An enrolled member of the Ohlone-Costanoan Esselen Nation of California, poet Deborah Miranda was born in Los Angeles to an Esselen/Chumash father and a mother of French ancestry. She grew up in Washington State, earning a BS in teaching moderate special-needs children from Wheelock College in 1983 and an MA and PhD in English from the University of Washington. Miranda’s collections of poetry include Raised by Humans (2015); Indian Cartography: Poems (1999), winner of the Diane Decorah Memorial First Book Award from the Native Writers’ Circle of the Americas; and The Zen of La Llorona (2005), nominated for a Lambda Literary Award. Miranda also received the 2000 Writer of the Year Award for Poetry from the Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers. Her mixed-genre collection Bad Indians: A Tribal Memoir (2013) won a Gold Medal from the Independent Publisher's Association and the PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Literary Award, and was shortlisted for the William Saroyan Award.
Miranda’s poetry is informed by her mixed-blood ancestry and knowledge of the natural world. Often focused around gender, her poetry treats topics such as mothering and the ability to nurture in a violent world. The Zen of Llorona references the legend of La Llorona, or the Weeping Woman, an Indian woman who bears children to a Spaniard; when betrayed, she kills the children and then lives a life of mourning.
Miranda’s work has appeared in the anthologies Through the Eye of the Deer (1999), This bridge we call home: radical visions for transformation (2002), The Dirt Is Red Here: Art & Poetry from Contemporary Native California (2002), and Women: Images and Realities—A Multicultural Anthology (2006).
She teaches English at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia.
Why is poetry your central form for capturing the world?
That’s a good question. As a young writer I preferred fiction, but often wrote poetry as well. After a long break from writing either genre, I emerged as a young mother with two children under 3 years of age, and found my writing time significantly compressed. Thus, poetry: something I could write in the short chunks of time available to me. Poetry is, itself, condensed and compressed imagery, emotion, memory, sensation. I was in a place in my life where I needed to unpack a lot of that very quickly, and poetry was exactly the form I needed. This expanded into personal essay, as well; I write very poetic essays that make many of the same moves my poetry tries. Every voice has its range. For me, I usually find that range within poetry or poetic prose. Maybe that’s the best answer I can give.
Bad Indians is often referred to as a mixed-genre collection, though you title it a “tribal memoir.” How did you manipulate form/genre in that text and what did it free you to accomplish in your work?
I’ve said this many times before: the form/genre of Bad Indians manipulated me. I thought my research on my California Indian ancestors and history would lead to a much more academic product (though that word, ‘product,’ is not one of my favorites). Yet every time I sat down to write about that research, something different would come out: poetry, at first, then I began to write on and ‘correct’ actual documents, then I began to see ‘found poems’ in Serra’s own writing, then a short story popped up when I referenced two-spirit people … and although I struggled against this, thinking “No one will ever publish this,” and “Doesn’t a book have to be all ONE genre?” – eventually, I realized that all of these fragments were the reflection of the fragmented materials I had to work with. The story I was trying to tell was, itself, broken, fragmented, some pieces missing, other pieces only partially there. And that was the story: how to reinvent ourselves as California Indians, not how to rebuild a culture we no longer have access to. So yes, once I had this revelation, I did feel wonderfully free! I let the pieces take me where they needed to go, did a little herding, gave it some structure. But the story essentially guided the form.
Your work has been celebrated for depicting issues of gender and sexuality in ways not usually seen – how do issues of gender identity and sexuality influence you and why do you feel it is important to highlight those issues in your work?
First, I want to say that I am far from the first to depict or include issues of gender and sexuality into my writing. Many have come before me, doing this work. But maybe readers have not usually seen California Indians as having a third gender, or of California Indians as sexual beings in general, in large part because of the erasure and misrepresentation that missionization has done and perpetuated, and allowed each succeeding generation to perpetuate. Indigenous ways of expressing and experiencing sexuality were a part of Indigenous California life that the priests could not accept (of course, Spanish beliefs and regulation of sexuality at the time of the Inquisition, which is when Serra began founding missions, were devastatingly narrow-minded and patriarchal even for Spaniards!). In Spanish eyes, Indian gender roles and sexual practices were the devil’s work because – shock! – they were different from Spanish customs. These indigenous customs worked very well within the context of an Indigenous epistemology, however, and Indians fought hard to retain these customs even under painful physical and social punishments. So, in general, the history that the Spaniards recorded, the documents that have come down to us, our history lessons in school and so on, all emphasize that the Indians welcomed Spanish interventions into their most personal and intimate lives – and that’s simply not true. What I’ve tried to do in my writing is talk about what some of those battles have been, honor our Two-Spirit Ancestors and those who attempt to follow that path today, and speak the truth about Indians as fully human in their needs, desires, and loves.
As I read some of your poems, I noticed how often you used images of the body to anchor the reader in your poems but also to embody the individuals about which you write. What makes you so attentive to the physical body in your writing and how does it shape your larger goals for the poems?
My body is where I store everything that I’ve ever experienced. Yes, with my mind, my brain, but also literally stored within my muscles, blood, bone, are the memories of a lifetime. We were put on earth within these bodies that filter everything through sensory experiences and images, deeper than language, beyond language. When I feel something very deeply, that emotion or feeling is often completely outside of language, yet I want to and need to bring it into language in order to share it, process it, make sense of it. The world is a chaotic place, and language is how I try to organize, at least a little, some of that chaos. So the creation of a poem or a piece of essay happens in that space where the memory within my body meets the language I have access to. It’s not surprising that you find many of the images in my poem go back to the body in some way; the body records and archives truths that need articulation.
Your poems often struck me because they use simple yet evocative language and yet also play with line length and structure in ways that challenged me to notice word and phrase placement. How do you see your use of language and structure in your poetry? Do you have specific goals?
I know that many poets are much more intentional about how their poetry looks on the page than I am. After I manage to get something down on the page, I mostly follow my instincts about what looks good, where the linebreaks might be, stanzas, and so on. Unless I’m writing in a form, of course, and then that’s all decided, and my job is to help the words fit the space. I do like to play with various aspects of a poem’s visual representation – but mostly, it’s about where the poem wants to breathe, or wants to surge forward, or hold back. I wish I had a more polished process to share with you, but so much of what happens in a poem for me is intuited, and not necessarily a conscious effort, that I honestly can’t elaborate much beyond what I’ve said. I mean, I think all of that work happens, just not on a very conscious level.
What writers do you read and why are they important to you?
Well, I’m certainly not genre-bound. I can be reading Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders in the livingroom and Ada Limón’s This Big Fake World in my study, and have a graphic novel for class, and The Book of the Unnamed Midwife by Meg Ellison – truly glorious post-apocalyptic world-building! - going on my Kindle for moments when I’m stuck somewhere in line. I’m lucky that my university has a great writer’s series, so we are always getting new, young writers who come through with new stuff. Last week, it was Lauren Alleyne, with her new book Honeyfish – which is amazingly powerful. We’ve had visits from Jesmyn Ward, Asali Solomon, Alex Espinoza, Linda Hogan, Luisa Igloria, Joy Harjo, Marjorie Agosín, Aimee Nezhukumatathil … every writer who comes through brings something new to the table, and of course, I buy all their books and soak it all up. And they are all important to me, to my writing. I love Ursula K. Le Guin, Luis Urrea, Stephen Graham Jones, Daniel Heath Justice, Mary Oliver, Cherie Dimaline … graphic novels, especially ones by Spiegelman, Nora Krug’s Belonging/Heimat, Bechdel, and so on … Writers who have been important to me, and whose work continues to change the world, are the ones who have lead the way for Native literatures: Hogan, Harjo, Silko, Erdrich. I can read and re-read them forever, and learn more about the world and about writing every time.