Archive for Monday, April 9, 1990

S WORK REFLECTS ROOTS IN SOUTHWEST

April 9, 1990

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Q: Where are you from?

A: Where I'm from is like this:

Hard summer rains

leave hollow beads

of moisture in the dust.

from "A Breeze Swept Through"

Luci Tapahonso says that the land in Lawrence is much different from the land in her native New Mexico.

"It has taken me a while to get used to it," said Tapahonso, a poet who moved to Lawrence in January. "The weather is very different. Here, the land is always damp. In New Mexico, the earth is always dry and cracked."

Her roots in the Southwest are important to her; but Tapahonso says she enjoys her new home in Kansas.

She and her two daughters, Misty Dawn Ortiz, a seventh-grader; and Lori Tazbah Ortiz, a freshman at Haskell Indian Junior College, joined Bob Martin, her husband, in Lawrence earlier this year. Martin is president of Haskell.

"I DON'T KNOW what we would do if Haskell wasn't here," she said. "It's a very important part of our family."

Tapahonso, who is a member of the Navajo tribe, says her Native American background has been the cornerstone of her writing. But she doesn't want to be labeled by some literary category that limits her scope.

"Whenever a woman writes, she's labeled `a woman writer,'" Tapahonso said in a recent interview. "When do we hear, `Oh, he's a white male writer from Chicago?'"

And although she readily admits that being raised on a Navajo reservation in Shiprock, N.M., has influenced her writing, Tapahonso doesn't believe that her poetry touches only one audience.

Her third book of poetry, "A Breeze Swept Through," lists the collection as Poetry-Women's Studies-Native American Studies.

But poetry comes first.

"My work has been received well," said Tapahonso. "I work very hard on it; it's a voice that I think is necessary."

Tapahonso has published three works of poetry "A Breeze Swept Through" in 1987; "Seasonal Woman" in 1981; and "One More Shiprock Night" in 1981.

She now is on leave from the University of New Mexico, where she is an assistant professor of English.

"BECAUSE I was raised on a reservation I spoke Navajo first," Tapahonso said. "Most of my thoughts are in that language. Those speech patterns enter into my work. A lot of my poetry is based on native songs and stories. It's a reflection of the Indian life."

Tapahonso, whose last name means the edge of a large body of water, said many Native American stories focus on the origin of their people.

"The origin stories say that we emerged out of the Earth," she said. "There's even a story in Shiprock about how it came to be. You get a huge sense of identity from our traditions."

She believes that her writing echoes those traditions. Her first published work came during college, when a professor in her short fiction class told her that her writing was good and that she ought to try to publish it.

She now is working on a new manuscript and makes appointments with herself to write about three hours a day.

During lunch, she pointed to her appointment book and shook her head, saying that the pages were too empty.

"When I was in New Mexico, I always had to have it with me or I would go crazy," she said. "Now I can wait for days before looking at it."

Although life in Lawrence is calmer, she said, she does have a few entries on her calendar.

TAPAHONSO HAS been commissioned, along with other artists, by the city of Phoenix to record in creative ways the findings of an archaelogical site once occupied by the Hohokan people. A highway is being built near the site. It is an 18-month project, and the team will meet eight times for three to four days each.

In July, she'll be in the Soviet Union, where she'll participate in a writer exchange with the country.

Despite her other projects, she makes a point to write each day.

"My poetry is always there," she said. "When I'm writing, I'm always thinking about it. When I finish a poem, and I know it's finished, I just feel so wonderful."

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