A Sense of Kinship, Laura Pegram Interviews Santee Frazier

LAURA PEGRAM:  You open your poetry collection with a line from “Of the Passing of the First Born” by W.E.B. DuBois. 

And I thought in awe of her, - she who had slept with Death to tear a man-child from underneath her heart, while I was unconsciously wandering. 

Did this epigraph  somehow set the tone for the mothers you depicted in “Mama’s Work” and “Hunter’s Moon,” who worked “in the quiet corners of barns on the hay” and disappeared “under the hunter’s moon?”

SANTEE FRAZIER:  Such graceful language DuBois used to navigate that piece.  I admire his skill, and it was out of admiration I originally chose that quote. However, it does influence how one would interpret the language surrounding the mother figures in the book. 

Here is another excerpt from  “The Passing of the First Born” that I considered using for the epigraph: 

Her own life builded and moulded itself upon the child; he tinged her every dream and idealized her every effort. No hands but hers must touch and garnish those little limbs; no dress or frill must touch them that had not wearied her fingers; no voice but hers could coax him off to Dreamland, and she and he together spoke some soft and unknown tongue and in it held communion.

In the end, I felt it was too long and it would dramatically sway the tone of the book. Ultimately, my choice was decided by my ear, and well, the quote chosen sounded better. 

LAURA:  Can you tell us about the Mangled Series you’re working on?  Mangled Creek Bed is “a bean-juice colored boy whose ancestry and tongue have passed into void of circus blurb.”  You devote two sections of your book to this character.  We see him as young boy, locked out and stuffing cheese sandwiches in his britches and we essentially follow his “baptism by knife.”  You have defined Mangled as a period piece.  How did his story first appear to you? 

SANTEE:  Through sound actually. I began typing out phrases like “mangled like limbs of a tree” or “mangled smell like bark.”  After a few I began to think of the word “mangled” as a character.  Soon after, the poem “Mangled in the Sunset” came about, which is a play on the typical western ending (cowboy riding off in the sunset). The whole thing, the language, the setting, the voice, felt to me like a comic book, graphic novel, or a western serial novel. So I decided to tell his story in the form of installments or episodes. Each poem tells only a snippet of his story, and may or may not be in linear order.

Currently Mangled is living out his post-circus life wandering the countryside. He takes odd jobs and manages to get himself into plenty of tragic situations. The episodes, in many ways, unfold akin that of manga, or western serial novels. I am not sure how these poems will resolve themselves, but as long as they find me I will write them. 

LAURA:  Can we speak about form for a moment?  You stated: “in most cases the form my poems take ultimately depends on music.”  There is a musicality in the voices of the characters in Dry Creek.  So did the characters help you determine the form your poems would take? 

SANTEE:  Yes, and no. When I make formal choices, I do so based on sound, without considering content. The dialect poems you are referring to were originally drafted in block form. After writing a dozen or so variations (only four appear in Dark Thirty), I realized each poem needed a specific form based on each variation of dialect. I decided to cadence the poems according to certain sound patterns each variation of dialect possessed. I titled the poems after the forms manifested. 

How the reader takes in a poem’s physical form dramatically effects their interpretation of the language. For instance, in the poem “Nauxcey Moss” the dialect needed a form that did not appear as music on the page.  It needed a confined space that would force the eye to ramble down the page, which in some ways contrasts with the more musical dialect that appears in Dry Creek. 

Content must always submit to complexities of language. It is for the reader to decide how the dialect will interact with them. My job as a poet is to insure the language is crafted. After all, it is the language that is alive, not the events and characters the language describes. Detaching myself from content allows me to revise/edit judiciously. 

LAURA:  You dedicated your book to your grandfather, a man you described as a “fluent Cherokee speaker, who still practiced the old ways and had a very real sense of what being Cherokee is and was.”  Did your grandfather indirectly help you develop your voice as a poet?  

SANTEE:  My grandfather, who was my father for the first five years of my life, spoke Cherokee to me as a baby.  It was my first language, and I feel the first words we hear in the beginnings of our human existence shape our lifelong relationship with language. In some ways, even though I have forgotten how to speak Cherokee fluently, I feel as if I think in that language, and my poems possess the sound and rhythmic qualities I heard as a child.  

My grandfather didn’t live to read any of my poems. When he was alive, and I was about 15, maybe a little older, I went snooping through his things. I eventually found a suitcase full of old photos, and letters. As I was reading through the letters I came across a poem he had written. It was a very short, three rhymed couplet, written for my grandmother. It surprised me, though as a teenager, who was looking for money or a loose cigarette, I didn’t see any significance. It wasn’t until I had decided to dedicate Dark Thirty to him that I considered how his poem had influenced me. 

LAURA:  This past March you had the opportunity to work closely with young Native writers as a visiting writer at Dine' College in Tsalie, Arizona.  How did these young aspiring artists respond to your work?  Do you take an active role in nurturing young Native voices? 

SANTEE:  Having grown up in federally funded boarding schools for Native Americans, and being a graduate of the Institute of American Indian Arts, a tribal college, the opinions of the Dine College students were important to me.  Overall the students had a positive response to Dark Thirty. They spoke on how the poems were accessible and easy to read. After visiting several classes it was interesting to hear how many of those students had witnessed traumatic events similar to those in Dark Thirty. More importantly, we were able to joke about some of the characters in the poems as well. I said something to the extent: “Our wino uncles need love too!” We all chuckled. 

The Dine College students had stated that they were tired of reading about romanticized “Indian life,” and that it was refreshing to read something that reflected their experiences. I would not say I take an active role in nurturing young Native Voices, but I do try and offer my services to Native students and communities. In fact, this summer I will be traveling to Chicago to share and teach poetry to Native Youth in the public school system. I think it’s important for our youth, Native, African American, Latino, or otherwise to have exposure to the arts, to be told their voices are important. 

LAURA:  We met online earlier this year over a shared interest in cultural kinships.  One of the poems in your collection, “Eating Against a Wall,” specifically focuses on Vietnamese refugees.  Can you discuss how this poem came about? 

SANTEE:  After the fall of Saigon in 1975 many Vietnamese refugees came to live in Oklahoma City. This section of town, known as “Little Saigon,” is located on the northwest side of the city. When I first saw the event (I was about 10), I found it odd that a couple would eat like that on the side of the street against a wall. Several years later, when I began writing the poem, I realized that the Vietnamese refugees had lots in common with my people. Both the Vietnamese and Cherokee were removed from their ancestral lands by the United States military to the state of Oklahoma. So when the end of the poem came to me “somehow we all end up here/ displaced, documented,” I felt a sense of kinship with that couple enjoying a simple meal. This kinship also appears in the poem “Stranded” when the speaker of the poem finds haven with a group of migrant farmers. 

Calling Collect

Mangled and the Demon