‘A poet in the world’ who’s informed by the land

Award-winning Diné writer Tacey Atsitty discusses her recent book and the accessibility of poetry today.

 

Tacey Atsitty, an award-winning Diné poet, is Tsénahabiłnii (Sleep Rock People) and born for Ta’neeszahnii (Tangle People). She was born in Cove, Arizona, grew up in Kirtland, New Mexico, earned undergraduate degrees from Utah’s Brigham Young University and the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and eventually an MFA in creative writing from Cornell University.

Rain Scald, Atsitty’s first book of poetry, was recently published by the University of New Mexico Press. “The land informs so much of Rain Scald — it’s what holds the stories, it’s what holds my ancestors, it’s what holds everything,” Atsitty said. She has been writing poetry since her early days, when she attended the Navajo Preparatory School in Farmington, New Mexico.

Influenced and encouraged at an early age by Diné poets like Luci Tapahonso and Laura Tohe, Atsitty shares her culture and experiences not only through her poetry, but also through her work as the coordinator of the Native American Village at This is the Place Heritage Park in Salt Lake City. She also helped organize the First Annual Navajo Film Festival, held in Farmington this past June.

HCN contributor Leeanna Torres recently visited with Atsitty. The following interview has been condensed and edited.

High Country News: How did your recent book, Rain Scald, come together?

Dorothy Grandbois
Tacey Atsitty: Most of it came together out of a place of grief, during my time attending Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, following an epidemic of students committing suicide by jumping into the gorges that converge near the University. I found myself asking, “How can I help the students left behind, how can I respond to this community?” As a Westerner used to wide-open spaces, I also retreated to these gorges to offer me some solace; the gorges reminded me of the canyons of my childhood on the Navajo Nation. The center section of my book, especially “Gorge Dweller,” evolved from that time.

HCN: How do you see poetry influencing readers today?

TA: There really is a kind of poetry resurgence in America today. In this digital age (with Facebook, Instagram, etc.), there is a deeper need to feel and reach at the emotions of the human experience. Poets record and translate those experiences we go through and can relate to. Even if (people) don’t understand the whole poem, they can take a piece of it, saying, ‘Yes, I’ve felt that, too. …” And so poetry is able to touch people in a deeper and different way than other forms of writing, including social media. Poetry takes time, it slows people down, and it can fill part of that void we often feel as human beings. … For me, I feel I’m successful as a poet when a reader can pick up my work, and after reading, say, “Yes, I’ve felt that, too…” 

HCN: What does it mean to be a “Native” writer in today’s West?

TA: That brings to mind editor Heid Erdrich’s recent comment in the special edition of Poetry Magazine, entitled “Native Poets.” Erdrich argues that “there is no such thing as Native American poetry. We are poets who belong to Native Nations.” I’ve never thought of myself as a Native poet in the West, but rather as a poet in the world. …

Nonetheless, Native poets such as Simon Ortiz, Joy Harjo and Luci Tapahonso paved the way for poets like me, and also allowed poets of my generation the chance to write in different ways. I try and always stay true to my own voice. While I’m not fluent in Navajo, I can speak a little, and I read and write fluently. A lot of my colloquialisms are found in the local color of the Navajo Nation or surrounding areas, so my language and writing is informed by this.

HCN: What does it feel like to express yourself through English, rather than your people’s Native language?

TA: This goes into a much larger discussion of history, and why it is that English is my first language. My father, from the age of 8 to 18, was in what was called the Indian Placement Program, enacted by the LDS Church. During the school year, he would live with LDS families, and then he would go home during the summers. He said it felt like being “dipped” from language to language, because he grew up only speaking Navajo, then he’d go to the English-speaking family, then back into Navajo … so he felt like he could never get a good grasp on either language. (Because of that) he raised us (Atsitty and her siblings) speaking only English, and, long-story short, I went to an Ivy League institution, I’ve lived abroad, I’ve traveled around the world ... and I’ve been able to do these things because of language. I am able to articulate, and to tell our stories, my stories, in a way that English-speaking people can understand. Do I lament the fact that I don’t fluently speak Navajo? Absolutely. … (long pause) 

HCN: What invitation would you offer readers towards your work and message?

TA: Just keep reading, keep an open mind, and start with poetry you can relate to. … I know that my work can be difficult, but I was taught as a poet that the reader often has to do as much work reading as I’ve done in writing. I was talking with my dad just the other day, and he said something like, “Why is poetry so hard?!” and I said, “Dad, if poetry was easy, nobody would read it.”

Oftentimes, “accessible” is a dirty word in poetry circles; if work is too accessible, then it’s too transparent. However, I knew my audience for this book was initially going to be Native students, and yet I also want my work to be accessible to people who are not Navajo, who are not female, who are not who I am.

Our history in the West is so very complex, but if I were to offer any words, it would be to encourage acknowledgement of the land — this acknowledgment that everything we receive we receive from the land, from earth. And to be grateful.

Leeanna Torres has deep roots in New Mexico.  Her essays have appeared in Blue Mesa Review, Tupelo Press Quarterly, and more recently in Minding Nature, a publication of the Center for Humans and Nature).