Heid E. Erdrich, Poet, Curator, Editor, Is Having a Busy Year
The Editor of New Poets in Native Nations in Conversation with Sheila Regan
Anishinaabe poet, curator and filmmaker Heid Erdrich is a fierce advocate for other Native artists. Throughout her career, she has amplified the work of Native poets, performers, and visual artists, even while her own work has garnered national attention. Her most recent book of poems, Curator of Ephemera at the New Museum for Archaic Media is blistering, provocative, and intricate as it investigates language and slyly critiques the white gaze of the mainstream art world. While it stands as its own admirable work, the book, which won the Minnesota Book Award, speaks to Erdrich’s work to change the dialogue surrounding Native writing and art, whether she’s pushing back against outdated museum practices or editing an anthology of Native poets. I talked to Erdrich about her recent projects and what she’s planning in the coming year, as fellow with the Native Arts and Culture Foundation.
Sheila Regan: Congratulations on your Minnesota Book Award.
Heid E. Erdrich: Thank you. It was unexpected. Completely unexpected.
SR: Tell me about that book, Curator of the Ephemera. Where did it come from?
HE: It came from my work with visual artists mostly, and thinking about how critics produce art language, and how, when you are a writer and you work with visual artists, you have a job to create a sort of analysis, but the more I worked with artists, the more I felt that wasn’t necessarily the right response. At some point I said, “What if I just wrote poems?” And they started to say “Yes.”
SR: That’s interesting. What was the first poem you made for the collection?
HE: It was written for an online publication called 99 Poems for the 99 Percent and it was supposed to be for the Occupy movement, which I had tried to engage, and felt something was not right. I don’t like the idea of occupying Wall Street. The wall was put up to keep the Indians out, the Native people. So I wrote back to that.
After that, most of the poems were to Jim Denomie, to Frank Big Bear, art works by those people. The works that were part of my sister’s exhibit (Louise Erdrich’s Asynchronous Reading at Bockley Gallery) were responses to her collages and found object art and paintings, as well as to work by my nieces, and my own pieces that were part of the installation.
Then I had been creating poems that were unmountable exhibits. The idea that there are many things that you could never create in actual life. I had gotten the idea to start collecting things I could not create into kind of a museum, and that it would be sort of an ephemeral museum. That brought me to the second theme of the collection, which is ephemerality and electronic communication.
SR: I think what I found really intriguing about the collection is that you are a curator in real life.
HE: Yeah, I found myself becoming a curator. It was never something I thought I could be. I think I probably would have been a curator or a librarian if I had known that was a possibility before I started to teach.
SR: I thought what was really brilliant about your poems in Curator of Ephemera was the idea of critiquing not only the way that art gets written about, but in particular the way that Native artists are framed in mainstream museums and galleries. I was wondering if you could speak to that, what you were trying to do there?
HE: You know, it’s a through-line for me to cultural criticism. It’s just part of my training and part my life as a Native person. You’re always like, “Wait. What? Does that include us? What are you talking about? How do we fit into that?” Museums have always been a strange place to me because I grew up in a time when there were signs outside that said, “See our Indian bones” and there were strange presentations of cultural things where you were like, “I know what that is. Why is it in a museum? Why is it special?”Museums have always been a strange place to me because I grew up in a time when there were signs outside that said, “See our Indian bones.”
The second through-line is science and the idea that what is found scientifically—and I use found, that language of the doctrine of discovery—what is found to be true in science is often something that is known in Indigenous thought or Native thought or even Ojibwe thought, so I often interrogate those things.
SR: The other thing I wanted to talk to you about was that you just got this fellowship.
HE: Yeah. My Native Arts and Culture fellowship.
SR: What is that going to be?
HE: Well, luckily that is not a project fellowship, so it supports me generally in my writing work. I have two manuscripts that I’m working on in poetry that I would like that to be my focus when I’m done. One is called Verb Animate. It’s about Ojibwe language, my attempts to understand the language and language revitalization efforts, and recovery efforts. It’s a very complex thing—what is animate and what is not? But it’s also the writings I’ve done with choreographers and dancers, which I’ve never thought I’d find myself doing in my life, but I’ve got almost 10 years of doing writings while working with choreographers and I want them to be their own piece. As part of it I was able to go on retreat with Rosy Simas Danse, and I’ll probably do a couple of other travel times with her to write about her work. It’s very hard to write about dance.
SR: Anything else that you are planning on doing during this fellowship year?
HE: Yeah, I have another book of poems called Little Big Bully, which is about bullying obviously, but harassment, stalking, abuse, trying to understand how it has become a national mode that half the people of this country have agreed to.
There was a certain point in my life when I realized this is why people split along two lines. They want to be protected, or they want to defend from bullying. To be protected, you often take on the abuse, because then you have this abusive person or institution that is going to stand for you because you know everybody else is afraid of that person, or that institution. Or you’re a defender, and the defenders are also really interesting to me. The things people will do, especially with art, to defend is remarkable.
SR: And now you’ve got an anthology that just came out, New Poets of Native Nations.
HE: Yeah, the anthology was a four-year project and it was intense. I’m still tired from it, and I went right from that to doing a full issue of Poetry Magazine, an all-Native issue. I’m also hesitant to be in the position where I’ve now made two big statements about what I think Native poetry is, and I have to make sure that everybody knows that I don’t think I have an ultimate voice in any way. And that my authority is very simply that I made the time to do it.
SR: In either of these experiences—with Poetry Magazine and this anthology—is there a point of view? Is there a theme?
HE: There’s none. I just matched the criteria. The title of the Graywolf anthology is New Poets of Native Nations. I looked for strong poetry first, poets whose first books came out since the year 2000, and then I just began to try to map the country and make sure I had North, South, East, West, middle, and a huge variety of Native Nations represented. I was very particular to have writers who had a close connection to a particular Native nation, either they were enrolled citizens, descendants, because there is an issue in Native poetry of people not being Native, not being connected to any particular Native nation.
SR: Anything else you are thinking about or working on right now?
HE: I got a McKnight grant in prose, so I’ve been teaching myself how to write nonfiction prose. Writing nonfiction feels really risky to me. I’m pretty introverted when I’m not performing so for me it’s a lot.