The Names (Volume 16) (Sun Tracks)

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The Element of Silence: The Millions Interviews N. Scott Momaday

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N. Scott Momaday is a novelist and essayist, poet and playwright, visual artist and scholar. He’s the recipient of many awards including the Academy of American Poets Prize, the National Medal of Arts, the Frost Medal for distinguished lifetime achievement in poetry. For some he is first and foremost the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist of A House Made of Dawn, which received the prize in 1969.

In the decades since the publication of A House Made of Dawn, Momaday has written a number of other books including The Way to Rainy Mountain and The Ancient Child. His essays and poems have been widely anthologized. In 2020, Harper released his books The Death of Sitting Bear: New and Selected Poems and Earth Keeper: Reflections on the American Land. His new book, Dream Drawings: Configurations of a Timeless Kind, is a book of poetry and poetic writing. I spoke with him recently about that distinction, Emily Dickinson, and bears.

Alex Dueben: Have you always written poetry? One reason I ask is because everyone knows you as novelist and essayist, but poetry feels like something you’ve been writing before you had career, even.

N. Scott Momaday: Pretty much, yes. I started writing poetry fairly early. I often think that I’m not recognized as a poet but as a novelist, and it’s because of the Pulitzer Prize.

AD: It seems like in recent years you have focused more on writing poetry.

NSM: I think that a good statement, yes.

AD: Why is that? Is there any reason or conscious effort behind that?

NSM: I think that my knowledge of the Native American oral tradition leads me in the direction of poetry because it is poetic. It’s not poetry, but it has a great many poetic elements and so I gravitate towards poetry.

AD: You studied writing under the late Yvor Winters as a young man and you have a doctorate and have studied literature, and I’m curious about the role that poetry has played in your life and your life as a writer.

NSM: When I started out writing poetry, or what I thought of as poetry, I was very unschooled in English traditional forms. When I went to Stanford I learned a great deal about those forms and that had some influence upon my writing. I think that’s important. I believe that people should be instructed in the writing of poetry. They should study it. Too many people just write down things in haste that look like poetry, but they’re not. I think it’s good to be educated in that way. I’m very pleased that I had the opportunity to study traditional forms and I incorporate them in my own poetry.

AD: You said you were always writing poetry and how important was understanding formal verse and those traditions for you as a writer?

NSM: They were important to me because I didn’t know anything about them and there’s hundreds of years of poetry in English. I needed to know about that in order to really write what I considered good poetry. I’m pleased that I had that opportunity. I took advantage of it. That and my study of Native American oral tradition, led me to a particular kind of voice, I think, which I maintain.

AD: As you were studying you saw the relationships between oral traditions and the lyric verse traditions, and you have spent your career working in both traditions and finding ways to combine them.

NSM: Yes, exactly. I think even my prose incorporates lyrical elements that I’m glad are there. They come more or less naturally to me now and I think it’s a good thing. I think that my ancestors were conversant with an oral tradition and they perfected their expression in one way. I have that in my background along with the formal study of poetry and those two things I have managed to combine in a way that suits me and gives me an original voice.

AD: Was there anything particular that you saw in reading Emily Dickinson or Frederick Tuckerman or whoever?

NSM: Absolutely. I fell in love with Emily Dickinson when I was a graduate student and I’m one of the people in the world who has read her in manuscript. And I admire her. I think she is probably among the very greatest of poets in American poetry. You can’t imitate her. She has a voice that is inimitable. It doesn’t do to imitate her, but to look at her and admire her and to understand a little bit about what she’s doing. The same thing may be said for Tuckerman. He had a very original voice. He was an expert in the sonnet, of course, so he represents formality in English poetry that she did not have. She had enough of it to make her voice very distinguished.

AD: I think of both of them, and maybe a lot of poetry, as on the page, but so much of poetry is spoken and about the breath, even in formal verse.

NSM: Yes, and that incorporates the element of silence, which is extremely important in her work and in the oral tradition generally.

AD: Reading Dream Drawings, I kept thinking that whether you thought about each piece as a poem, they felt as if they were meant to read aloud.

NSM: I think so. I think that’s generally true of 90% of what I write now.

AD: So have you not always thought of your work in that way?

NSM: Well, no. I was forming a kind of attitude towards poetry. An understanding of it. I developed ideas as I went along and learned from this experience and that, this poet and that. I shouldn’t say that I restrict my attention to poetry. I have read a good deal of prose that I admire and I think that’s also a big influence, but I find that the prose that I particularly admire has very strong poetic elements. My interest in poetry has always been there, I guess.

AD: There’s always been something poetic about the way you write. There are a lot of elements in this new book that I think have been there from the beginning of your career.

NSM: I would agree with that, yes.

AD: You have a number of pieces in the new book like “The Marrowbone Manuscript” which is this short funny short story. Well, I laughed but some might not find it so funny.

NSM: [laughs] Well, that kind of writing is a kind of story form, but it is also just taken from the oral tradition. The Native American oral tradition is full of short stories with lyrical elements. I guess that’s a good way to define it. I try to duplicate that as much as I can.

AD: This is why when you studied lyric poets and other writers, you could see what they were doing, and saw the similarities.

NSM: I think that’s true. I learned a great deal of course when I was studying the English poets. As I say, that information that education stood me in good stead. It added a dimension to what I was already doing. It had that feeling of growth. I liked that. I think I benefited greatly and my poetry grew and became sharper. More lyrical on the one hand and more oral in its definition on the other hand.

AD: In Dream Drawings you have a lot of artwork and you’ve been a visual artist your whole life, as well. Has painting and drawing, like poetry, always been part of your practice?

NSM: Yes, my father was a painter so I learned a great deal from him. I’m glad to incorporate some of that into my work as well. I came to painting rather late. All the time I was watching my father work, for example, I did not aspire to be a visual artist. When I was about 40 years old, I was in the Soviet Union and I was very lonely there. I somehow felt an urge to turn to drawing and so I did. I started drawing things that reminded me of my own homeland. That developed into a whole career of artistic expression. I started drawing seriously and then I started painting and that’s stayed with me all this time.

AD: It’s interesting that it was in another country where you were cut off. I know you’ve traveled a lot, but you’ve spent much of your life in the Southwest.

NSM: Yes. It’s a place to which I always gravitate. I’ve been in and out of Santa Fe all my life. Well, it feels like it’s been all my life; since I was about the age of twelve. I’ve been in and out of it, but I always come back to it. I guess I think of it as my home. It’s an incomparable landscape. Full of color and drama. So I appreciate that very much and take hold of that in my own imagination.

AD: I know that some people who haven’t spent time there may not understand, but Santa Fe is very distinct and different from Tucson or elsewhere in the region.

NSM: Santa Fe has a character all its own. One that I’ve come to know pretty well and appreciate a good deal.

AD: When you write, do you make a conscious choice to write in verse or not?

NSM: I don’t generally approach a piece of writing with an idea of how it’s going to take form. I start something and usually it’s an idea, maybe a picture in my mind, and then I fill it in. Sometimes it seems appropriate to do it with elements of traditional English verse, rhyme and meter, for example, and so on. Other times I want it to be more free flowing and put my expression in a more oral framework.

AD: You start the book with a piece in verse and ended the book with “World Renewal” and organizing the book in this way was conscious but writing each poem was not thought out consciously. You followed the idea.

NSM: I think that’s a fair statement. I’m not altogether conscious of a given poem’s form as I’m writing it. It takes shape on its own, in many ways. Sometimes I have to change course in the middle of the stream and revise a piece of writing, which I’m happy to do because I generally feel that I improve it that way.

AD: I mentioned that the book is funny. You have a number of pieces, “The Dark Amusement of Bears” comes to mind and others that made me laugh.

NSM: I think humor has a real place in literature, in general, and I like to play games with words. I think it’s a good exercise. So when I write something like bears sit around and are thinking about things and laugh a lot—to me that makes a lot of sense. Knowing what I do about bears, I’m sure that’s true. [laughs] By the way, that’s an in-joke in itself. I am a bear. By virtue of my name. My name is based upon a story which has to do about a boy who turns into a bear. I identify myself with that boy in my own mind and so I write out of that as another context.

AD: You’ve written a lot about bears over the years. You write about them as complex beings. Just as we are.

NSM: Yes, exactly. Bears are very complicated animals in spite of their pretense at humor and self amusement. They’re complicated and wonderful creatures.

AD: Knowing you identify as a bear and bears being amused by reality brings to mind the last poem in the book, “World Renewal”. That idea that one world ended and another began at the exact same time. I remember back in 2012 when people talked about this and I think there was a literalness of, the day came and went and nothing happened, so it didn’t happen, but of course that was the point.

NSM: I like that idea. I came upon that and wrote that and I think there may be something to it. I keep thinking about it and maybe I’ll write again about the idea. We have a strong need, I think, to think of renewal. Especially when our planet is so endangered. It’s a good idea to imagine going on in spite of the abuse we’ve shown it. It’s comforting in a way to write about renewal.

AD: I think so. And one theme of the book and in Earth Keeper of course is renewal and an attempt to rethink our relationship with the land. In writing Earth Keeper and other things recently are you consciously trying to push a rethinking our relationship to the land.

NSM: I’ve always had that in mind, at least in the back of my mind. It’s coming to the foreground now. I’m much more conscious about writing about the environment than I was at one time. I must say it’s very gratifying because its such a great subject and one that needs a special kind of expression in our time. I feel that I’m doing what I ought to be doing.

AD: I hesitate to say there’s educational component because that’s not correct and I don’t want to say moral argument either. I’m not quite sure how to describe it.

NSM: I think I do know what you mean, yes. I agree. I’m always reminded of my friend who commented on a particular feature of the landscape and he said, I don’t own it, but it’s mine. [laughs] I’m encouraged by that idea.

AD: I like that. I can relate to that. But you’ve spent the past few years focusing on shorter work. Is that what you prefer and enjoy?

NSM: Pretty much, yes. I’ve been writing shorter pieces because I think it’s in my temperament. I’m a sprinter rather than a long distance runner. I enjoy being concise, when I can be. That satisfies my longing for expression. I’m content to write poetry instead of prose. And even in my poetry I’m content to write short pieces. I get out what I wanted to, I think, in writing shorter lengths.

AD: I read that you had been working on a memoir. Are you still writing it?

NSM: I’m still toying with that idea. I’ve got a work in progress in which a large part—all of it in one way—but specifically the last quarter of the book is autobiographical. I’m picking up where I left off in The Names, in a way, writing about not my boyhood, but about my adulthood.

AD: When I asked at the beginning if you were also writing poetry, throughout your career you’ve written novels and plays and The Way to Rainy Mountain, but poetry was always there.

NSM: That’s right. That’s how think of it as well. It’s always there. [laughs] I appreciate other forms of writing, but when it comes right down to it, I think I write poetry. And something like poetry based on oral tradition.

AD: I know other writers who are not necessarily known as poets, but poetry comes closest to them and their expression of things.

NSM: That’s certainly true of myself, I think.

AD: As I said, I really liked the new book, and it feels very much a piece of your recent work.

NSM: I agree. I think it’s in some ways very much a summation of things I’ve been thinking about for a long time and finally getting around to putting down on paper.

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