Poet Diane Glancy on Transgression and Writing the Past
In Conversation with Peter Mishler
For this installation of a series of interviews with contemporary poets, Peter Mishler corresponded with Diane Glancy. Diane Glancy is professor emerita at Macalester College. Currently she teaches in the low-residency MFA program at Carlow University in Pittsburgh. Her 2019 books are It Was Over There by That Place (The Atlas Review Chapbook Series) and The Book of Bearings (Wipf & Stock, Cascade Imprint, Poiema Series). A new collection, Island of the Innocent, a Consideration of the Book of Job, is forthcoming from Turtle Point Press in 2020. Glancy has received two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, a Minnesota Book Award, an Oklahoma Book Award, an American Book Award, and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Native Writers Circle of the Americas.
PM: I’ve held on to this quotation of yours: “Memory is the first thing you pass through on the way to poetry.” Would you say more?
DG: Memory is a creator as well as a rememberer. Maybe it is more creator than recorder. It is conglomerate space between the actual and the creative remembering—or the way memories become altered over the years with the influence of other memories, desires, denials, and relationship to other events. By that I mean, I remember speaking to my mother about something, and she did not think it happened the way I did.
Likewise, my daughter remembers events differently that I do. It leads to fundamental questions. How do we know what we know? How can we see that reality has a dual path? It can be one way to one person, and another to another. Isn’t there in physics something like that—the principle of relativity. The dual nature of reality. The plurality of reality. I was reading Pliny’s Natural History for another project and found the line, “this pluralitie of worlds” in his Second Booke. This was the Philemon Holland translation published in 1634. I made note of it in my selective reading—choosing what fit what I wanted to find.
Poetry itself is memory. It comes from a long tradition—when a Native American tells a story (traditionally) they go back to the beginning and work their way forward. Thus, some stories can take days to tell. Poetry is part of all poetry that has been written and contains the early worlds somewhere within it—going back to the origin of poetry as breath, as root cause of being—meaning those who are rooted in struggling with the root-cause of meaning. Or explication of meaning in the Mystery we are in. Poetry is an alternate universe—the only universe for those who have entered poetry. Poetry is origin.
PM: What is the strangest thing you know to be true about the art of poetry?
DG: There is a principle of physics working within poetry—whatever it is. Something that can’t be explained because it resists capture. Like the unifying principle that physicists are looking for, yet it always eludes them. There are opposing forces in the universe. The constancy principle and the theory of relativity. There’s a native myth that says the creator “sung the universe into being. His singing spawned reason, but not sufficiently. So we shall never know all that moves with the universe.” When poetry works as it should, it ameliorates what cannot be reconciled. It touches those basic principles in such a satisfying way that it doesn’t matter that we can’t know. In poetry there is certainty and uncertainty side by side.
PM: I found the reviews of two new books by poets Joan Naviyuk Kane and Layli Long Soldier in your latest collection interesting—a different approach to review, a unique demonstration of your reading. Could you talk about your approach?
DG: I don’t think I can do a straight review of anything. I remember in school having trouble with reports. I wanted the sidebar—I wanted to follow the daydream that the teacher’s voice engendered. I liked the books of Kane and Long Soldier. I wrote an eclectic review that was published in The Rumpus. Looking at it, it reminded me of the work in It Was Over There by That Place, so I gave it the heading “Book Reports for School.” It is the way I wish I could have written in school. I am very happy about the resurgence of Native writing. There are many major writers coming along. They are addressing the many ways of Native life. Yes, I read them, and think they’re wonderful. But when I’m at my computer, it’s the old road I follow back to the point along the clash-line of English and the old language I have left as a visage in my head.
PM: Could you talk about that “visage” above as a point of inspiration and how that has manifested itself in your writing?
DG: One of poetry’s purposes is the formation of visage. I think it’s one of the purposes of faith also. To substantiate the great air pocket over which we reside. Or in which we reside. The great uncertainty sucks visages toward itself. They provide a sense, a visage, of certainty or substance in the likeness of certainty. The great unknown would eat us otherwise—if we didn’t construct netting into which we catch something other than what is prose.
PM: Could you talk about the artistic effort of delving into the past to tell a story that hasn’t been told, to give voice to someone, or to an ethos, that did not have a voice before?
DG: The more I write, the more I cross back over the same territory. For me it is voices of the past that did not have a chance to speak. Often the voices left no notes. Sacajawea on the 1804-06 Lewis & Clark expedition in Stone Heart. Kateri Tetakwitha, a 17th-century Mohawk in a Christian village established by the Jesuits in The Reason for Crows. The 1838-39 Cherokee Trail of Tears in Pushing the Bear. I just finished a piece, A Line of Driftwood, about Ada Blackjack, Inupiat, who went with four, dismissive Anglo explorers to Wrangel Island in the Arctic Ocean in 1921. She was the only survivor when she was rescued in 1923. I held her diary in the Rauner Collections at Dartmouth College. She struggled to write about her mundane activities—she had learned English in a Methodist Mission in Alaska—but underneath the struggle and the often-misspelled words, was the spirit of her life. It is what I wrote when the words first came to me:
They ate me like horsemeat.
Yet I survived.
A horse is not an Arctic animal.
Neither were they.
The artistic effort you mention is more like driving to the coast without a map. You may find yourself in Wyoming for a while, and then Arizona, and you’re still not there. But you keep driving until you arrive at something that looks like the ocean. Or a similitude of ongoing water. And you put your flag into the shore and call it, there.
I have felt these voices would like recognition. I’m on a mission that has something to do with historical restoration. Or conjecture of restoration. One of my books, Fort Marion Prisoners and the Trauma of Native Education, went back to the 1875-78 incarceration of Plains Indian warriors in St. Augustine, Florida. None of their voices were recorded, but when I walked into Fort Marion (I think its current name is Castillo de San Marcos), their voices were there.
I think I want to bring light to the hurtfulness that the Eurocentric world has on those who are not part of it. And maybe what the E. world loses by dismissing other voices not of itself. I feel a hook in my mouth as I’m pulled toward a project. I do whatever research there is—even when there’s little information to research. I travel to the land where the events took place because the land carries history. And I rely on the creative imagination and common sense regarding the possibilities of what could have been said, thought, or acted upon.
PM: How would you describe the relationship between your fiction and poetry?
DG: I consider these novellas long poems. There is a crossover of genres. I can say I see them as meta-poetry. Something outside the border of poetry. Though poetry has no borders. They are historical nonfiction, yet fiction in terms of the character’s voices—and then all of it translated through the gauze of poetry.
PM: Would you be willing to share what you’ve understood to be true regarding what can and can’t be accomplished regarding this kind of recognition and restoration of particular voices?
DG: I feel a sense of transgression when I write a first-person narrative of a historical voice. Who am I to do this? What if it is not what the character would want? Would I want someone tromping over my life? Yet I do it over and over. I think the past needs to be filled in. There are so many missing voices. They haunt me sometimes. Or rather the thought of left-out history haunts me. Those voices that would have added much to the understanding of history if they had been allowed to speak. The exact nature of the character can’t be accomplished. But I feel sometimes that something in the neighborhood of where they could have been will suffice. Sometimes nothing in history seems clear. I have doubts about my work—myself giving myself permission to write personal narratives when myself is not the person I’m writing about. Yet it seems to be the road I often am on.
PM: To what extent does a sense of transgression or doubt alter the path that your writing might take?
DG: The desire to explore a character’s voice has remained constant, despite the trepidation I feel when writing. I am interested in the individual as I have lived many years alone, and I work that way. Yet there is a strong communal awareness. After all, I travel between the families of my two children in Texas and Kansas. I also am connected to the past. The historical characters form a family of sorts. Often, I feel we are one in mind. I like to spend time with the left-out ones whose voices don’t matter to history books, yet their stories fill the land.
PM: In your most recent full-length collection The Book of Bearings you created Saint Bo-gast-ah to give voice to Cherokee students in the Cherokee Female Seminary which was instituted in Oklahoma in the 19th century—could you talk about your experience of conceiving or development of this voice, St. Bo-gast-ah’s?
DG: In the acknowledgments in the back of the book, I say that I reviewed a book, Cherokee Sister, The Collected Writings of Catharine Brown, 1818-1823. She enrolled in the Brainerd Mission School and her writings smack with Christian vehemence. Assimilation was a harrowing experience. I wanted what I thought would be her voice—or another voice in the Female Seminary that spoke more truthfully—or what I thought of truthfully. There was quite a trough between the housework the girls were required to do on their “outings” and the lessons in Latin, Philosophy, Rhetoric and other classes mentioned at the beginning of the section. I wanted to walk in that trough. I have anyway. The difficulty of school on my understanding of language. The difficulty of church.
Protestant Christianity always has been a part of my life. But I recognize that Christianity has multiple roads (interpretations). Maybe Catharine Brown walked a better one than me. I also wanted to say, the process of writing the book was the same. I made several trips back to Tahlequah, Oklahoma. Though the Female Seminary no longer is there, the ground that it sat on is. And the voices of those who attended the school.
PM: I am especially interested in what I read as abandon and inventiveness in your creation of this Saint persona. I understand that you are writing this life as a socio-historical rendering, but I wonder about the relationship between the historical and the imaginative—is there a tether that pulls you back into the historical? Or is it the other way around?
DG: A road usually runs both ways at once.
PM: The learning you are describing above, the historical facts, don’t account for the imaginative and lyrical power of those poems, so I wonder if you could talk about the experience of filtering the historical through the imagination.
DG: When I read something there always is something else surrounding it—or an accompaniment of something else. We carry more in our heads then we know. It happens in poetry certainly. We write down a few words and there are “friends” or connotations that come with them and they keep going—the friends bring friends and there are lovely side-trips, and more is said than what is said. And more known than what is known. That is the purpose of both poetry and faith. The mystery. Those visages in one’s imagination.
I pick them up in research and in driving and writing, for that matter. I just returned from Texas yesterday. It’s a 7 ½ hour trip I make once a month, sometimes twice. Always in the middle of travel is that high moment when I feel connected to what is beyond and around and under. It comes with weariness and a sinking into myself. It comes in the silence of momentum. The somberness of motion.
PM: Do you have a memory or image or fleeting sensation from childhood that you think serves as a through line to your work today?
DG: Standing on the floorboard of the back seat of our old Dodge as my father drove to my grandparent’s farm.
DG: Because I was going somewhere. There was image and visage and sparseness and silence at the farm. It was first poetry to me.