It’s July in Santa Fe, which means the skies darken most every afternoon and somebody somewhere gets rained on. And sometimes, during the July monsoons, the Institute of American Indian Arts’ campus starts to look like Provence. The terraced vegetable gardens leaf out, the butterfly bushes grow lush, the sage turns a deeper green, and the arroyos and rolling hills lead the eye toward the Jemez Mountains, where the last sun turns the sky vermilion. It’s a perfect dramatic setting for a Writers Festival.
Starting on Saturday, July 19, and running through Friday, July 25, 21 writers will read their work, including prose writers like Sherman Alexie, Manuel Gonzales, Debra Earling, Eden Robinson, Melissa Febos and Ramona Ausubel. Among those who are likely to read at least a declared poem or two are—in order of appearance—Kelly Forsythe, Santee Frazier, Sherman Alexie (yes, poems too), Sherwin Bitsui, Natalie Diaz, Ken White, Orlando White, Nick Flynn, Simon Ortiz, Dean Rader, Joan Kane, and Chip Livingston. That’s a lot of line breakers to discuss in one short column, so let’s look briefly at four of the poets:
Santee Frazier (Cherokee) works in two primary modes, a small-town Oklahoma dialect that’s saturated with danger and violence and poems of a lyric elegance that probably owe something to the late Larry Levis’ lush meditations. The Oklahoma poems ask us to withhold judgment and engage with lives that seem stunted and harsh while Frazier subtly unveils larger issue—poverty and internalized racism for two—that limit the characters’ choices. The lyrics, on the other hand, ask us to feel the complexity of life and the weight of time in our lives. They’re often infused with glimpses of beauty in the midst of unbeautiful narratives, as when a boy drives his binging mother home and they run out of gas:
the night dimly lit by the moon
hung over the treetops;
owls calling each other from
hilltop to valley bend.
Natalie Diaz lets her work bristle with erotic energy. And much of that erotic energy arises from her physical relationship with language and her impulse—always—to go deeper rather than move on. The poet Donald Hall, in an essay about the psychic origins of poetry, isolated a quality he called Milktongue, the “mouth-pleasure” that comes from speaking language. Milktongue drives a poem like “These Hands If Not Gods,” a hymn to a lover’s hands that begins, “Haven’t they moved like rivers—/like Glory, like light—/over the seven days of your body?” Mid-poem, Diaz builds an extravagant catalog of metaphors for those hands that gives the tongue as much to do as the hands:
Zahir, Aleph, Hands-time-seven,
Sphinx, Leonids, locomotura,
Rubidium, August, and September—
And when you cried out, O, Prometheans,
didn’t they bring fire?
Nick Flynn is best known as a creative nonfiction writer, author of Another Bullshit Night in Suck City and, most recently, The Reenactments. His poetry carries the same fire and flux that ignites that nonfiction. In “Cartoon Physics, part 1” for example, he catalogs the rules of cartoon worlds—“if a man draws a door on a rock/only he can pass through it”—and ends with these haunting lines:
… A child
places her hand on the roof of a schoolbus,
& drives across a city of sand. She knows
the exact spot it will skid, at which point
the bridge will give, who will swim to safety
& who will be pulled under by sharks. She will learn
that if a man runs off the edge of a cliff
he will not fall
until he notices his mistake.
Joan Naviyuk Kane’s most recent collection is Hyperboreal. The book carries the intonations of both her mother’s Inupiaq language and the poets her Irish father introduced her to, like WB Yeats and William Blake. The work is marked by densely sounded lines and complex rhythms:
Arnica nods heavy-headed on the bruised slope.
Peaks recede in all directions, in heat-haze,
evening in my recollection.
It is a seemingly casual eloquence, but on close examination, you can hear the glue of repetition that holds the lines together, the N’s of “arnica” and “nods,” the half rhyme of “heavy-headed” settling into the open vowels of “bruised slope.” The pattern repeats in the second line, when the long E’s of “peaks recede” lead to “heat” and “evening,” all stabilized by the rhyme of “directions” and “recollection.” This is a well-made craft, a seaworthy one.
The seven-day Writers Festival is the public face of the Institute of American Indian Arts’ Low Residency MFA program in creative writing, now entering its second year. Sixty MFA students will visit campus to study fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction or screenwriting. The MFA students themselves read on Thursday at 8:30pm. They’re already publishing and winning awards and will bring a mixture of poetry, prose and dramatic writing, though occasionally there’s even an outbreak of song.
The sun will set at approximately 8:15 each evening during this coming week, which means you can attend the 6 pm poetry and prose readings in the auditorium, then emerge to witness a sunset. I can’t guarantee the sunset, but the poetry and prose will be spectacular.
Jon Davis, the poet laureate for the City of Santa Fe and director of the Institute of American Indian Arts’ MFA Program, will read in the Great Hall at St. John’s College on Thursday, July 17, at 7 pm as part of the Bread Loaf Summer Program.