The best writing in the world is worth nothing without a reader, even if that reader also wrote it.
Allison Adelle Hedge Coke holds the Reynolds Chair of Creative Writing in the University of Nebraska at Kearney English Department. Her debut poetry collection, Dog Road Woman (Coffee House Press, 1997), won the American Book Award in 1998. Her memoir Rock, Ghost, Willow, Deer (University of Nebraska Press, 2004) was an AIROS Book of the Month. Her collection of poetry Off-Season City Pipe (Coffee House Press, 2005) garnished a Writer of the Year Award for Poetry by Wordcraft Circle and her poetry verse-play Blood Run (Salt Publications, 2007) was selected as a second Writer of the Year Award for Poetry by Wordcraft Circle, awarded in 2008.
Allison has edited eight collections, including Effigies (Salt Publications, 2009), and she won a Wordcraft Journal of the Year Award for Editing Ahani—ToTopos International Poetry Journal (for the 2006-2007 Winter Edition). She is the editor of the recently published Sing (2011), "a multilingual collection of Indigenous American poetry," from the University of Arizona Press. She serves as Senior Editor of Platte Valley Review and directs the Reynolds Series and the annual Literary Sandhill Cranefest. Fellowships and honors include: a Lannan Residency Fellowship, a Hawthornden Castle Residency Fellowship, annual Weymouth Residency Fellowships, a MacDowell Colony for Artists Residency Fellowship, a King-Chavez-Parks Award, a Sioux Falls Mayor's Award for Literary Excellence, several teaching awards and literary grants from regional, state, and community programs and public entities. She has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize four times.
Travis Hedge Coke is Allison's son. He is of mixed ethnicity and mixed feelings about admitting that in his biographies. His visual art has been showcased from Los Angeles to Kyoto, and he has read from New York City to Amman, Jordan (most recently, at Naropa's Summer Writing Program). His writing has been featured in Yellow Medicine Review, Many Mountains Moving, Dead Pretty Boys, and the Lumberyard. He co-founded and edits Future Earth Magazine.
From Travis Hedge Coke's "Old Frost," Sing: Poetry from the Indigenous Americas:
Dust on the neck
Neck of a dead
Dust coats the feathers, tiny temperate feathers
On the neck
Of the winter of the decade
Decadent dents in the the the
From Allison Adelle Hedge Coke's "America, I Sing You Back," Sing: Poetry from the Indigenous Americas:
America, I sing back. Sing back what sung you in.
Sing back the moment you cherished breath.
Sing you home into yourself and back to reason.
KB Allison and Travis, it is a privilege to have this conversation with you. Where is home for you both, in whatever way you choose to interpret "home" and what keeps each of you and your work alive?
AHC North Carolina is always home to me and any landscape that reminds me of home, but home is also where I hang my toothbrush in the larger world, wherever I may be. In addition, I was raised a significant time in Canada, near my grandparents, was born in Texas, where my dad was working, was fostered to other states, and have moved around my adult life, working, teaching, and living. Spent many years in South Dakota, several in California, a few in New Mexico, Michigan, and on so. Still, rarely am I more at home anywhere than NC. I got close to it in upstate New York and visiting in South America.
THC Home means a lot of things, none of which I give any thought to unless I'm made to. It doesn't really matter, does it? Either I'm in diaspora on a continent to which I am, at least in part, indigenous, or I belong everywhere and anywhere I roam because this is the 21st Century and borders are as silly as comfort is paramount. Or, both of those options are BS.
KB Travis, as a recovering fiction writer, I always had a theory that gesture reveals character. This sentence from your story, "Touching Distance" (Yellow Medicine Review) strikes me as quiet genius: "Nana almost touched Maria's soft beach-white hair, retracting before that tangential could become action." Cynthia Ozick once said (in her Paris Review interview) that you could tell more about a writer in a single sentence than in biographies or interviews. What, if anything, does this sentence reveal about you as a writer?
THC It helps that I really enjoy that line. I am more interested in what people do not do, or stop themselves from doing; half-committed actions. And, I'll stretch out a sentence if I can. Really, no answer I give is going to be as good as what you get out of the line. A better writer than me, a better reader, could get a book's worth of interpretation and criticism from that one line without ever mentioning me.
KB You have both spent time at Weymouth Center and other residencies. How important is that time away for your work?
AHC Absolutely important. I would barely be able to free myself from other work tasks without retreat. Honestly. The Lannan residency was a lifesaver for me in many ways. The work produced there will be coming soon. My time at Hawthorden was eye-opening. I could say the same for MacDowell. Marfa was exemplary and of the high points in my life. Weymouth is a coming home place for me. I lived three blocks away from it at 15, waiting tables for golfers. Kicked teen narcotic addictions there during that time. Crucial. Weymouth is more of home. Time off work to work home. In the writing.
THC The residencies can be an excuse to work even harder. Time away from family, sometimes, or friends. Time away from a particular locale, but work is prevalent, whether it's personal stuff or things I've been assigned, took on for the credit or money. At my recent stay at the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center, I was pulling absurd hours and got a ton accomplished, but I had an excuse to not be social. I could just squirrel away and work.
KB Each of you is also an editor. Travis, you edit Future Earth Magazine, noted not only for its literary, but also for its visual art. Allison, you edit Platte Valley Review, as well as several books. How does editing inform your respective creative endeavors, if at all?
AHC Travis also works on PVR. I've been editing since I've been publishing and believe it is the same for Travis. I'm a hack editor on myself, tossing out whole books at times. I'm much easier on others' works. I love collecting words from diverse ranges of voice and representations of language and lingual effort. I love bringing forces together, so editing allows me to do this effectively, to create a new fluency each time.
THC Whether or not I am a very good editor or curator, I enjoy showing off the works of others far more than I enjoy my own work getting out there. A significant portion of my own creative output is really in the hopes others will take what I've thrown and run with it better, anyway. There is so much great art and writing in existence; the more we have access to it, and the better arranged that access is, the better.
KB Travis, in addition to writing fiction, you are also a visual artist. Allison, you also write memoir, fiction and are a skilled photographer! How does each of you know which medium a certain work needs to take or is it even a conscious decision?
AHC I also write script, articles, and began as a songwriter in NC. I've worked in performance and visual art and Travis and I have collaborated recently on a visual piece, Night Crane, that was auctioned off here just prior to the last migration epicenter. For our family, this is normal. Just a choice for the current devotion or the expression mode, really. If too cerebral, we go to something physical. I was in welding sculpture for a good while, for the physicality it afforded. Some of the work just comes the way it does, sometimes it calls for more, the end display is not always the final.
THC My mom's work in all the artistic fields in which we work, is better than mine. I think she probably does choose what to express in what medium, in what genre, but, then, she's a Structuralist. I enjoy too much, and especially too many happy accidents to be a good Structuralist. Primarily, I want each piece I do to have as much resonance, as many resonances, as can be fitted beautifully in. I want to write stories that play like Jimi Hendrix's Crosstown Traffic like nothing else, kazoo overdubs and everything. But I want my songs to have chapter breaks, the thing to be, in itself, worthy.
I just finished an installation that's being housed in a gallery in Nebraska City that is meant to evoke a child grieving, and each element had to be crafted carefully but without proper technique. A purely visual representation, or a two-dimensional rendering would have failed a thing the way a three-dimensional physical object is, but then words and pictures carry different communications, just as a style of framing or the shape of the artifact—be it painting or book.
KB Travis, what can so-called literary writers learn from graphic novel and comics? Are the boundaries too delineated in the creative writing world? You also keep a blog; do you consider blogging an alternate art form?
THC I think it's unfortunate that for a lot of comics readers and talent, the past hundred years of development seems not to have happened, but then, there are things that certain comics-makers have done that I do not see reflected in other fields. Grant Morrison has perfected narrative pointillism and some of the 60s/70s writers were doing these operatic modes that eschewed the three-act structure for pulsing and interweaving narratives that are amazingly elegant. I think that, as reproduction and distribution become easier and cheaper, we should be reevaluating how much we can bastardize to better, can borrow, steal, or manipulate techniques from one medium to another. It's good to remember, too, that with a "low" form as comics, well, Samuel Delaney, William Burroughs, Norman Mailer, Michael Moorcock, Frederico Fellini, and such luminaries all did comics as well as prose. Sure, the mainstream isn't those guys, but mainstream prose isn't the "literary" set either.
I do maintain a blog, in the sense that I abuse blogspot as a free venue for posting text and images, but I don't actually blog in any kind of journalistic or diary sense. Mostly, I use the digital space for brief essays, annotations, and hype for myself and whomever, whatever I like at the moment.
KB Tell me about your last name. I have seen it spelled with one word and with two. What is the significance?
AHC My hospital birth certificate spelled with two, my sister's with one. My grandpa separated in his signature. His grandfather spelled a variety of ways. It is still in flux, you might say. I left it the way it was first written. Travis kept that way, his brother likes conjoined. I'll let him handle from here.
THC I was born with it being two words. I'm used to writing it as two. From a publishing/archiving standpoint, joining it seems sound—Don DeLillo insists he only had great sales and attention after running his together—but I am not that person, maybe, a Travis HedgeCoke.
KB Allison, you have written: "Poetry is the lead mare of living and death. She is the balance of the beautiful and the horrendous. She is the historic memory and the nowness of light." ("Horses," Yellow Medicine Review). You have been a featured reader at Split This Rock. What is the role of poetry in social justice?
AHC Poetry is oraliterature based and performative as well as taken to print, literature, so you have three avenues readily available and more with recordings, multimedia, digital poetics, and archival record, so at least seven ways to contemplate and situate and moderate information and get to the people and make change apparent through the structures of verse. Additionally, prosody has an impact that is subliminal, repetition, rhyme, you name it, poetics are full of every single communicative device known and make the perfect suitor to fill the role of activism. It is integral.
KB Allison, you have a sister who is a journalist and to whom you refer in your work. It is clear you were a great comfort to each other as children. Do you in any way attribute your family talent, your reaching after explanation, to difficulties endured, whether in childhood or in later years?
AHC Perhaps, though she might disagree, probably would, in the disagreement we each learn our own positions though, so they are not really hindering, but a leveraging of thought. Our family, on all sides is completely creative. Loads of musicians, singers, artists, thinkers, movers, shakers, you name it. We inherited enough to make a god of it and do. Steph left for good when I was thirteen. We had already been apart on many occasions as children, but have been mostly apart since. Still we do communicate, as sisters, and grow from our differences. She is dark, I am light, our mom was grossly insane with schizophrenia, we are from mixed families and landscapes, so there are a lot of areas we depart and yet are the same. The older we get, the more alike we look, but those appearances are only mirroring ancestry. We always read and wrote together when we were very small. She is older. I deferred to her then.
KB Travis, what have you learned from you mom's art?
THC That I should be happy with what I am doing. With my work. If I tried to measure up, I probably wouldn't bother. I'm uncompetitive to a fault, and I love so many of her works. It's unfortunate that I can't steal more of her techniques, but I would never be able to get them to work the way she does.
KB Allison, what have you learned from your artist-son?
AHC How to live in the world without a death wish, maybe? He is the reason I am alive today really. And then his brother. The two of them saved me. Honestly. The both endow my perspective, as do my grandchildren. They are quite informative, all, and Travis has also been a great colleague and informs me with his perspectives often.
KB Allison, your poem, "Putting up Beans," reminded me of snapping beans with my own grandmother. Many of your poems honor a connection to the land. Is that in your blood? I am reminded of Simon Ortiz: Being + Place = Existence
AHC Definitely. Check out the Southern Spaces pages on Poets in Place. We snapped beans for the footage near where I snapped them back then. So true, Simon. So true.
KB Allison, in your poem "A White Lady Speaks," you write of a woman who "tells that if her kids were Indian she'd raise them to be medicine men or women." As writers of mixed descent, how does each of you deal with this kind of stereotype?
AHC That woman was on the Amtrak as I headed to graduate school, kids in tow. It was a real conversation, one-sided as it was. She had no clue, apparently, how we were hearing her. Our side is apparent in the poem, I believe. I try not to deal with it outside of the writing, personally at least, I'd rather deal with it in larger constructs that could make a significant difference, writing, teaching. Personal exchanges rarely get much done in the larger picture.
THC "Medicine man" loses its oomph with the recession of the term from anglo application to anglos, gaining only an atmosphere of foreignness and mystery in exchange for clarity of application. And, I absolutely loathe most contemporary applications of the eastern European term, "shaman." But, be it "brave" or "warrior" or "medicine woman" and so, it's all silly dehumanizing in the same sense as "destroy the Indian, save the man" or exoticizing idiocy regarding the inherent magic of one gender, ethnicity, family line, or person with a certain number of fingers on their left hand. This isn't something only people of obviously mixed descent or culture have to death with, but a problem I think most people are faced with that having that mixed status makes more annoyingly apparent.
KB Allison, your poem "The Change," which I've had the honor of hearing you read in person twice, always moves me to tears. The last line is "and it floods my memory." Memory figures prominently in your work, whether personal or geo-cultural (I'm thinking of your verse play, Blood Run). Do you feel a special obligation towards preserving ancestral as well as personal memory? Is art a way to survive intergenerational trauma? Travis, as the next generation, what are your thoughts on this?
AHC Thank you, I appreciate that. Yes, of course, it is our raising. Maybe I traumatized Trav. Travis?
THC You all see how there's no way I can answer that, right? So, to the original question, I think we only have the history that is in our memory—personal memory or recorded forms—and rather than an obligation, unless you've been specifically assigned by someone to keep track of things, it is good of us to remember, to perpetuate memory and acknowledgment. It is a terrible disservice to forget people, to forget events, and even worse, perhaps, to remember them wrongly to others.
KB Have you ever collaborated on work? What projects are at the forefront for each of you now?
AHC Yes, we have. More in writing, editing, but also visual. Also in discussion, philosophy, terminology. In planting, in walking, in life.
THC Right. We have collaborated directly, collaborated in joint with others (I have a comic around somewhere that is a giant jam session between the two of us, my brother, Ambrose Bye, Allen Ginsberg, Peter Lamborn Wilson, et al that really should get a proper printing sometime), but then she has set me up with other folks to collaborate or work, and I've suggested people to her or her to others, and we live on the same planet and talk and see each other so who knows really what is and is not an unofficial collaboration and what is just influence. If there is any difference.
KB As you know, in Cherokee culture the concept of gadugi or working together for the good of community is very important. My own impression of you both is that you carry that concept over into the literary community in the way you quietly mentor and support others in their work. It is a refreshing antidote to an otherwise competitive publishing world. Any advice or comments you'd like to leave for your readers, particularly aspiring writers?
AHC Breathe deeply, inhale into reaches, sit with the breath, transition, experience, enjoy revealings, revelations, exhale the next level and move with it. When you get a foot in the door, hold it wide open for others to pour through.
THC Do everything you can as you want to and most importantly, share it. Submit, share, discuss, comment, converse. The best writing in the world is worth nothing without a reader, even if that reader also wrote it. It is we that are significant; the works are a tool set.
KB Thank you, Travis. Thank you, Allison.
AHC Thank you, Kimberly Becker. Love your new collection. I wish it and you well.
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