dg nanouk okpik on Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas
In Conversation for the Windham-Campbell Prizes Podcast
The Windham-Campbell Prizes Podcast features a series of conversations with the 2023 Windham-Campbell Prize winners about their favorite books. Hosted by Michael Kelleher.
dg nanouk okpik (winner of a 2023 Windham-Campbell Prize for Poetry) joins Windham-Campbell Prizes director Michael Kelleher for a deep-dive into Layli Long Soldier’s 2017 collection Whereas, examining the historical potency of poetry, the depth of an artistic friendship, and an appearance by a cat named Blue.
For a full episode transcript, click here.
From the episode:
Michael Kelleher: It’s a really interesting move there, poetically to come back to the crystallized image of those grasses. It feels like a moment maybe of a return to homeland as you were talking about, or a return to some life after death.
dg nanouk okpik: Mm-hmm. And you’re eating the grass and then you’re on the grass, but then you’re also kept from the grass—because they put them in, in corrals, the people in corrals and wouldn’t let them out, so they didn’t have access to the grasslands when they were, you know, in bunkers and in prison and, and things happening like that.
They couldn’t get out to the grasses to pray or to have ceremony. And another thing, the ceremony, the grasses… it’s not in the permanent state. I mean, we know that it’s alive and it has birth, life, and then death. Well, when we pick the grasses, we pray for the life to continue through the grasses to us and weave into the community. And these grasses, when you burn them, you actually change the substance of the grass to smoke.
And that smoke then blesses the people or blesses you in ceremony and takes away all of that ill feeling. And so you can then purify yourself. And I think right here in this book, in the middle of it, Layli is jumping out to the grasses as she’s swinging from the platform, she goes out to the grasses, then she’s able to die and jump into the grass and be free.
And so she’s maybe saying in this part that she’s breaking free and that she’s going to go out to the grasses, okay, you’ve already done this to us. Now what can we do? And then she goes right into whereas…
MK: Which rhymes with grass.
dno: Right, exactly! Which is insane. Right? It’s insane. It’s got that s sound to it and, oh, it’s incredible the way she does it.
dg nanouk okpik is an Iñupiaq-Inuit poet from south-central Alaska. Her debut collection of poetry, Corpse Whale (2012), received the American Book Award (2013) and her 2022 collection Blow Snow was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Her work has been published in several anthologies, including New Poets of Native Nations (2018) and the forthcoming Infinite Constellations: An Anthology of Identity, Culture, and Speculative Conjunctions (2023). The recipient of the May Sarton Award for Poetry from the American Academy of Arts & Sciences (2022), okpik lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she is a Lannan Foundation Fellow at the Institute of American Indian Arts.
The Windham-Campbell Prizes Podcast is a program of The Windham-Campbell Prizes, which are administered by Yale University Library’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.