Sarah Clark works in some of the most important areas of our industry. They are a VIDA board member and her work with Anomaly, Drunken Boat, and others has been outstanding. I swear they are busier than most anyone I know and yet she took the time to visit us here at LE with poems by Michael Wasson. We were able to talk about the colonializing of bodies in literature, discomfort, tropes, and so much more.
Black: What made you select these particular poems?
Clark: This is the question that I have been avoiding for weeks. Because it means having to answer a question that I didn’t want to and that you didn’t ask. I haven’t wanted to broach being asked to participate in this series when many readers, educators, and editors were wondering what to do now that Sherman Alexie has been accused of serial sexual misconduct. A startling number of people have asked, “Who will fill the void in Native American literature?” And I take issue with the idea that such a void ever could exist. There are so many extremely talented Native, First Nations writers (not to mention the many more indigenous writers across the American landmasses) who are, and have been, producing extraordinary work for decades.
The writer I almost chose was Ai.
Ai was the first Native writer I encountered in college who was unashamed to be mixed and unashamed to be queer. At this point in my life, certain Native (or Native-themed) literature had been passed my way. Because, since I was Native, wouldn’t I want to read the work of another Native author? But instead of feeling liberated, I felt chained to all of this turquoise, all of these fancydances, these misogynistic narrators encountering city life for the first time, these endless Educations of Little Tree, these writers who weren’t Native at all but felt it was their right to tell our stories.
There was something different about the way Ai wrote. She didn’t deal in those tropes. And, while their work isn’t formally comparable, when I found Wasson’s work for the first time, I felt a similar spark. It was like seeing a familiar face. It was like something unspoken—hope in a body of literature that I could relate to.
Black: What is your sense of Wasson’s work as a whole?
Clark: The most beautiful boneyard I’ve ever seen bloom.
A few years ago, I was hoping to work on a project, concerning a museum that had been selling postcards and displaying the remains of members of my tribe. I fell into a research hole, reading archaeological accounts of the dig sites where they gathered the bones, as well as the objects buried alongside these people. There were detailed descriptions of their bones. I hesitated, realizing I, too, was about to call them, simply, “the bones.” There was speculation about their heights, their diets, whether their pelvis bones suggested they had given birth before, whether one woman held an esteemed place in our tribe, because so many beads had been sewn to a shroud beside her.
I had to give up the project. My partner was driving me to the museum. I was going to see them. These people. Who had been seen so intimately by strangers.
I kept going back to one section of one anthropological journal. It’s standard practice to measure the bones. There was such dizzying detail. Every femur, every tooth, all quantified and numbered. Numbered.
I felt outside of my body, outside of what felt like this entire planet. That a thin line separated who I am from bone trivia.
My sense of Wasson’s work as a whole is that he’s grappling with questions familiar to many of us who are indigenous. The foremost of which is space. I’m not sure if it comes across when listening to these poems as opposed to seeing them on the page, Wasson makes expert use of space, and I can’t help but feel this is in part a reclamation.
Space has been taken from indigenous people in a variety of ways, most literally in the form of land, but also when it comes to seats at the table, and the temporal—there’s this idea that indigenous people are only real and valid when we embody certain traditional aspects of our respective tribes. I suppose it’s important to remind the readers here that we are after all over 500 nations across this landmass, but I digress. Wasson makes use of Nez Perce language as well as English, the language that ironically unites hundreds of tribes, yet Wasson’s work is never that which caters to tropes, to what is expected by non-Native audiences, the “Indian Poem” so to speak. Any indigenous people reading know what I mean.
Wasson’s work is a reclamation of the autonomy of indigenous thought, neither denying the traditional nor dependent upon it. Wasson’s work looks forward and inward.
Black: There is a tremendous force of/on/in the body within both of these works. Embodied seems like too soft a word for the way they resonate in the flesh. Is there a connection in this way to your own work?
Clark: Extremely. All of my work deals with the body in one way or another. For all of the times I’ve had to fight for my body, I now want nothing more than to fight for the bodies of others. For those with embodied experiences to tell their stories through poetry, essay—however a writer can feel their body is no longer erased or invalidated—that’s the work that I’m invested in, as an editor. I’m interested in the ghost stories of the living, and I’m interested in those of us who survive and reclaim our bodies day after day.
Black: Do poems grant us passage in the body of another?
Clark: It’s a colonial fetish to be granted passage into the body of an indigenous person (regardless of whether the author or I may want that to happen). However, I do believe in empathy and literature, and perhaps by truly opening oneself up to to the experiences of another, one may experience necessary growth not just as a person, but as a reader, a writer.
For that matter, I’m also interested in the ways that these poems do not grant passage into the body of another. The ways that a reader may feel lost or may realize they cannot relate. I think that there is great value in those truths and that it should not be a goal to always “skinwalk” as another, but to accept that there are lives that we for whatever reasons will never lead. To explore one’s own body and the connections that radiate out from it is always a good starting point for reading, writing, editing, and for being a fellow human being.
Black: What do you want readers to really notice when they hear or read these poems?
Clark: Any discomfort they might feel. And I hope they’ll hold onto that discomfort until it starts to make some sense. If any discomfort remains illegible, then that’s perfect. Because then, I’d want readers to turn to Wasson’s work, and really, truly listen. To abandon their gaze, as much as any of us can, and—bare and vulnerable, allow Wasson’s work to speak, uninterrupted.
Michael Wasson’s poems appear or are forthcoming in Dialogist, Prairie Schooner, and Waxwing. He is Nimíipuu from the Nez Perce Reservation in Lenore, Idaho, and currently lives in Japan. (Bio from The Academy of American Poets.)
Sarah Clark is a disabled two-spirit Native editor, writer, and cultural consultant. They are a VIDA Board member, and Assistant Editor with the VIDA Review, Co-Editor of the Bettering American Poetry series, and Managing Editor and Features & Reviews Editor at Anomaly.
Clark curated Anomaly‘s GLITTERBRAIN folio and a forthcoming folio on Indigenous & Decolonial Futures & Futurisms, and edited Drunken Boat’s folios on Sound Art, “Desire & Interaction,” and a collection of global indigenous art and literature, “First Peoples, Plural.” They were co-editor of Apogee Journal‘s #NoDAPL #Still Here folio, and co-edited Apogee Journal‘s series “WE OUTLAST EMPIRE,” of work against imperialism, and “Place[meant]“, on place and meaning. Clark freelances, and has worked with a number of literary and arts publications and organizations, including The Atlas Review, Apogee Journal, contemptorary.org, Sundress Publications, Best of the Net, The Paris Review, and Blackbird. In her spare time, Clark has strong opinions and is very queer. They cannot pass a Turing test.
Links to the good stuff:
Michael Wasson’s This American Ghost at YesYes Books
Michael Wasson at Passages North
Anna Black has served as the editor-in-chief of the magazines Hayden’s Ferry Review and Inkspeak, and is a twice awarded Virginia G. Piper global teaching and research fellow. She received her MFA at Arizona State University. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the anthologies We Will be Shelter, edited by poet Andrea Gibson and In Sight: An Ekphrastic Collaboration, as well as the journals 45th Parallel, Bacopa Review, Wordgathering, SWWIM, The American Journal of Poetry, and New Mobility among others. She has taught composition, creative writing, and/or publishing at Arizona State University, Western Washington University, Perryville Women’s Prison, and the National University of Singapore.
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