Heid E. Erdrich Uses Words As Catalysts for Change

She hosts three virtual events this week in her role as 2022 Elliston Poet-in-Residence at UC.

Ojibwe poet and interdisciplinary artist Heid E. Erdrich is the 2022 Elliston Poet-in-Residence at the University of Cincinnati. The author of seven books of poetry, her latest collection Little Big Bully (Penguin Books) won a National Poetry Series award.

Erdrich will be doing a trio of virtual events at UC this week: a talk on poetry as an institutional intervention (March 7), a conversation about poetry as radicalization and liberation for BIPOC and marginalized people (March 9), and a poetry reading (March 10). In this interview, she shares a bit about her new collection and topics she’ll explore further during her events at UC.

What drew you to poetry as a medium for making art? Can you speak a bit about its potential for catalyzing change?

Words fascinate me the same way materials fascinate a collage artist. With poetry I can craft structures with the most common and diverse material, our human language. There’s the musicality, too. I can’t sing well enough to be the rock star I’d like to be, but being a poet is voicework.

You plan to talk a bit about poetry as an institutional intervention. Could you briefly share with us what that means to you, in your own life, as you engage institutional spaces?

For me as a Native woman, an Ojibwe woman, my relationship with museums has been uneasy. I am old enough to have seen signs that read “See our real Indian bones” and the like. Even today I can find myself working in a museum or institution that houses Indigenous ancestor bones. Since my second book, National Monuments, I’ve been writing around and to that terrible abuse.

Poems can intervene on their own, but I’ve also had my poems worked into exhibits and have found ways for them to take space in institutions via video and other ways of bringing my words off the page.

Can you describe the cover of Little Big Bully and relate how it connects to some of the subjects the collection explores?

The book cover is from a painting by Andrea Carlson, a renowned Ojibwe artist who’s been a great friend to me and an intellectual collaborator. The title is “Exit” and Carlson considers it “a sigil against loss” that offers protection against the theft of Indigenous intellectual and actual property including language and art. The images include a horizon line, an earth work (called Man Mound), and trail trees at the either edge, left and right, that mark a path across the landscape along Interstate 94 across Wisconsin to Chicago. Several poems in Little Big Bully have connections to I-94 west of the Twin Cities.

I know you’ll be reading your poetry at UC, but there’s something really powerful about seeing the poems on the page as well. Can you share a bit about how your poems appear and how their appearance contributes to the way they make meaning?

Many of the poems in Little Big Bully lay across the page as breath scripts without punctuation. The subjects are big (abuse, territory intrusion, autocracy, narcissism, and environmental degradation); the settings are big (the Great Plains and Great Lakes); and thank goodness my publisher arranged for a huge trim size for the book!

In Little Big Bully, there are images with unexpected juxtapositions, such as this line from “All Nations”: “Blackbirds contract a thought above a cartoon.” Could you speak a bit about how disparate images come together in your mind as a writer and what role juxtaposition plays in your poetry?

That’s funny! It feels literal to me. The image is of a flock of birds creating a murmuration, contracting into a cloud. The juxtaposition does occur with the cartoon, but it just looked like that to me. I think I have a kind of synesthesia.

From Little Big Bully by Heid E. Erdrich, published by Penguin Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2020 by Heid E. Erdrich.
Where do you go to work on your writing?

Alas, my desk or bed or comfy chair these days. I am the sort who likes to write in coffee shops or museums or libraries, too. And half the time I’m walking or in any vehicle I’m working out an idea for a poem.

What is one piece of advice you would give to someone who wanted to be a better reader of poetry?

Don’t be afraid of it, and read it out loud. Those are two pieces, oops!

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