Elizabeth Woody walked into a Southeast Portland coffee shop two minutes behind me, just long enough for me to have snagged the only free table among a crowd of isolated laptop jockeys, and we sat down. She didn’t bother with coffee: she’d had a press of meetings and interviews since the day before, when her appointment to be Oregon’s eighth poet laureate was announced, and more coffee wasn’t in the cards. Plus, she was getting over a lingering bug.
She smiled, warmly, and we began to talk. About writing, and philanthropy, and poverty, and salmon, and dams, and racial violence, and friendships, and family. “I was brought up in a family that believes in public service,” she said at one point. “The house was always open to people from all over Oregon. People were always welcome.”
When word came from the Oregon Cultural Trust that Gov. Kate Brown had appointed Woody to succeed Peter Sears for a two-year term as poet laureate, I thought it seemed an inspired choice. I didn’t know her, though I knew several people who did, including her aunt, the artist Lillian Pitt. But I’d been familiar with her work for a long time, and knew her to be both a bridge-builder and a master of the difficult art of elevated plain speech, an approach to language that draws people in rather than shutting them out. Both traits seem key to the role of poet laureate, who is something of an ambassador-at-large for language, culture, and connection. They are qualities that helped Billy Collins, whose work is otherwise very different from Woody’s, become such a successful national poet laureate in the early 2000s.
Woody, who was born in the Navajo Nation town of Ganado, Arizona, and is an enrolled member of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, is fifty-six years old, and she wears them well, like someone who’s made sure they fit. She’s one of those people who seem present. She embraces situations, concentrating directly on what and who are in front of her, and like a lot of writers she exudes both a comfort with new situations and a protective reserve: a desire to engage the world, and also a determination to safeguard her solitude. Her conversation rambles like a river, and the water’s clear.
A certain comfort in the spotlight will be essential in her new role, which takes effect the last week of April, and requires her to give between six and twenty public readings a year across the state. How will she approach this poet laureate thing? Woody, who declares herself a very private person, was both conjectural and direct about her plans. “For me, the first year will be getting the sense of my land legs,” she said early in our conversation, and soon after added: “I want to spend more time thinking about the rural areas, rather than the urban areas.” That reflected an emerging strategy: she’ll be visiting the state’s least-visited people, in its expansive and isolated open areas; and another ring of places with some cultural infrastructure, including bigger towns outside the I-5 corridor; and a third ring of well-established centers with busy cultural calendars – colleges, urban places. But places like Grant and Harney counties, those vast and sparsely populated stretches of Eastern Oregon that lately have become battlegrounds in the rural Sagebrush Rebellion, were in the front of her mind: “People are hurting a lot right now.”
That hurt, and the histories of it, are things that Woody seems to understand intuitively, and in a time when Oregon’s economic divide and urban/rural split have become sharp and fierce, someone with a foot on each side (Woody has long split her time between Portland and Warm Springs, where her roots are long and deep) is close to the center. Her poem Home and the Homeless, published in 1994, seems utterly pertinent to today:
The buildings are worn.
The trees are strong and ancient.
They bend against the grid of electric lines.
The windows are broken
by the homeless and the cold past.
I am home on the yard
that spreads mint, pales the Victorian roses,
takes into it the ravaged lilac tree.
The black bulk of plastic lies about
stopping unwanted weeds for the Landlord.
Tattered, the cedar tree is chipped to dry heaps of recklessness.
The unwanted spreads by the power of neglect.
The wear of traffic says that we are out of time,
Age, the creak in the handmade screen door fades behind itself.
From Luminaries of the Humble by Elizabeth Woody. The Arizona Board of Regents ©1994. Reprinted by permission of the University of Arizona Press.
The poem has a hard clear rightness, a pared-down, almost ruthless beauty that also, somehow, seems compassionate. It’s a quality that most of her work possesses, even when it’s less straightforward, and that extends to her essays and fiction as well.
At some point in our conversation it struck me once again that, like other art forms, poetry is a verb as well as a noun: it takes a finished form, but it’s also a way of thinking and doing and being. In a sense, one creates a poem because one is in the state of being a poet. The majority of Woody’s published poetry is twenty years old, although she has a manuscript of more recent poems under consideration, and about three hundred pages of essays she’s in the process of readying for a collection, and she’s been writing fiction. But, as she puts it, she’s “been working full-time for many, many years.” Her work has grown from the rhythms of her life: teaching creative writing at the Institute of American Indian Arts, in Santa, Fe, New Mexico; spending a dozen years in development and other capacities for the environmental group Ecotrust; helping to found the national Native Arts and Cultures Foundation, now headquartered in Vancouver, Washington, and the group Soapstone, Inc., which supports women writers; working for three years as a program officer for the Meyer Memorial Trust. “I like philanthropy,” she told me. “I like being able to marshal resources. I love helping people make connections.”
Born in Arizona (her father was Navajo), she moved back early to the Plateau country of central and eastern Oregon, where her mother’s family had been for generations, close to the Columbia River. Her mother was young, and had alcohol and drug problems, and when Elizabeth was 4 her grandparents took guardianship of her. At age 5, planning under their guidance for her future, she started a savings account. She went to school in Madras, and was steeped, like her extended family, in the atmosphere of tribal rights and identity – a subject, as she’s written, that can get thorny. “Essentially the Columbia River was one people,” she told me, but with the institution of reservations, things changed. You can have long family history among the Yakama, for instance, but no tribal standing there if you’re registered in Warm Springs.
Born two years after the destruction in 1957 of the ancient fishing grounds at Celilo Falls beneath the waters of The Dalles Dam, and part of a politically motivated family, she was deeply aware of the tensions between white and non-white cultures around her. The inundation of the falls was not only a profound environmental event. It also represented the fracturing of a way of life. As Woody has written: “The tribal people who gathered there did not believe it possible.”
In that essay, Recalling Celilo, from the book Salmon Nation: People, Fish, and Our Common Home, (Oregon State University Press; edited by Edward C. Wolf) she elaborates:
“Along the mid-Columbia River ninety miles east of Portland, Oregon, stand Celilo Indian Village and Celilo Park. Beside the eastbound lanes of Interstate 84 are a peaked-roof longhouse and a large metal building. The houses in the village are older, and easy to overlook. You can sometimes see nets and boats beside the homes, though some houses are empty. By comparison, the park is frequently filled with lively and colorful wind surfers. Submerged beneath the shimmering surface of the river lies Celilo Falls, or Wyam. …
“It was a place as revered as one’s own mother. The story of Wyam‘s life is the story of the salmon, and of my own ancestry. I live with the forty-two year absence and silence of Celilo Falls, much as an orphan lives hearing of the kindness and greatness of his or her mother. …
“When the fish ran, people were wealthy. … So abundant were the fish passing Wyam on their upriver journey that the fish caught there could feed a whole family through the winter. Many families had enough salmon to trade with other tribes or individuals for specialty items.
“No one would starve if they could work. Even those incapable of physical work could share other talents. It was a dignified existence. Peaceful, perhaps due in part to the sound of the water that echoed in people’s minds and the negative ions produced by the falls. Research has shown this to generate a feeling of well-being in human beings. It is with a certain sense of irony that I note companies now sell machines to generate such ions in the homes of those who can ‘afford’ this feeling of well-being.”
All of that is history now, and yet still with us, and it has been part of Woody’s role as a writer to keep the history and the continuing reality from disappearing. She recalled the long fight of the Yakama activist David Sohappy against state and federal laws restricting Indian fishing rights, and of federal Judge George Boldt’s historic 1973 ruling that upheld 19th century treaties giving tribes the rights to half of the harvestable salmon in Washington waters. The ruling didn’t stop cases against native fishers – Sohappy was sent to prison ten years later for selling fish out of season in a sting operation – but it was a turning point. “Right in front of me,” Woody recalled thinking at the time. “This is what you need to write about.”
The Pacific Northwest, she notes, “has not been a very welcoming place for people of color.” Being Indian in a predominantly white culture reinforced the notion daily. And as a young woman living in Southeast Portland, she walked perilously through a neighborhood riddled with one of the biggest white-supremacist subcultures in the nation: she took care, she says, not to be on her own in the neighborhood at night. It was here, in her neighborhood, that the 28-year-old Ethiopian student Mulugeta Seraw was murdered in 1988 by members of East Side White Pride and the White Aryan Resistance, who beat him to death with a baseball bat. One killer was convicted of first-degree murder; two others of manslaughter and assault.
And there are related things she wants to write and talk about. “Violence against women is a hot topic now,” she said. “And violence against Native women is even more. Native women are being raped and killed. Indian men, too.”
Giving public readings is a central task of the poet laureate – Woody’s recent predecessors in the post, Lawson Inada and Paulann Petersen, excelled at it – and in a way it’s vital to a full understanding of what poetry can be.
Certain forms of poetry, from hip-hop to slams to Shakespeare’s rhymed and free-verse plays to the writing of song lyrics, are intimately linked to performance, but on the whole poetry can and usually does exist in the absence of the poet herself: we read the lines on a printed page, and if they take a voice it’s as much our own as the poet’s. Woody’s history involves a lost voice, a voice common to a particular people, an understanding that is veiled by time and events and leaves its impression on the way she thinks and writes and speaks. Words are central to her being.
“An elder woman explained that if my generation knew the language, we would have no questions,” she wrote in Recalling Celilo. “We would hear these words directly from the teachings and songs. From time immemorial, the Creator’s instruction was direct and clear. Feasts and worship held to honor the first roots and berries are major events. The head and tail of the first salmon caught at Celilo is returned to N’ch-iwana. The whole community honored that catch: One of our relatives has returned, and we consider the lives we take to care for our communities.”
Such a voice is clear and clean and almost touchable. And it’s vocal. It’s a spoken thing.
Woody’s life is a web of interconnections, and lately she’s been thinking a lot about her mother, Charlotte Pitt, who died on October 1 of last year from cancer, and who has been an intense influence on Woody’s life and work. Charlotte, who had long since dealt with her own addictions, was 74 when she died, and still working as an alcohol and drug counselor in Warm Springs. It was a coming back to herself, or into her own. “You know, she had an IQ of 148 or something like that,” Woody said of her mother. Determined to succeed, Charlotte applied to Harvard and was accepted on full scholarship, but turned it down: friends pointed out that it would be flat and isolated in Massachusetts, with no mountains. So she stayed, and became active in urban Indian affairs, and counseling, and community building. “When you do well,” she urged her daughter, “take someone’s hand and pass it along.”
Charlotte was there when Elizabeth was doing the hard work of developing her writing, too, something she had to do around the demands of the rest of her life. Every day, Woody recalled, she would work from 9 to 3, go home, eat, take a nap, get up, and then research and write for several hours. She would take her mother out for coffee, and read her poem after poem, and Charlotte would listen, and say, “Now wait, stop,” and begin to ask questions. It was the honing of a voice.
“I’m a person who is visual,” Woody told me. “I see something, and I say, ‘Yes! That’s what I’m going to do.’”
Certainly the imagery of her writing reflects an open and creative eye, taking in the world around her and rearranging it in words. She is an artist herself, and her relationships with other visual artists are legion, beginning with her aunt, Lillian Pitt, and extending to projects with the likes of fellow contemporary Native artists Joe Fedderson and Gail Tremblay (both of whom have been associated with Evergreen College in Olympia, Washington, where Woody earned a bachelor’s degree before taking a masters in public administration from Portland State University). She’s illustrated Sherman Alexie’s book of poetry Old Shirts & New Skins, and apprenticed in traditional basket weaving with Margaret Jim-Pennah.
It’s all part of a world view that is more rounded and less subdivided than mainstream contemporary life. “The ancient trade network that preceded the separation of people into reservations was a communal method of associating and discussing ideas,” Woody wrote in her essay Voice of the Land: Giving the Good Word, in the collection Speaking for the Generations: Native American Writers on Writing (1998, University of Arizona Press). “There are stories of mysterious events occurring, of brilliant people having ‘accidents.’ I can see how warnings like ‘Sit down! Be quiet! Don’t stand out!’ became the norm. My aunt has cautioned me, ‘It is all right to use family stories to inform your work, but you will need to have the strength to back it up.’ My mother’s comment on my writing was: ‘Remember, your capacity to heal is through your words. We need to hear them too.’”
Woody’s words, and her eyes, tell an Oregon story, and a crucial one. For the next two years, she’ll be telling them in every corner of the state.