Michael: Your poems provide a fascinating human perspective on the ways people’s relationship with land and water has changed over time as a result of colonization. I confess they’re the first instances of the found poetry form that have really caught my imagination–of the many poems you showed me, I had to struggle to choose only four to publish. Your intercession as a poet reframes these interviews from three or four generations past for a contemporary audience, but the poems themselves I think only hint at your curatorial role. Can you tell me a little about how you see the task of translating between the interviewees’ experience and contemporary experience? What’s changed in our perception of nature in that time? Do you have any sense of the kind of audience the interviewees were addressing themselves to at the time, what they expected to hear vs. what they were told?
James: As the introductory note mentions, these found poems are drawn from interviews with elderly citizens of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation conducted as part of a statewide oral history project sponsored by the Depression-era Works Progress Administration. When the project ended in the summer of 1938, it had generated some 11,000 manuscripts bound in more than a hundred weighty volumes.
The collected narratives comprise a haphazard archive, and the typewritten manuscripts can be difficult to read and to search. They have been referenced occasionally by historians and other scholars, and consulted by private individuals conducting genealogical research. There is a single book-length publication, Nations Remembered, composed of short, anonymous excerpts arranged thematically while intermingling Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee, and Seminole sources. But eighty years after its inception, the Indian-Pioneer History Collection remains a formidable and underutilized resource for the study of Oklahoma Indian life.
As an enrolled citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and a professional student of Muscogee history and culture, I have long been intrigued by this unique but uneven assemblage of Muscogee voices. There is plenty of repetition and extraneous detail, but also lots of important information presented in matter-of-fact narration, and many passages that sing with vernacular English and the occasional Mvskoke-language expression. Working through these interviews, I have pondered the possibilities for presenting this invaluable material to a wider audience. The literary genre of found poetry offers an effective method for recovering orality from archival texts, grounding written language in the spoken word, and for performing the critical retelling that is a hallmark of indigenous oral tradition.
The Found Poetry Review describes the found poem as “the literary version of a collage.” Working with “traditional texts like books, magazines, and newspapers” or “nontraditional sources like product packaging, junk mail, or court transcripts,” the writer excerpts words and phrases and arranges them “to create a new piece.” Verbatim Found Poetry prefers simply to “extract a whole passage of text from writing that is not meant to be poetic, and add line breaks.” I try to strike a balance between these polar approaches, judiciously excerpting and arranging passages while preserving the integrity of each narrator’s voice, and sometimes juxtaposing multiple narrators to generate a dialogue that reflects my own, contemporary interests and concerns.
Michael: I know you’ve published over a dozen poems like these in different venues. Do you have plans to continue or expand on this project? I’d love to see what it might look like if the poetic form were applied the same way to sources from different eras, from our era, or from different Native cultures in different places.
James: These four pieces are part of a book-length manuscript titled “Muscogee Nation I.T.: Found Poems,” which collects forty-eight poems arranged in a loosely chronological fashion and organized in three sections that correspond to the traditional Mvskoke seasonal cycle: Meskē (Summer), Rvfo (Winter), and Tasahcē (Spring). There is also an epilogue with several poems offering critical commentary on the various bureaucratic forms used to document the Indian-Pioneer History Project.
The central theme of this book is Muscogee human ecology and how it has changed over time: from origins to removal, from removal to statehood, and from statehood to the Oklahoma Indian Welfare Act of 1936, which can be seen as an early step toward the recovery of self-determination for the Muscogee (Creek) Nation of today.
Michael: I see you’re teaching a course forthcoming at the University of Illinois in the fall titled “Ecological Criticism”—a course I would love to take. That term seems like it has the potential to cover a lot of the kinds of ideas I’d like Reckoning to address. Forgive me if this amounts to asking you to sum up an entire semester’s worth of material in a single question, but what do you think the role of the humanities and the arts is and should be in addressing environmental crisis going forward into this ominous and unpredictable future?
James: I usually introduce the course by suggesting to students that one way to think about the academic field of “Environmental Studies” is in terms of three broad areas: environmental science (scientific disciplines such as ecology and climatology), which tries to understand the physical world and our effect on it; environmental policy (social science disciplines such as politics and economics), which tries to understand how scientific knowledge gets translated into public policy; and the environmental humanities (disciplines such as history, literature, and religion), which try to understand the underlying beliefs and practices that determine how we fare in the other two areas. Or course, the very term “humanities” points to the pervasive anthropocentrism in Western (and some other) worldviews. Many environmentalist thinkers and leaders have argued that our current crisis is fundamentally a cultural problem that requires a cultural solution, and it is not very difficult to demonstrate this in just a single semester-long course. The syllabus for “Ecological Criticism” is available online and is linked from my personal website at https://jamestreat.wordpress.com
Michael: Thank you very much!