“This is the Conversation”: Getting to Know Allison Hedge Coke

Next week, Wednesday, March 9th, Allison Hedge Coke will come to the Library of Congress as the 2016 Witter Bynner Fellowship recipient. In advance of her evening Fellowship reading, the Poetry and Literature Center conducted an e-mail interview with her.

Allison Hedge Coke, 2016 Witter Bynner Fellow

Allison Hedge Coke is the author of four poetry collections: Streaming (2015); Blood Run (2006 UK, 2007 US); Off-Season City Pipe (2005); Dog Road Woman (1997); a memoir Rock, Ghost, Willow, Deer (2014); and a chapbook Year of the Rat (1996). Her honors include an American Book Award, an Independent Publisher Book Award, and a Lifetime Achievement Award from Native Writers’ Circle of the Americas. She has won fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Lannan Foundation, and the MacDowell Colony for the Arts. Hedge Coke is the editor of eight poetry collections, one titled Sing: Poetry From the Indigenous Americas (2011) was named a Best Book of 2011 by the National Books Critics Circle’s Critical Mass. Hedge Coke is a founding faculty member of the Vermont College of Fine Arts’ full-residency MFA in Writing and Publishing Program, where she teaches poetry, creative nonfiction and publishing.

1. On March 9th you will give a reading at the Library of Congress and be introduced by Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera. What has he meant to you and how does it feel to have him select you for the Witter Bynner Fellowship?

If a life is measured by what one gives and generates, and surely in some cultures it still is, Juan Felipe Herrera is clearly among the giants of humanity. Super-talented, his poetic is hammered with the notion that the audience is half the poem and needs the poem, and every bit of the sonic value and tenor of the work is about the people and the poetic to serve. His grace and generosity in the field are unparalleled. He consistently and constantly gives of himself for struggling communities all over the place and has mentored and worked with innumerable poets, writers, workers, unemployed and community peoples.

A year before Juan Felipe Herrera was seated as PLOTUS, I queried my students in a class on Poetry & Activism. I asked who, of several leading figures in the field, would be the greatest poet laureate to further the poetry-activism Natasha Trethewey recently instilled, to hold the position and further that action in 2015-2016. I knew they would say Juan Felipe. After the evidence investigation, the result was unanimous. Of course. A most perfect course.

To be selected by him for this honor is utterly humbling and almost terrifying. I feel a condor flew low over and brushed my shoulder with a certain grace. Something I am not accustomed to experiencing. It’s brilliant.

The truth of it is we both grew up in story. It was living the story. We still are, I think. The poetry is that image, breath, and music of life, the sweet, savory and tangy, the bare concept, the insight and the viewpoint. It is the dignity, terror, the love and the situated struggle, the grief and the grace. This is what he demonstrates, to me, and gives to everyone. This is the conversation. That and freedom. Yes, freedom.

My father picked other people’s cotton for a penny a pound, literally. They moved following the crops. I was a field-worker, too, but by the time I picked, cotton fields had been sown over with bright leaf tobacco. I was a migrant worker in fruit, day laborer in lots of crops, and sharecropper in tobacco and sweet potatoes. By fifteen I had my own allotment to sharecrop. I also had a seven-acre garden and grew all of our food organically, selling surplus to health food stores. I worked in fields and packed in factories, packing, off-season. I was a commercial fisher, trawling. Picked oysters, dug clams, scallops and gigged flounder and frogs. I was the first woman to do construction in Raleigh, NC, at least that is what the construction field said when I entered that work. I followed the work to move in life, and still do. Like Juan Felipe’s family, in some very important ways, and that realness, in him, in his work, the meaningful coupled with brilliant image and musicality resonated so vibrantly when I met him, found his work, I was moved and motivated and remain so. He got me, what I was doing, and I remain in awe of him and his work. He is, for me, a real hero. For me, for people everywhere, especially for those of us who reckoned from dust, through dust, and shift with wind the dust moves through. He is grounded and ready to fly at any moment. A genius. He is also the king of anaphora. I have said this for more than twenty years now. To have him select me is baffling. I honestly felt I should deny the opportunity as I feel so undeserving of it, but I could not let him down and had to accept.

2. As part of your fellowship you will also give a reading in your home state. What relationship does your work have with Oklahoma?

Though I am currently a registered voter in OK, I have only resided in Oklahoma intermittently over the last four years. My father lived in Oklahoma, as well as Colorado and Texas, as a child and young survivor of the Dust Bowl and up until his combat service in WWII. I came to the state to teach and to make a film of resiliency demonstrated in that Dust Bowl era. I have stayed as travel is really tough for Dad at nearly 94 and we are in-production with the shoot. Of course Oklahoma is definitely within my latest book and in the film I am shooting, and my father’s youth, but my body of work is far more NC-centric and, at times Plains-centric, and place-based in multiple locations, with my sense of homing as a worker following the work and writing that life.

When I live somewhere, I am wholly there and grounded. The backside of my brain longs for mountains and water though.

3. What will the Witter Bynner Fellowship offer you?

First, a terrific opportunity of writing time with stress relief from some of my general living costs. This is an amazing thing, for me. I still can’t quite believe it. Secondly, the presentation, reading, conversation and recorded interview are all tremendous opportunities to have the work promoted. I am excited to actually go inside the Library of Congress for the first time. What a phenomenal thing, all of this. I am honored and deeply grateful.

Want to hear more from Allison Hedge Coke? Attend next week’s reading, the listing for which is below.

Wednesday, March 9, 4:00 PM
WITTER BYNNER FELLOWSHIP READING

Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera will introduce the 2016 Witter Bynner Fellow, Allison Hedge Coke, who will read selections of her work. The event is free and open to the public. Book sales and a signing will follow. Co-sponsored by the Witter Bynner Foundation.

Location: Mumford Room, sixth floor, James Madison Building <view map>
Contact: (202) 707-5394

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