In this conversation, Niki Herd talks about how Layli Long Soldier’s work exposes the link between difficult language and obscured meaning; how it feels, especially for minorities in the United States, to have that language used in something that resembles an apology; and why it is important to keep writing. Only Long Solider could have written WHEREAS, Herd says, and, when she brings it into the classroom, “It’s great to share that awe of craft with students.” Thank you for joining us!
Jessica Hudgins: I’m often conflicted about this series, because when a poet reads, we get to hear their voice but we don’t get to see the poem on the page. So, to start, can you describe what this poem looks like? How are the lines and stanzas arranged?
Niki Herd: The poem is the tenth of twenty-one WHEREAS statements. There is no title and the poem is comprised of three stanzas. The text in the first stanza is fully justified and begins with “WHEREAS I shy. Away from the cliché….” The stanza presents itself visually in the form and language of the document—in this case The Congressional Resolution of Apology to Native Americans. A quick Google search online illustrates the form Long Soldier has reframed. The second stanza remains in this form, but functions more like a block quote as the stanza is centered and smaller than the previous. Breaking from the formal constraints of legislative form, the final stanza is made up of phrases broken up by large caesuras that enact through text what Long Soldier calls the “pigeonhole.”
JH: Long Soldier also experiments with the sentence. She breaks the verb phrase “I shy away,” with a period every time it appears in the poem, and the line, “Where I must be firmly positioned to receive an apology the spot from which to answer,” seems to contain two sentences, “Where I must be firmly positioned to receive an apology,” and, “Where I must be the spot from which to answer.” What was this like when you were recording the poem? Did you already have a pretty good idea of what the poem would sound like, or did you try out different intonations and pausing at different places?
NH: Yes, Long Soldier breaks sentences within lines at “I shy. Away…” and other places as well. Her use of unconventional syntax illustrates the difficulty of language, but also conveys the difficulty of narrative; meaning becomes less transparent as disruptive syntax forces the reader to stop and begin again in unexpected ways. The US Government has lacked transparency in their relationship to Native Americans. Long Soldier uses the syntax of the line/sentence to illustrate this—and does so powerfully. In recording it, I wanted the pauses to stand in for the punctuation, but not dramatically so. The poem was recorded several times and eventually I chose the one that sounded the most organic.
JH: I want to stick with that last sentence I quoted. Being in the position to receive an apology is a central concern of this poem and of Whereas in general. Just by standing in front of the person who wronged them, a person offers, “Do you have something you want to say to me?” This position also requires knowing how to respond to an apology, if it were to come. But what the poet says she’s working with is “that stained refusal to come clean.”
NH: That “stained refusal to come clean” is a position many of us minorities understand all too well. bell hooks says that “[s]tandard English is not the speech of exile. It is the language of conquest and domination.” If this is what standard English represents, then how is this violence further masked behind the formal and legalese nature of a Congressional document that no attention was brought to? It’s a duplicitous endeavor. As Long Soldier notes earlier in the collection, Native Americans “were offered” this document, but no legal claims can be brought against the American government. The collection highlights the position of the one holding the power to apologize, but is unable to do so justly.
JH: I’m having trouble phrasing a question about this that isn’t just, “Why write?” So, instead, how has Layli Long Soldier’s work influenced your own?
NH: Rukeyser said that “poetry can extend the document,” but I see Long Soldier inhabiting and repurposing the document in such a way that it seems no other poet but Long Soldier could have written WHEREAS—it’s this level of inventiveness, but also this individuality of poetic identity I admire. Long Soldier’s ability to use syntax to create new and complex meaning reminds me of other poets who have done the same with documentary work—poets such as Solmaz Sharif and Juliana Spahr, for whom I share a deep respect. Last semester, I taught three collections, and WHEREAS opened up the most possibility for my students in terms of what a poem can do. It’s great to share that awe of craft with students. There’s also a certain amount of direct fearlessness in this project I’m drawn to. The whole collection implicates Obama, but there’s that line in the poem where Long Soldier specifically signals the former president’s famous campaign slogan, saying “yes I can shake my head wag my finger too….” The Congressional Apology took place on Obama’s watch and there aren’t many poetry collections that call him out. And though I was an Obama supporter— it’s refreshing to see a whole book go against the grain.
Why do this work? Because the forces that be are counting on our silence. Every time we write, we choose not to acquiesce; we choose not to make the work of violence and subjugation any easier.
Niki Herd’s poems have appeared in Tupelo Quarterly, Obsidian, The Rumpus, and North American Review, among other journals and anthologies. Herd is the author of a collection of poems, The Language of Shedding Skin, and she recently finished co-editing, along with poet Meg Day, the latest Unsung Masters volume featuring the poetry of disability activist Laura Hershey. She is at work on a meditative essay about memory, gender, and the act of speaking, as well as a collection of poems about violence in America. Herd currently lives in Texas where she is completing her Ph.D. in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Houston.
Layli Long Soldier is the author of Chromosomory (2010), a chapbook, and of WHEREAS (2017), the full length collection where you can find the poem Niki Herd read for this interview. WHEREAS won the National Book Critics Circle award and was a finalist for the National Book Award.
Jessica Hudgins is a poet and teacher currently living in Mansfield.