Heid E. Erdrich, Ojibwe (Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa), lives her life wrapped up in language as a director of Wiigwaas Press, the Ojibwe-language publisher she started with her sister, award-winning author Louise Erdrich. To mark the publication of Cell Traffic: New and Selected Poems (University of Arizona Press, 2012), Heid’s fourth poetry collection, ICTMN caught up with the writer for a chat.
How does the physical reality of cell traffic between mother and child have a metaphysical counterpart in your writing?
In considering this new science of cellular traffic between parents and child, between siblings, and perhaps even grandparents and grandchildren, I wanted to draw an understanding between what I learned from a contemporary standpoint and what is meant by the concept contained in indigenous phrases that translate “All My Relations.” Ojibwe use that phrase and of course Lakota and Dakota as well—but in our own languages. Now science tells us that it is literally true that our connections to other living things are on a cellular level. Maternal-fetal stem cell traffic is just one example. Science sounds a lot like spirituality at this point. We are almost at an answer to the metaphysical question. I was always on team body, but rooting for team soul.
How does your obvious love of words inform your treatment of the English and Ojibwe languages? Well, the translated poems are a project with Margaret Noori, who is a fine poet in English and gifted with Anishinaabemowin [Ojibwe language]. I think of how both languages work, on many levels, before I determine my lines. But I don’t have Margaret’s ability, and never will, so her lines are a gift and an expansion of my English, too.
One of your poems is about Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, the great Ojibwe mother poet of the 19th century. What has Jane meant to you as a modern-day Ojibwe poet? Exactly as you have said, I think of Bamewaawaagiizhigokwe as an ancestor—literarily and literally. She was the first bilingual poet and the first indigenous woman to publish literary works in the U.S. and Canada. Her sensibility was both what we would call traditional today and also visionary. Her life story was tragic and her legacy shrouded. In short, she is the perfect literary idol.
How do you feel about the modern poetry establishment of the dominant culture, which you address in poems that refer to poetic icons like Robert Frost and William Carlos Williams?
This is a big question. I love the English and American literary tradition and only realized after decades of teaching poems that disturbed me because of their portrayal of “Indians” that I could and should speak back to them poetically in just the way I had always told my students to speak back to poets whose words irked them. But I did not do it just to show resistance to the dominant world of poetry, I did it because I also loved and admired poets like Frost, Whitman, Stevens, Williams. Perhaps it is a way of wedging into the narrow world of contemporary poetry as well because Native/Indian/indigenous poets are profoundly misunderstood there even now. What people think is Native American poetry is often the worst kind of pandering to stereotype or outright fraud or even work about Indians by mainstream poets.
Cell Traffic is a “new and selected” poems. Have you thought about doing a collected works? If so, how far off is it?
Right now I am working on poem films, so no ideas about a new book for a year.