Susan Deer Cloud, a mixed lineage Catskill Indian, is an alumna of Goddard College (MFA) and Binghamton University (B.A. and M.A.). She has taught Creative Writing, Rhetoric and Literature at Binghamton University and Broome Community College. Five years ago she returned to her “heart country” Catskills to dwell once more with foxes, deer, black bears, bald eagles, and the ghosts of panthers and ancestors. She now lives as a full-time mountain woman, dreamer, and writer.
Deer Cloud is the recipient of various awards and fellowships, including an Elizabeth George Foundation Grant, a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship, two New York State Foundation for the Arts Fellowships, and a Chenango County Council for the Arts Individual Artist’s Grant. Some of her books are Before Language and Hunger Moon (Shabda Press); Fox Mountain, The Last Ceremony and Car Stealer (FootHills Publishing); and Braiding Starlight (Split Oak Press). Her poems, stories, and essays have been published in numerous anthologies and journals.
In order to get out “the voices of the voiceless,” the poet has edited three published anthologies: multicultural Confluence, and Native American I Was Indian (Before Being Indian Was Cool),Volumes I & II; the 2008 Spring Issue of Yellow Medicine Review, a Journal of Indigenous Literature, Art & Thought; and the Re-Matriation Chapbook Series of Indigenous Poetry. She is a member of the international peace organization SERVAS; Poets & Writers; Associated Writing Programs (AWP); and indigenous Wordcraft Circle. She has served on panels at writers’ conferences and given myriad poetry readings at colleges, cultural centers, coffee houses, and other venues.
In between her sojourns in the Catskills, Deer Cloud has spent recent years roving with her current companion around Turtle Island (North America), on the Isles (Iceland, Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England), Europe proper, and Chile and Argentina. She has been not only on a physical journey, but a spiritual quest for her deepest roots tied in with ancestors, ancient truths, and the sacred web of life.
Why is poetry your chosen form for capturing the world?
Given that my earliest memories are of weaving stories or beading poems that I would then sing, I cannot truly say I chose poetry. I was born a poet and storyteller as much as I was born with green eyes. Poetry chose me, every radiant atom in my transient body newly born to this Mother Earth. And because poetry has always been such an airway into soaring freedom for me, I tend not to think of it in terms of “form.” I understand what you mean by that word, but for me creating via poetry is associative, fluid, liberating, and not bound to any set form. Poetry is a shamanic drink that can carry one to the place of cosmic consciousness where everything is interconnected and “We are all related.” Given my particular relationship to poetry, “capturing the world” is never my intention. Doing a continuous dance with the world is more like it. I am most fond of William Blake’s “He who binds to himself a joy/Does the winged life destroy;/But he who kisses the Joy as it flies/Lives in Eternity’s sun rise.” Poetry is what I call my primary lover, and I try not to destroy that “winged life.”
Your poetry uses physical imagery to such great effect – how is that choice to render the physical and material important in your poetry?
That poetic presence of what you call “the physical and material” came naturally to me, no doubt because I was born in and grew up in the Catskill Mountains of New York State. I don’t feel or see the “physical” as empty matter but a matter of energy or spirit manifesting itself through what appears to be solidly “material.” All one has to do is peer through a microscope to know the physical is a dance of subatomic particles dancing inside interior spaces invisible to our human eyes. I find this to be such a marvel, that we human beings possess five senses enabling us to receive the universe in ways abundant with colors, shapes, scents, sounds, touch, and so much more.
Then there is the “sixth sense,” that conduit to what is within us and without us and greater than our self-important human lives. My deepest roots reside in woods and meadows, mountains and valleys, and my first music is that of lakes, rivers, breezes, crickets, frogs and birds. I was raised by parents who loved the natural world and by a mother who believed in dreams and told me Spirit pervades everything and everybody. The Northeastern Indian word for it is “Manitou.” The imagery in my poems (the “physical,” if you will) is meant to express the vivid reality of existence in all its aspects and shake any reader from nodding off in a torpor of cliches, stereotypes, vulgar slogans, and unthinking herd behavior. And it is to convey the ineffable Mystery that even a poet possesses no vocabulary for but can try to evoke with whatever language if not silence she/he has at hand.
How does your experimentation with language and form help you to engage with social issues?
Hmmmm, I am not sure how much “experimentation” I am involved with, unless simply writing in accordance with the seasons of my life and “going with the flow” of all existence can qualify as experimentation. On one level, I view my writing as making a stand for what I fiercely believe in. That includes many of those social issues which I became aware of in the 1960s and imagined would be more resolved than they currently are. I hope that my poems may give “voice to the voiceless,” as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. expressed it. I have had people try to steal the “holy fire” of my own voice from the time I was young, so I am a bit of firebrand when it comes to writing about violence, oppression, discrimination, inequality, and anything else that is wounding to human life and life in general. I see a prismatic relationship between what we think, feel, and imagine and the language we use, so I try to exorcise soul deadening words from my writing. One is bombarded by such murderous words in the United States. Unless a person has already become a zombie, it is sadly obvious how destructive such a violation of language can be to human beings and an entire country.
How do you interweave your own experiences as a Catskill Indian into your work? Is it important to make that content accessible to readers?
I have often written about the indigenous people who live in the Catskill Mountains. I am fascinated by the effect place has on human character, and like to explore that in my poems, stories, and essays. Somewhere along the line, I took to using the expression “Catskill Indian” for those dubbed “part Indian” when I was a child, people I find to be wonderfully unique. I and other indigenous people in this region have never been reservation connected and preserve an old pride, independence, dignity, and sense of humor even after centuries of cultural and physical genocide. Many of my poems are the equivalent of honoring songs to my Catskill sisters and brothers (and not only those who are of indigenous lineage). I consider it extremely important to make all of this accessible to readers because what I say defies the lies the United States Government runs about how many “Native Americans” still exist (relatively few in its estimation) and resists the usual stereotypes of what an Indian is. Along with that, I relish smashing stereotypes of what mountain or country people are. Even in “academentia” (the feminist theologian Mary Daly’s name for it in her Wickedary) where inventing politically correct neologisms for people and things has been all the rage for decades, I have encountered students and professors who have no problem with calling rural people “rednecks,” “rubes,” “slack-jawed yokels,” “crackers” and worse. In the Catskills there exists a melding of country with indigenous, and the resulting culture is complex and intriguing. How reprehensible that anyone would use insulting words for rural inhabitants whose equivalent they would not dare call any other group of people.
How do you bring diverse voices and ideas into your writing?
I have lived in various places, urban and rural, and have traveled in other countries as well as lived abroad in England, Andalusia, and Switzerland. I just recently returned to the States from a four month journey in Chile and Argentina, including Tierra del Fuego and Antarctica. I have met many human beings and listened to myriad stories told in their voices. I love writing those tales down in the music of those voices. Magical things can happen when the People meet the People apart from what any Government is trying to brainwash their citizens with. As much as I am a woman of the mountains, I first and foremost consider myself to be a daughter of the world and a child of the universe. It can be stultifying and perilous for any human being to remain locked in a proverbial comfort zone, never exposed to other places and cultures. This is not freedom. I grieve that a part of formal education for our students cannot be simply to send them off roving, but unfortunately we don’t seem to have the money for that the way we do for the military.
How would you like to see writers and editors working to support diversity in publishing?
I am not sure what to say here other than “Just do it!” I have done editing work that especially includes work by indigenous writers, including editing two Native American anthologies (I Was Indian Before Being Indian Was Cool and the Re-Matriation Chapbook Series of Indigenous Poetry). Unfortunately, that notion of diversity has been increasingly twisted into something divisive and laced with hatred, recriminations, gross assumptions, lazy generalizations, and censorship. I used to think such mean-spirited nastiness was mainly coming from Fox News & Right Wing big mouths, but such uncivil discourse has spread to nearly everyone. I have come to the conclusion we need to boogie on to some new vocabulary accompanying a fresh way of thinking and being on this planet. I am old enough to remember when people referred to our common humanity, but these days we Americans are mired in another Civil War. Who really is encouraging us to be at each other’s throats, to raise the volume and never listen to one another? I felt thrilled when people first began talking of multiculturalism, which I thought was a respectful affirmation of various cultures and histories. As hard as it is to sort out what has happened in our country, if not all the world, I suspect we have “been had” en masse. But should we retain any lingering gentleness of heart and human decency we can still strive to take the high road to whatever sweet country we are envisioning.
What writers do you read and why are they important to you?
I am an old-fashioned reader of the voracious variety so I hardly know where to begin with responding to this question. I certainly read work by numerous contemporary writers including friends, one of whom just died (Sam Hamill). As I write this in my study, I can see Sam’s book Habitation on a nearby bookshelf, comforted by the thought of his inscription to me inside. A mutual friend of Sam’s and mine was Ruth Stone, a brilliant wise-woman-poet and a big influence on me. I am also friends with oral storytellers in the Catskills and elsewhere. Our indigenous belief is that spoken words intermingle with all other breaths, spirits, and voices encircling Mother Earth. That mingling is a sacred matter and why we don’t curse or lie. I love to sit around a fire at night, under the stars, with people telling stories and singing songs. That is origin territory, not to be forgotten.
I have Nicanor Parra’s Emergency Poems on a little round table right next to me. I am re-reading his poetry since I had conversations with people in Chile about him and walked where he walked. I stayed at the home of a Mapuche Indian one night in the Andes, and the next morning, I was telling him about making pilgrimages to Pablo Neruda’s trinity of houses in Santiago, Isla Negra, and Valparaiso. “Si,” he said, “Neruda. But have you read Nicanor Parra?” I told him about my first acquaintance with Parra when I was a Binghamton University student so poor I only ate one meal a day and sometimes waited an hour in snow and ice for buses to take me the long distance to campus. Nicanor spoke up for the dreamers with empty bellies and tears running down their faces because they are so cold. And I described how I learned about Violeta Parra, Nicanor’s sister, when I was in Santiago. Why hadn’t anyone ever told me about that sister with her sublime voice breaking people’s hearts wide open with “Gracias a la Vida”? Why wasn’t I ever taught about her painting, her embroidering, her poems?
Countless writers made impressions on me when I was a girl hoping to survive my isolated hometown and the vicious gossips (yes, they did fit one stereotype of country people). The Russians were among my favorites, and Dostoevsky I still joke is my boyfriend. I favor idea novels and a richness of language inside a book’s covers. Thomas Hardy, D.H. Lawrence, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, The Bronte Sisters, and Thackeray all affected me and inspired me. There were particular books that seemed like living entire lifetimes, such as Dr. Zhivago, The Tin Drum, Les Miserables, The Snopes Trilogy, A Hundred Years of Solitude, Snow Country and The Tales of Genji. The Blackfoot writer, James Welch, had a profound effect on me; I love all his books and felt when I first read his work that finally here was someone who understood what it was like to be a “mixed blood” Indian. Thomas McGrath did the same in his poetry, got what it’s like to be despairing and desperate. Some contemporary novels I read this past year are Wolf Totem, Forty Days Without Shadow, and World Light; I recommend them all. The writers who have most spoken to me are daring in their work and nearly tear their hearts out in what they have to say about the grand themes of human existence, birth, love, desire, death, loss, you name it. They exemplify a beautiful bravery which I bow to.
Let Me Tell You About My Indian Grandfather
Susan Deer Cloud
Let me tell you about my Indian grandfather,
how he was dragged off to an orphanage
after his mother crashed through the ice
while ice-fishing, fought her way out
only to die of pneumonia. Let me tell you
what it was like for that nine-year-old boy,
the times he ran away until he was able
to stay in the mountains where eventually
he died of a heart attack, young, the way
so many in our family die. Let me speak
his freedom, for instance the high noon
he borrowed that horse the color of a unicorn
belonging to the stone mason he worked for,
racing its white beauty up and down Main Street,
blazing through a gauntlet of small town faces
while shooting his pistol off in the spring air ….
a raven-haired, high cheek-boned Indian
on a tear because another young man tried
to steal my grandmother. Let me tell you
how he galloped home, stood glaring
with a cigarette on his front porch,
blowing blue smoke rings until the cops
squealed in with sirens and tried to play cowboys
with his wild Indian, threatening to arrest him ….
how he lifted his pistol and shot
bullets around their polished shoes.
“Dance,” he laughed, “dance, or I’ll shoot
your toes off!” They started dancing
while the horse the color of a unicorn
snorted, rearing up in its own dance.
“Now waltz on out of here and don’t
threaten me again!” They stumbled
to their car and Grandpa resumed blowing
sacred circles and enjoying the lilacs
and forget-me-nots all around. Let me
tell you about my Indian grandfather
who spoke one word, “Mother,” before
his great freedom-loving heart gave out.
Red Road of Yellow Butterflies, Argentina
Susan Deer Cloud
There are things I try not to mention in this country,
for instance the tortured and the Desaparecidos ….
not that I speak Español except as a child lilts new words.
And it is as a child I ride with Juan through
this northern province bordering Brazil and Paraguay,
where Iguazu Falls brings people from many lands
together, voices mingling in exclamations
of wonder, tangos of awe danced to the soft
high pitch of adults speaking to the innocent.
Here is a place for being childlike again,
in this magical time between Christmas
and New Year, on this red dirt road Juan drives
down the day after we leave the giant cascades
circled by jungle emerald as first dreams, trails
bordered by flowers we have no names for ….
here that place before we knew the word “beauty”
or braved a first kiss, bouncing through mud puddles
until Subaru windshield and all the rest
is splattered. We have been in this land
long enough to laugh, “Hey, it’s Argentina!”
Then the yellow butterflies appear,
thousands flashing in insect-buzzing sunlight ….
and, fewer in number, azure ones like miniature mirrors
of two Blue Morphos who surprised us at Iguazu,
iridescent above, camouflage below.
A rare orange butterfly flames into the car,
alighting on my arm in what feels like friendship,
and I walk out among the butterflies,
photographing and filming them in the hope I may
transport my wonder to the people back home
in winter’s snows and deepening freeze,
transmit that sensation of wings brushing my skin
with the tiniest of feathers, until my senses
take flight and I dare to be simply happy, a whirl
of pure yellow, my favorite childhood color.
Except we old ones remember about paradise,
si, I am bitten by flies and unseen things
and Juan hears “something funny,” our third flat tire
in Argentina we soon learn, only this high noon
on a red jungle road far from any gomeria.
He kneels in the dirt, turns blood-red from it,
fixing the flat while fear stings my cheek in fire-like air,
for here Guarani Indians were disappeared
and the ones who lived learned to hide how they flew
with butterflies the same as my people did.