“Stories woven into Landscape”

Readers, check out Claire Harlan-Orsi’s interview with writer Laura Da’ on the imagery in her poetry and her identity as a poet.

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These poems very powerfully evoke the histories that adhere to particular landscapes. Can you talk a little about how you see the connections between land, people and time?

As a writer, I think that most of my poems begin embedded within a particular landscape and a particular sensation of the body. I got the idea for the poem “Irreversibility” when I was at a tourist center at a dam on the Columbia River. The noise from the river was overwhelming and even though we were perfectly safe, I was seized with a sense of panic. That sparse landscape combined with my panicked senses was the starting place for that poem. I combined that with the experiences my family members related to me about working Washington state dams.

In 2008, the Eastern Shawnee Tribe offered any interested tribal members the opportunity to tour traditional Shawnee villages in Ohio. That  experience of time and place informed my historical writing. Stories feel most urgent and real to me when they are rooted in a time and landscape and a physical sense of the body. One thing that ran through my mind as I was writing “Hived Bees in Winter” was the idea of memories or stories woven into a particular landscape and how that might add depth to the cultural loss of Indian Removal.

Two of your poems begin with epigraphs from (presumably) white officials who had some power over Native American peoples/lands. How do you intend these statements to be read? How do you see their discourse interacting with your own?

I wanted to comment on the deceptive sense of distance between the past and the present. When I was writing “Hived Bees in Winter,” I was doing a great deal of research into the Shawnee removal from Ohio and finding very little. Finally, I got access to the official journal of occurrences kept by the government to document the removal of the Shawnee/Seneca band and I found it to be a document so painful to read that my aversion to it was nearly physical. I wanted to include an epigraph from that document because it shocked and disgusted me, but I also felt that it seized my mind and provided some evidence of the undeniable horror of removal and the callow attitudes of the people who facilitated it.There is some resentment and regret that circles around in me that these are the voices that tell the story of this history. To me, this is highly suspect and I want the juxtaposition of these epigraphs and the poetic wonderings that follow to cast a shadow of doubt across the conventional historical narrative.

Do you call yourself a Native American writer? (AND/OR) What kind of conversation do you see your work having with Native American poetry both past and present?

I attended the Institute of American Indian Arts in the late 90s when I was in my late teens and it was the first time I’d been in a community that was devoted to both Native culture and the arts, so my sense of Native identity and my artistic identity grew up together.

As a young writer, I think I was very conflicted about my identity as a Native American writer and I worried that I wasn’t Native enough and that I didn’t have a strong enough connection to my tribal community to legitimately call myself a Native writer. So I just stopped writing for a while. That changed for me through parenthood. When I had my son I realized that, although his blood quantum is numerically even lower than mine, he is a Shawnee boy and I am his Shawnee mother. I think this realization allowed me to open myself to the idea of writing again. Now, I do perceive myself as a Native American writer.

The idea that my work is entering into a conversation with the Native writers of the past and present who I admire so sincerely is thrilling to me. I think I still feel like a child or a student though, looking up at
them with great admiration from a far distance.