Michele Lesko: As a member of the Cherokee nation, how do you feel about being tucked into the poetry of place or culture?
Santee Frazier: One of the common misconceptions about Native people is that we all come from one culture, ascribe to one religion, the same cultural practices. Yet none of my childhood represented a stereotypical Native American upbringing. I didn’t grow up on a reservation, ride horses, or eat fry bread. I didn’t hear of a sweat lodge until I saw one depicted in a movie. I remember seeing a sundance for the first time in the film A Man Called Horse. I was young, couldn’t comprehend the film, but remember their was something wrong in watching the protagonist partake in a ceremony like that, and later would understand the act of watching plains culture in a film was somehow contributing to the erasure of their culture. Hollywood films depict Native Americans similar to that of magical beings in a fairytale. In fact, what most people believe to be authentically “Indian” or “Native American” is rooted in cinematic representation. As a poet I try to avoid direct engagement with the language and ideas associated in these representations.
My identity is populated by several cultures. My parents met at Sequoyah High School, which is a Native only boarding school that is managed and funded by the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. My mother grew up in Cherokee Country OK, and is a fluent Cherokee speaker, as is her mother, father, sisters, and extended family. Through language she has a close connection to culture and identity, and I would like to think her first thoughts as a child were in Cherokee, not in English. Cherokee was my first language, but now, even writing this I am thinking in English. My father’s family are descendants of Shawnee and Potawatomi people who were forced west to live on reservations via the Indian Removal Act of 1830. They now inhabit urban areas due to the Indian Relocation Act of 1956, which saw the relocation of Native Americans off the reservation and into urban areas like Los Angeles CA, Oklahoma City, Tulsa OK. While my father’s family maintain a Native identity, they do not have a direct connection to their original cultures. The culture many urban Natives ascribe to has been dubbed “Pan-Indian,” a collection of Native cultural practices and political ideals influenced by the Red Power Movement.
Sonically, rhythmically, my poems are rooted in Cherokee Country OK. The way I navigate language is interrelated with the roads and communities named by a people who have since sold their allotments, their land, and have been swallowed up by poverty, alcoholism, and erosion of their culture. This is the language that I hear when a poem finds me. Some poems are set in urban areas that depict descendants of the Indian Relocation Act. I find this language to be sharper sounding but less reliant on meter. These poems often have a political lean, but I try to avoid privileging politics in a poem.
ML: The tone in your poems strikes me each time. Does the voice that speaks the word come naturally or do you craft the poems to create that raw, unfiltered yet elegant curve to them?
SF: Most poems start in my ear. With a phrase or sound I find interesting. It is through these sounds that I find content, the reason for a poem to exist. The poems chronicling the life and experience of Mangled Creekbed began as simple phrases and sounds like Mangled in the tin can night or Mangled the color of plums. As time went on, I began to realize that Mangled was a character. I began sculpting poems that documented his life in the 1940’s, 50’s, and 60’s. Mangled became a figure that was ostracized from normal life as his talents and appearance were not ordinary. As a result ,he became a circus performer, and in making this choice I wanted to make a loose association with representations of the Native American in the circus. The latter parts of Mangled’s life are filled with labor work, moving from town to town, a solitary existence. Allowing sound to dictate the content, allows me to write from a diverse range of forms and styles. I have never been able to write a poem purely for the content, most poems start in my ear.
ML: Was there a purposeful arc to the poems in your first book or did they develop organically & surprise you in their connective tissue?
SF: It took a couple of years of revision to find the structure of Dark Thirty. Reflecting on the collection now, all I see are mistakes and missed opportunities. When I wrote the first two poems, “Root Juice” and “Mama’s Work,” I knew these poems would dictate the tone and content of Dark Thirty, but the other poems came randomly. After four years of writing the book, I began to group the poems together by landscape, theme and experience. Having more than one version of Dark Thirty allowed me to see all of the conceptual possibilities I had crafted into the poems. I still have a dozen or so versions of Dark Thirty on my hard drive. I still read them reflecting on ways they succeed and fail.
ML: How has your poetry been influenced by academia, & how do you carve out your day to make space for writing?
SF: It's tough to keep writing every day, when you have to plan for 3 classes, grade student essays, raise two kids, and then find time late into the night to write poems. I have been trying to find time early in the morning, but it's not going as well as I would like. I mostly think about how sleepy I am. Most poems come to me at odd times, driving, walking to work, on a bus, and as a result I come to the page spontaneously. My phone is filled with sounds and lines that find me in these small moments. I find that I can’t just sit and write, it's never been that way for me, but I still try. Poetry has become more difficult for me to compose as the years go by. I find that I do not always have the language to execute the poem I want to write, again, this does not stop me from writing the poem, but I know there is a better version yet to be written. For every twenty poems I write, there is usually one worth keeping.
ML: If you would, can you take us from the inkling of one of the poems in your book & speak to how it developed on the page?
SF: The poem “Mama’s Work” I wrote in one sitting, in an hour or two in the Krone Library on the Idyllwild Arts campus. I was attending the Idyllwild Summer Poetry Workshop on scholarship. The program was set up where you would attend two poetry workshops over the span of one week. The first half of the week my workshop leader was Natasha Tretheway, which as an intense experience as we would spend upwards to an hour on one poem. While I did not get a chance to write as much as I would like, the workshop allowed me to access a language and voice that I had been struggling with. The second half of the week I worked with Terrance Hayes, who taught the poem “Those Winter Sundays” by Robert Hayden. He asked us to compose a poem in a similar style dealing with a father figure. I had never written about my personal experience with my mother or father as it was always a point of shame for me, but, as I began to write about my father, I realized that I had more to write about my mother, so I began breaking the rules of the prompt while attempting to utilize what I had been taught via “Those Winter Sundays.” As stated earlier, the poem took an hour or two to write and is still in the same form as the original draft but for one word; “splayed” was once “sprayed.” The edit was Terrance Hayes’s contribution to the poem. I have never been so lucky with a poem, even now I still struggle to sculpt a poem through a series of drafts.
ML: Imagery is everything. Your chosen imagery does not tie the poem to Cherokee or Native American exclusivity. How conscious are you, as you write, of that space left open to all readers?
SF: While I have read lots of good poems on or about contemporary Native American life, I don’t find my reflection in those poems. This is the result of a severe loneliness I experienced around the age of ten and have since felt isolated from my family. At some point, I traded being a participant in my family to being an observer of them. The poems in Dark Thirty come from my experience with that loneliness across many locales in “Indian Country.”
As a poet, I owe the reader an honest experience through language and technique. I try to avoid any sort of activism or overt political statements in my poems. However, I do try to compose an experience a general Indigenous audience might recognize. The dominate culture has done a good job of isolating Indigenous people from one another,. The last thing I want to do is isolate the experiences in my poems to one specific culture or people. I find that that many people, from a variety of cultures, find kinship through their struggles with imperialism and oppression.
ML: I notice a unifying thread in your work that doesn’t push itself to the fore. Do you recognize and work toward a unifying theme that stamps the work a Santee Frazier piece?
SF: Growing up in a Cherokee speaking household, and living in eastern Oklahoma during my early childhood, had a dramatic influence on my perspective as a poet. The way people speak, descriptions of landscape and objects populate my mind as I compose a poem. When Cherokee is spoken fluently, there is a rhythm and tone that I try to replicate in some of my poems. The sounds I heard as a child are always a point of reference in my work.
ML: In public readings, what are some obstacles you’ve faced?
SF: I have always found that performing one’s nativeness consists of providing an experience based on expectations of what Non-Natives have read in books or seen in movies. It's something I have always been aware of and something I try to avoid. When reading, I want the reader to be aware of sound and language. I do not want my ethnicity projecting otherness to the audience.
ML: How does poetry inform your identity and, specifically, your identity as a poet juxtaposed with your concept of yourself in the larger community of joy and suffering?
SF: Poetry, for me, has always been more about survival, a way for me to document and chronicle my experiences. Poem as a receptacle for the trauma I experienced in childhood. The more I write about my childhood, my family, mother and father, the more I am able to reconcile the deep depression and shame I experienced as a teenager and into adulthood. Poetry has also allowed me to understand that trauma is often intertwined with history and politics. As a member of the Cherokee Nation I am constantly aware of the injustices done to my people, that the twenty dollar bill bears the face of Andrew Jackson, the president directly responsible for the Indian Removal Act. As a poet, I feel obligated to consider this history when rendering my experiences on the page.
ML: What is the most impactful moment another poet’s poem has had on you personally & in your writing?
SF: “The Whipping” by Robert Hayden always comes to mind when dealing with difficult subject matter in a poem. Hayden deals with subject of abuse subtly. I try similar techniques when writing about my experiences with abuse.
And the woman leans muttering against
a tree, exhausted, purged--
avenged in part for lifelong hidings
she has had to bear.
The speaker of the poem empathizes with the woman whipping her son, and forces the reader to understand that the trauma of abuse is not contained or isolated within act of whipping. Abuse is the place where we leave the woman who is reflecting on similar moments from her childhood. It is through this use psychology that Hayden does is work as a poet. I want my reader to have the same empathy for the people I attempt to depict in my poems.