The Navajo Nation’s Inaugural Poet Laureate Shares Words and Wisdom

Luci Tapahonso uses her inimitable storytelling to connect with students, fellows, and the public
Luci Tapahonso (Navajo) met with Harvard students over lunch on the day of her reading. Tapahonso's reading was part of the Roosevelt Poetry Readings--made possible by a gift that helps bring poets of recognized stature to the Radcliffe Institute--and was cosponsored by the Harvard University Native American Program.Photo by Kevin Grady, Radcliffe Staff PhotographerLuci Tapahonso (Navajo) met with Harvard students over lunch on the day of her reading. Tapahonso's reading was part of the Roosevelt Poetry Readings--made possible by a gift that helps bring poets of recognized stature to the Radcliffe Institute--and was cosponsored by the Harvard University Native American Program.Photo by Kevin Grady, Radcliffe Staff Photographer
By Pat Harrison

AT MOST POETRY READINGS, the audience maintains a solemn silence between poems, digesting the writer’s words. But when Luci Tapahonso read her work at the Radcliffe Institute this past spring, the crowd enthusiastically clapped after each poem.

To introduce the poet, Kristiana Kahakauwila—the 2015–2016 Lisa Goldberg Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute and an assistant professor of creative writing at Western Washington University—explained Tapahonso’s effect on people. She said she had discovered Tapahonso while researching communal storytelling. “The act of reading—usually done individually, silently—felt with Luci’s work to be communal and raucous, as if the entire household of relatives were there speaking, and I was in the hogan with them,” Kahakauwila said.

The inaugural poet laureate of the Navajo Nation, from 2013 to 2015, Tapahonso is a professor of English and the director of the creative writing program at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. Some of the poems she read at Radcliffe were about her family—including her mother, her father, and a granddaughter who attended the reading with her. Family is extremely important to Tapahonso, who proudly declared that she and her husband have five children and nine grandchildren.

Tapahonso also read work about her hometown on the Navajo reservation of Shiprock, New Mexico, before ending with a prayerlike poem: “We must always remember the worlds our ancestors traveled. Always wear the songs they gave us. Remember, we are made of prayers. Now we leave, wrapped in old blankets of love and wisdom.” Each poem, its topic deceptively simple, conveyed profound meaning.

Before her reading, Tapahonso met with students over lunch and described her path to becoming a poet and a professor. She grew up in a rural household with 11 siblings and a lot of relatives around. English was their second language. At the Methodist boarding school she attended in Farmington, New Mexico, she and her classmates weren’t allowed to speak Navajo. Only at recess and in the evenings could they speak their native language with one another. Unaccustomed to Christian ideas, Tapahonso told the students, she was fascinated by the notions of heaven and hell—“that if you thought a bad thought or did a bad thing, you could go to hell.” Returning home to Shiprock one Thanksgiving, she warned her brother that he would go to hell for eating with his mouth open. Her parents explained to her that such ideas were for school, for her life around white people.

After attending high school in Shiprock, Tapahonso went to the University of New Mexico, where she gravitated to writing and met her mentor, Leslie Marmon Silko, in a poetry class. Tapahonso published her first book of poetry, One More Shiprock Night (Tejas Art Press) in 1981, a year after she graduated.

After earning a master’s in creative writing, Tapahonso taught at the University of Kansas and the University of Arizona. She has written three children’s books and four more books of poetry, including Blue Horses Rush In (University of Arizona Press, 1997), which received the Mountains and Plains Independent Booksellers Association’s 1998 Award for Best Poetry.

Today, Tapahonso lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with her husband, Robert G. Martin, a Cherokee from Oklahoma who directs the Institute of American Indian Arts. She drives to Albuquerque two or three times a week to teach at UNM, a journey the reader can join her on through her poem “Prayer.”

Prayer

By Luci Tapahonso

This winter
I have spent many hours driving
the road between Santa Fe and Albuquerque
early morning late afternoon

It must be tiring, people say
about 100 miles a day
nothing much on that road

But I enjoy it
that road had a lot
of good poems and songs
discovered while driving
through softly curving hills
dotted with tufts of piñon and tumbleweeds.
I even left some thoughts musing,
lingering around a small white cross
beside the northbound lane
and I say:
                  bless me hills
                  this clear golden morning
                  for I am passing through again.

I can easily sing
for this time is mine
and these ragged red cliffs
fl owing hills and wind echoes
                  are only extensions
                  of a never-ending prayer.

From Seasonal Woman, by Luci Tapahonso, Tooth of Time Books. Copyright 1982 by Luci Tapahonso. Reprinted with permission of the author.

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2016