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Apr/May 2011 Reviews & Interviews

An Interview with Kimberly L. Becker

by Susan Settlemyre Williams


Buy now from Amazon! Kimberly L. Becker is a member of Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers. Words Facing East (WordTech Editions, 2011) is her first book of poetry. Individual poems appear in many journals and anthologies. She has received grants from the Maryland State Arts Council, as well as the Arts and Humanities Council of Montgomery County (MD), the latter of which funded her study of Cherokee language, history, and culture in Cherokee, North Carolina. She was also awarded a residency at Hambidge Center. Current projects include adapting Cherokee myths into plays for the Cherokee Youth in Radio Project at the Cherokee Youth Center, also in Cherokee.

 

SSW     Kim, congratulations on the publication of Words Facing East. It's been an ongoing pleasure to watch your emergence and development as a poet. Words Facing East is a very cohesive collection, much of it exploring your Cherokee heritage from various perspectives. In "Bumping Up Against the Stories," you address that heritage directly when speaking of the photograph of a great-grandmother of whom a cousin says, "You can see the Indian in her." Another, feisty poem is called "The Cherokee in Me." Elsewhere, you write about Cherokee history, ceremonies, and landscape. Could you talk a bit about your ancestry and why it's important to you and to your work?

KB     Thank you, Susan. I feel very blessed to have a book out. I had a lot of support. Thanks also for thinking the book is cohesive! It didn't start out that way. I'm fortunate my publisher allowed revisions. I'm of mixed ancestry, Cherokee and European (Celtic and German). I am careful to say I am of descent and not enrolled, but as someone whose opinion I respect once told me, "You can't document the heart." That was a real gift to me in validating that I had the "right" to explore a heritage I was estranged from growing up. With privilege comes obligation, so once I discovered my Cherokee ancestry, I was determined to reconnect as much as I could, in as respectful a manner as possible, with Cherokee history, culture and language. Linda Hogan, an amazing writer and person whom I was so honored to meet recently, wrote of her early poems: "They are home speaking through me. Home is in blood, and I am still on the journey of calling myself home." When I read that, I realized that is how I think of the poems in my own book.

SSW     Throughout Words Facing East, you use a complex of images of water, cleansing, blood, and language. In "The Catch," you write of listening to CD's of the Cherokee tongue "to keep my language up," and end with the image of the mind as "a weir / where words are caught..." In "Word as Fish," you speak of "the mouth of the [river] where the blood will answer." In "Riven," Cherokee girls in a government boarding school long for "the language they drank at infancy" and drown while trying to run away. "Bumping Up Against the Stories" transmutes the idea of blood as inheritance into a staunched flow of untold narratives. ("Blood from her flows down to me... / Stories coagulate...") Is this matrix of imagery your personal trope for a half-lost ancestry, or does or draw on traditional Cherokee imagery? Or, for that matter, both?

KB     So you noticed all the water and blood, huh? The first title of the manuscript (under which it was a finalist for the De Novo award) was Blood Work.

I didn't fashion a trope intentionally, but as I organized the poems certain images recurred. The Cherokee language immersion class I took with Bo Taylor of the Eastern Band was one immediate influence for the water imagery. Several poems reference the experience of being immersed, dunked, in the language 8 hours a day for two weeks, even at lunch, which really limited my choices!

You mention "Word as Fish." That poem combines water, blood, and language imagery in ways that even I don't fully understand. At the end I say, "Somewhere I have the words to tell you who I am / They're stuck in my throat, lodged in my blood / Here: draw them out, fish on fish, from that deep place / Feed me as you did before, for I am hungry now: agiyosiha."

Rilke wrote something to the effect that a poet needs to have many experiences and forget them until they become part of the blood; only then might a poem arise. In what I think of as my "going deep" poems there is always an element of mystery, a where did that come from surprise that, if it doesn't end in wisdom, at least ends somewhere further along than where I started.

So yes, the book grapples with identity, with what has been lost and partway regained. I'm also intrigued by the idea of ancestral or blood memory, what we carry from generation to generation, but that is not necessarily articulated. In the poem, "Letting Down the Stories" I acknowledge that "what [my grandmother] didn't say spoke loudest." It's the poet's role to listen to what is unsaid and try to transmute that into song.

SSW     I particularly like your poem "Beads." You make it clear "that wampum / wasn't merely money, wasn't just for trade, / but had a deeper meaning, outward sign of inward word." Here again, language is an important subtext. In a sense I see the whole of Words Facing East as an ars poetica. Would you agree with that assessment?

KB     I'm glad you liked that poem, set at Harpers Ferry. It was the first poem I wrote that utilized historical documentation (from Lewis's notebooks). "Beads" took my work to a different place, a less narrow and personal view of the world, although some of my other poems certainly are more solipsistic in nature.

I didn't consciously develop an ars poetica, but when I step back from my work I can see that the language of many poems deals with the limits—and also the possibilities—of language itself. The difficulty in uttering the important words at the right time. The heartbreak of words that can't be unsaid. Yet also the healing power of words: "with your bracing words / you shook the sorrow / from my limbs / so I stood centered once again / with the boundaries of my life around / and new" ("Shaking the Snow").

SSW     Landscape figures largely in your book. I know that your roots are in Western North Carolina, my own part of heaven. In "In the Purple and Blue of It," you refer to it as "sacred ground" and later in the poem, you say:

I have seen mesas
Great red tables
Altars for sacrifice
But it is these mountains
I hold against the bruise of my heart...

In The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin and in other anthropological studies, it is clear that, for many indigenous peoples, landscape, especially sacred landscape, is very specific. What's holy is this particular tree, this rock formation where something important happened in the Dream Time. Is that how you feel about "sacred ground"?

KB     Yes. In that same poem I write, "When I return to the anxiety / Of the city / I will long for this land / As a lover for the body of the beloved." This reminds me of what I once heard an elder say: that we are of a place, not from a place. When I was on residency at Hambidge last summer (in the North Georgia mountains, on the North Carolina border) I spent a lot of time visiting Cherokee sites, especially those associated with particular myths and by myth I don't mean untrue.

The first and last poems of the book are set at Kituwah, the sacred mother town of the Cherokee. It was very powerful being there; many of us were overcome with emotion. So when a company like Duke Power threatens to build nearby it betrays a lack of appreciation for the land as a sacred, living entity and not commodity.

SSW     Directional imagery also figures in your collection. The title poem, "What the Tourists Don't Know" (which portrays a Cherokee man, drunk but insistent on how he should orient himself "when the sun rises"—"He may be drunk ..." you write, "but when he speaks / his words face East") stands in sharp contrast to "Westward Facing Window," in which you allude to the Trail of Tears, the route along which some Cherokee were forced out of the Smokies and relocated to Oklahoma, with those remaining forming the Eastern Band. East vs. West also invokes the older imagery of sunrise and sunset. Was East always the sacred direction? Did it gain in power when the concept of "home" became associated with the East? I've read that many authors have their own sacred directions. We can certainly think of many for whom south is important. Do you have your own sacred direction?

KB     I hadn't thought of directional imagery; thanks for noticing that. The directions have different associations. All are necessary for balance. The sacred numbers, four and seven, refer to the four directions and also below, above and in the center. Several of my poems are grouped in quatrains or in seven-line stanzas, so that is one way direction influenced my work, although I hadn't put that together til now, thanks to your question! I started one poem as a sestina, but due to the primacy of the story on which it was based, I changed it into a "settina" with seven lines. On the topic of direction I want to credit my sister, Amy Gilley Miller, with her gorgeous cover photo. I often tell people it's the best part of the book! The water imagery perfectly complements the book and the reflection of the trees in the water has always suggested to me an arrowhead pointing East, the direction I face for prayer in the morning.

SSW     "La Doncella" struck me powerfully. In it you describe the mummified body of an Inca girl on display at the Museum of High Altitude Archaeology, and your message is that this treatment is a form of exploitation. "Would they display their own dead daughters?" you ask. If you'll excuse a personal anecdote, the poem reminded me of visiting an archaeological and historical museum in York, England, where the body of a medieval man was on display. My first response was that this was sacrilege: Here was a man whose burial involved a ceremony and expectations of the afterlife that many in the modern world would recognize as their own. If he could be put into a glass case on view to all, so could we. (I say this as someone who has always been fascinated by archaeology.) I get very much the same indignation, even outrage, in your poem. How should we respect the beliefs and intentions of the dead, even—or, perhaps, especially—when those beliefs and intentions are lost to us? How do we balance this respect with the quest for knowledge and understanding of those cultures that may sometimes be gained only by examining the dead?

KB     I had the (somewhat subversive) pleasure of reading "La Doncella" at a museum—The Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian in Washington (as part of The Florida Review's Native issue). That poem gets different reactions. Indian people get it. Some white people who have read it don't see the problem! Western anthropologists who excavate Indian burial sites are not necessarily going to end up with knowledge even if they end up with bones, since knowledge of a culture resides with the people of that culture. In the arrowhead-shaped poem "Finders, Keepers" I write, "Indian bones /encased for / sale or show / keep their / spirit that / those who / found and / stole will /never / know."

SSW     Your collection tells me that my knowledge of the history and mythology of the Cherokee and other indigenous American cultures is woefully inadequate. In "Selu's Song," a woman becomes the Ur-corn plant, the gift of grain. The closing lines ("there would be much corn, / but ... first would come blood") implies a violent ending and ties the woman to vegetative gods like Osiris, Adonis, and Persephone. As you know, the original meaning of myth is "story" or "sacred story;" the question of truth or falsity does not enter in. Can you talk about how Cherokee mythology influences your poetry?

KB     The poem you reference actually is based on the myth of Kanati and Selu, First Man and First Woman and is the one I mentioned changing from a sestina to a settina. An ongoing project of mine that I love is adapting Cherokee myths into plays for the Cherokee Youth in Radio Project. I am very grateful to Shawn Crowe of the Eastern Band for privileging me with this opportunity. This poem was written after I adapted a play from that story. The story is violent, but ends with life. In one poem I rework the myth of the Magic Lake, where animals go to be healed, but I imagine it as a place where people can go to be healed as well. If I had not had the honor of working on these plays, I'm not sure I would have written these poems. The stories worked their way into me and the poems grew from that experience; stories nourish as much as food. I have had the privilege of listening to storytellers in Cherokee and it's interesting how they adapt the stories for new audiences, keeping the message fresh, while perpetuating tradition.

SSW     Your poem mentions a place where people can go to be healed. You have had to deal with your own chronic health issues. Has having to take time to manage these conditions actually allowed, or even enabled, you to turn to poetry?

KB     As you know, dealing with chronic conditions takes energy. During really difficult times, I've been grateful for the solace of poetry. Thankfully, I'm at a better place now health-wise, and even became licensed as a wellness coach to help others improve their own health. I still have the occasional flare-up, though, so have to try to be careful not to over-extend. This means listening to my body, since chronic illness is about management, not a cure. The silver lining to being more mindful of my physical well-being is that it encourages me to be more mindful in my writing. Several poems in my book deal with healing, so I guess that is my way of reaching towards wholeness. There's an emotional toll to living under physical duress and I think maybe that is what I was after in my poem "On The Medicine Trail" when I ask, "Is there a plant whose leaves, / steeped in bitter tea, / will ease the soul's disease"? I joke with my acupuncturist that the line reminds me of her, since she often prepares bitter tea for me to drink!

Poetry itself is healing. People turn to it during hard times. Stories that are passed along in cultures and families can be healing, as well. (Of course, the opposite is also true: secrets can be damaging.) At the end of my poem "Blood Work" there are the lines, "How do people heal / if not by story, not by blood?" I just noticed that in these two examples there's a question mark; maybe I was intuitively indicating the tenuousness of the process!

In the poem "Language Class," I write: "words work secret medicine / and strong, forming us / from the inside out" so there is a medicinal property to words. On a broader scale, I have a poem ("Washing the Blankets") that alludes to illness as part of genocidal policy. But the book isn't all gloom and doom! I like to think there is some positive movement, often encountered in nature, whether finding some beautiful feathers or listening to the wind in the cedar. The poem "Come Back to the World" has the lines "Come back to the world… Let it heal what you feel is far gone."

Incidentally, I know a lot of Native writers with health and immune issues. I was always struck by Paula Gunn Allen's poem about her mother's lupus, "Dear World," where she suggests that those of mixed descent essentially are at war within ourselves. I feel there is some truth to that. I met someone at a conference once who told me his friends of white and Indian descent feel "dis-ease" until they choose which way to follow, since you can't choose both paths. That has been the case for me. Long answer, but I appreciate your sensitivity in asking this question.

SSW     Some of your poems, especially "The lake of your choosing," read like meditations, even guided meditations, and I am reminded that you have worked in the ministry. Do you see poetry as an evolution of that vocation or are they part of a single vocation? Could you talk about that a bit?

KB     I hadn't thought of "The lake of your choosing" that way, but thank you for that observation! That description resonates with my experience of writing that poem; I sort of dived in and through active imagination, found myself swimming under the water and then resurfacing. I think that's what we do when we write anyway: dive down deep into the wreck of history and our lives for "the treasures that prevail" despite much damage (Adrienne Rich, "Diving into the Wreck"). This poem is a good example of how not to be too rational sometimes in writing since I have no idea what that title means and the ending also blurs the line between fantasy and reality. What gives that poem depth though, is the myth behind it—the story I alluded to before of The Magic Lake where animals go to be healed. In this poem, as I said, I imagine a place for people to go to be healed as well. So there's the theme of healing again: "gradually where there was pain, you are healed."

The poem "River of Words" (another failed title for the collection; authors, Google your prospective titles!) addresses spiritual healing: "I went to the water of language to be cleansed of conquering consonants / I went to be baptized into my true self I keep coming to water over and over / Even now, as you speak, some of your spittle lands on my land / joining water to water, all of us part." Part of my journey in writing this book was trying to reconcile my Cherokee ancestry with Christianity that, to put it mildly, does not always have the best track record with indigenous peoples.

Writing is my first calling; my profession in the ministry came later. I left full-time ministry several years ago due to my health. Now that my health has improved I am revisiting that vocation where I was privileged to meet people at the edges of their lives: "In the ER all that blood / and my hands in it, / without gloves. / How else to stroke the girl's hair / and murmur prayers? / Black hair, black blood." ("Blood Work") Poetry also examines those raw edges, so in a sense I suppose it is part of the same call. I think it's limiting to compartmentalize ourselves. A poet has to write out of the totality of his or her being or else the poems will remain on the surface.

SSW     In some respects your project in Words Facing East that of Jake Adam York, whose three collections examine various martyrs of the Civil Rights Movement. I was interested to note that both of you have poems dealing in one way or another with Andrew Jackson. Your "Indian Graves at Congressional Cemetery" speaks ironically of the funeral of Pushmataha, where "the big guns fired over you" and of Jackson's own grave in Tennessee, where "you have to pay: / admission." "On Tallasseehatchee Creek," one of the few poems in York's oeuvre that addresses injustices earlier than those of the Civil Rights era, describes archaeologists working at the site of Jackson's massacre of a Creek village ("the ground is smooth / with the fat of those / who burned alive"), a task that must be completed quickly so that construction can begin for a subdivision with "streets already named, / Arrow head Drive, Ember Lane." Jackson—populist and bigot, liberator and murderer—embodies some of our deepest cultural contradictions:. I am wondering if poetry, which operates in the world of ambiguities, is perhaps a particularly good medium for exploring such a figure and the larger problems his character raises?

KB     Jake is a wonderful writer. Several years ago he was good enough to publish my first online piece in storySouth, a little poem called "Crossing Over" that I plan to include in my second collection.

You're probably familiar with Split This Rock, an organization that recognizes poetry as an agent for change and social justice—poetry not as propaganda, but witness. During AWP I joined a protest at the White House with Writers Against War and Occupation in Afghanistan and Iraq. It was quite moving to use poetry as a form of witness. Like Akhmatova's "Requiem": "'Could one ever describe this?'' And I answered—'I can.'"

Sometimes we describe it slant: in the poem you cite, I intentionally did not name Jackson, relegating him instead to the notes; I also used the double entendre of having to pay admission to see his grave. Even though every American uses the twenty-dollar bill with Jackson's face on it, not everyone is aware of his treachery to the Cherokee and other Indians. A man came up to me after my reading at the Smithsonian and wanted to argue with me about Jackson. I was dismayed, but not surprised, that he had thought him a hero.

SSW     Do you have plans for another book? If so, do you think you will be continuing your exploration of your heritage, or will you take a different direction? Or is it too soon even to think about future books? How does it feel to have the first one available to the world?

KB     Yes, I have another manuscript in progress. It has a journey motif. I gathered two notebooks' full of drafts while in residency at Hambidge last summer, but have been too busy with the first book to spend as much time developing the second as I'd like. I work very slowly, but I have a sense of the structure I'm aiming for. The question is, can I do it? I have more fun at this stage than at any other time. The thing is, I didn't set out to write a first book. What happened was that I began to see a pattern of affinity among the poems that finally became the basis for the first book and taking the language immersion course brought everything together. A couple of the poems were written several years before the book came out; many were written over the last three years and some as recently as the last year before publication. It is a childhood dream come true to have a first book out and I met my personal goal of having a book published before my son, to whom the book is dedicated, graduates high school! It feels good, but at the same time vulnerable. There are some poems I don't include at readings because I am afraid of being too full of emotion.

SSW     Thank you, Kim. In closing, I might ask you the same question that you asked me when you interviewed me a few years ago. Like you, "I'd like to leave the reader with an image. Without naming it, describe if you would the lost material possession you would most like to recover if you could."

KB     Oh gosh—the tables turned! I got that idea from the title of your chapbook, Possession. Well, what I always wanted to find as a child and never did, the item that terrified and thrilled me to know had been lost in the field behind our rented house on Grand Boulevard before my parents' divorce, was only a small steel tool on which a childhood game is based, but to my mind a silver jaw, a metal maw of menace and promise. I think I felt if I had found it, then things would have felt safer and that I might have had something to wield against the future. An implement of survival.

 

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