If you know Indian poets, you know Adrian C. Louis, precursor to Sherman Alexie, heralded as one of the great American Indian voices, touchstone for writers and poets of all backgrounds. His work has been widely anthologized, from collections of poetry, to novels, to screenplays. Adrian writes obscene, lyrical, on-point poetry and prose about the wildness of the reservation, its tragedy, its torment, and all of its beauty of love and disastrous affairs. In turn spiritual and dark with heavy realism, taunting infidelity and sexuality, never safe, and forecasting something dark on the horizon, Adrian’s work is nonetheless flavored with notes of hope. We were able to ask Adrian some questions for the benefit of all up-and-coming Indigenous writers out there. Here’s what he had to say:
FW: What does it mean to be in the reservation of the mind?
ACL: Not sure exactly what I meant when I wrote that poem thirty or more years ago. Not sure who I was back then. Of course those were some heavy drinking and dope-smoking years. I know Alexie has said that the poem played a role in his decision to become a writer, but what does “reservation of the mind” mean? Here’s how I see “Elegy for the Forgotten Oldsmobile” now. It’s set in Providence, RI where I had returned for an extended stay after doing grad school there and then for some reason returning from the west. It’s July 4th and all I see is utter chaos, dysfunction, and America in its death throes. Kind of like what we have today. So the reservation experience/reflection provides a little sanctuary inside my brain, something strong…yet it also symbolizes something weak, a prison within a prison. No doubt there are implications of my brain being colonized and my life being trapped inside the belly of the beast too. There are some revolutionary aspects to the poem, but it swirls around an ironic lament for an Oldsmobile my uncle promised to give me then did not. That totally broke my heart. I grew up in outhouse poverty and never owned a car until many years after I graduated from high school. Man, if I had that car I could have gotten laid in high school!
FW: Tell us about your writing process – what’s it like, on a basic level? How do you get ideas for a poem? Does your writing ever surprise you?
ACL: Sometimes a line will come to me and I will write it down and then go back later and build a poem around it. At other times a complete poem will come to me in one sitting. Of course, I set those aside and let them age before I go back and deal with them. Kind of like letting a bottle of wine age. Surprise? Yes, many times I am surprised at how my vision, emotion, and choice of words fall into place to produce something that pleases me. If what I wrote did not please and often amuse me then I would not do it.
FW: Who are your favorite writers/artists?
ACL: My favorite Indian writers are Sherman Alexie, Leslie Silko, Simon Ortiz, Jim Northrup, Jim Welch, and Joy Harjo. These folks are all old school, but there is a rising corps of younger Indian writers I like too.
FW: What are you reading lately? Listening to?
ACL: Mostly reading poetry journals, but this month I have started to re-read Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s massive tome, “The City of Trembling Leaves.” It’s a book that only people born in Nevada can truly understand. I just retired so I plan to do a lot of re-reading of books I read many years ago like “The Illiad,” “Crime and Punishment,” “Dr. Zhivago,” etc. Who am I listening to? Freddie Fender, ayyy. Pretty much all I listen to is my Itunes and they are mostly moldy oldie rock and roll. I occasionally listen to a classic country and western radio station.
FW: What pieces of advice do you have for up-and-coming Native poets and writers?
ACL: Read more than you write. Understand that writing is a life-long thing. Don’t overdo the Indian angle. Write about what you know. Save everything you ever write. Try to show your stuff to several other writers before you ever publish it, but be leery of other writers because some will sure as hell stab you in the back. Try to get a basic understanding of form and function…and literary criticism. Try to understand how vision happens…read books like Hugo’s “The Triggering Town.” Do not imitate writers you love. Do not write while you are under the influence. Have patience. Have patience.
Elegy For A Forgotten Oldsmobile
July 4th and all is Hell.
Outside my shuttered breath the streets bubble
with flame-loined kids in designer jeans
looking for people to rape or razor.
A madman covered with running sores
is on the street corner singing:
O beautiful for spacious skies…
This landscape is far too convenient
to be either real or metaphor.
In an alley behind a 7-11
a Black pimp dressed in Harris tweed
preaches fidelity to two pimply whores
whose skin is white though they aren’t quite.
And crosstown in the sane precincts
of Brown University where I added rage
to Cliff Notes and got two degrees
bearded scientists are stringing words
outside the language inside the guts of atoms
and I don’t know why I’ve come back to visit.
O Uncle Adrian! I’m in the reservation of my mind.
Chicken bones in a cardboard casket
meditate upon the linoleum floor.
Outside my flophouse door stewed
and sinister winos snore in a tragic chorus.
The snowstorm t.v. in the lobby’s their mother.
Outside my window on the jumper’s ledge
ice wraiths shiver and coat my last cans of Bud
though this is summer I don’t know why or where
the souls of Indian sinners fly.
Uncle Adrian, you died last week—cirrhosis.
I still have the photo of you in your Lovelock
letterman’s jacket—two white girls on your arms—
first team All-State halfback in ’45, ’46.
But nothing is static. I am in the reservation of
my mind. Embarrassed moths unravel my shorts
thread by thread asserting insectival lust.
I’m a naked locoweed in a city scene.
What are my options? Why am I back in this city?
When I sing of the American night my lungs billow
Camels astride hacking appeals for cessation.
My mother’s zippo inscribed: “Stewart Indian School—1941”
explodes in my hand in elegy to Dresden Antietam
and Wounded Knee and finally I have come to see
this mad fag nation is dying.
Our ancestors’ murderer is finally dying and I guess
I should be happy and dance with the spirit or project
my regret to my long-lost high school honey
but history has carried me to a place
where she has a daughter older than we were
when we first shared flesh.
She is the one who could not marry me
because of the dark-skin ways in my blood.
Love like that needs no elegy but because
of the baked-prick possibility of the flame lakes of Hell
I will give one last supper and sacrament
to the dying beast of need disguised as love
on deathrow inside my ribcage.
I have not forgotten the years of midnight hunger
when I could see how the past had guided me
and I cried and held the pillow, muddled
in the melodrama of the quite immature
but anyway, Uncle Adrian…
Here I am in the reservation of my mind
and silence settles forever
the vacancy of this cheap city room.
In the wine darkness my cigarette coal
tints my face with Geronimo’s rage
and I’m in the dry hills with a Winchester
waiting to shoot the lean, learned fools
who taught me to live-think in English.
to make a long night story short,
you promised to give me your Oldsmobile in 1962.
How come you didn’t?
I could have had some really good times in high school.