INTERVIEW: ALICE M. AZURE (Poet and Writer)

Alice M Azure1.       Please introduce yourself and your poetry.

I was born in North Adams, Massachusetts as Alice May Hatfield.  My father was of Acadian (French and Mi’kmaw Métis) and Dutch heritage and grew up in the southern part of Nova Scotia, Canada.  My mother was born in West Springfield, Massachusetts but spent her formative years in Mandal, Norway—the southern tip of that country, right on the sea.  Her second language was Norwegian.  They were married in East Longmeadow, Massachusetts.  After World War II when they divorced, my sisters, brother and I were sent to a children’s home in Cromwell, Connecticut.

It was there that I was first introduced to poetry.  A counselor, Bud Moeckel, used to show the children his poems and paintings.  I remember him telling us he had about 500 poems composed.  My favorite book of his is Recording Angel (Chicago: Covenant Press, 1969), which has a foreword by Bud’s mentor, Mark Van Doren. 

I took a creative writing course during my sophomore year at North Park College in Chicago.  But it wasn’t until 1994 that my poetry came into its own voice.  My second husband, Alex Azure (Turtle Mountain Chippewa), had unexpectedly passed away.  A Cherokee friend, recognizing my grief, referred me to Lee Francis III (Laguna Pueblo), the charismatic director of Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers & Storytellers.  His friendship caused me to devote more and more time to writing until I knew I wanted to be a poet and writer in a way I never before imagined.  Lee also engaged my planning capabilities to the extent that I was able to help him craft a mission for this organization—to ensure that that the voices of Native writers—past , present and future—are heard throughout the world.  That’s what I wanted for myself—to “swim” in the mainstream of Native American writing and poetry!  

2.       What type of books do you read?

I read everything I can get my hands on, suggested to me by friends and family and discovered through various reviews and critiques.  Examples are books about art, cooking (Ina Gartner), history, novels, biographies (Molly Spotted Elk: a Penobscot in Paris by Bunny McBride), detective stories such as the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series by Alexander McCall Smith, anthologies of short stories, poetry,  plays (Eugene O’Neil), essays, and young adult stories such as Michelle Paver’s Chronicle of Darkness.  I started to read Paver’s stories in order to keep up with my grandson’s reading—much in the same way I read all seven of the Harry Potter books so that I could have some conversations with my oldest granddaughter.  Then, of course, I try to keep up with Native American literature, and am a member of the Association for the Study of American Indian Literature (ASAIL).  Through that organization, I learned of Margaret O’Brien’s Firsting & Lasting, a scholarly work heavily documented, showing how early New Englanders attempted to wipe out any association or thanks due to New England’s aboriginal population.  Totally sympathetic with Dr. O’Brien’s thesis—I nevertheless was thankful to get back to Cheryl Savageau’s Mother/Land—impeccably created poems.

3.        Who are some of your favorite authors?

 Oh, boy!  I should first ask forgiveness from whom I’ll forget!  The Native American poets (many of whom are also novelists, etc.) are Cheryl Savageau, Joseph Bruchac, Kimberly Blaeser, Robert Conley, the late Vine Deloria and Paula Gunn Allen, and Joy Harjo.  Other favorite poets are Molly Peacock, Adrienne Rich, Elizabeth Bishop, and Stanley Kunitz.  In terms of novels, I have gobbled down nearly all of Louis Erdrich’s stories.  Locally, I have enjoyed Mary Ruth Donnelly, Carter Revard, Drucilla Wall, Richard Newman, Adrian Matejka and, of course, my SOS poetry circle—Becky Ellis, Gail Eisenhart, Katherine Mitchell, Gaye Gambell-Peterson, and Keith Byler.  Catherine Rankovic’s Meet Me: St. Louis Writers was a wonderful inspiration as I began my own interview of Charlene Eastman about her school days at Holy Rosary Mission in South Dakota.   

 4.        What poets are you currently reading? 

I know I do not read enough poetry.  But I try.  Right now, on my night stand, living room coffee table, and desk, are these poetry volumes:  David Lehman’s The Oxford Book of American Poetry;  Garrison Keillor’s Good Poems; Carol Willette Bachofner’s Native Moons, Native Days; The Mi’kmaq Anthology  Volume 2, edited by Theresa Meuse, Lesley Choyce, and Julia Swan;  Elizabeth Bishop and the New Yorker, edited by Joelle Biele; and small volumes of Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, and Walt Whitman—the last two of whom I have difficulty appreciating.  Don’t ask me why!

5.        What other genres, besides poetry and nonfiction, have you written?

I have published a few short stories, essays, and lots of reports or research papers associated with my twenty-five year United Way career as an urban & regional planner.  I have ventured into the territory of interviews and plan more of those. 

 6.       How long did it take you to write the block of poems in Games of Transformation?

 There are twenty-five poems in the collection—fifteen dealing directly with Cahokia and ten focused mainly on children.  Most of the poems were composed in the early months from 2007 onward.  I did include two early poems about my children (1980 and 1998 respectively) and another in 2000 about the children’s home in Cromwell, Connecticut, where I lived from 1951 to 1959. 

 7.        Are there other poems on the same subject which are not included in the book and if so, why? 

 That ancient city— Cahokia—continues its lure, especially as I come to know Native people who are currently living in the American Bottom.  So I have composed a few more poems since Games of Transformation was published in early 2011.

 8.        Tell me a little about your tribe, the Mi’kmaq.

Canadian aboriginal policy can get pretty convoluted, so suffice it to say that I am a mixed blood—or Métis, and not enrolled.  But I am acknowledged as being of aboriginal descent.  I do venture into some explanation of the politics of Native identity in my memoir, Along Came a Spider.  The names of my paternal ancestors from southern Nova Scotia include those who in colonial times and after intermarried with the Mi’kmaw people.  In the Atlantic Canadian provinces of Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland, New Brunswick and Quebec, there are 29 Mi’kmaw reserves.  In the United States, there is only one reserve in northern Maine.  Population figures for the Mi’kmaw vary depending on what source I use or to whom I talk.  The figure I most often use—which includes off-reserve as well as on reserve persons—is around 30,000.  We are the largest tribe in Canada.  We have always been known as a Canadian tribe with scattered concentrations in Boston, New York City, and elsewhere along the eastern seaboard.

9.        How have you been affected by your research about the Cahokian Mounds?

Whenever I am below the bluff—on Illinois Route 157 or the Great River Road—Illinois routes 3 and 100, I imagine another era teeming with dugout canoes, scattered home sites, etc., expressed in the poem, “Quotidian Dimensions.”  I often travel back and forth on Collinsville Road, so pass Monk’s Mound, Wood Henge and other land forms at the world heritage site.  Always, I feel like I enter another dimension, as the poem describes.

10.    How has the exercise of writing the poems changed you?  

I know now that I can take on a poetic or literary project that has great interest and emotional draw, even though I may not be as confident as I’d like regarding the history, scholarship and other factual knowledge surrounding that particular project.  So many people helped me get up to speed about Cahokia—especially the two directors of Cahokia Mounds Historic Site—Mark Esarey and Bill Iseminger.  I was apprehensive about wanting to do a series of poems—as opposed to just a few—about the ancient city.  Since I do not suffer from writer’s block, I’ve been fortunate that there always seems to be a poem or two bouncing around my head.  This wasn’t the case with the Cahokia work.  So I asked for lots of help—from experts—visible and invisible!  I believe an entity—who I called Red Cedar—did approach me about my intentions, and eventual s/he must have been satisfied with my attitude and direction, for shortly after that encounter, I began to write the initial poems.  I took on a schedule of regular research at the archives located in the Interpretative Center at Cahokia Mounds.  The four poems in the Prologue of Games of Transformation express the initial questions that dogged me as I began my research and study of Cahokia.

11.    How will your future writing reflect those changes?

I can be more confident when my instincts (muse?) push me into unfamiliar territory, knowing that people will help me when I ask.     

12.    Do you have another book planned?  Or, what are you currently working on?  

Most of last spring and summer I worked on a lengthy interview of a friend of mine who spent her childhood school days at the notorious boarding schools—Holy Rosary Mission (now Red Cloud Indian School) at Pine Ridge Reservation and the St. Francis Mission on the Rosebud Reservation.  Both reservations are in South Dakota.   I have two other interviews that I’d like to do—both involving good friends from South Dakota, the kind of women “…who charge within the bosom/ The Cavalry of Woe/ Who win, and nations do not see…” to quote Emily Dickinson. 

I hope to have a full poetry collection ready in a few years—and have already begun to scope out portions of what that work may look like.

13.   What feedback have you received from Native American writers and friends?

I am grateful for the positive feedback I have received from Native colleagues in the various tribal communities in which I have lived—the Quad Cities in Illinois, Washington DC, Green Bay, here in the St. Louis metropolitan area, and elsewhere.  I know I am considered an emerging writer.  I started late in life. People may be going easy on me.  Knowing that, I am hypersensitive to the nuances of silence from big name poets.  However, I also know of the amazing subjectivity with which we all as poets look at each other’s work.  I try very hard not to get discouraged when a poem or piece of writing falls short of my vision or other’s. 

14.    What is the best advice you have received about writing?

Learn all you can learn, but remember to get going on that next poem!

15.    Do you write daily, have a set routine, or simply wait for inspiration?  What keeps you going?

I do not write daily on schedule, as I have responsibilities for the after-school care of my three grandchildren.  I also volunteer a little time at our local food pantry and enjoy going out on trips with friends from church or to visit family.  I have little notebooks and scraps of paper everywhere and jot down ideas, words, phrases, or anything connected to a poem or piece of work that is banging around in my head.  Sometimes I will shelter a line or thought for years before it presents itself as ready to be further developed into a poem.  I will say that my companion, Terry Thorson, gives me a wonderful gift of time by doing most of the cooking in our household.

I do not know how to adequately answer the question, “What keeps you going?”  It is a mystery, I think.  In this time of my life, free from the worries of the work-a-day world, I am thankful to the Creator for the gift of creativity that pushes me on—giving me second sight into all the possibilities for a poem or a story.    

Be sure to read our review of Games of Transformation written by Faye Adams.

Alice Azure’s writings have appeared in a number of journals and anthologies such as The Florida Review; Native Literatures: Generations; and Yellow Medicine Review. She has two new books just released—Along Came a Spider by Bowman Books (a memoir), and a chapbook of poems—Games of Transformation, by Albatross Press. She grew up in the Connecticut River Valley—Cromwell, Connecticut and Springfield, Massachusetts, and earned an M.A. degree in urban and regional planning from the University of Iowa. A Mi’kmaq Métis, her roots are in the Kespu’kwitk District of Nova Scotia. She lives in Maryville, Illinois, close to her four grandchildren. To learn more about Alice M. Azure, visit her website!

 

This interview was conducted and written by Bookscape reviewer Faye Adams.