Wednesday, January 07, 2015


Local poet with Sid's little brother

Sid’s response to my rather relentless review of his “Smallpox” story is so interesting that I thought I would write him a response as a post.  If you want to join the conversation, feel welcome.  Sid’s words are in blue.

Who knows why we write the stories we do. As you suggest, my writing is limbic.

Maybe all poetry is “limbic.”  Joe LeDoux claims that “limbic” isn’t accurate anymore, nor is “three brains theory” in which the modern prefrontal cortex is supposed to be mediated by the limbic middle “emotional” brain so it can communicate with the primal “lizard” brain.  But as a rough term for thinking about poetry, it works.  It turns out there are likely a hundred different brain parts, all interacting, and therefore there are certainly a hundred reasons and ways for poetry and narrative, both voluntary and unconscious.

Indians always fascinated me, their plight, their lost glory, their subjugation, and how they have persevered so beautifully. I never know what others are going to think of my stories, so I send them out there and see what happens. 

My little homestead economy is full of time, all day every day, which is why I’m “productive”: it is a deliberate decision and has meant clearing out a lot of other things like income and social events.  Now that the cost of sending a paper manuscript is gone, many publishers and agents require “reading fees.”  Always an angle.  I still cannot afford to send writing even as email.  Anyway they won’t accept anything that doesn’t arrive through an agent.  And the "slush pile" is incredibly big but doesn't even take up space, so no one cares.

As it turned out with this story, two different publishers latched on to it simultaneously.

I’m glad for that but suspicious of their motives.  So many publishers are pandering to what they think is public interest that they seize and control writing.  I’ve had enviro essays frankly changed by the editor because she wanted it to agree with her opinion rather than my reality.  

Anyone writing anywhere is going to have to be a bit defensive, both against inflated praise and unjustified attacks.  But this is aggravated around the rez because there have been so many different stances over time and cultures.  Political consequences can be major.  Last night I was talking to someone (enrolled) about how Kipp and Cobell knew where all the "Baker Massacre" camps were -- not so much because they were army scouts, which they were, but because they were whisky peddlers and made regular rounds.  The soldiers were also drunk.  Baker was a notorious alcoholic.

In that novel I did explore drinking and some of the other tribulations encountered on the reservation. 

So far only Hugh Dempsey’s “Firewater” really confronts moonshine as an economic issue.  It supported the Glacier Park Hotels during Prohibition and saved many a ranch.  The rez ranchers who quietly ran illegal stills were known by locals who had no fondness for Fed anything.  The plutocrats who owned the resorts had no motive to discourage bootlegging.  It was an attractive asset, enhanced by the sense of privilege that's in secrecy. 

I’d like to see some enterprising journalist uncover the contemporary “alcohol flow” onto the rez, its sources and consequences.  It all comes from off-rez, which makes me think that maybe the tribe itself ought to go into the whisky or beer business, eliminating the gradient created by the rez boundary.  So far everyone has attributed Indian drunks to bad genomes and broken cultures, but maybe there are mercenary forces “enabling” the continuing addictions.  The profits at Town Pump alone must be huge and they are drained off the rez.   I see former drunks and even hard drug users who have kicked, dried out, found other lives.  It’s possible.  Is gambling any less addictive?  Is basketball?  Missionary do-goodery and moral scolding often triggers sin, defines it, makes it more attractive, esp. since in so much of the media it defines power and masculinity.  Always the cut crystal tumbler with the fine aged single malt.

Trouble is nothing new to me. Much of my writing, especially my New York Times horseracing journalism, has garnered its share of scorn. If one writes, and puts things out there, let the writer beware. 

The infamous "bute."

I admire what little I know about your crusade on behalf of race horses.  Most of the animal welfare national organizations that I know are corrupt money-making operations and, of course, there are people who will make horses suffer and die if it means money for them.  It’s good to know you are on-the-ground and speaking out with quite a bit of good results -- from the horse’s point of view.  Of course, they don’t write letters to the editor.  HSUS is relentless in its attacks on anyone who challenges them.  They have little to do with actual animals -- just atrocity stories that will raise money.

I still remember visiting you and Bob in his studio. My Dad, Rib, and I stopped by at my pleading. We entered the room and all the lights were off, and then you switched them on, and that was the scene in the story, and indeed, the boy was me.

Indians have always sheltered me from the white world I have been spit out of from time to time, and I will forever be grateful to the Blackfeet. Mary Mad Plume bestowed me with an iniskim for defending her children at a Two Medicine River party.  Billy Big Spring held me in a horseback trance for weeks, riding that the south fork of the Two Medicine where he was born. His skin was black.

Black skin down to his collar anyway.  Blackfeet are a sun-responding people who lived mostly outside and shirtless in the old days.  Kids lament that they are pale and I tell them that’s because they sit in front of the TV all day -- the light is turning them green!  Maybe a lot of addiction and diabetes is due to lack of Vitamin D.

Indigenous people and places have always been a refuge for the eccentric, the super-sensitive, the misfit, the hell-raiser, the bankrupt.  And many places like this rez have allowed outside people to at last find themselves and drop some of the energy-sapping defenses.  I include myself.  And yet the tribe itself has to find its own way and some intruders are Evil in their motives and their methods.

My strategy has been to widen out, go down deeper.  I listen to Blackfeet primarily -- both sides of the Canadian border -- but try to remain conscious of the other peoples like Cree/Metis, ex-patriot Sioux and Cherokee, wannabe and “born-here” whites, the people who bring in new skills, and increasingly South Americans.  I think about the Blackfeet in cities.  Most of all I try to see the underlying forces that have changed everyone over the last fifty years.  Like our friends, many have “gone on ahead”.  Their descendants are not the same and know it.  They ask you and I:  “What was my grandma like?”  Because often we knew her.  They no longer ask with Schultz "Why gone those times?" because they never knew them.

Martin Grelle painting

When I tell people away from here about things and stories I know, they often frankly disbelieve me.  They have seen Indians wearing feathers on horseback all their lives and are not about to give that up.  Nor are even the Blackfeet going to let Harry Barnes wear his captured cavalry hat.  

I’m eager to read Vollmann’s book about the Nez Perce flight, interpreted as a war, since I have been to the hills where Joseph finally surrendered and have seen the depressions left from digging foxholes for the women and children, walked among the brass surveyor’s pins that show where each warrior’s body lay.  The reality of that cold wind, dry grass, sagey dirt, distant border hills -- seems vital to me.  And now, dammit, I’ve talked myself into buying another book!  It’s not supposed to be out until summer.  "The Dying Grass."

The Bear Paw Mountains where Joseph and Looking Glass finally surrendered.

My Netherlands poet and philosopher friend keeps telling me that I’ve absorbed French Algerian post-modern philosophy.  Indigenous people, embattled against cultural hegemony, claiming our own reality, sitting around a campfire telling stories.  A Blackfeet friend cautions me that the really dangerous ones shouldn’t be told until the fire is nearly burned out and faces are dark.  That’s when you can see the stars.

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