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Winter 1999, Volume 16.2

Conversation

 

A. Robert LeePhoto of A. Robert Lee with Gerald Vizenor.

Gerald Vizenor in Dialogue with A. Robert Lee


A. Robert Lee is Professor of American Literature at Nihon University, Japan. He formerly taught at the University of Kent at Canterbury. His publications include Designs of Blackness: Mappings in the Literature and Culture of Afro-America (1998) and Shadow Distance: A Gerald Vizenor Reader (1994).

Gerald Vizenor is professor of Native American Literature at the University of California, Berkeley. His most recent book, Fugitive Poses: Native American Scenes of Absence and Presence was published in the Abraham Lincoln Lecture Series at the University of Nebraska Press.

 

The extract which follows, taken from our Gerald Vizenor: Postindian Conversations (forthcoming 1999), is meant to highlight one of Native America’s leading literary voices. It forms part of a wide-ringing conversation conducted in Berkeley at different times over the past two years, about Vizenor’s writing, about his views on the iconographies of representation and self-representation of (and in) Native culture, about what it means to live on or off reservation as a modern native American. Gerald Vizenor: Postindian Conversations (forthcoming 1999), is meant to highlight one of Native America’s leading literary voices. It forms part of a wide-ringing conversation conducted in Berkeley at different times over the past two years, about Vizenor’s writing, about his views on the iconographies of representation and self-representation of (and in) Native culture, about what it means to live on or off reservation as a modern native American.

 

May we turn to your first publications of original haiku poems. Why did you start your career as a writer with haiku poetry?

 

I must say, once more, my start as a writer was by chance, and the ease of imagistic poetry. Haiku, in a sense, caught me out on the road to nature, and that was my best turn to literature. The tease of nature is in my blood, and that must make visions out of taste and sound, and the outcome, no doubt, is more imagistic than exotic, or discovery. Nature is tricky, a constant tease, and even the most obvious native traces of the seasons are creative sensations, a chance of stories. Sometimes that mighty tease of nature comes out in blank verse, but never in my poetry. Now, haiku is my aesthetic survivance.

 

Why so?

 

Listen, my sense of haiku is an imagistic gaze. Yes, a natural gaze, the meditative gaze of visual memories. The turn of nature is in me, and in everyone. So, my start was mythic, a tricky sense of motion on the road that connected me to nature, a native presence and, at the same time, my creation is in the book. My haiku poems, and the chance of survivance, created me in nature and the book.

Chance, however, does not reveal the romance of my presence, and certainly not the common risks and doubts of being a writer of imagistic poetry. I was moved to write, to be known in the book, but my brush with literature in public school was not very creative or productive. Most of my literature teachers might have been right, at the time, to rush every sentence with a canon measure. I might not have become a writer if they had done otherwise. Pedagogy was an ironic enforcer, but my sense of visual memories survived the courses, and that was more than enough for me to learn the virtues of resistance. How else could the teachers be sure that only visual memories might survive the manners of a high school education? Maybe my teachers were at their best to scare me out of literature, because their very lessons cut me out of the mannered culture of sonnets.

My visual memories are survivance stories, and the ease of haiku images, even in translation, made immediate sense to me, and that without a canon course in literature. The scenes that carried me were in nature, images of a pond, sunrise on the wings of a dragonfly, the march of a blue heron, cracks in the river ice, the sounds of spring, and not in the obscure cuts of literary histories. The images of haiku are accessible in nature and culture, and that alone was more than any poetry had ever given to me in the past. I was amused, at first, by the common, natural scenes in haiku poetry. The imagistic scenes were my nature, and then, later, my thoughts turned to the notion of possession and impermanence, the very tease of my aesthetic presence in nature. [Kobayashi] Issa comes to mind in the traces of memories and seasons. He remembers, in The Year of My Life, the death of his daughter in this haiku translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa:

the world of dew
is the world of dew
and yet…
and yet…

I was eighteen years old at the time, and every haiku moment was a tease of my presence and survivance. Haiku was a great gift, and yet, the images were my first memorable flights of impermanence.

The United States Army, by chance, sent me to serve in northern Japan. There, haiku caught me on the road as a soldier and turned me back to the seasons, back to the memories of my own nature. The turns and conversions of haiku were not exotic, because nature is my sense of presence, not discovery. My haiku scenes are similar, in a sense, to the images in anishinaabe dream songs, and now, these mythic connections seem so natural to me. Once, worlds apart in time and place, these images came together by chance. Many anishinaabe dream songs are about the presence of animals in visions. My haiku are the same, and yet, and yet, the contradiction of those magistic scenes are my impermanence and survivance. Haiku poems were my very first creations, and since then imagistic scenes of nature are always present in my writing. The presence of nature in my novels, even in my essays, is an imagistic survivance as an author. My survivance is in nature and the book.

 

As if you understood your own call to be a writer?

 

More than a call, that first tease of haiku was my conversion, and maybe a visionary transformation, at least in my aesthetic survivance in nature. Yet, these imagistic moments, the very scenes of my creation in literature, are elusive, a natural turn with the seasons, or, "a stone, a leaf, a door," in the words of the novelist Thomas Wolfe.

 

Was it your ambition to "Americanize" haiku? In your most recent haiku, for instance, you create envois with each poem, an original style. I don’t mean just the form, but the subjects you pick, the native memories, and the use of nature in Minnesota?

 

Not mere ambition, but creation, and my haiku scenes are the tease of seasons, not cultures or nations. The seasons create the haiku scenes, and the images are common not exotic. What comes to mind, of course, are my memories of seasons on the run in Minnesota. One morning, the traces of winter in the autumn, and later, the rush of spring on the twig, in the sumac near the river, and my conversions, season after season, in the curve of the sun and wild shadows at the tree lines. My haiku come out of these experiences and memories, and my very creation, in a sense, is that pause to create the seasons, the very visions of me in nature. I am a ghost writer of nature, and the conversions, the mythic turns of the solstice, tease the sumac and sparrows, catkins and cedar waxwings, thunder and bears, and yet, and yet, here we are in the book. I wonder if my presence is created in the haiku scenes of the seasons. Sometimes, the pauses in nature are memories, the scenes of my presence. The seasons are sounds, the thunder of ice cracking on the lake, and the creases of the wind on a spider web. My creation is that pause in nature, and haiku scenes are the rights of my impermanence in the book. And, my sense of presence, then and now, is in the images of great haiku poets.

Yosa Buson, the son of a farmer, was born more than two centuries ago, and his haiku scenes come to me as a presence in translation, and so we meet by nature in the book. He was a cultural dilettante and, at the same time, a brilliant haiku poet. Buson wrote about the seasons, and teased his own transience. He was not devoted to nature, as other poets were, but he created exquisite imagistic poems. R. H. Blyth, in Haiku: Eastern Culture, translates this haiku by Buson:

winter rain
a mouse runs
over the koto

I wrote back to him one winter with this haiku poem: cold rain, field mice rattle the dishes, Buson’s koto. The koto, as you know, is a stringed instrument. Buson’s transience, the nature of haiku, and my flights of impermanence, came together with others in the tricky imagistic seasons of the book.

 

One of the things that strikes me in your haiku is the humor. The humor and trickster resonance that come of the tension between insects and culture, or as you write in this haiku, between flies, natural rhythm, and pink grapefruit, as follows:

fat green flies
square dance on the pink
grapefruit
honor your partners

 

Matsuo Basho might have created that last line, honor your partners. Nature is honored by his haiku and haibun meditation, and his subtle humor on the road. He was a generous wanderer who turned to Zen Buddhism and devoted most of his experiences and memories to the imagistic truth of nature. Basho might not have posed a square dance of trickster flies, but he was amused on the very day of his death that the flies were delighted and gathered on the sliding screens. Makoto Ueda, in Basho and His Interpreters, translated this haiku scene:

in the seasonal rain
a crane’s legs
have become short.

Kobayashi Issa, however, might have teased the green flies to dance with him right out of the restaurant. His sympathies were always with animals and insects. Issa has a subtle sense of irony. One of my favorite haiku poems was published in World Within Walls by Donald Keene:

skinny frog
don’t be discouraged
issa is here.

My haiku teases the obvious perversion of "human nature," the common will to kill insects, and that is the very tension of the square dance scene on the pink grapefruit. The unstated is not surreal, as flies might dance for their breakfast, but rather a conversion of distaste and dominance. The last line of my haiku, honor your partners, must tease the memories of a rural square dance, you know, the allemande turns of couples in the dance. Choose your sides and allemande in a tricky haiku with the fat green flies. That dance of the flies is my aesthetic survivance, and a tease of monotheism, but what is not a tease?

 

That’s a nice tease, as it is, again, in "White Earth, Images and Agonies." You have a fine line in that poem, "tricksters roam the rearview mirrors." Do most of your poems operate as "rearview mirrors"?

 

Maybe, and the animals at the tree lines at the end of that poem send back the hats and rusted traps. That direction is a reversion of the beaver in the fur trade, an imagistic ghost dance and return of nature. The images in the mirror come in so many stories, and mine are part of that common play of representations. My imagistic gaze is twice reversed in the rearview mirror. Once as a trickster pose, a transmutation of my presence, and twice, yes twice, as the storier. So, you might ask, who are these teasers, shadows aback, the tricksters that roam at our rear in the wake of the mirror?

 

How did poetry help your development as a writer?

 

Poetry, and especially haiku, taught me how to hold an imagistic gaze, and that gaze is my survivance. Many chapters in my novels begin with a natural metaphor, and create a sense of the season, the tease of a haiku scene. I learned how to create tension in concise images, by the mere presence of nature. Plum petals in a thunderstorm, bears at the tree line, squirrels at the window, green flies on the grapefruit, are a few examples. When my son Robert was in elementary school I visited his classes once or twice a year to talk about haiku poetry. Haiku was accessible, and the students did not have to know much about stories to understand the play of nature and the beast in language. These students were at home with imagistic tension in language. They carried the memories of pets across the street in heavy traffic, hunted mosquitoes in a tent, and teased their teachers.

I said, "here is one word, and the image of a word, and you give me another word that creates some tension between the words." I said "dog," and they said "traffic," and the tension of a cat was the presence of a dog. These words and images were more than structural associations, because the students actually created the tension by words and the suggestion of motion in visual memory. Regrettably, some teachers have tortured the very best haiku scenes with possessive pronouns, and delegated imagistic poetry to a mere lesson in the punctuated evolution of literature.

 

You bowed in with Two Wings the Butterfly in 1962, a pamphlet of haiku poems printed by inmates at the Minnesota State Reformatory in Saint Cloud, and two years later Raising the Moon Vines, your first book of haiku, was published in Minneapolis. But you’ve also long been interested in other literary forms. I want to ask you about your film scenario Harold of Orange and your play Ishi and the Wood Ducks. What lay behind Harold, the trickster character in your film? Two Wings the Butterfly in 1962, a pamphlet of haiku poems printed by inmates at the Minnesota State Reformatory in Saint Cloud, and two years later Raising the Moon Vines, your first book of haiku, was published in Minneapolis. But you’ve also long been interested in other literary forms. I want to ask you about your film scenario Harold of Orange and your play Ishi and the Wood Ducks. What lay behind Harold, the trickster character in your film?

 

Two things, the actual play of language in the script and the tease of images in Harold of Orange. The first, of course, is the dialogue of the characters, and the second is the ironic tease of obvious visual images in the film, such as the structural reversal of team names at a baseball game. The natives arrive with the word "anglo" printed on their red tee shirts, and the foundation directors wear the name "indian" on their white tee shirts. Other active scenes of tricky tension are obvious, such as the conversations on the school bus, natives in neckties, human skeletons in a glass case, the play of socioacupuncture, and more.

The script creates an ironic tension too, as the characters announce their tricky schemes, and conduct a sacred naming ceremonies out of a cigar box in a parking lot. Here, names such as Baltic and Connecticut are the property cards in the game of Monopoly. Harold Sinseer and the other native characters are always at the tease and turn of irony. For instance, as the Warriors of Orange and the directors of the Bily Foundation are riding around on a school bus in the city, Ted Velt, a conservative foundation man, asks Son Bear, How many Indians were there at the time Christopher Columbus discovered the New World? Well, first of all, who would know? Even a shaman with a thick memory would turn this unanswerable question around to a tricky fact. Here, the underlying irony is that the foundation man knows everything about the absence of Indians, an arrogance posed in the questions, and nothing about the presence of natives. He knows too much about the inventions, and movie simulations, but too little about native humor and tricky stories. Son Bear, who wears a Sun Dance film festival hat, pauses, removes his earphones, and says, None, not one. Naturally, this evasion troubles the foundation man. What do you mean, none? Son Bear strains to explain that "Columbus never discovered anything, and when he never did he invented Indians because we never heard the word before he dropped by by accident." Velt persists, Well, let me phrase the question in a different way then. "How many tribal people were there here then, ahh, before Columbus invented Indians?" Son Bear pauses once more and then announces, with great authority, "Forty-nine million, seven hundred twenty-three thousand, one hundred and ninety-six on this continent, including what is now Mexico."

I should mention another ironic scene in Harold of Orange. The tension, again, is in the word games on the school bus, or the red pinch on the yellow bus of new foundation fools. Andrew Burch asks a Warrior of Orange, "I have considered the origin theories of the American Indians. Some are quite interesting. I find the Bering Strait migration theory to be the most credible. How about you then, what are your thoughts on the subject?" So, here is another question about absence over presence, and the pose is cultural arrogance. New Crows, however, will not be cornered as he plays to the arrogance of the foundation man, "From here to there, we emerged from the flood here, the first people, unless you think we are related to the panda bear." Andrew touches his necktie as he responds, "Actually, what you say makes a great deal of sense, but the problem I seem to have, you see, is that there is so little evidence to support your idea." New Crows smiles and says, "Jesus Christ was an American Indian." Andrew, outwitted in the play of his own arrogance, turns away and says, "Was he now, who would have guessed?" For me the ironies were doubled in the production of the film, as the native actors made the scenes with no acting experience. The others, however, were very practiced and experienced stage and screen actors.

 

Would that also hold for your play Ishi and the Wood Ducks? The double ironies? Would that also hold for your play Ishi and the Wood Ducks? The double ironies?

 

Yes, and there are several structural reversals in my play. Ishi is the subject, the object, the absence, the presence, and the main character in his stories. The play opens on a bench outside a federal court and ends in the First District Court of Character. Ishi is on trial for alleged violations of the Indian Arts and Crafts Act. He is an artist in the play, but could not, in fact, prove that he was indeed a native. He was, after all, named the last of his tribe, the last stone age man, so how could he prove he was anyone by law?

Justice Alfred Kroeber rules, at the end of the play, that "Ishi is real and the law is not." He is his own tribe. "Ishi is an artist, he is our remembrance of justice, and that is his natural character." Ishi is present and an active character in the prologue, and the first and last acts. The audience is aware of his ironic presence in the second and third acts, but only his name and ashes in an urn are mentioned by the other characters in the play.

I think these elaborations of absence and presence are more intricate and precise than a mirror image, and more ironic than the mere abstract reversal of consciousness, character, and history. Ishi is a visionary presence, and, at the same time, he is an ethnographic absence. He is my tease of a native holoconsciousness, yes, the entire consciousness of natives in the play, and, in another sense, my creation is his survivance.

Ishi has a presence in the generous bait and tease of his wood duck stories. He is a voice of memories, and he is wise, witty, and tricky. Ironically, the other characters are the real absence, as they forever hold to their ethnographic discoveries and documents. Ishi is about in every act in the play and hears everything the experts say in his name. He, on the other hand, sits on a bench outside a courtroom and talks with an old woman about names.

Ishi is my museum name, not my real name.
Same with me, says Boots.
Do you have a sacred name?
Boots, the boys teased me about my boots.
Ishi is my nickname.
Boots is my sacred name.
No one has ever heard my sacred name.
No one has every heard my real name.
Alfred Kroeber gave me a museum name.
My husband lied to me about our name.

Alfred Kroeber, as you know, was the generous anthropologist who cared for Ishi in a museum at the University of California. Kroeber said he had "perceptive power far keener than those of highly educated white men. He reasons well, grasps an idea quickly, has a keen sense of humor, is gentle, thoughtful, and courteous and has a higher type of mentality than most Indians." Ishi, it would seem, was the great scout of native discoveries, and should have been given an honorary doctorate. Surely, he was aware of the ironies in his name, because his wood duck stories never ended. Ishi, the tricky museum native, earned his nickname from an anthropologist and he sent one back at the same time. Ishi named Kroeber the "Big Chiep." There, in a name, in his tricky presence, is an ironic reversion of his native absence.

 

May we turn to another irony, that you were sued by a sculptor in the name of Ishi. Whatever became of that play in court?

 

That was a year of double ironies, as the trial, my legal play in court, folded over a stage reading of Ishi and the Wood Ducks in Chicago. Ishi is both a presence and a silent witness in my play, but only his name was evidence in the actual court trial. Surely, the native tease is eternal in his name, that is, in the ironic scripture of his museum name by anthropology. My play Ishi and the Wood Ducks was published in the college anthology Native American Literature before Harkin Lucero, the sculptor, sued me over what seemed to be nothing more than the expectations of a retro simulation. Actually, the expectations that became a civil action started a decade earlier, in the late eighties, at the University of California, Berkeley. I had formally proposed that half of Dwinelle Hall be named Ishi Hall. The campus newspaper and student organizations supported the proposal, and many faculty reviewed my idea favorably, if not amused by my naivete about academic manifest manners. The procedures, as you might expect, were very complicated, but who would have thought at the time that a mere subcommittee, organized at the lowest level of faculty governance, would vote against my proposal to honor the very first native employee of the University of California.

Alfred Kroeber, you remember, had read in the newspaper about this silent native man and arranged, in the late summer of 1911, for him to live and work in the Museum of Anthropology. The Museum was then located in San Francisco. Ishi was probably about fifty years old at the time of his fateful discovery by anthropologists. He died of tuberculosis five years later on March 25, 1916. Yes, and his ashes are now in a small black pot in a niche at Mount Olivet Cemetery which is near San Francisco. That’s where the play and the actual court suit come together. The jury was very interested in what was actually said over the niche, and that is also a scene in my play.

I tried several times to keep my proposal alive on campus, and after eight years another committee offered me a compromise, the first serious consideration, to name a courtyard in his honor. I was very pleased and, as they say, the rest is history, including the jury trail and my play. Ishi Court was dedicated as part of Dwinelle Hall in May 1993. Justice Gary Strankman delivered a very moving commemoration of Ishi, and later, at the reception, several people suggested that we consider a sculpture in Ishi Court.

 

Were you considering monuments at the time?

 

No, that was only a courtesy thought. I was more interested in names and endowments than sculpture, in part, because monuments take too much time and money. But it was a fine dedication and reception and many ideas were brushed with pleasure. Caitlin Croughan was at the commemoration and invited me to meet Harkin Lucero, a local sculptor, and that was the critical start of the retro simulations of Ishi. So, we met a few weeks later. Lucero’s ambition, it seemed to me at the time, far exceeded his talents as a sculptor. He had already concocted an image of Ishi that was inane, and not because he was ironic or even surreal, but because he was a retro romantic, you know, a healer dealer in mundane simulations of Indians as great spirit sculptures. I was courteous over lunch, and less so at the columbarium, but, from the very start, not really interested in his work. The idea of the sculpture seemed to be forgotten, but then, out of the granite dust comes this huge law suit against me, against Caitlin Croughan, his presumed agent, and the University of California.

 

What was the outcome?

 

Harkin Lucero complained that he had an oral contract to create a sculpture for Ishi Court, and so, he sued me, Croughan, and the University for fifty thousand dollars to cover, what he claimed to be design and casting costs. This was nonsense, and a nuisance, of course, but nothing could be taken lightly, so we demanded a jury trial. Ishi was there to tease me in court, and he might have been a silent witness in the jury room during deliberations. The verdict, after four days of trial and deliberations, was in my favor, and that was in February 1997. Ishi, no doubt, was not pleased that Lucero had staged his potty spirit show at Mount Olivet Cemetery. Lucero had arranged to have the niche at the columbarium opened, and then, with a newspaper reporter and a video film maker present, of course, he lifted the black pot out of the niche. Lucero told me and others at the columbarium that he could feel the spirit of Ishi coming through the pot to his hands, and then his arms, and, no doubt, other parts of his body he did not mention.

 

This scene is in the play, but was it also evidence in court?

 

Yes, and the jury watched a video production of that very scene, apparently trying to determine if anyone made him a promise to create a sculpture. Lucero made a rather awkward rubbing of the name and inscription on the pot. The paper was too thick. Ishi would have laughed about such a performance. He was particularly amused, it seemed to me, when the cemetery executive, a young woman, announced that Ishi not only made his own death pot but he also carved his own name in the clay. None of this was true, of course, because his preparation for death would have been in visions, songs and stories, not in pottery. Ishi might have told the experts at the columbarium that he was not a pot maker, and the letters carved on the pot were in a standard type style. The sculptor, who claimed to be native, should have known that the inscription on the pot was not a sacred name, not even a native nickname. Ishi was a museum name in Times New Roman, and Lucero, in a mundane gesture made a rubbing of the name on paper.

Here, of course, is yet another retro simulation of names and type styles.

Zero Larkin, the native sculptor in Ishi and the Wood Ducks, raises the rubbing of the name to the camera and the audience. "Ishi is with me, our spirit is one in his sacred name," said Zero. "I’m going to blast his sacred signature, right from this rubbing, at the bottom of my stone sculpture, my tribute to his power as an Indian." Ishi was in court, the verdict was in my favor, and now he has another story.

 

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