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“The Borders of Ourselves Along the Contours of Tradition”: An Interview with Joan Naviyuk Kane

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The following interview with Joan Naviyuk Kane was conducted in 2018 by Anastasia Nikolis as part of the Poetry and Literature Center’s online Interview Series. The series featured emerging and established literary writers in dynamic and thought-provoking conversation. Though the series is no longer active, From the Catbird Seat is reprinting these interviews to bring them new light.

Joan Naviyuk Kane. Photo by Jenny Irene Miller.

The stereotype about writers is that they are solitary and isolated, but your work is so connected to your family, to your ancestral heritage, and to the Inupiaq community. Can you discuss?

I’m so fortunate to have been raised with a family that insists upon connection, however difficult. When I am trying to structure the life of my children so that they remain connected—not just to our ancestral heritage, but to each other and our relatives, to the replenishing aspects of the human intellect that words afford, to our present and traditional lands—I remain connected to the fact that my ancestral heritage is not just a thing of the past, but a gift and responsibility whose urgency and vitality is carried forward in the present and future. However difficult I may be when I am trying to write, however much solitude and isolation I can orchestrate in order to focus, however difficult it is to write and publish with that as a guiding and confounding impulse.

I’m not alone in this. My close contemporaries in the Native literary community—Sherwin Bitsui, Terese Mailhot, M.L. Smoker, Eden Robinson, Abigail Chabitnoy, Cathy Tagnak Rexford, and Tommy Orange, for instance—bring this to bear in their writing and discussions, in their families, in their lives as teachers, as affiliates of the thriving community engendered by the Institute of American Indian Arts MFA Program in Creative Writing. Closer to home, I was raised with books and essays and poems by Joseph Senungetuk, Susie Silook, and William Oquilluk. My mother and father are voracious readers: they made it possible for me to see that you can read to establish and inform your sovereignty, and to remind me that their best words connect people through time. My uncles (as I was growing up and as I raise my children), too, all world-class artists (carvers of walrus ivory), modeled one way of being independent yet joined in with the work that Inuit have done and will do as long as humanity exists.

There always seem to be the ghosts of other stories informing your poems that aren’t quite made explicit. I’m thinking of the way the four named women in “The Incident Light” seem like mythic characters who we as readers should know, but don’t, or of the generic man who goes on a journey in “Give or Take a Century.” How do you think about the role of myth, story, or fable in your work?

This will be a long answer that will begin in specifics. The four named women in “The Incident Light” are mythic and real, knowable and unknowable, in terms of lyric, literature, and community. In Inupiaq tradition, in infancy, we are named by the women of the community after another King Islander who has passed away around the time of our birth. So each of us carries with us, amongst our relatives and communities, a connection to the life and death and continuing survival of Ugiuvanmiut (King Island people). I am called Naviyuk. Three of my relatives named in that poem—Bernadette “Yaayuk” Alvanna-Stimpfle, Carrie “Ayagaduk” Ojanen, and Marilyn “Uyguluk” Koezuna-Irelan—were brave and generous and patient enough with me to bring me to King Island (Ugiuvak) in June of 2014. Our descent off the island back to board the two-person inflatable dinghy that would bring us back to the 42-foot aluminum-hulled boat that would bring us back to Nome was terrifying, to put it plainly. I repeated our names—the names of Ugiuvak women, present physically and temporally et cetera—as an invocation to help me work slowly backwards down several hundred feet of hard-packed melting snow at 45-80-degree angles, without any ice-climbing gear. That invocation made it into the poem. I’m still working on prose that explains the trip a bit more, and that prose may or may not succeed in making a lot of my lyric poems more lyric, and perhaps my prose more narrative.

I think, too, in some ways, that my poems tend to speak more specifically of the female experience because I don’t know that much about the male Inupiaq experience. It’s not something I talk about often (though it has happened on at least a couple dozen occasions) with my relatives and community. The man, in literature, or wherever the patriarchy presents, always tends to come off as mythic, no?

Aside from that digression: how do I think about the role of myth or story in my work? Stories of life and death are part of my cognitive architecture. I know that through lived (heard, read and seen) experience, and also through the responsibilities I take on or step away from every time I go to the page. I think, too, of Plath, in her journals—how she talked often about the mythic impulse, differentiating it (and not, at times) from the mythologizing impulse. But also of the ways in which the human imagination might compel us to locate, through language, the borders of ourselves along the contours of tradition.

Poetry has a reputation for being difficult and inaccessible, and poetry in translation or multilingual poetry contends with that reputation even more. How do you personally approach poems that are difficult or that are written in a language that you aren’t familiar with? How would you suggest readers navigate that difficulty in your own work?

I look to poems for complexity. Not just a symptomatic complexity, but one that changes me from beginning to end of a poem’s utterance. There’s an approach to poetry that suggests that we turn to poems to hear and say things that we don’t often hear or say in everyday speech. There’s also a sense of a poem as a form of art that creates its own context.

If there is a predicament of difficulty to my poems, it’s perhaps because I’ve become habituated—whether through my understanding of Ugiuvanmiut or through a lifetime of choices—to the notion that challenges don’t have to be perceived as hindrances. I’ll digress a little here to call into question the problematic assimilatory gestures of the contemporary “literary” climate, where accessibility and directness ultimately homogenizes and draws blood from the same vein as the political environment that has given rise to dangerous forms of populism. Scholars, culture-at-large, and writers (and our readers, if we are lucky enough to have any) alike might agree that “populism worships the people.” As a Native poet, I am vigilant at all times to the danger that my work might be recognized and celebrated (and thus, perhaps, appropriated) by dominant culture as part of a political strategy that seeks to (at “best”) commodify me, or in reality: continue to try to exterminate me.

In addition to including Inupiaq words in your predominantly English language poems, you use rare, archaic, or hyper-specific English words like “syrinx” (voice organ in birds), “hyaline” (resembling glass; transparent as glass), and “rindling” (of a stream, rippling, babbling). Tell us about the power of weaving together such different kinds of language.

Words are so beautiful. They make my mind come alive. The idiosyncrasies of any language contain and refer to histories, suggest connections, and carry various charges. I take such pleasure in precision. I love how allusive and hyper-textual English language can be: luxuriating in its eccentricity distracts me for a time from the problematic steamroller that a colonizing global language can be.

My mother once told me how she learned the word “pebble” in English as a little girl. My grandmother was, like my mother is, fully bilingual—and when my mom was collecting rocks she liked along the Bering Sea coast, she learned that the smaller ones were called “pebbles.” There was a discussion of magnitude, of gesture. I think you come to sonic thrills like onomatopoeia differently when you are raised with two or more languages. I think the mind is more flexible and responsive to a word’s textures and potential when you can step away from monolingualism.

You mentioned in an interview that you are influenced by the confessional poets and that readers might notice this in the way you use “I” in your poems—but the “I” in Milk Black Carbon seems more personal than in your earlier work. It is more likely to engage in personal reminiscing, as in “Arboretum Americanum,” or have a self-reflexive quality, as in “A Few Lines for Jordin Tootoo.” Were you experimenting with writing in a more personal way in this book? How did that come about? What do you think makes a poem seem more or less personal?

Some of the changes in the way I attempt to deploy the lyric “I” in the collection are yoked to one of my biggest (and perhaps most generative) constraints: my children are young, my time is limited. When I began the poems in the collection, I was working as a management executive in a corporate job, teaching, trying in fits and starts to figure out if I really wanted to commit myself to a life hostile to my health (unsustainable but at some level non-negotiable book tours and anguishing writing residencies) and tending to my family. It seemed so much easier to try on the hat that seemed impossible to escape from in 2012 (when I began and perhaps should have abandoned some aspects of the book), to work with what could be construed as a more autobiographical “I.” Oh, how banal and American. To be honest, the way the “I” sprawls and bores is one of the things that makes me distance myself from some of the poems in Milk Black Carbon. I prefer poems that step away from their intentions. It also had to do with some of the people in my life at the time that were asking to see poems. They were not writers who seemed to share my aesthetic. Or perhaps have one, other than self-promotion.

I’m not just saying that to be controversial. With the ubiquity of personality that social media perpetuates, writers don’t have privacy in the same we did twenty years ago. No one does. I think of O’Hara’s “personal poems.” You can do an awful lot at the level of the line to bring a reader to sit right inside of your head as you’re writing, and make them try to see the world as you see it. Or, you can do things at the level of the line that place the reader at a polite and perhaps healthy social distance. Of course, my social conditioning is Inupiaq through growing up in a rough neighborhood and then subjecting myself to the Ivy League for a decade, so it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. Nor would I wish it to be.

The poems in Milk Black Carbon work out the profound and complicated, but also dynamic and changeable, ways the body, the land, and language relate to one another. I’m thinking in particular of how this occurs in poems like “Glare in Blue,” “More Dissipate,” “Bone Mineral,” “In its Mouth,” and “To Live Beyond.” Could you elaborate on that interaction?

This is not an on-trend platitude: the land, water, and ice give Inuit everything we need to survive, and it’s been that way for millennia. It’s been something to live through and witness firsthand the astonishing rate of climate change in the arctic and sub-arctic, to feel in my bones some of the most drastic environmental turns.

My relatives—Uyuguluk in particular—told me how much more of the King Island dialect I would understand once I’d been to the island. It’s among the most challenging and generative sites of human inhabitation on the planet. It requires and bestows a highly-specialized and precise command of language. I think I have some difficulty answering this question because my family had its relationship with our ancestral lands extinguished by the United States government. I’m also hesitant to respond because I do smart from the facile critique of Native lit as one that perpetuates myths of connection to the land.

Romance languages don’t have the distinction between “home” and “house” that English does. If, as you say in “The Dissolve of Voices,” “evasion is not a home,” what is home? What does the word “home” mean to you?

Home has much to do with family for me—it can be a good place to be from, and it can be a place where you want to dwell, stay, remain, be raised, raise yourself, help raise others. I have several competing impulses at the moment:  to think here of the brilliant translator and writer Jennifer Croft’s Homesick book and project, as well as my family’s history as King Islanders, my father’s family, and the Institute of American Indian Arts low-residency MFA program, where I’ve been so fortunate to teach in its first years. I also think of how I need to be home in order to write. I need some sense of belonging and appropriate detachment. In “Dissolve of Voices,” in particular, I was in some way talking myself into what turned into a treacherously enormous undertaking: going to King Island. I felt I had evaded the opportunity and responsibility for 35 or so years.

On another level, house means mortgage. It suggests complicity in settler capitalism. It also foreshadows the noun “wife,” as in “housewife.” One can become domesticated so easily in a house. In a home, on the other hand, one can grow into one’s own free self. See, I’m trying really hard not to devolve into the annals here. . . .

Perhaps I’ll depart on a bit of a milk-and-water note, and say, too—that as a poet, I’m never very far from the notion of a stanza as a little room. There’s something temporal about the notion of a home and a house. We humans are only in any one place but for the blink of an eye. A stanza, like a home, can be a specific place for specific contemplation, or it can be something we move through on our way elsewhere.

Joan Naviyuk Kane is Inupiaq, with family from King Island (Ugiuvak) and Mary’s Igloo, Alaska. She is the author of Dark Traffic (2021), Milk Black Carbon (2017), Hyperboreal (2013), and The Cormorant Hunter’s Wife (2012). In addition to serving as the 2021 Mary Routt Chair of Creative Writing and Journalism at Scripps College, she teaches poetry and creative nonfiction in the Department of English at Harvard University, is a lecturer in the Department of Studies in Race, Colonialism, and Diaspora at Tufts University, and is faculty in the graduate creative writing program at the Institute of American Indian Arts.

You can explore more of Kane’s work in Poet Laureate Joy Harjo’s signature project, “Living Nations, Living Words.”