MARCH 1997

   T H E RAVEN C H R O N I C L E S  



Deborah A. Miranda










I've given the title of this panel a lot of thought. "Lunatic or Lover/Madman or Shaman: the Role of the Poet in Contemporary Culture(s)".
One of the reasons I've only been thinking about it is because it's kind of hard to write my brilliant insights down while cleaning houses, and that's what I do for a living: I'm a housecleaner. I'm also a poet. This gives you some idea of where I fit into this culture!
Here are some of the things I remembered while mopping floors, cleaning toilets and folding clothes.
First, the role of the poet is all tied up in the definition of what a poet is. Kurt Vonnegut has this nifty thing he calls his "Canary in the Coal Mine Theory". Canaries, as you might already know, were used in the bad old days to test the air quality in coal mines. If the air got bad, contaminated with gases that would affect the miners, their convenient little early warning devices­­canaries­­would keel over before the air was toxic enough to affect the humans, and give the humans that extra edge of lead time to get out.
Graphic, but maybe accurate. Vonnegut proposed that poets and artists fill the same role in society: when writers start getting censored, persecuted, jailed, or blocked from earning a living because of what they produce, our society has reached a level of crisis that demands some kind of immediate action to save not only the artistic segment of culture, but every one else too.
Then there's what Adrienne Rich says in What is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics. She says that a poet's job is to "name the nameless", and she muses on the power of names and the incredible chutzpah of naming, the act of naming, itself. No one gives us this power, she says: we are driven to name, to define, and to reveal­­poetry is almost an entity that won't stop harassing the poet! Rich warns, however, that "much of what you need has been lost,"our cultural inheritance gouged out by genocide, massacre, intellectual blacklisting. We have to accept that loss as an integral part of what we can use to create with.

At a workshop last summer, Grace Paley told me that every writer is obsessed. They have one or two focal points in their lives to which all of their work refers over and over again. I was having a rough time producing any work at this workshop, struggling with personal demons that said, "You're never going to move on to new ground, you are going to bore everyone to death with the details of your loss!" But a good writer, Grace said, is one who finds that obsession and milks it for all it's worth, in as many ways as she can. And the way to find your obsession? "Tell the story you are most afraid to tell," she said. "Not the one you don't want to tell, but do. Not the one you think you are afraid of telling. The REAL story, the one that scares the shit out of you." I went on to produce a piece of writing that not only told my story honestly and well, but which brought a response from my listeners.
People told me that this was their story too, that I had said things the way they had felt them. I realized that Grace was right: by addressing my deepest fears, I could best reach other people. It could have been selfish or gratuitous, but because I was honest, it wasn't.
I also like what the poet Chrystos says: "Poets are slow motion Mad Maxx movies...making poems is about walking into the firing range...that loss is not loss if we write about it. You may be gone but I have these words I've strung together like beadwork and you, yourself, have been captured...." She's telling us that poets can use their craft as a way to not only define loss, but alleviate it as well.
Then there's Frederick. Frederick is a little gray mouse in the children's book of that name, written and illustrated by Leo Leonni. While all the other mice gather seeds and grasses, Frederick lolls about breathing in the rich air, watching dragonflies' rainbow wings, listening to birds. Then, in the winter, each mouse contributes food for all to survive. They have enough. But winter goes on and on, and the little mouse society becomes bored and depressed. That's when they remember what Frederick gathered, and they ask him, Frederick, what about YOUR supplies?? And he tells them what he gathered: colors, warmth, red poppies in yello­­wheat words. When he's done, the mice are transformed. They have found a sustenance beyond that which their bodies demand. "Why Frederick," they say, "you're a poet!"
Is he? What IS a poet's role? Why do we do what we do, and for what cause?
Are we canaries whose role is to keel over when society becomes too rigid and conservative? Are we keepers of the names, creating and defining by the power of language? Are we responsible for brute truthfulness, for facing fear without shirking? Are we a form of container, a basket, the material on which we write that which cannot be forgotten? Are we, as Frederick tells us, an anti-depressant in the form of memory?
Poetry, maybe, is the process of survival. In order to survive we need those who can do all of these things: warn, name, tell the truth, preserve, and inspire. As a poet, I can tell you that I have revealed myself to be both lunatic AND lover, definitely a madwoman, and possibly some mutant form of Shaman as well. I don't know. I'm still evolving.
Perhaps there's a clue to be had in the significance of dreams. Poet Joy Harjo says the work she's accomplished through dreams is some of the most powerful and important work she's ever done. I'll leave you with two dreams I've had that have given me direction as a poet.
The first dream came about when I was wrestling with the concept of being, or not being, a witness to the destruction of California Indian tribes. As a fifth generation survivor of the mission system, what am I "allowed" to be witness to? What can I contribute? In the dream, I have volunteered to be part of a memory experiment in which scientists lock up a bunch of Indians in a mission and record our responses. As soon as the huge mission doors slammed shut, each of the people present­­from many tribes, all ages, men and women­­simultaneously and without volition, opened their mouths and began to scream. I myself felt my throat open, and a scream came up from the deepest parts of meand yet, it wasn't my voice. It wasn't my scream.
It was somebody else's scream. What this dream did for me was open me up to the possibility of being a voice for others, of accepting that my own pain was at once personal and universal, and that yes, I had a right to be a survivor, to be a witness.
The second dream was very simple. I was in my car, driving down a highway fresh and green, just after a rain. I was following a small pick-up truck very closely, because the driver of this truck knew our destination, and I didn't. So I took care to follow every turn and weave of the truck.
This was my entire dream, except for one detail: across the back of the truck, on the tailgate, was the usual logo: TOYOTA. But the first letter had been changed to C, and the last letter to E. I was following COYOTE.



 © The Raven Chronicles 1997