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.

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