“Surrounded by different tongues as a young girl attuned my ear to the cadence and verve that makes each one distinct.”
Arachnid Verve (Mongrel Empire Press, 2016)
Could you tell us a bit about your growing up and your path to becoming a writer?
For the first seventeen years of my life, I lived in a small, rural, agriculturally based town in southwestern Oklahoma. The oldest of three daughters in a working class family, I became a primary caregiver for both my younger sisters at an early age. Both our parents worked evening and graveyard shifts—my father at a tire factory and my mother as a convenience store clerk. We lived in a trailer home on my grandparent’s land right next door to their house. Everyone in the family worked as field hands through harvest season, primarily bailing and hauling alfalfa. I grew up hearing four different languages almost daily. Many of my poems code switch between those languages– Numu tekwapu (Comanche), Spanish, German, and English. Surrounded by different tongues as a young girl attuned my ear to the cadence and verve that makes each one distinct. It became easier to connect each language with its cultural markers and the spices inherent to its sound. Because of this, my poems often create a landscape common to working class multi-lingual life in rural America.
My uncle told me as a child what I’d be when I grew up. He said because I wrote and read more than any adult he’d met, that meant I’d have to be a teacher or a book writer. I didn’t believe him, because I didn’t know anyone who’d written a book and teaching meant you had to go to college—another thing that was out of the ordinary where I lived. Yet, since then, those are two of the things I’ve included in my career path. Thus, my uncle had figured me out way before I ever did. When I was younger, I wrote mainly fiction. I didn’t write much poetry until the second or third year of my undergraduate degree. It took a lot of encouragement, practice, and small successes before I thought I could write things that other people would want to read. When I found out I got accepted into an MFA program, that started to change and the possibility of being a writer seemed real for the first time. It still feels strange when people tell me they’ve read my work or enjoyed reading my book. It’s a good strange, though.
Could you share with us a poem from your book? Perhaps one that introduces the work of the book, or that invites the reader into the world of the book?
Certainly. Also, if you go to my website, there’s a mini collection of poems from the book available for download with the press kit. The first poem in the book, “Antes Taabe (Before the Sun)” sets the tone of the collection.
Which poem in your book has the most meaningful backstory to you? What’s the backstory?
I’m a big fan of backstories (well, all forms of story, really). That’s one of the reasons I included so many notes about my poems that tell the backstory/inspiration/etc in the book. It’s hard to pick one as the most meaningful, especially since many of the poems in the collection are written portrayals of people I know especially well. If I had to choose just one, I’d go with one that isn’t a poem focused on those folks (just to keep it equal between all of them) and is focused on one of my favorite musicians. “Song for Nina” came about while mourning the loss of Nina Simone on the day she passed. Her music has always hit me square in the solar plexus and left me an emotional ball of goo. She’s amazing—every single part of her goes into her songs and you can feel it when you listen. She wrote and performed some of the most amazingly overt political works during the Civil Rights movement, which almost killed her career. I remember hearing about her death like it was yesterday—it shook me pretty hard. After walking around in a daze, listening to her albums for several hours while mourning, I started writing. The poem became my eulogy for her—a way to show gratitude to her for what she created.
I’m pretty calloused when it comes to death—I’ve had a lot of close family and friends pass. Somehow, the creatives I really admire bring out a response that’s quick, strong, and usually lyrical when they pass. The death of people I know personally goes a completely different way—it takes a while of mourning (sometimes years) to find anything articulate/lyrical to say in response. Maybe that’s the way it’s supposed to work—the closer someone is to you, to harder it is to move on, intellectualize the loss, etc. With people like Nina, it’s easy to visualize the hole they’re leaving when they pass and the gifts they’ve left for us.
Which poem is the “misfit” in your collection and why?
To be honest, I think the whole collection is a misfit in some ways, very much like me. From the content and varied inspirations for the pieces to even the press that published it. Like the namesake of the press, the book’s a mongrel—a mixed breed of poems that mainly focus on characters living the Southwestern life, which is one of misfits, outlaws, wolves, and coyotes.
What are you working on now?
I have seven book projects on the burners now, but currently am focusing on the research and drafting of a poetry collection focused on quantum physics and identity politics. I’m also spending a great deal of time building Puha Hubiya, a nonprofit Indigenous literary arts organization I founded less than a year ago.
What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?
If you’re passionate about your writing, find a way to do it that will allow you to fuel that passion. Build a community of writers you can talk to and share work with, find people who value your work, and challenge yourself often to build your writing skill sets. Every form of writing can influence and inspire work in another genre—studying poetry can make you a stronger editor of prose and writing dialogue in plays can help build stronger character- and voice-driven pieces for your poetry or fiction. Outside of practicing your own writing, the best way to build your skills is to constantly read what others have published—both in your chosen genres and out. You cannot quantify how much what you pick up to read will influence how (and what) you write.
Shauna Osborn is an award winning Numunuu (Comanche)/ German mestiza artist, researcher, secret agent, and wordsmith. Shauna earned a BA from the University of Oklahoma, an MFA from New Mexico State University, and her list of honors includes a Crescendo Literary Fellowship, a National Poetry Award from the New York Public Library, and the Native Writer Award from UNM Summer Writers’ Conference. Shauna is the founder and Executive Director of Puha Hubiya, a nonprofit Indigenous literary arts organization. Arachnid Verve is her debut poetry collection and an Oklahoma Book Award finalist.