Vizenor Combines Dream Songs and Haikus

Photo by Kevin Grady, Radcliffe Staff PhotographerPhoto by Kevin Grady, Radcliffe Staff Photographer
October 21, 2014
By Anais M. Carell

The role and power of the haiku as a form of poetry has been the subject of significant debate since its introduction to the West. On Oct. 16, Native American poet and academic Gerald Vizenor added another voice to the discussion. Speaking at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Vizenor read from “Favor of Crows: New and Collected Haiku,” his latest book of poetry, and spoke about the connection between poetry and preserving Native American culture.

As an Anishinaabe writer and a member of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, Vizenor focuses his work on interpreting and studying indigenous culture. Vizenor attempts to link his haikus to native Anishinaabe dream songs from the Chippewa of Minnesota and the Great Lakes, while also trying to capture the natural presence and motion felt in Native American artwork.

Vizenor’s work in poetry began decades ago, when he worked at a Minnesota reformatory. He paid inmates to print and bind his first collection of haikus, “Poems Born in the Wind.” Since then, he has become a prolific writer, authoring more than 30 books. “Favor of Crows,” his latest book of poetry, is a collection of previously unpublished poems from the past 40 years.

The purpose of Vizenor’s current writing is to translate the native culture he experienced as a young man into literary form. “What I remembered were dream songs, stories, but not in literary form,” Vizenor said. For Vizenor, Anishinaabe dream songs are distinguished by their sense of motion and natural reason. The form of the haiku seemed like a perfect medium for Vizenor to mirror the dream songs, because of its brief, fleeting nature. “There is a sense of motion and a concise, immediate image in haikus and Anishinaabe dream songs,” Vizenor said.

This “sense of motion” is a concept Vizenor focused on heavily throughout his discussion. Vizenor views this aesthetic as a defining trait of the native and ancient artwork he studied prior to writing poems. “I just looked at the art, and what came out was motion,” Vizenor said. According to Vizenor, this same concept of motion persists across different cultures: “Even the earliest cave paintings in France and Spain had natural motion.”

One distinct trait of Native American songs and artwork is its connection to nature and its understanding of the natural presence—something Vizenor tries to articulate in his poetry. “I use not casual phrases but imagistic phrases that create a rhythm of natural presence…. There is nothing fixed in nature,” he said. But Vizenor was quick to add that creating a sense of motion in haikus is no easy task. “It’s so difficult to write in motion and get rid of the past tense, and also to create a sense of impermanence.”

The end result: a series of carefully crafted, delicate haikus that reflect the transience and movement of nature. Vizenor concluded his talk by reading a few of his poems about waterfalls and seasons. For example, one reads: “mounds of foam /  beneath the waterfall / floating silently.” In a decades-long study of the haiku, Vizenor has adapted the presence and ambience of nature to convey the ancient artistic traditions of his Native American origins.

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2014