“If writing poetry, read at least one hundred other poems for every one you write.”
Bitter Tears (Mammoth Press, 2016)
Could you tell us a bit about your growing up and your path to becoming a writer?
I’ve written poetry since I was ten years old. It was an escape from a tumultuous childhood with a violent, alcoholic father and dysfunctional family. I was a voracious reader, tucking books under my belt and climbing trees to sway in the wind and escape to, say, Narnia. As an immensely shy child, poetry, and books in general, were wonderful companions. I stopped writing for a while as a teenager (this is in the late 1960s) when I saw that there were no Native poets – with no role models, I assumed that Indians just didn’t write (I also suffered from a near debilitating inferiority complex). I found, though, that one can’t really stop writing, and I kept notes/poems on scraps of paper, etc. — many of which then found their way to my first book of poems. In 1984 I picked up the book Love Medicine, by Louise Erdrich. I was stunned to see that not only was she Native but she was from my tribe! I began to write again at a furious pace. She did the introduction to my first book, Dragonfly Dance.
How do you decorate your writing space?
I write in bed, late at night, decorated with total silence, and comfy, lovely pillows.
Could you share with us a poem from your chapbook? Perhaps one that introduces the work of the chapbook, or that invites the reader into the world of the chapbook?
The school’s maintenance man drives me to the cemetery, unlocks a sagging gate under a wrought iron arch, stark letters, “Chemawa Cemetery 1886.” Ancient fir trees tower above the graves. Weeds and wildflowers cover the small flat plaques. Offering tobacco, I gently sweep aside the weeds to read the names and years they died. What did they die of? Loneliness? Worked to death in the barn and fields? Pneumonia? A beating from the Gauntlet? Suicide on the tracks in front of the school?
I count twenty-one plaques with the date 1918, the year of the flu epidemic. I find plaques stamped with the years my father was a student there. Did he know this boy? That one? Were they friends? As a carpenter apprentice, did he hammer together the casket they were buried in? Was there a funeral? How were their parents told? Sap seeps down a fir tree’s trunk like bitter tears, its roots tugging at a plaque, holding a lone child in embrace. I brace against the tree and weep for the children, for the parents left behind, for my father who lived, for those who didn’t.
Why did you choose this poem?
This poem speaks to the many traumas a boarding school survivor experienced, loneliness, corporal punishment which sometimes resulting in death of the student, forced labor, diseases, not being buried in their home reservations due to lack of funds from both the school and poverty of parents.
What obsessions led you to write your chapbook?
As a professor, I’ve been doing American Indian Boarding school research for about 10 years. I had done some informal interviews of my parents, aunts, and uncles. I’ve interviewed many survivors. The poems in Bitter Tears are mostly vignettes I’ve heard from survivors who didn’t want to be fully interviewed. They are also poems about my family that were sent to boarding schools.
What’s your chapbook about?
American Indian Boarding Schools and the horrors that happened to survivors as children.
What’s the oldest piece in your chapbook? Or can you name one poem that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the chapbook? What do you remember about writing it?
I wrote ‘My Grandfather Was A New Initiate’ after interviewing him before he died at age 84. After visiting the Chemawa Cemetery a few years back, and seeing the very old fir tree with sap trickling down, I knew I had the title to the book of poems I knew I needed to write.
How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your chapbook?
For my other poetry books I would agonize over the arrangement of poems. This one didn’t matter, each was as powerful as the other and stood alone whether in front or at the end of the book.
Which poem in your chapbook has the most meaningful back story to you? What’s the back story?
“Yurok.” I went to the Chemawa Cemetery a few years ago, and saw a Native man, with his dog and an orange bucket, working in the cemetery. He had carefully weeded, mowed and cleaned the cemetery. He invited me to meet his mom. She told me the story which is the poem. Her story kept me awake all that night thinking and crying about the horror she went through. It’s called secondary trauma, and I’ve had to be careful of my mental and spiritual health in recording these horrific stories.
What was the final poem you wrote or significantly revised for the chapbook, and how did that affect your sense that the chapbook was complete?
The final poem was the title poem “Bitter Tears,” and went through many revisions. So many boarding school survivors I interviewed were bitter/angry about their experiences as children at the schools, and shed many bitter tears. The sap on the tree struck me as those tears.
Do you have a favorite revision strategy? What is it?
All my poems go through multiple revisions. Some I put away for months, even years before I take them out and look at them again. I still have boarding school poems not in the book that I’m currently revising. I also belong to a wonderful writer’s group. I firmly believe that if you want to be a writer you need to belong to a writer’s group. Their input/suggestions for revisions are most helpful.
What has the editorial and production experience with your press been like? To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?
Collaboration was 100% with my editor. A young friend is the artist and her painting was absolutely perfect for the cover.
If you have written more than one chapbook or novella, could you describe each of them in chronological order?
My second chapbook is called Thunderbird, and came out last year, 2017. This one is a collaboration between the editor and my traditional, pre-contact Ojibwe art called birch bark biting. The book was hand printed on a turn of the century printer, and has a small piece of birch bark biting on the cover. So clever! It was the brainchild of the editor, Suzzanne Kelly, North Dakota State University Press.
I have also published a full-length book of poems, Dragonfly Dance (Michigan State University Press, 2010).
What are you working on now?
My second full-length book of poems titled His Feathers Were Chains has been accepted for publication – waiting for a publication date. My children’s book, Josie Dances, is awaiting final editing approval. I have completed an academic manuscript that is currently accepted and being edited, about my boarding school research , Stringing Rosaries: Stories from Northern Plains Boarding School Survivors, Fall, 2018 (North Dakota State University Press).
So, I’m now working on my third full-length book of poems!
How do you contend with saturation? The day’s news, the flagged articles, the flagged books, the poetry tweets, the data the data the data. What’s your strategy to navigate your way home?
Wish I didn’t spend so much time on Facebook. I don’t tweet or pay attention to Twitter, SnapChat. I don’t have cable, so my home is peaceful and quiet.
What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?
If writing poetry, read at least one hundred other poems for every one you write.
Denise K. Lajimodiere is an enrolled citizen of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe, Belcourt, North Dakota. Dr. Lajimodiere currently works as an Associate Professor in the Educational Leadership program, North Dakota State University , Fargo, ND. She is one of the original founders of, and past president, of the National Native America Board School Healing Coalition. Her academic book Stringing Rosaries (North Dakota State University Press), about Native American Boarding Schools and their legacy, will be published in the fall of 2018. Dr. Lajimodiere will be retiring in 2018 to devote more time to her writing, art, and dancing.