Native poets. Within hours the invitation and my response to do the continent, forgetting the Panama Canal. OSU's Eric Dickey was very pleased and agreed wholly. The work began. The festival had asked Sherwin who he'd like to read with from the U.S. and he'd suggested me, so I was there. I was already invited to read in Jordan and after my readings in Colombia, Venezuela and Argentina sent me invitations, so I was traveling in excellent circles to collect work. Still the deadline pressure and volunteer effort on my part to do the editing allowed me to get a great journal together, but I wanted something that would last beyond and, in a longer period, allow me to collect some great works that would do so.

I began the larger project, while keeping about a third of the original collection intact, adding in twice the number of poets I kept for the new edition, but switching out some of the original poetry with poets included in Ahani. Out of respect to the invitation to guest-edit the journal for OSU, though legally I could have simply asked each poet for reprint, for the ones I gathered originally, I elected to give OSU full credit for the original journal as a professional courtesy and as a show of gratitude for the offer to guest-edit and their willingness to allow me to be inclusive of American nations.

Travis Hedge Coke, my son, was instrumental to the success of the work, in that my worklife is full, complicated, and cumbersome, and with six years to work on this, and no funding for any stage, I needed assistance.

Eighty-one poets, twelve translators (numerous Indigenous languages, Spanish, and English mid-section of two large chapters of the collection, I'd heartily argued for French, too, but the publishers have page count concerns), two regular editors from OSU, three from UAz, myself, my son, twelve wonderful writers contributing blurbs, it is a full read. All the poets and Travis contributing and working for a single contributors' copy. An amazing collaboration, by all of us, not just me. This is not meant to be a comprehensive volume, but a beginning of what absolutely needs to happen in the Occidental Hemisphere. This is our beginning. I am super pleased with the results and already thinking of the next venture.

Your great focus on bringing together the poets from Indigenous peoples throughout the Americas goes against current practice, even among many Indigenous writers and scholars, to divide Indigenous peoples into categories based on current political boundaries and to ignore the Indigenous peoples of the southern nations because many are mixed-blood. How have your efforts been received, especially in the United States where the categorizing is strongest?

At first, I think generally people were a bit astounded, but quickly afterward other writer/scholars really started moving in similar directions. Some had made earlier ventures, but had lapsed in follow-up with the current dominant repression that has really seeped into current consciousness. More than mixed issue (there is equally or more mixing in the U.S.) it is a language issue. People in English are afraid of Spanish. They are more comfortable going to New Zealand than Venezuela. They are married to it. Colonial minded oppressions run deep and establishing language barriers put up many more borders than the national ones, in my opinion.

In poetry, the national/international field, the book is well-received and seen as completely necessary. In the community, everyone who has seen it or contributed to it from many diverse communities, there has been equally encouraging receipt. I think, with the actualness of the collection in print, movement is generated and reawakenings are happening surrounding the book I began to collect in 2005, but conceived well before, in some ways. When I was young, I wondered why all the activists were nationalistic when our sister nations were pushed away from us by force, versus choice. I still question, but understand more now why this occurred. Both movements have natural tendencies of sustainability. One is wider reaching, collective, alliance based and migration based kinships; one is more integrally related with viability in survival and independence, and asserting singular culture. Both necessary. The poets included are the happiest, thus far, but teachers and readers are becoming aware of the new collection with great interest. This is it, really. The beginning of something. Truly. It is time, after all, we gathered in mound cities from locations all over America, to celebrate occurrences in the stars and skies, to ceremonially approach life as we know it, to live fully. The cranes have rekindled themselves from a handful of breeding pair following the extermination period in the U.S. to 600,000 cranes. It is now our rekindling and here is a bit of the poetry happening today. We are all singing.

Next week I will post a review of the anthology, SING, and at the end of this week, I will post another profile in the Literary Mystery Novelists series.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Literary Mystery Novelists—Nancy Pickard

I'm late with this blog because last week was a blur of unexpected demands and illness. I hope to get back on schedule this week. In recompense I offer you Nancy Pickard, one of the finest of the literary mystery novelists.

Nancy Pickard has done it all in the crime novel scene. She started with a series of traditional mysteries, the Jennie Cain series about a foundation director in a small New England town, which became highly successful and won a number of the field’s highest awards. Next, she moved into thrillers with her Truth series about a Florida-based true crime writer. Later, she moved into culinary mysteries, writing three novels in the Eugenia Potter series created by Virginia Rich. Finally, she has settled into writing big stand-alone novels with complex plots and characters that could hold their own with any literary novels out there today. Her beautifully crafted books with engaging characters have always been popular with the discerning reader, but these most recent books have brought all her literary promise to a satisfying fulfillment.


Nancy Pickard is the award-winning and critically-acclaimed author of eighteen novels and dozens of short stories. She is the co-author, with Lynn Lott, of the beloved non-fiction book for writers, 7 Steps on the Writer’s Path. She is a 4-time Edgar nominee for her novels, I.O.U., The Whole Truth, and The Virgin of Small Plains, and for her unforgettable short story, “Afraid All the Time.” She won the first-ever Anthony Award for Best Paperback Original Mystery for her second book, Say No to Murder. She has won multiple Agatha Awards and Macavity Awards for her novels and short stories. Her last novel, The Virgin of Small Plains, won the Agatha and Macavity awards, was a finalist for both the Edgar and the Dilys awards, and was named a Killer Book by the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association. It was a Kansas Notable Book in 2008, and it was the Kansas Reads book of the year for 2009. Her most recent novel, The Scent of Rain and Lightning has earned the following honors:

Kansas Notable Book, 2011

Barnes & Noble, Top 25 Novels of 2010

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Top 25 Novels of 2010

Kansas City Star: Top Novels of 2010

Booklist Top Audiobooks of 2010

Finalist, Agatha Award, Best Novel

Finalist, Macavity Award, Best Novel

Finalist, High Plains Book Award for Fiction

Publisher’s Weekly, Starred Review

Library Journal, Starred Review

Booklist, Starred Review

She has written a variety of novels.10 novels in the Jenny Cain mystery series,3 novels in the Marie Lightfoot mystery series,3 novels in the Eugenia Potter series created by Virginia Rich,2 standalone novels in her new “Kansas” series.

Nancy is a founding member and former national president of Sisters In Crime, and a former national board member of The Mystery Writers of America.
She is a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and a lifelong resident of the Kansas City area.

How would you describe The Scent of Rain and Lightning to someone who has not read any of your previous novels?

I'd say it is a novel that was inspired by stories of injustice and of good intentions gone bad; I'd say it's about unlikely love, family love, and love for gain. I'd say it's set in a startling landscape and that it tells what happens to people in a small town before a crime, during the crime, and for years afterward. I'd say it's a family saga, a mystery, and a story about power and influence. Then I'd think to myself, "You really should find a shorter way to say all that."

What's your writing process? What is a typical writing day like for you? Do you keep to a set schedule? What are your writing habits?

My process is to let things happen rather than to force them. I have no schedule. I have no typical writing day, and I don't even stay in the same place all day, because I may go from coffee shop to library to another coffee shop to write. This wasn't true of me when I started writing fiction--I had come from journalism and the business world and I met deadlines, I worked definite hours, etc. But that stopped a long time ago. Now I'm a binge writer. I'll have intense periods when practically all I do is write, starting early in the morning and going until after I'm in bed and the characters won't shut up and let me sleep. Then I'll have long (worrisome) periods when I don't put any words on paper, and I tell myself that the book is gestating and figuring out where it wants to go next. At those times, my job is to deal with my own impatience and refuse to allow it to take over from the interior work my imagination is doing on its own without my interference.

What projects, literary or otherwise, are occupying you at the moment?

I'm doing some minor rewrites on a short story and I'm working on a novel that has a deadline far, far back in my rearview mirror.

Who were your literary influences growing up? I know the Nancy Drew books were an important influence for you. Other than that, are there any authors (living or dead) that you would name as influences?

J.D. Salinger (not Catcher, but rather Franny & Zooey and Nine Stories); Fitzgerald, particularly Gatsby; Edna Ferber (great storyteller), especially Giant; Agatha Christie; James M. Cain; E. B. White, John Gardner's Grendel; T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Robert B. Parker, the list goes on and on and on, and my guess is that hardly any of that is recognizable as an influence in my writing. But I know it's there.

You began with a traditional mystery series, the Jenny Cain mysteries. Then you moved to the Truth series, which was a series of thrillers. What inspired this change? What inspired you to write your first stand-alone novel, The Virgin of Small Plains?

The desire/need to grow as a writer.

Other than your well-known brainstorming and writing friendship with mystery writer, Sally Goldenbaum, do you belong to a critique group of other authors? Do you find it helpful? In what ways?

I haven't belonged to a critique group in decades, but they were helpful a long time ago. Now, my critique group consists of my long-time editor, her long-time assistant editor, and others at the publishing house. I get enough editorial input from all of them; any more would confuse me.

What is your advice to aspiring writers? How important is it for a young writer to be a reader? What would you recommend they read?

I don't know any real writers who aren't also big-time readers.
What should they read? Anything they want to read, to help them discover what they want to write. Then read the best stuff they can find, to help them raise the level of their own work. Unless, that is, the best intimidates them, and then they can back off. That happens early on sometimes, and there's no shame in it.
My advice is to read and read and read and write and write and write, to remember it takes a long time to get any good, and never to fall into the temptation of publishing too soon.

What is the most surprising thing you’ve learned in your writing career? What has been the hardest part about being a writer?

The most surprising thing has been learning how hard it is! It's hard work physically, and it's hard to balance art and income, and some of the most satisfying parts of the work are hard to learn how to do, which also makes them feel really satisfying when you get better at doing them.

Later this week, I’ll have an interview with the wonderful Allison Adele Hedge Coke for the Writers of Color series. See you then. Hope your week begins in a grand manner.