Layli Long Soldier on the Joys of Creative Liberation
In Conversation with Guest Host Mira Jacob on Thresholds
This is Thresholds, a series of conversations with writers about experiences that completely turned them upside down, disoriented them in their lives, changed them, and changed how and why they wanted to write. Hosted by Jordan Kisner, author of the essay collection Thin Places, and brought to you by Lit Hub Radio.
In this episode, poet Layli Long Soldier (Whereas) joins guest host Mira Jacob to talk about her transformation during pregnancy, learning to open up to the possibilities of the world, and how she makes a space for ease in order to make a space for creativity.
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From the conversation:
Layli Long Soldier: I’ll step back a little bit with my relationship to language, which actually has been a lifelong thing, in addition to sound. One of the funny things about my mom is growing up, I attribute this to her, her way of creating conversation and having fun. She liked to read a lot and she would sit and say, what do you think the difference is between overcast and cloudy?
It was often philosophical kind of considerations. And so she would sit there and, in all earnestness, ask other people what they thought the difference was between certain words or what certain words meant and the layers. That was fun for her, or interesting. And so I grew up, without realizing it, thinking in that way. So that’s one thing.
And the other thing is, before I started my studies in undergrad, I worked at the Indigenous Language Institute for 11 years. I was the assistant to the executive director, so we worked with different communities who are working to create language programs to keep their native languages healthy. So that was also a big part of my life and my way of thinking about language and engaging and interacting.
I had a real interest in language and thinking about particulars and so on, but poetry is a whole other thing. It took me a long time to sort of chisel through something in myself, and it’s scarier to get to that place of I would say creative liberation. I try to share this with my students: I really do feel, because of my experience, that creativity is a skill. I think there is a false belief we have that it’s always there, or that it’s something we associate with children, imagination and creativity. And so we take it for granted. You know, children have it, we always have it, we have it within us all the time.
Mira Jacob: Right. Like a spice on the shelf that you could pull down and use at any point.
Layli Long Soldier: Right. And from my experience, it is a skill when we get older, a way of tapping into something within ourselves. But it is, as they say, a practice. You have to learn the ways to access it and to you use it and to keep it vibrant and keep it alive. And so it took me four years of undergrad to actually reach that place of liberation creatively.
And then all of a sudden, in my last semester of undergrad—I often picture it like driving a car. When you’re learning to drive, you’re very self-conscious and you’re pressing on the brake and you’re doing the gears and you’re looking in the mirror and everything is so conscious and deliberate. And then at some point, it becomes a little bit integrated and you begin to do it all at once and not think too hard. And that’s what I had to do, was get to a place of not over-thinking.
Layli Long Soldier earned a BFA from the Institute of American Indian Arts and an MFA with honors from Bard College. She is the author of the chapbook Chromosomory (2010) and the full-length collection Whereas (2017), which won the National Books Critics Circle award and was a finalist for the National Book Award. She has been a contributing editor to Drunken Boat and poetry editor at Kore Press; in 2012, her participatory installation, Whereas We Respond, was featured on the Pine Ridge Reservation. In 2015, Long Soldier was awarded a National Artist Fellowship from the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation and a Lannan Literary Fellowship for Poetry. She was awarded a Whiting Writer’s Award in 2016. Long Soldier is a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation and lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.