Commentary, Interviews

Interview // Gestures of Hope: A Conversation with Janice Gould

by Jennifer Elise Foerster | Guest Editor

For this inaugural edition of Poetry Northwest’s “Native Poets Torchlight Series,” I am honored and excited to be able to highlight one of my favorite poets, Janice Gould, who is a highly respected and influential voice among contemporary Native American poets. I live part of the year in Colorado Springs and always look forward to sharing a long walk and talking with Janice, whose quiet insights are powerfully illuminating. It is a pleasure to share one of our conversations and a few of her poems here with you, and to invite you to discover her heart-opening work.

Jennifer: Narrative work, both in your 2011 collection, Doubters and Dreamers, and your recent chapbook, The Force of Gratitude, seems to be a principal driving force for the poems. Has this focus on life-story and personal memory always compelled your work?

Janice: Yes, I would say it would. From Beneath My Heart (1990) through Earthquake Weather (1996) to Doubters and Dreamers (2011), the source for the poetry is my family. I mean, I don’t write poems about poetry. A long time ago, when I started working on poetry, I felt like I was writing something that most people didn’t know about—one lesbian’s life, and what it’s like to be a mixed blood urban Indian in California (Berkeley). In fact, the whole history of California Indians is such a different kind of story; it’s not the standard narrative of contact that people believe is the story of Native Americans in this country. I felt like I had a responsibility to tell this story, to explain this interesting history.

Native California history is certainly an unknown—as are most all Native American histories in our mainstream national consciousness. But Native California history is particularly overlooked.

I feel like my recent work tries to bring these stories—personal stories and Native California stories—to life. And this storywork is not uninformed by historical reading. One book I love is called Imperial San Francisco by Grey Brechin, about how San Francisco became the center of power it became in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. While Brechin doesn’t mention Indians at all, it’s clear to connect the creation of the city of San Francisco to the destruction of the California hillsides and the California Indian people. The mining technology itself, the hydrology, blasted the mountains down for gold until all they had left of the valley was rubble. What I do when I read this book is populate those hills with Indians, because those hills and valleys with the beautiful wildflowers are exactly the country my grandparents came out of.

Yes, those hills were lived in.

They were revered. People lived in those places. They held ceremony in those places.

We were the people who picked the hops and plums and peaches. So when I envision California in those periods, I see it there with those people.

So while I love that book—it’s brilliant and fascinating read—when I consider the first chapters where he talks about the mining technology that blasted the hills apart, I just think about the people who lived in those hills, the people he doesn’t write about, and about the stories and knowledge of those hills. And as for California’s agriculture, which is now a huge business: before Mexicans and Filipinos came to pick crops, who did it? American Indians. It was our people. We were the people who picked the hops and plums and peaches. So when I envision California in those periods, I see it there with those people. That’s how I populate the state for myself.

When did you start writing poems?

You mean, and thinking of myself as a poet? Probably when I started at Merritt College in Oakland. I had a teacher named Edith Jenkins, who was a poet, and she was so encouraging to all of us in this class. She suggested we send our work to Harper’s Bazaar, so I did that, and of course I got a rejection. It was kind of thrilling to get a rejection.

This was in the early 70s, at the beginning of the Native American Literary Renaissance. What about that generation of Native poets coming up—were they of influence to you? Did you know of them or read them?

Oh yes, I was working at a Women’s Place bookstore in Oakland, so I got to see a bunch of these publications coming up.

And did you feel yourself to be a part of that community?

I did. I knew nobody knew me, but I knew these names, and I think I had this longing to become a part of that world. So I started imagining going to New Mexico at some point. I went to New Mexico after I got my MA in English at Berkeley, which would have been around ‘86. I didn’t major in English first. I majored in American Studies. I think I tend to change horses mid-stream a lot. You know, I started out in Linguistics at Berkeley.

Did your study of linguistics impact your poetry?

Not consciously, no. I was never able to bridge that more technical way of looking at language to the creative way of looking at language, and that’s partly why I shifted from Linguistics into English. Probably if I was a language-poet I would have been able to connect linguistics and writing. But that’s not how I think. I’m not very technical.

So if not a language poet, how would you talk about your work as an alternative to that?

I would say I’m much more of a lyric poet. I’m more interested in that as a form. And I’m really interested in image. How do you create image? How do you make that image that somehow reveals the world, reveals your sense of connection to the world? I think a lot of my work is about how you connect to the human family and how you connect to the living world.

In The Force of Gratitude, the landscape often speaks about the self and the relationship among people. Some of the really powerful imagery of that book is that of the landscape, the weather, the fences and hills. It didn’t seem to me as a backdrop to the human, but as essential to it; it was somehow more illuminating of the human than simply being decorative.

I went to a conference a few years ago, and people were featuring my work on this particular panel. One of those papers was about the appearance of cars and trucks and different kinds of motor vehicles in my poetry. And I never noticed that myself! But a lot of my work is about traveling, about being in a vehicle and having this experience of looking at the world while going somewhere. I guess some of that work is also about being lost, or trying to find a sense of home. I grew up feeling that I didn’t really have a place in the world. There was no place I could belong and be myself. And I was pretty much told that, too. That if you want to be a lesbian and you want to be out and in this world, there’s just no place for you. You’ll never get a job; your existence is just going to be underground most of the time. I think I wasn’t consciously challenging that idea, but internally I was asking, Where do I belong? I must belong somewhere. Here I am a human being, a real person, with this reality that’s going on in me, so how, where will I find my place? Will I find acceptance, and also, will I ever find love?

Love is a strong thread through your poems.

I think when I was younger, my first thoughts were, will I find love? And then, will I be able to love? Not just will somebody love me, but is there a way that I can express my love in the world, is there somebody for me to love out there?

Do you think writing poems was part of that quest, of finding love?

Yeah, because I think you have to find a language to talk about it, and poetry was one way. Before I had poetry, I had music. I had songs. Songs were the way that I tried to talk about the things I felt and wanted and needed in my life. Songs were also the way I could share with other people. We lived in a time where playing music and singing was not an unusual thing to do. People felt a sense of, “we’re together in this,” and would just get together and sing about it.

Songs were the way that I tried to talk about the things I felt and wanted and needed in my life.

Even in the 70s, when we started organizing and being parts of larger political groups, Gay Pride for example, there was always a place for music and for people to get together and sing. And it was tremendously fun. So I think that was part of the accompaniment of my life. But it wasn’t enough. I think that’s why I turned to poetry.

So music is an accompaniment, in a way, to poetry.

I think it was also a vehicle for self-realization, at first, and certainly a way to connect to other people and have a sense of community. I just ordered a book from the library on the New Song Movement that emerged in the ‘60s in Chile. That song movement came up when I was a young person and singing. And it also influenced the organizing and the kinds of songs we would sing. Like at Gay Pride: we weren’t singing Gay Pride songs necessarily, we were singing songs of liberation from other countries. A whole group of people were gathered at Berkeley singing: “El pueblo unido jamás será vencido.” Everybody knew it!

Do you feel that what you were singing for at that time is different from what you would be singing for today? How have your political concerns changed focus between then and now?

There are reasons to sing some of the same songs. Some of those songs had to do with the struggle of being poor, of working in a way that led nowhere but to more poverty and suffering. I think it’s unpopular to use that word. And yet people suffer tremendously today just as people always have. Especially if you’re poor. I guess when I was younger I felt like I was one of those people—that I didn’t have a place in society and I didn’t know how I was going to earn my living in the world. I felt bereft of a place to be. On a personal level I’m not there anymore, but I think these are things that we have to sing about. Also, a whole genre of music and song came up when I was younger about what our relationship is to the earth and what our responsibilities are here. And that song movement has almost died out, I think, with the emphasis on the professionalization of music, and with the way music has gotten away from some of the everyday concerns that people have. If you think of an old song like Malvina Reynolds’s, “What Have They Done to the Rain”—this is a song about nuclear proliferation and atomic fallout, and that is a concern we still have today. It’s never going to go away. People are worried about those things still, and those songs are relevant. But it’s as if we’re supposed to move on. We’re always supposed to move on.

How does music play in your life today?

I play the accordion and the guitar. I have a piano keyboard downstairs, so sometimes I go and compose some pieces for piano, really simple things. I wish I could play more for people.

Music is so present in your poetry, as a theme and as form. The Force of Gratitude is influenced by the tradition of Deep Song, or Cante Jondo, and in your notes you talk about Federico Garcia Lorca’s essay “In Search of Duende.” Has Lorca been long an influence in your work?

Well, I keep trying to like Lorca more than I do. There are things I like about some of his poetry, and I think his interest in Duende is kind of where it started for me. It took me a long time to understand it, the Duende, but over time, especially as I started learning flamenco, it started to make more sense to me. One of the impulses of the manuscript was to try to find Duende. Lorca says Duende comes out of the earth and enters us. So it is a spirit that is deeply connected to the earth. It’s not mental, and it’s not merely emotional. It feeds the spirit in really fierce ways.

I think influence is just something you pull in from somewhere and live with for a long time, until it starts to emerge in some way when you need it to help fuel the language you are finding.

When I started to learn flamenco and play and sing for dancers, it helped open up my throat a little more. I was able to get into some darker places, in terms of singing. The sense of the dark, the shadow, those things really interest me, because there is a sense of mystery but also a beauty, a strange beauty. It’s funny what influence is. I think influence is just something you pull in from somewhere and live with for a long time, until it starts to emerge in some way when you need it to help fuel the language you are finding.

One thing I’m influenced by in your work is the permission you give for the expression of the lyrical self and for the language of storytelling. I get so immersed in your stories and characters that I feel what you’re feeling, what the lyric “I” is feeling. I want to use the word “hybrid” to talk about your work, since you so fluidly merge lyrical prose and lineated poetic form. Is that a term that connects to you and your feeling for your own work?

In Doubters & Dreamers I was really interested in using more formal structures and trying out forms like sestinas and sonnets. Even the villanelle, which I don’t think was the most successful villanelle, was fun to work with. Working through the constraints of the form are interesting. I work a lot with form in my practice of Aikido. You first learn Aikido through a static set of movements, which become more fluid as you become more acquainted with how to move your body, and how to take that energy of your body and move it somewhere. The Sensei was pointing out the other day where you place your foot in order to pivot around another person. In all the years I’ve studied Aikido, I’ve never thought about that; that it is actually all about where you place your foot. And how easy it makes it, to place your foot at a 45 degree angle from this person. It puts you in a perfect position to pivot. There are many links between the forms of writing and the forms of a formal art, like Aikido, which is very formal from the minute you enter the dojo and bow. It’s not just perfunctory performance; it’s acknowledgement and it is gratitude.

I like thinking about that: how forms have been created to position the writer and reader in some way to help them pivot around each other, to move the energy around. Since your books often embrace both tightly structured, lineated forms and the prose poem—two kinds of energy—do you feel there is tension in this relationship? If so, would you call this a generative tension?

For this new manuscript I’m working on [This Music], yes. But I’m not sure where my writing will go from here. One thought I’ve had is that I might turn to prose and write short fiction. I’m not sure I love fiction enough to call myself a fiction writer, though. I feel dedicated to the poem as a form. It just seems like it comes out of a different mindset, a different place, a different need.  I understand myself as a poet, I do not understand myself as a prose writer.

There’s a silence with a poem. A poem is insight. You just have to sit and be quiet with it. But the crafting of language in a really good short story can also give you the sense that you’ve entered a life and you’ve understood something from the inside out. It’s horribly painful sometimes; it’s devastating. And for some reason it’s really necessary to go there. Those writers who attempt that, they are offering something to the world that seems to me a human need.

I think one thing poetry can do is invite people into grief. Poems can give us a space to work with grief.

Yes, I think sometimes you have to be invited into, or look for the invitation into, places that are hard to deal with: loss and grief. Just looking at the environment that we have destroyed, even thinking about things that are horrible to think about, it’s important that we move towards that thinking: the fact that they have just allowed grizzly bears to be off the endangered species list, for example, which means there will be guys out there just hunting them for their heads. . . . that’s part of it.

In This Music, selections of which form the chapbook The Force of Gratitude, the narrator takes up landscapes of memory, of grief and longing, ancestral landscape, landscapes of the past. Although it’s hard to say what is present and what is past.

I know, they run into each other. My father passed away when I was in Arizona. He was in his 90s. I hadn’t written very much about my dad before, so I wanted to take up that topic—the question of gender and sexuality. This is a very current topic, but when my father went through that transition, there wasn’t much material our there. It was quite unusual, especially for someone in their 70s to go through that. The fortunate thing for my dad is that we lived in the Bay Area when he was struggling through that transition to become Barbara, so he had a sense that there were people around who were undergoing these transitions themselves. But I think the thing for me was the complexity of it, in terms of the family dynamic. So that’s some of the landscape of grief and memory that I write about. I wasn’t as close to my father as I was to my mom. I always felt a little betrayed by my father, too. Because he just couldn’t stand up for me. He just couldn’t . . . The Force of Gratitude follows the pattern of This Music, narrating an arc of growing up from childhood to adulthood. It’s funny to write what I’m calling a memoir because my life hasn’t ended.

Do you feel like writing a memoir requires a completion, or revelation?

No, I don’t think so. There’s a place and time where it has to finish, because, you know, that’s all I want to say about it right now. I think, at this point in life, the only thing I really haven’t dealt with is mortality. Writing about loss and grief is one thing, but it’s another thing to write about—to ask yourself—what do I believe about what comes next? It occurs to me that that’s a question I haven’t dealt with very well. I feel I’m not afraid to die. I say that to myself.

Writing about loss and grief is one thing, but it’s another thing to write about—to ask yourself—what do I believe about what comes next?

But there’s a lot of precariousness in today’s world and a lot of vulnerability; there are just so many different things to be afraid of today. I don’t know what this time means exactly, except that we may face extinctions that we haven’t wanted to think about. I don’t think people have felt this way since the nuclear bomb, when we realized that we had to do something to contain that hideous threat. It’s an interesting question—do you dwell on trauma or do you dwell on hope. How do you find hope in the face of this cruel world that we’re living in right now?

Maybe poetry is the place where we can hold both trauma and hope. I think that’s where a poem sits—in between both. The holding of both, simultaneously, breaks open the heart inside the poem, which I think your poems do well. In our lives, though—I know in my life—it’s hard to hold both. Facing increasing environmental degradation every day, I don’t know how to hold on to hope.

It would be exceedingly sad if we grew into the world to the point that we can’t exist in it anymore. The earth is going to go on, it will continue, it just will. We may not be here to witness it, to celebrate it, to be happy or sad about it . . . that will be our fate if that is what we choose. It seems we have people in power who make those kinds of choices, and it’s going to leave us bereft. And we’re going to face massive losses as a result of it. And we’re going to have to deal with it. I don’t really know how to have hope in the face of that. But maybe we need to work towards reconciliation with the fate that we’ve chosen.

You teach Indigenous Sustainability at UCCS. Do you feel, in your teaching, that Indigenous knowledge can help us in reconciliation?

I want to have hope in those generations that are coming after us. Many of my students are seeking solutions to what seems to be the choice of this nation. Every small step is still a good step. We’ve faced this many times before. Indigenous people obviously have been living through hells, colonial hells, for a long time, so they’ve adapted and done the best they could, given the situations they are facing. And many of those communities have figured out that restoring language is one of the ways to work towards that. There’s this enormous database of information that these languages hold. Whatever ways this can be recorded and developed is important. If we exist through this next era and bleak moment in history—if we survive it—there may be ways, methods, to develop that database and to begin understanding and knowing the world again. There are many forces arranged against this—our current political forces, but also the world’s religions—forces that are intolerant, cruel, and deadly to some of us. But there are always going to be people who, like us, are poets, or planters. We just will be. In our own communities, the tribes that we come from, people hold out, they hold out against those forces. And it might be too late, but we have to keep working towards something, we just have to. It’s part of the psyche’s need, because otherwise we could curl up and die. That’s your alternative. So if you don’t want that, you have to do something to create the quality of life that you want. And if that means singing, that’s one way, or bringing back language, writing poetry, planting a garden—all of those things are just small gestures. But they are the gestures of hope. And they are very dear.

This interview and the following poems are the first in a regular series guest-edited by Jennifer Elise Foerster.

Five Poems by Janice Gould

Janice Gould’s tribal affiliation is Concow (koyoonk’auwi). She attended the University of California, earning a BA in Linguistics and a Master’s in English, and later, from the University of New Mexico, a Ph.D. in English. A second Master’s degree (in Library Science) was earned at the University of Arizona. From 2014-2016, Janice served as the Pike’s Peak Poet Laureate. Her poetry has garnered awards from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Astraea Foundation. Her latest book of poetry, Doubters and Dreamers, was a finalist for the Colorado Book and the Milton Kessler Book Awards. Her chapbook, The Force of Gratitude, was the finalist for the Charlotte Mew Poetry Chapbook contest. Janice is also the author of Earthquake Weather, Beneath My Heart, and Alphabet, and she co-edited a volume of essays on American Indian poetry, Speak to Me Words. She is an Associate Professor in the Women’s and Ethnic Studies Program at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, where she teaches Native American Studies.

Jennifer Elise Foerster is an alumna of the Institute of American Indian Arts, received her MFA from the Vermont College of the Fine Arts, and is completing a PhD at the University of Denver. A member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation of Oklahoma, her first book of poems, Leaving Tulsa, was published by the University of Arizona Press in 2013. Her second book, Bright Raft in the Afterweather, is forthcoming in 2018. She is the recipient of a 2017 NEA Creative Writing Fellowship, a Lannan Foundation Writing Residency Fellowship, and was a Wallace Stegner Fellow in Poetry at Stanford University. Her poems have recently appeared in Colorado Review, Eleven Eleven, The Brooklyn Rail, and Kenyon Review Online.