Celebrated Diné poet visits with St. Michael students

By Noel Lyn Smith
Navajo Times

ST. MICHAELS, Ariz., Oct. 17, 2011

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(Times photo - Paul Natonabah)

Navajo poet and lecturer Luci Tapahonso reads from one of her collections 'Songs of Shiprock Fair' to elementary students at St. Michael Indian School Tuesday morning.

The poetry of Luci Tapahonso came to life Tuesday (Oct. 11, 2011) at St. Michael Indian School.

Dressed in a one-piece black dress and Pendleton vest, Tapahonso read selections from her large body of work to middle and high school students inside the student chapel.

Before reading from a verse about the Holy People creating the Diné, she told students that she is originally from Shiprock.

"When people hear that I am from Shiprock, they say, 'You're from the place of tall leaders? What happened?'" Tapahonso said of her petite form.

The joke received chuckles, then Tapahonso launched into "The warp is even: taut vertical loops," from her 2008 collection, "A Radiant Curve: Poems and Stories.

"Afterwards she explained that the lines, "I sing songs created for him, Whose little boy are you? Said I am Grandma's boy.

Grandma's little baby boy," refer to her 13-year-old grandson, Isaiah.

She said speaking to the students reminded her of Isaiah and his 5-year-old sister Samiyah, who were home this past weekend for the Northern Navajo Nation Fair, much to her delight.

"As I look out and see all of you, it reminds me of my grandson," she said.

Throughout the presentation, students were treated to poetry and portions of short stories written by Tapahonso.

The poem "Tsilii" is about Tapahonso's miniature pinscher, Max, and their relationship.

She told the audience that Max likes going to the Shiprock fair.

When her children and grandchildren were leaving for the carnival, Max whimpered because he was being left behind.

"'You can't go.

You can't get on any rides,'" Tapahonso recounted the family telling Max.

"He's a silly guy.

"She also read one of her classics, "Hills Brothers Coffee," in which she captures the mellow pace of a morning's visit between her mother and uncle, who loves the "coffee with the man in a dress, like a church man.

"You can smell the fragrant brew and feel the warm family bond as Tapahonso describes her uncle stirring in sugar and creamer until his coffee looks like a chocolate shake.

Her poetry reveals the beauty of Navajo life in spare terms, conveying with equal dexterity the almost hypnotic quiet of traditional customs and the loony interface with modern America.

How Tapahonso, currently on leave from her teaching position at the University of Arizona, finds the space to distill such pictures amid the frantic pace of life is a mystery, but she does so unerringly.

Later in the morning, Tapahonso met with elementary students.

As she entered the conference room, students were sitting on the hardwood floor listening to a reading of her 1999 children's book, "Songs of Shiprock Fair," a luminous portrait of the event from one who has known it since her own childhood.

The reading stopped as Tapahonso approached the lectern, and then asked, "Do you want me to finish this?""Yea!" the students shouted.

She continued reading, then stopped to ask the group if the Navajo Nation Fair in Window Rock gets as dusty as the Shiprock fair.

Her question garnered giggles from teachers and a mixture of "yes" and "no" from students.

"I'm going to stop right there and take your pictures because you guys look so cute," Tapahonso said unexpectedly.

Unlike the previous session, these students had the opportunity to ask questions.

Like Tapahonso, the questions ran from the personal - "When were you born?" - to the creative - " Can you speak German or Russian?"Tapahonso answered each, clearly enjoying the interaction.

One student asked which among her six poetry collections and three children's books is her favorite.

"You know how kids get mad when they think someone else is your favorite, so I don't choose between my books because they are like my children," she responded.

The children also wanted to know where she went to school and when she started writing.

She attended Navajo Methodist School, now Navajo Preparatory School, and started writing when she was 8 or 9 years old.

Her first collection of poems was published when she was an undergraduate student at the University of New Mexico.

"I love to be in the presence of children and young people because I can see all the stages of life," she said in an interview after the event.

"For me, I think about how much energy they have.

"The St. Michael visit gave her the opportunity to hear from different age groups than the one she teaches at UA.

Tapahonso is a professor of American Indian Studies and English there, although she makes her home in Santa Fe.

"I view it as an opportunity to write," she said of her sabbatical.

"As much as I love teaching, I'm grateful for the break.

"Among the writers she admires are Native poets Sherwin Bitsui, Laura Tohe, Esther Belin, Orlando White and Irvin Morris.

Tapahonso also admires the poetry of Navajo Nation Vice President Rex Lee Jim, who had a collection of poems published in Dine bizaad.

Fiction writers that she can read over and over are Leslie Marmon Silko, N. Scott Momaday and Linda Hogan.

Her visit was part of the school's Native American week activities.

On Wednesday, Navajo poet Laura Tohe was scheduled to speak at the school.

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