Rose M. Smith: Kathleen, thank you for getting in touch with me regarding “At Old Oraibi” and the opportunity to learn more about the poem, the encounter, and your process. It’s actually an honor that you trust our long relationship with poetry to help your readers understand a bit more in the lines of the poem.
You have a gift for making existing as well as ancient places come alive in your work. I have long appreciated your anthropological sensibilities and your understanding of the various cultures you’ve encountered, as well as your appreciation of the sense of “a place’s spirit,” so to speak. “At Old Oraibi” has the feeling of you standing in a present-day place, yet at the same time encountering its rich cultural past. Being me, naturally I Googled Oraibi to get a sense of whether this is a real place, and found in doing so that the surprise of the poem is the unique characteristics of the place itself as well as the encounter you depict.
I think I understand the story of the poem, but please tell us in your own words what prompted you to write “At Old Oraibi”?
Kathleen S. Burgess: It’s an honor to be invited by Editor Mary Akers to be interviewed for the r.kv.r.y blog. Rose, we’ve worked together since earlier critiquing series and salons led by Jennifer Bosveld of Pudding House. We joined her editorial team in 2004 and still edit Pudding Magazine, though Jennifer has passed away. You know my work well, so thank you for interviewing me.
In 1982, my husband Jack Burgess and I traveled through the Southwest to Old Oraibi, Mesa Verde, Cochiti, the Four Corners area. Though I’d spent a year traveling and living out of a backpack among people of many cultures from Washington, D.C., to Peru, our brief time with the Hopi introduced us to people who have lived within the sacred in much the same way as their ancestors for more than a thousand years. I wrote “At Old Oraibi” to meditate on a visit that left me with joy and gratitude for the Hopi who welcomed us. This poem will be included in my book of travel poetry Hitchhiking to Peru.
RMS: You’ve said the Hopi believe their old ways help to keep life on earth in balance. What do you believe that means?
KSB: Jack and I have had many seemingly chance meetings that furthered our cultural and historical quests. For instance, we met Hopi keeper of history and legend, artist, and story-teller Oswald White Bear Fredericks as we drove along a small desert road and noticed his gallery. He had interviewed Hopi elders, then collected and translated their stories for the 1963 book he conceptualized and illustrated, The Book of the Hopi. White Bear explained the Hopi believe their traditions have saved them from cataclysms of fire, flood, and pestilence, among others. Over the hours we spoke together, he said their practices maintain the balance of the earth. All the same, he worried about a descent into chaos and cataclysm which we with most of the world would not survive. If you’ve seen the movie Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance (the 1982 American film directed by Godfrey Reggio, with music by Philip Glass, and cinematography by Ron Fricke), you’ve seen the stark contrast between our energy-intensive, technological society and the modest ways of the Hopi. Our speed and noise tend to distract from deeper connections. Electronic tools enable nearly immediate communication at great distances, but they may dull our sense of responsibility to anything, anyone not immediately seen as necessary to our purposes, whether earth, ocean, sky, wildlife, or other humans. We live out of balance, but poetry helps me come closer to the speed of deliberation with an attention to language and its implications for life.
RMS: So at Old Oraibi, you feel you also witnessed or experienced that sense of balance? Or are you saying you felt or sensed something beyond that?
KSB: We observed a community with a history as the longest continuously occupied settlement in America. Archaeologists date the settlement to 1100 A.D. White Bear told us that remains of at least seven previous villages lie in layers below the present one, but the Hopi no longer allow archaeologists to investigate. Without electricity or running water in their homes, they live physically at a subsistence level, like their ancestors. Despite a sign warning outsiders not to enter without permission, they shared history and the first blue corn we’d ever seen. At the time, I wondered if they were putting us on with “blue” corn. They have a great sense of humor, and we could have been easy to dupe. The piki was a gift—thin, delicately crisp. It dissolved on the tongue. Now thick chips of blue corn are widely available.
At Old Oraibi I felt balance, depth of purpose, an integration of belief, perseverance, a sense of lived spirituality. Frank Waters, who wrote The Book of the Hopi, said in an interview for The Taos News on the fiftieth anniversary of the book’s publication, “They don’t have, as we do, a Sunday religion.”
RMS: In my quick research, it seemed to me that residents of Old Oraibi do not (if ever) readily welcome tourists or outsiders into their midst. Yet the poem gives us the sense you were not only welcomed but allowed to come very close, even experience their culture. This, to me, was the surprise of the poem—the welcome, the openness of the elder you encountered. Is this a part of your experience, or is this the poet at work, weaving experience out of a type of longing?
KSB: This poem is the result of thinking for years about how best to convey our actual experience in poetic form. Three-line stanzas provided a coherent organization. Narrative form and detail allowed me to approach the reader as a friend with whom I’m sharing a journey of discovery so the reader may find her/his own meanings and resonances.
When we returned to Old Oraibi in 2006 with our grown son and daughter, the “keep out” sign and locked gate were gone. I bought a hand-formed bowl from a woman who’d retired from teaching in a distant city. A novice, she’s no Nampeyo, famed Hopi potter and matriarch of a family who’ve created museum-grade pottery since the 19th century. I paid her price though she raised it while we talked. Given the village poverty, I did not remind her of her initial offer. This is the only instance I’ve seen or heard of that might be sharp dealing. Every other Hopi I’ve met seems to live their cultural values.
RMS: What is it, ultimately, you wish us to share with us through the eyes of your encounter with Old Oraibi?
KSB: A child of the 1950s, I was exposed to movies portraying Southwest Indians as either marauding, half-naked savages, or noble sidekicks helping a white hero to vanquish villains. Both views are one-dimensional and historically unmoored. What I wasn’t shown was whites kidnapping Indian children, sending them to government schools with the purpose of eradicating their language and religion—every trace of native culture—in a generation. I didn’t know our government had broken every treaty with Indian tribes. Every one. The last intact treaty was violated in 2015 when Congress transferred Apache land to a foreign copper mining corporation against the law, against the will of the tribe.
Recent books and movies by Indian writers have provided needed authenticity, complexity. Joy Harjo, Sherman Alexie, Paula Gunn Allen, Russell Means, Joseph Bruchac, and others have written their realities with consummate skill. Alexie’s stories served as the basis for the movie Smoke Signals.
My poem is an attempt to embody one intersection of two cultures. I hope the Hopi become real to us as readers. That we recognize their dignity and worth. That we can hear, see, feel, and taste Old Oraibi. That this poem, with others of my book still in manuscript, speaks with clarity and reveals new insights on subsequent reading.
RMS: What is the recovery message, the water you would like all of us to drink and carry away?
KSB: I’ll begin with the need for recovery at a literal level and weave in the spiritual. Water and other natural resources are increasingly more precious, so this poem begins with the snowy San Francisco Peaks. Two miles high, the peaks are home to Hopi kachina spirits during the winter months. These mountains are also sacred to twelve other tribes, but a large ski resort has been built there. Treated sewage effluent is used to make snow for the slopes. Tribes have protested the expropriation, the violation of their sacred, volcanic mountains, without success.
The Hopi live without modern technologies in a desert. In contrast, we Americans love our heat pumps, running water, computers, mobile phones, TVs, cars, planes. But if we conserve energy, we will help save our earth from exponential climate change. Personal responsibility, however, does not supplant the necessity of politicians to deal honestly and plan for the future of our planet.
The Spanish mission church was destroyed by lightning and fire three separate times. The Hopi remained free despite Spanish invasions. Why? Their answer lies beyond the domain of science.
It’s important to meet people of other cultures: for religious people to respect other faiths, or none; for Americans to respect people of all colors and cultures, here and abroad; for all genders and ages to respect each other. For each of us to listen without judgment. To seek connection with neither conversant superior. In practicing equality, balance, we create opportunities to enlarge our perspectives by appreciating diversity in our nation, the world. We may disagree, but first we must find commonality.
As a woman, I found the grandmother who was, we later learned, leader of the Bear Clan, and village chief, unassuming. She was not chosen by gender, but by her value to the community. She allowed white strangers to enter, to walk and talk with her grandson, to learn, despite continuous betrayals of Indians by whites. Her grandson Ray was as bright, knowledgeable, and proud of his heritage as any other child I’ve taught. He looked us in the eyes, considered our questions, spoke without hesitation. His grandmother trusted he would be a good guide for us. He was. As I hope to have been a reliable witness.
Rose M. Smith is a Cave Canem fellow and author of Shooting the Strays (Pavement Saw Press, 2003) and A Woman You Know (Pudding House Publications, 2005), and was co-editor of Cap City Poets: Columbus and Central Ohio’s Best Known, Read, and Requested Poets (Pudding House Publications, 2008). Her work has appeared in Pavement Saw, The Examined Life, Mom Egg Review, Naugatuck River Review, Chiron Review, Boston Literary Magazine, Main Street Rag, The Pedestal Magazine, other journals and anthologies, and is represented in a Poets Greatest Hits series collection (Kattywompus Press). Rose is a Senior Editor with Pudding Magazine, facilitator of Columbus Salon monthly poetry workshop in central Ohio, and serves in multiple capacities in support of Ohio’s Poetry Out Loud program promoting poetry in Ohio high schools.
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Each time I read a good poem I have a moment in which it dawns on me that I am in the presence of an intellect and heart I can trust. This reliable narrator is one I look forward to meeting again and again. Way to be, Kathleen. (And way to be Rose.)
It was most beautiful to share the visit to Old Oraibi with Kathleen. It was a perspective-changing experience for us. She has told part of that story with equal beauty and insight in her poem and this interview. I am privileged to know her.