Apr 25

Talking With: Poet Ben Moeller-Gaa About Today's Haiku

At a recent reading I met Ben Moeller-Gaa, well-published poet who writes only haiku. I had to ask what that was like.

-Tell us about your interesting last name.

My wife is a Moeller and I am a Gaa and when we got married we decided to join our names. The name Gaa is German, and it’s really that short. My family comes from the town of Hockenheim, where there are still Gaas today. I have no idea what the name means. It is a historical question mark.

Jul 18

Talking With: Dwight Bitikofer

Poet Dwight Bitikofer, Kansas native, is the publisher of the Webster-Kirkwood Times which he helped start in 1978, and the West End Word, and frequently emcees poetry events around St. Louis. He won second place in the 2011 St. Louis Poetry Center James Nash competition, and has been published in Untamed Ink and Literal Chaos and work is forthcoming in Natural Bridge. Dwight’s rhythmic reading style has roots in jazz, and he often performs with musician Raven Wolf; their next joint appearance is Sept. 17 at the Old Webster Groves Jazz & Blues Festival. His reading style is unusual and not to everyone’s taste. So I asked him:

dwightbitikoferWhat gave you the idea to read your poems to music?

One night in 2006 I went to a reading by James Goodman, who combines his poetry with guitar and oud and singing. There was an opportunity that night for others to read. The small room was lined with four or five or six young men with djembes and other drums. As I read, they drummed. I was enthralled!  This is how poetry was meant to be read and heard. When I had a reading opportunity in 2007 at Poetry at the Point, I brought my son’s band in to back me up on three or four of the poems I read. Audience response was very good.

You have a unique reading style. Nobody else does what you do, and some think it’s way out there. Why do you do it?

The style feels natural to me. And I receive a lot of good response. I try to honor words – their sounds, their meanings, their intensities. I do not have strong memory skills, so I read my work. But I like to have it on a music stand or podium so that my hands are free to be expressive. I hope to know work well enough that I can have a lot of eye contact with my audience. I often feel my audience come to attention, especially when hearing some of my more dramatic pieces. I thrive on that interaction. It connects me with people.

What do you hope to accomplish by writing and reading your poetry?

Like most poets, I would like some recognition. But poetry in its best forms is part of a self-discovering process. When I sit down to write a poem and it goes in some unexpected direction, that is part of an unconscious pathway of discovery. Poetry sometimes enables me to share something of myself that I would share in few other interactions. Poetry gives me permission to be who it is I am outside of the roles of business owner, publisher, parent, homeowner, resident of Webster Groves, son of a farmer, etc. etc.

What is the question you wish people would ask you, and what is its answer?

“What life experiences, events and stories shape your writing?” I think my writing is especially shaped by the rhythms of my childhood world. I am a child of flat land laid in square-mile grids under an open sky. I am a student of sunsets, songs of meadowlarks and the wind in cottonwoods.  I was raised among Mennonites, people with a literal interpretation of the Bible, lots of expectations and prohibitions, strong beliefs in heaven and hell, sin and redemption, hymns sung a capella in four-part harmony and thousands of grueling hours of church. These were pacifists, strict-but-kind people who worked very hard and shared much of what they had. I worked from a young age and it gave me character. I was terrible at sports, but I could spell, and drove farm vehicles at age 10. I piloted trucks and combines from Texas to the Dakotas during the summers starting at age 17.
      I became a city person around my 21st birthday. Worked at a social service agency and drove a taxi. Married and had three children. That held together for 19 years, but its difficulties also opened doors into a new way of looking at the world and life through a 12-step program (Al-Anon). That in turn, blossomed new friendships that introduced me to healing touch and to some spiritual practices and ceremonies passed down from Native American traditions. All of those things – plus travel – shape my poetry. And I am grateful.

Apr 14

Talking With: Alice Azure, Native American Author

Poet Alice Azure wroazure1te Along Came a Spider (Bowman Books), about her 35-year search to trace her Native American ancestry. She found her spiritual home in the Acadian-Métis culture of Nova Scotia, where Europeans and the Mi’kmaq (pronounced Mic-mac) tribe intermingled in the sixteenth century. While piecing the story together, Azure says she sensed she was “being sought out by Invisibles as much as I sought them.” During the rigors of writing and research, Azure met her spiritual guide, Grandmother Spider, who urged her to complete the work and to write honestly. The conversations with Spider are included in the book. It was all so interesting and so unheard, I let the interview below run to full length.

What drove you to claim a Native American identity when according to your genealogy and DNA test your known ancestry is European? Your genealogical searching was intensive and expensive. Why go to those lengths?

From the time I began a serious search for my Native ancestors (1974) up to the completion of Along Came a Spider (late 2010), I never had a DNA test. With regard to my genealogy, I only knew for sure was that my mother and her folks were from Norway. It was my father’s family from Nova Scotia, Canada that presented the genealogical challenges with regard to identifying Mi’kmaq ancestors.

Although my father, Joseph Alfred Hatfield, and his grandmother, Celestine Porthier Boudreau, always asserted their Mi’kmaq ancestry, it wasn’t until graduate school at the University of Iowa that I decided to learn more about my Native roots. One of my professors, of Mi’kmaq ancestry himself, challenged me to research my heritage. I took up his challenge—vigorously, I might add. When I began, in the early 1970s, the American Indian Movement was at its zenith. Many times there were questions about my tribal enrollment, the name of my reservation, the Native names of my family, my clan and why I was interested in working with tribal communities. All of these questions I regarded as reasonable, and I wanted to be able to answer them. So I began by focusing my search on family names.      

You belong to the Aroostook Band of Mi’kmaq, is that correct? What are the benefits of tribal membership?

I don’t belong to the Aroostook Band. Early on, I applied for membership in the Aroostook Band of Mi’kmaq in Presque Isle, Maine. I reasoned that since I would never live in Nova Scotia, it might be worth my efforts to petition for tribal membership in the state where my father had lived and worked most of his life. There were no benefits for me other than to be able to say, “This is my spiritual home.” In spite of some encouragement from a staff member from the Aroostook Band, the politics were not in my favor—living in Illinois as I did at the time. In addition, I needed proof of my father’s residency in that northern area of Maine. The years he worked as a lumberman, starting with his teen years, were before the advent of Social Security—so I was facing digging up payroll records, etc. It was too much for me to sustain, to be a family person, stay on top of my career and keep building my family tree.

I have found a “home of the heart” in the Association des Acadiens Métis-Sourquois (salt water people), based in Saulnierville, Digby County, Nova Scotia, which has granted me recognition of aboriginal status as a person of Acadian descent in Nova Scotia. The “Epilogue” chapter of my book, Along Came a Spider, explains the Canadian law with regard to who is aboriginal in that country.

I and many other people of Acadian descent recently have come to the understanding through study, research, and now DNA testing, that from 1604 up to 1755, a hybrid people and culture was born in Acadie (roughly, the Canadian northeast Maritimes) through the cooperative bartering for fur pelts, fish and lumber between French and Mi’kmaq people. This new culture—neither French nor Mi’kmaq—developed into what today is called Acadian.

Why have I never heard of the Mi'kmaq? Are they historically a small or isolated group? What are some of the things unique to their culture?

The Mi’kmaq are basically a Canadian tribe, so that may be one reason you didn’t know or hear much about them. Historically, they were a powerful group, estimated by Daniel N. Paul in his book, We Were Not the Savages, to be around 200,000 at the time of first European contact—1504. By 1838, disease, warfare and deliberate English policies of genocide and scalp bounties had reduced the people to a population of 1,425 (Paul, 187,188).

What I think is unique about Mi’kmaq culture is their wonderful array of creation stories. I most love the ones about magical Power—“[h]ow to acquire it, how to use it, how to lose it and the consequences attendant upon all of the above.” I just quoted from Ruth Holmes Whitehead’s masterful book, Stories from the Six Worlds: Micmac Legends (13). It is timeless!  

When did you understand that you had to write and publish this book?

I began to slip into a serious depression after my husband Alec died February 11, 1993. Also, I couldn’t find employment, and was fast running out of money. Realizing that I was losing my way, I asked for some guidance from my medicine women friends. They took me into the woods, so to speak, watched me, prayed over me and conducted some ceremonies. That’s when I saw Spider on my blanket. I knew I had to recount as much as I could, or I would not remember everything. So I recorded in my journal all the happenings of what I call that holy time—from Alec’s death to November of 1994 when I finally secured a job in the United Way at Green Bay, Wisconsin. At first, I had no intention of writing a book. Increasingly, I found my understanding of Grandmother Spider expanding to such an extent that I began to realize that I was being sought out by Invisibles as much as I sought them. So around 2004 I knew that this amazing, numinous experience in my life had a pattern, had meaning and significance. I wanted to share it. And I believe Spider goaded me on. Sometimes she would sit on the upper left corner of my computer screen—at a time I wasn’t advancing the story. I became very discouraged when I couldn’t find a publisher after about twenty queries. Late in 2009, I submitted an essay to an academic journal—Studies in American Indian Literatures. The editor for that particular issue, Siohban Senier, a professor of English at the University of New Hampshire, asked to see some more of my writing and poems. The rest is history. What a coach she turned out to be—encouraging me to finish the manuscript and send it to Bowman Books. 

In the book you mention that many French-Acadians seemed insulted when you asked about Native ancestry. Recently, others have seemed eager to claim that ancestry. Lots of Americans want to do the same. You said you don't know the reason. What is your best guess?

In 1974, when my first husband and I traveled to Nova Scotia to begin my search for Native ancestors, I did “cold calling,” knocking on doors in Wedgeport where many of my father’s people had lived. Yes—it was obvious they were surprised, maybe even insulted when I inquired about Mi’kmaq ancestry in the Boudreau surname. That was in the summer of 1974. Father Clarence d’Entremont, the well-known Acadian genealogist, wrote me letters in 1978 saying that there was no Indian blood in the Boudreau line. Stephen A. White, another authoritative genealogist, in a 1977 letter outlining my father’s female line, also said there was no Mi’kmaq ancestry. They both were wrong. Through a rigorous process of application first to the Kespu’kwitk Métis Council l (which I resigned from, for lack of communication) then to the Association des Acadiens-Métis Sourquois, my genealogies have been certified as Métis—of aboriginal descent. So you deal with the denials, the subtle racism—the outright racism—and go on and do your thing.

I certainly think one has to factor in greed when considering the significant increase of Native American ancestry being claimed through the census. Some of it is said to be due to discrimination by the tribes themselves. It is well-known that tribal governments have the power to enroll—and dis-enroll. There’s a lot of discrimination at that end. The new-found casino wealth of a few successful tribes may be driving some of that greed. I think people with Native ancestors who have never interacted with tribal communities may also feel entitled to the meager benefits—the usual situation—of tribal enrollment. It’s a lot of work to go through that process. Some of my friends have been persistent and received their cards. For others—like a granddaughter of Alec, my late husband, enrollment has eluded her, again because of mean-spiritedness.

With regard to the burgeoning of Acadian-Métis people, I believe it is driven by a sense of history, a pride in having had ancestors who suffered, perished in or survived le grand dérangement (the savage Acadian Removal of 1755). More and more, the several DNA tests now available are confirming a great variety of haplotypes—which must give the French purists heartburn. In Nova Scotia, we even have our own “lost colony of Roanoke” story. Its name was the Fagundes Colony. A group in 1520 set out from the Azores to settle (not to just fish) near the Outer Banks—Cape Breton Island. What happened to them cannot be known at this point, but a whole lot of Acadians are testing for U6a haplotypes, a bloodline that shows up in France only among people deported from Nova Scotia—who had established themselves there over generations, then were kicked out. Suppose, goes the theory, that the Mi’kmaq killed the male settlers and took the women and children into their own camps? The women eventually settled into Mi’kmaq life. Mitochondrial DNA tests—which track only the female lines—daughter to mother to grandmother to great-grandmother and so on—would never pick up the paternal Indian lines.

Is Grandmother Spider a spirit guide, or is she a goddess, or--?

I think Grandmother Spider is a spirit guide that comes out of my Native ancestry. In the book, I talk somewhat of another spirit-guide, MW. In retrospect, I think he comes out of my western, or Christian, tradition. Vine Deloria, Jr. in his book, The World We Used to Live In, asserted that spirits from different cultures or traditions are quite compatible. Spider is real. I believe that. I don’t know how else to say this, than to encourage the reader to read my poem “Blessing” on page 169 of the book. Other cultures—in Africa and somewhere in the Caribbean, have a Grandmother Spider being. In my book, I use a creative nonfiction style to introduce and close each essay through a conversation with Spider—always under my arbor. I’ll never forget the very first time she spun her web on my arbor. The vines were not mature, the moon was shining so bright, and I saw her hanging there on the arbor on a shining web.

Is there anything you would like to add?

I include a good bibliography in the book for the reader who may want more information about the ideas or topics I discuss. A glossary is also included to help with some of the words, tribal names and phrases I use. I hope these two aids will add to the book’s appeal.