The NMW Interview with Pamela Uschuk, American Book Award Winner (NMW 2012)
by Don Williams
“On high adventure, near death experiences, feral friends, indigenous students, social justice, the power of poetry, the perils of war, the illusions of fame, and much more.” –Don Williams
She’s fallen headlong down a high peak in the Himalayas, rescued a child from an enraged driver bent on destruction, held the hands of dying loved ones, taught on reservations, joined readings and other protests against those who drove us through the “low dishonest decade,” to quote Auden, that greeted a hopeful new millennium.
She’s lived all over the west and traveled much of the world—all that and more while forging a dual career as one of the nation’s pre-eminent poets and a teacher of poetry.
I came to know Pamela—or Pam as she insists her friends call her—as her star was rising. In 2010, I had the good fortune of phoning to tell her she’d won New Millennium Writings’ Poetry Award.
Within two weeks, she emailed to say she’d just won the 2010 American Book Award for Crazy Love (Wings Press, San Antonio, 2009).
Shortly afterward, I learned she’d been named a Visiting Poet to the University of Tennessee, and she’d be living in Knoxville with her husband, renowned poet William Pitt Root (“Call me Bill”).
Before returning to her role as an associate professor of creative writing at Fort Lewis College in Durango, CO, she would also serve as NMW’s Guest Judge for our poetry contest.
Pamela has published four other books besides Crazy Love. They are: Without Comfort of Stars: New and Selected Poems (2007), Scattered Risks (2005), One-Legged Dancer (2002), and Finding Peaches in the Desert (2000) which was followed by a CD with Joy Harjo.
She’s the author of highly regarded chapbooks, as well, and her work has appeared in over 250 journals and anthologies. A superb student, she climbed the rungs of an education that has carried her far. She earned a full scholarship to Central Michigan University, where she gained a bachelor’s in English. She studied at Interlochen Arts Academy and graduated from the University of Montana with an MFA in Poetry and Fiction. She’s taught at Marist College, Pacific Lutheran University, Fort Lewis, the University of Arizona, Salem College, at Greenhaven Prison, Native American schools on the Salish, Sioux, Assiniboine, Northern Cheyenne, Flathead, Blackfeet, Crow, Tohono O’odham and Yaqui reservations and elsewhere.
All this wasn’t as easy as the above litany might suggest. She’s written elsewhere of growing up on a farm in Lansing, MI, and the influence exerted by her Russian-American father. A complex man who could be terrifying, thanks to a hot temper, he taught her to appreciate both nature and poetry, and that’s where our interview begins.
How did you become a poet?
I don’t believe I became a poet so much as that poetry chose me. I’ve read and written poetry since I was a child. I’ve always loved the sounds of words, the derivations and meanings of words. Since the age of three, I’ve been addicted to rhyme, when my father had me memorize the entire text of “The Night Before Christmas.” I recited it flawlessly for my extended family. As a teen in high school and as an undergraduate, poets like T.S. Eliot, Theodore Roethke, Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath moved and electrified me.
As occupations, I tried painting, teaching in public schools, construction work, waitressing and bartending, but poetry was always there at the center of my desire, teasing me, pulling my heart, obsessing me. Poetry nailed itself into my heart and will not let me go. Poetry is my greatest challenge, my torment and my great joy. I literally get lost or maybe I should say, I find myself in the act of writing poetry. It is very much like being in an altered state, a trance state. At its best, writing is an ecstatic experience. I am transformed.
Tell me about your Russian roots. How has this heritage affected your poetry?
This heritage formed me and, early on, defined me in the world. I was always aware of my Russian/Czech heritage, and I was proud of it. This heritage separated me from the other kids at school. I was different and was singled out at school by teachers who called me everything from a Commie to a dirty little Russian potato eater. What I knew was a beautiful language that was like a symphony of sounds. When I heard my grandma and grandpa and father speak in Russian, it was like standing inside a poem or a cathedral of poetry. I loved the sound of Russian. I ate Russian food. I loved my grandma’s icons, their tragic faces, their beauty. I loved the stories from the “old country.” My great-grandfather, my father’s grandfather, was a member of the Russian nobility. My grandmother’s father was a Czech brewer. I yearned to go to the “old country” and reclaim my family and my heritage. I love classical music, composers like Dvorak and Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky. They take me home to my emotional roots. My culture is strong, my Russian/Czech roots are set deep, and they affect everything I write.
What was it like growing up in Michigan?
I loved and hated growing up on a farm. I was isolated, but I had an 80-acre farm to run on. My brother and I were adventurers on that farm. We knew all the wild creatures, the woods, the hills, the ponds. These small wildernesses gave us shelter from the domestic storms that shook our house. But, I was lonely. My school friends never visited. I lived too far out of town. So, I read, drew pictures, wrote stories and later, poems. I read and read and read, and books transported me to places I knew I would visit when I grew up. The small farming communities surrounding us were very conservative, very Republican. My father and mother were Democrats. My father was a Union Steward and quite liberal in his views. But the farmers who lived around us were also good neighbors in many senses. They made fun of us being foreigners, and they disagreed vehemently with my father about politics, but we could rely on them in times of crisis.
What was your darkest hour?
My darkest hours were when my sister, Judi, suffered a massive head bleed from an aneurysm, hanging between life and death in a coma for six weeks. I sat beside her in the ICU, rubbing and exercising her limbs, reading to her, coaxing her to live, as did other people who loved her. I wasn’t the only one.
My other darkest hour was all of 2010, when my only brother, John, was treated with chemo, radiation and radical surgery for esophageal cancer, then died of it. I received the American Book Award that year, but my brother was suffering so profoundly and dying, which took the joy out of the award for me.
You wrote about that experience several times. Do you remember how any of those poems came to you?
When I wrote the poem, “Flying Through Thunder,” that ends the collection, Crazy Love, I had no idea that the poem would come true. The poem is about facing mortality, about my brother and me and the way we would play war games and pretend to die. We would dare each other to do dangerous things, wanting to have that knowledge. The poem is about letting go, about dying. When my brother was diagnosed with esophageal cancer, then suffered through killer chemo sessions, multiple stays in the ICU, a horrid surgery that removed his esophagus and sewed his stomach to his throat, and thought he was cured, then suffered a terrible recurrence of cancer in his lungs and other organs, that poem came true.
You must’ve felt helpless in the face of this. Have you ever been able to rescue anyone facing death?
Yes, when I was an undergraduate, I worked for the Parks and Recreation Department teaching Arts & Crafts on a playground in Lansing. One day, an irate and drunken mother drove her car into the park and over the grass, aimed at the table where I was doing an art project with about ten pre-teen kids, including her son. The son took off running, and the mother gunned her car and tried to run over him. While my colleague herded the playground kids into the storage shack and called police, I ran after the mother. This was before cell phones. The mother was screaming obscenities at her son and trying to plow into him as he ran zigzag from tree to tree. I called to her to stop. Of course, she didn’t. Fortunately, the woman’s car stalled. I took a chance and ripped open the driver’s door. I tore the keys out of the ignition while she slugged me.
Police arrived quickly and arrested her. I was only afraid for myself after the fact. I was terrified for the boy, who was crying and pleading with his mother. Police took the woman and the boy away, and I never saw the boy again.
Have you ever been in greater danger?
In the Himalaya Mountains, I was hiking with a group of students and a Sherpa guide. We started in early afternoon on a short hike to the crest of a ridge above the remote Tibetan village we were staying at. I fell behind and did something I shouldn’t have. I told the others to go ahead. I wanted to look at the minute flowers, small as a drop of blood, nestled in the talus of the trail. The trail grew steeper and steeper as I climbed. I could no longer hear my companions who were well up above me. Just as I spied a beautiful turquoise rock at the trail’s edge, my feet started sliding as if they were on oiled marbles. I couldn’t stop, and I pondered what to do if I went over the edge. The grade was so steep, I considered sitting on my heels and using my feet as a snowboard. I considered falling forward and flipping over so that my body would be a toboggan, my feet pointed downhill. Both I knew were ridiculous. The mountain was simply too steep, and there was nothing, no tree, bush or rock formations to stop my fall, which I gauged to be about 700 to 1,000 feet. As my shoes continued to slide and gain speed, I called to my companions, but I heard nothing but faint laughter. In desperation, I grabbed the turquoise rock at trail’s edge. My feet went over the edge of the trail, and I thought I would probably die. I felt very calm but sad about that.
Suddenly, Rinchen Namgial, our Sherpa guide, appeared running down the trail toward me. He was nimble as a mountain goat, and, when he reached me, he did not hesitate but grabbed my wrists and pulled me back up on the trail to safety. It was amazing. Namgial made me sit down and catch my breath. We sat for quite a while, sharing stories about our lives, trading ideas about religion, philosophy and our diverse cultures. It turns out that Namgial had an advanced degree from the University of Hiedelburg in Buddhist Philosophy. It was a wonderful few hours. He saved my life, then fed my mind and soul. I later wrote the poem, “A Short History of Falling,” based upon that experience which was included in 2010 Best of the Web Anthology.
What’s your greatest accomplishment as a poet?
My greatest accomplishment in the outer world of poetry was winning the 2010 American Book Award for my collection, Crazy Love. I was completely surprised by this. I’ve been lucky to win many prizes, including New Millennium Writings’ Poetry Prize. My greatest accomplishments in the inner world are writing long poems like “Meditations Beside Kootenai Creek,” “From the Invisible Coast,” “A Short History of Falling,” “Parole,” and, most recently, “On Pigeon Mountain,” poems which were written in the white heat of inspiration, ecstatic poems that have a life of their own. I am deeply moved and fulfilled writing poems of consequence and greater meaning, poems that take me out of my petty, mundane self, poems that deal passionately with social issues or with telling the stories of courage in the everyday world, with, as Carolyn Forche said, “speaking truth to power, “ the perfidies of the human condition, poems arising from somewhere deep inside me and from some other source at the same time. I believe what Russian poet, Marina Tsvetayeva, said: “A poem is a bullet that goes straight to the heart.”
What challenges have you overcome as a poet?
I faced challenges when my early manuscripts were finalists at nearly every national poetry competition—the Yale Younger Prize, the Walt Whitman Prize, etc., and came in second in the last Houghton-Mifflin Young Poets Competition—but were not taken for publication. It took me a very long time to find a publisher for my first book, fourteen years after I received my MFA, and I feared I might never have a book out. One of the biggest obstacles a writer has to overcome is fear. It’s defeating to take rejection personally. I’ve had to develop a thick skin. When my work is rejected by a magazine or publisher, as all work is on occasion, I’ve learned to send the rejected work out again. Immediately. My mom was right. Try, try, try again. The main thing is that the point of writing is not publication. It is writing, developing your craft, being true to the words you put down on paper. Transportation, awakening. And if you aren’t passionately engaged in writing, if writing isn’t a matter or life or death, then it is a hobby, a whim, a game, not a life’s work.
What is your most prized possession?
My imagination. If I lost my imagination, I wouldn’t want to live.
Do you have a most prized material possession? An object, charm, talisman, souvenir?
I do have talismans, but they are secret. If I named them, they’d lose their power.
Who in your personal life do you most admire? Who’s the most interesting person you know? The most famous?
These are difficult questions. As a child, I most admired my Czech immigrant grandmother, who came to this country when she was 16, knowing no English. She was sold by a cousin into slavery, to a sweatshop, where she rolled cigars 16 hours a day, six days a week in Philadelphia. After a Catholic priest tried to rape her, she ran away with the circus. My grandmother was outspoken and lively and had a wonderfully mischievous sense of humor. She was warm and loved me as I loved her.
I deeply admire my sister, Judi, who has taught me great lessons in courage and perseverance. Six years ago, she suffered a massive head bleed, was in a coma for over six weeks, and was left partially paralyzed. She has endured setback after setback, has been home-and-wheelchair-bound long months at a time, but she never gives up hope and continues to fight for her autonomy.
Fame doesn’t interest me much. It is one of our biggest illusions. I’ve met, and I know, quite a few “famous” poets and writers—Galway Kinnell, Jim Harrison, Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg, Rita Dove and many other fine writers—but fame is thin as glittery tissue and just as temporary. It has been life-changing to know and learn from extraordinary people—Lucille Clifton, Gwendolyn Brooks, Joy Harjo, Sir Laurens van der Post, Yannis Ritsos, Peter Warshall, my husband Bill Root, Luis Urrea, Audre Lorde, Rinchen Namgial, to name just a few. Courageous, erudite, unique, largehearted, visionary, these people have taught me the most profound things that continue to open my mind, heart and soul.
Who’s your favorite poet?
I have several favorite poets. William Pitt Root, Joy Harjo, Galway Kinnell, Theodore Roethke, W.S. Merwin, Rita Dove, H.D., Elizabeth Bishop, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Richard Jackson, Naomi Shihab Nye, Szymborska, Jim Harrison, Linda Hogan, Marilyn Kallet, etc.
What’s your favorite poem?
Among my favorites, “Meditations Beside Oyster River,” “Journey to the Interior,” “I Sing The Body Electric,” “Howl,” “She Had Some Horses,” “I Take You Back,” all the poems in The Book Of Nightmares, “Homage to My Hips,” “Song of Returnings,” “Circle of Struggle,” “Making A Fist,” “Blue Whale,” etc.
What about your favorite poem or collection of poems by you?
Two of my favorite poems I’ve written are “Meditations Beside Kootenai Creek” and “Waiting For Rain.” My favorite book is my forthcoming collection, Wild In The Plaza Of Memory, and the unpublished Blood Flower.
What is the most newsworthy thing about you?
I am an activist. For most of my adult life, I’ve fought for environmental and human rights causes, by advocating for clean air and water, for wilderness preservation, for the reintroduction of wolves in the West, for sustainable communities, and against multinational corporations, such as BP Oil, Weyerhaeuser Lumber, the highly polluting Four Corners Power Plant and rampant real estate development that threaten the health of wilderness, natural ecosystems, wild animals, people, small farmers and small communities. I’ve also been a constant anti-war activist. As a human rights activist, I’ve focused especially on immigrant peoples, indigenous peoples, our relations with Mexico and on women’s issues. I am an advocate for the powerless against the cruelly powerful. Most recently, Arizona’s racist and fascist-inspired anti-immigration laws like SB 1070 have been targets in my writings. But I don’t like didactic poems. I like to write narrative poems that tell of transformational, sometimes traumatic, sometimes transcendent incidents from people’s lives. I like what Joy Harjo once said about poetry. “We must turn slaughter into food.” I keep trying to do that. Preaching kills poetry, and I try not to do that. Not only have social and environmental issues become central in much of my poetry, but I write emails regularly to U.S. congress people, our president and world leaders. I’ve marched in protests and signed petitions as well.
If you could do one thing over again, what would it be?
I would stand up for my rights as forcefully as I’ve stood up for others. I’ve often taken on too much in this life, often said yes, even when it imperiled my health. I need to learn to make more boundaries for myself.
How do you spend a typical day? Is there such a thing?
I wake early—five or six a.m.—make coffee, do the New York Times crossword puzzle, write in my journal, write a new poem, work on revisions, work on our magazine, Cutthroat, A Journal Of The Arts, do yoga, go for a walk, look for birds and wild creatures, write or revise more in the afternoon. Most of the year, I teach, and, since I am a committed teacher, that takes up a lot of mental and psychic space. I spend countless hours reading and commenting on student writings, preparing lectures, grading papers, advising the school literary magazine, arranging for guest writers to visit campus, etc. During the summer, I am often outside, bird and wild animal watching, kayaking, daydreaming or hiking with my husband, Bill, and our dogs along the Pine or Animas River or in mountains of the Weminuche Wilderness. We do a lot of exploring and traveling—in the Rocky Mountains, the Sonoran Desert, Mexico, Africa, India and in Europe. A few weeks ago, we were in Israel. This coming summer, we’ll be taking a cruise in the wild fjords of Norway. I can’t wait!
That sounds wonderful. What a great life. Is there any particular way you turn all this experience into poetry? I guess I’m asking, simply, how do you write?
I just write. It is a practice and a craft as well as inspiration. If I don’t have an inspiration, I simply start with creating an image and see where that image and my imagination pull me. Writing is work, as Gary Snyder said, the real work.
What do you most hunger for?
More time to write and to noodle—let my imagination wander—and to explore and travel and spend more time with people and animals I love, especially with my husband, Bill, and with my dear friends. More time outdoors in nature, seeing, smelling, hearing, touching and learning. I want to learn everything.
What’s your greatest fear?
Losing the people I love. Helplessly watching people or animals suffer.
Do you believe in God? How would you define your spirituality?
That’s personal. You will find the answers to these questions in my poems. Inspiration, for me, arises from the natural world, where I feel my soul is most at home. In the natural world and in the act of writing, I am able to reach a higher state of being, an alternative reality that transports and transforms me.
Tell me about working with Native Americans and indigenous peoples of other lands.
Wow, that is a subject that could take me an entire book to answer. For much of my adult life, I have worked with, learned from, studied with and profoundly been changed by my association with indigenous peoples. The traditional importance among indigenous people of story, of myth and layered realities, the concept of circular time, the belief that all things (rocks, plants, insects, animals, trees, mountains, rivers, etc.) are sentient beings on a par with humans in every way, not only that, but, indeed, that these beings are their own sovereign tribes as well as part of our family—all these inform my ethos as well as my poetry.
While I was in graduate school at the University of Montana and for a year after, I taught as a Poet In Schools in Montana, and I worked with students from various tribes—Assiniboine, Sioux, Salish, Flathead, Northern Cheyenne, Blackfeet, Crow, Nez Perce—many tribes. One of the things I quickly learned was that if I brought to these students, as examples and models for their own writing, poems that were relevant to them by writers like James Welch, Joy Harjo, Linda Hogan, Sherman Alexie, etc., they would often respond passionately. Students who were considered failures often found success in the power of their own words on paper, because they had never before written about their lives in this way. Their words transformed them and everyone who read them.
I didn’t make much money as a Poet In Schools, I drove hellaciously long miles over dangerous roads, sometimes 400 miles, to get from Missoula to a remote school. I had to stay weeks in cheap motels and eat terrible road food, but the rewards were incredible. Where else could I facilitate such intense and positive change?
In Arizona, I spent another six years teaching in Tohono O’odham and Yaqui schools as well as South Tucson barrio schools. All those years, all those students and their writings changed my life, enriched my life and informed my own writing. They still do. I teach creative writing now at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado, a small liberal arts college, where indigenous students attend without paying tuition. We have 125 tribes represented in our student body, which makes for a diverse and rich student population in classes. This is what I like best about FLC. I learn as much from my students as I teach them.
Tell me about your students.
I remember a student in the first school I taught in. Lavonne Lambert was a high school student at Poplar High School on the Assiniboine/Sioux Reservation that lies like a wound just under the Canadian border on the High Line. Poplar’s nickname when I was there was “Stab City.” Alcoholism, drug abuse and poverty were a given, and endemic. Suicides among students and young people soared. The U.S. government put had two enemy tribes, the Assiniboine and the Sioux, together. The result: high crime and desperation.
Lavonne’s parents had been killed that year in a gruesome auto crash involving alcohol. Lavonne was failing in school. She was on drugs. She was a student in my class, and she wouldn’t look at me. I spent a lot of time kneeling beside her desk and helping her individually, as I did with several reticent students, the first day. The week that I was there, she wrote a poem called, “The Lesson of the Lesser Lynx,” about the demise of creatures due to “progress.” It was a fabulous poem. She wrote from the mythology and nature-centric ethos of her ancestors, as I found time and again contemporary Indian students often did without knowing their tribal stories or mythology. It was amazing to see that tradition. Old stories and mythology turn up suddenly again and again in student writing. It was as if poetry itself led them to their ancestors, to sacred stories. The teacher said that Lavonne hadn’t written anything all semester. I read Lavonne’s poem aloud in class and praised it. I later chose it to be published in an anthology. That cracked open opportunity in Lavonne’s life. She’d found her power in her gift for writing. Later I found out that Lavonne became a model student, stopped doing drugs, and that she went on to college. That is the kind of thing that kept me teaching on reservations for years. Poetry made a difference. It could save lives.
THE NMW INTERVIEW
American Book Award winner, Pamela Uschuk
By Don Williams
New Millennium Writings, Issue 21 (2012)