The Poetics and Politics of Water

February 11, 2015
by Eric Magrane

Recently I had the chance to sit down with Ofelia Zepeda and Larry Evers to speak about The Poetics and Politics of Water, a reading series this spring at the University of Arizona Poetry Center. The series, featuring four American Indian poets, begins Thursday, February 12, at 7 p.m., with a reading by Sherwin Bitsui.

The Poetry Center produced a short video that includes excerpts from our conversation, and I’d like to go into a bit more detail here.  

Along with the reading series, UA professors Zepeda and Evers are co-teaching a graduate seminar that looks at the work of the visiting poets. This incarnation of the series echoes past versions of “Poetics and Politics,” which Zepeda and Evers first introduced in 1992.

They decided to call that first series “Poetics and Politics” to reflect conversations at that time—the quincentenary of Christopher Columbus running into America—about what the role of the Native American writer could or should be. That first event included an impressive lineup of writers, including N. Scott Momaday, Joy Harjo, and Leslie Marmon Silko, among others. (The website for the series has a great archive.)

Noting colleagues across the UA who work on water issues in the physical and social sciences, as well as the ongoing drought in much of the West, Evers spoke about the project as a way “to contribute to this community effort to get the larger community—southern Arizona and beyond—to think more,” especially about the issue of water.

“Poets bring to the table something that other researchers don’t always have, which is an awareness of the dimensions of water that go beyond the physical,” he said.

Two of the readers from the 1992 event, Zepeda and Simon J. Ortiz, will join Bitsui and Natalie Diaz in the series this year. The work of these poets can help remind us about the integral connections between nature and culture. As Ortiz writes in a poem from his 1980 book, Fight Back: For the Sake of the People, For the Sake of the Land:

     We have been told many things,
     but we know this to be true:
     the land and the people.

These lines still have much to say about the state of affairs today and would be worth remembering when thinking about climate justice and adaptation.

Zepeda, a Regents’ Professor in the UA’s Department of Linguistics, makes connections between language, traditional ecological knowledge, and poetry. “You can access a tremendous amount of scientific knowledge through language and through the oral literature,” she said. Speaking specifically about her Tohono O’odham heritage and connections with water, she added, “For O’odham, water was there when people were created. The first biological element was algae floating in the water and from there it became something else, eventually what we are today. As contemporary people, we know our history in the way that we live in this desert, the way that we pay attention to water—not necessarily to the body of water that might settle after the rain or the snow—but the first element. The clouds, the rain, and the wind.”

Evers speaks about the theme of water as an opening, a window that would “open out into the rest of their work,” rather than box them in.

I think about Bitsui’s work in his 2009 book, Flood Song. Evers described it as “an incredibly rich poetic statement that addresses many areas, but underlying it, I think, is him thinking about the way floods have worked in his traditional Navajo or Diné culture.”

For me, it’s also a book that blends an expansiveness of landscape with surrealist flourishes, a kind of dreamscape to learn from for the 21st century:

     A cloud became a skull and crashed to the earth above Black Mesa.

     The cloud wanted to slip through the coal mines and unleash its horses.

     It wanted to crack open bulldozers and spray their yolk over the hills so that a new
     birth cry would awaken the people who had fallen asleep.

I think that waking up, in the sense of Bitsui’s poem, is a kind of poetics and a kind of politics itself. And it’s an ongoing practice, something that The Poetics and Politics series reminds us of. We need to wake up again, again, and again. We need the voices of these poets; the environment, which we are not separate from, needs the voices of these poets. And we need to listen to them, to the gifts of their poems and songs.

“O’odham people, like many other tribes, have a sense of reciprocity,” Zepeda said when I asked her about the power of poetry. “You give little gifts here and there to people but also to big things like mountains and the ocean. You take things to them and you leave them there as a token, as an acknowledgement. I think poetry, songs… we believe they bring the rain because you’re gifting them and they acknowledge you with hopefully some good rain and some good water somewhere along the way.”

The Poetics and Politics of Water reading series begins Thursday, February 12, and continues through April 2. Co-sponsors of the series include the University of Arizona Poetry Center, the American Indian Language Development Institute, the Institute of the Environment, the Southwest Center, the Confluencenter, and the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences. See more info on the series here.