Author Q&A: Janice Gould

Janice Gould’s tribal affiliation is Koyoonk’auwi (Concow). Her poetry has been honored with writing awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Astraea Foundation, the Pikes Peak Arts Council and the School for Advanced Research in Santa Fe, as well as a “Spirit of the Springs” Award from the city of Colorado Springs. Her most recent book of poetry, Doubters and Dreamers, was a finalist for both the Colorado Book Award and the Milt Kessler Book Award. Janice is an Associate Professor in Women’s and Ethnic Studies at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, where she directs the certificate in Native American Studies. She is the Pike’s Peak Poet Laureate for 2014-2016.

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TBL Author Q&A Series: Janice Gould

This is one in a series of brief interviews with a diverse array of writers, editors, and other industry professionals. Check back over the coming months for more!

Can you speak to the general experience of being the Pikes Peak Poet Laureate? I know that the Poet Laureate mission is to engage and inspire poets within your community, and I wonder how that manifests for you.

I have done poetry workshops and many readings around the Pikes Peak region and beyond, and that is work I will continue to do.  I hope that the poetry I bring to the world helps give voice to human experience–ways of being or knowing that are felt but cannot always be easily said.   

The project I proposed as the Pikes Peak Poet Laureate is called “Tapping Into Tava:  Digital Poetry.”  Tava is the Ute name for the mountain that is called Pike’s Peak.  The idea was to write poetry from and for this region, though it did not have to be “nature” poetry.  It could be poetry about people or places, things or ideas–but somehow related to our region.  That poem would be paired with a photograph or photographs of place (taken with a phone, for example), and using a program like MovieMaker (or iMovie) and a microphone, the poem would find an audio/visual expression.  In theory, we’d make short YouTube productions of these poems that could be uploaded to the Internet.  Even though my term as PPPL is about to expire, I’d still like to work on this project and make it happen for folks. 

In addition to being a poet and educator, you are a musician. Do you find that music influences your poetry? Do you find that your poetry influences the music you play?

It’s one of those mysteries, how music influences poetry—and vice versa.  Probably those two forms of expression reside somewhere within an individual and silently talk with one another.  They seem closely linked, and I wish I had more training so that I could explore how I might better compose music.  My mother taught music; there was always music in our house.  In my teens, I studied oboe and guitar, and later I picked up accordion.  I’ve written little pieces for guitar and for accordion, but my limitations as a player of these instruments mean that my compositions are necessarily simple.  I feel they could be made more complex; someday I will work on that aspect of composition.  I have more facility with words–not that writing with words is easy.  It still takes time and repose to follow and explore a thought, reflection, or memory. 

But then there’s the question of inspiration and influence and how those really work.   As human beings, we’re composed of body, mind, heart, and spirit.  We learn how to feed the first three in order to have physical, intellectual and emotional life.  The fourth area—spirit—we sometimes neglect, though it needs to be fed and tended to as well.  Yet many are starved in spirit and have not been given ways to know what their spirit may need.  When a person turns to poetry (or music), it is often because the needs of the spirit become overwhelming, and that need cannot be ignored or numbed.  I think our spirits long for connection with others—not just human others, but with that vast, beautiful world.   

It’s hard to understand from what place within poetry and music come—I imagine somewhere close to the origin of life itself.  Often it’s best to accept simply and humbly that the spirit within is asking for expression.  As poets, musicians, artists, dancers or actors our job is to demonstrate these various modes of communication—anguish or joy, pleasure, desire, sorrow and grief.  We don’t really know why we’ve been given this material form—when so much of what exists (as far as we can tell) is energy.  Yet here we are, material beings in a material world that is gorgeous and rich, but also—due to our human incapacities, our selfishness and greed (whether for material or spiritual wealth)—impoverished and frightening.  We get to choose how it should be, and as life on earth has progressed, we have not done a good job of it.  Still, we have poetry, music, and amazing visual expressions that attempt to interpret the awesomeness of connecting (or longing to connect) with something larger than ourselves.

With degrees in linguistics and English, how would you describe the relationship between knowing the science of language and writing creatively? It seems as though your knowledge of linguistics would inevitably influence your approach to poetry.

I love to think about language.  I wish I were multi-lingual and fluent in five languages.  I wonder what that would do to how I express myself.  I studied Spanish and Portuguese until I discovered Linguistics, and then I pursued that degree as an undergraduate at the University of California.  I have great respect for “grammar”—for the intricate structures of human thought that give us ways to think and to speak.  I love to listen to how people say things—to accents and dialects, to word choices, to sounds.  My first language being English, I tend to listen more closely to speech in this tongue.  And I listen to my own speech, especially as it finds form in writing.  Linguistics made me aware of the astonishing variants of language; and it made me more aware of variants in English, a rich, strange, flexible, unsettled language that undergoes rapid change.  Every language, I suppose, has its limitations, expressing as it does a certain epistemology rooted in how we perceive the world—our relationships, our values.  The language we received also shapes our perceptions.  I suppose that the part of us most in touch with the sacred is the part of us that strives to speak well.        

As a Koyoonk’auwi woman and a professor of Women and Ethnic Studies (specifically Native American Studies), can you speak to the intersections that bind feminist and Native American literature? Who are some of your favorite Native American writers?

Institutions undergo change slowly yet inevitably.  Transformation is at the heart of existence.  Sometimes people come together like a flock of starlings, and all begin to move in the same direction, spiraling this way and that in the most incredible dance.  Human beings seem to desire that kind of freedom.  It can be a contradictory impulse, going against the grain of how things are.  When energies come together and move in a certain way or certain direction, things change.  That’s what happened in this country in the twentieth-century.  Small changes encouraged larger changes.

When the second wave of feminism emerged, it sent ripples in many directions and inevitably it mingled with the thoughts and feelings of Native American women, who asked many questions about how and in what ways it might touch American Indian communities.  It’s a very complex issue, but I think literature is one answer that Indian women writers came up with.  

In addition, the energy of feminism opened doors to the publishing industry.  We can write all we want, but if we don’t have venues for publication, our hard work won’t go far.  The fact that publishers recognized the power of women’s expression and responded to the obviously felt need of readers to read this literature was a great help.  It cracked open a place for American Indian women to place their work.  Some of this, initially, was through small presses.  Over time, certain voices came to the fore—each of them saying something of vital importance, telling our histories, our family stories, speaking of our dreams, hopes, despairs, and of our great love for this Earth that gives us life.  

My thesis at Berkeley focused on work by Louise Erdrich and Leslie Silko; and my dissertation was on Joy Harjo’s poetry.  Some anthologies that focus on and are edited by Native women include Rayna Green’s That’s What She Said; Beth Brant’s A Gathering of Spirit; Connie Fife’s The Colour of Resistance; Paula Gunn Allen’s Spider Woman’s Granddaughters; Joy Harjo and Gloria Bird’s Reinventing the Enemy’s Language; and Carolyn Dunn and Carol Comfort’s Through the Eye of the Deer.  New work comes out all the time.  

There are many other writers whose work I love, and I’m afraid that by mentioning these few I have left out others whose work I also value and care about.  But perhaps this gives readers an idea of just how much poetry and fiction is now available by American Indian women, much of it award-winning.

What are some of the themes that tend to emerge in your writing?

Love, loneliness, longing for connection, family, history, place, and music.

Your repertoire and accolades are very notable—I wonder whether a specific award or achievement has been particularly meaningful to you?

Every award I’ve been given has been an honor and a blessing.  Those recognitions have come at various moments in my life; sometimes they helped materially, providing needed income.  But what I am most grateful for is that someone out there read my work and thought highly of it, appreciated the art and craft of it, and believed in its possibilities.

What projects are you currently working on? Do you have big plans for 2016?

I am currently working on a prose and poetry memoir whose working title is This Music.  The theme of music weaves in and out of these pieces.  I had envisioned the work as a series of prose poems, but if they are prose poems, they got stretched into somewhat longer narratives held together more or less chronologically.  These are interspersed with shorter, lyric poems.  It’s been tremendously fun to write, and I was able to get a lot done while I was on sabbatical in the fall.  Now that I’m teaching again, it’s harder to come across the right conditions for writing.  I’m eager to finish the work, and would like to accomplish that this year.  Completing that writing seems close, but once it nears the end, I might have questions about my stories that reopen the work or stimulates new writing.  I worry that the manuscript may not have depth, that the theme of music will seem too thin, and that its hybrid form will leave readers confused or dissatisfied.  But worries aside, I’m enjoying it for now, and once it’s finished, I would like to explore writing fiction.  These more narrative pieces have given me a bit of confidence that I could carry out a short story project.

What advice would you give to emerging writers?

I believe in the adage, “Show, don’t tell.”  I know that is not everyone’s taste, but as a reader—and not just a writer—that is what I want.  I want to be moved:  stimulated, interested, curious, and ultimately transformed by what I read.  To “show” is to present material that can be understood visually as well as linguistically, metaphorically as well as literally.  We respond through our senses, not through intellect alone.  So when I read, say, student writing, I am looking for concrete images and good use of sight, smell, sound, taste and/or touch.  After an emerging writer learns the value of these fundamentals, other craft issues can arise, other problems about how to convey a story, whether poetically or prosaically.  I guess the hardest thing of all is to believe in the importance of one’s own stories.  If the writing has been important to you, it’s likely that someone out in the world will feel its importance too.  Emerging writers should believe in an audience, and should write believing that the poem or story is needed by someone, somewhere.  An emerging writer (no matter what age) might say, “I write for myself,” and that’s all right.  But to be a writer is to be a citizen of the world, and generosity—open-hearted giving of oneself through words and deeds–is a very good practice.

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