By Aimee Loiselle, The Circle
June 28, 2008
Renowned author Heid Erdrich (Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe) currently shares her strong voice and unique perspective with two local literary collaborations. Erdrich recently wrote an essay for the anthology Riding Shotgun: Women Write About Their Mothers, published by Borealis/Minnesota Historical Society Press. In addition, she is working with emerging prose and poetry writers as a mentor in The Loft Literary Center’s Mentor Series.
Erdrich read from her essay in Riding Shotgun for a BirchBark Books event at Lake of the Isles Lutheran Church on Saturday, April 26, and at the Barnes & Noble in Highland Park on Saturday, May 31.
The anthology was edited by local poet Kathryn Kysar, who wanted a balance in terms of culture, ethnicity and relations with mothers. The highly personal yet often universal stories provide windows into influential mother-daughter moments.
Erdrich shared her revisions with Kysar throughout the writing process. “I got a lot of editorial input from Kate,” Erdrich said. “And it was great to be part of a group of women whose writing I respect.”
Kysar enjoyed working with Erdrich and watching the essay evolve. “Heid is a very experienced writer, and my role was more of a reader/responder than an editor,” Kysar said. “Heid started with the marvelous first pages about her mother, which are so funny, and a separate piece of writing about the women role models in her life. Then Heid welded them into one amazingly strong piece.”
Erdrich also spoke with her mother to deepen and expand the essay. “I had never written anything directly about my family, and this was about my mom—I had to do some research,” Erdrich said with a smile. “I had conversations with her to capture the way she felt about family and about her experiences as a young Indian woman in a town that was mostly non-Indian.”
During this research, Erdrich learned her mother had dressed as an Indian princess and ridden in a convertible for the parade in Wahpeton, North Dakota. Erdrich was surprised at her mother’s participation in such a stereotypical image, but the revelation led to further discussion and understanding.
Kysar believes the essay benefits from Erdrich’s close relationship with her mother. “She and Heid have a very good relationship,” Kysar said. “This envelope of love and goodwill includes many generations of Gourneau women and their friends, which Heid expands to include ancestors and historic figures.”
Part of the collaborative process for Erdrich was coming to terms with the title of the anthology. “I have been really gratified to see how well the book has been received,” Erdrich said. “But I didn’t appreciate the title at first—I guess that’s how I would say it. It was difficult to consider that an anthology with four Native women authors had such a violent Western image in the title. But it does represent the edgy relationship of women and their mothers.”
The other Native authors are Susan Power, Diane Hall Glancy, and Denise Low. Power is a member of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and a descendant of Chief Mato Nupa (Two Bears). She received degrees from Harvard/Radcliffe and Harvard Law School before attending the Iowa Writers Workshop.
Diane Hall Glancy, of Cherokee and English/German descent, earned her MFA at the University of Iowa. Denise Low serves as a dean at Haskell Indian Nations University in Kansas, where she taught creative writing and American Indian studies. Her background includes German, Scots, Lenape (Delaware), English, French, and Cherokee.
Kysar appreciates the distinctive contributions these authors made to the book. “Susan Power’s essay vibrates with rhythmic strength. It draws on the difficulties of an entire generation. Diane Glancy’s piece, like Power’s, is written as a prose poem, though it is much more internal; it paints a picture of her alienation from her mother. And Denise Low explores the stressed relationship with her mother and how she sought solace in nature.”
Low drove from Kansas to read at the BirchBark Books event with Erdrich. “It was very moving to hear the writers read their essays in their own voices,” Kysar said. “The reading was festive and poignant, and there are copies of those signed collector’s first editions at the store.”
In addition to Erdrich’s participation in the anthology, she acts as a local mentor for the Mentor Series Program at The Loft in Minneapolis. The Loft is the nation’s largest literary center, providing programs and services for readers and writers. Every year, The Loft invites writers to apply for the Mentor Series, which offers advanced criticism and professional development to twelve writers: four each in the genres of poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction.
The twelve emerging writers are selected through anonymous competition to work with six nationally acclaimed writers. Three of the mentors spend a month working with the entire group. Winners in each genre also meet with their mentor for individual conferences.
Erdrich currently serves with Rafael Campo as a 2007-2008 poetry mentor. They chose poets Polly Carden, Chrissy Kolaya, Emily Lloyd, and Marie Olofsdotter for the program.
As part of their annual activities, participants do readings alongside mentors. On Friday, April 25, Erdrich read at The Loft with participants Marie Olofsdotter in poetry and Rebecca Kanner in creative nonfiction. Olofsdotter read several of her poems, and Kanner followed with a section of memoir.
Kanner values the concepts and outlook Erdrich adds to the program. “Heid brings a great mixture of critical thought and humor to the Mentor Series,” Kanner said. “She is quick on her feet and always playful.”
Jerod Santek, Director of Programs for Writers at The Loft, introduced Erdrich to the audience. He mentioned Erdrich is also a co-founder of BirchBark Books Press and the Turtle Mountain Writing Group, and she served as an intensive mentor for two weeks in the fall of 2007 and two weeks in the spring of 2008. Santek was especially grateful Erdrich opened her home for a potluck dinner with participants. “She hosted a night of great conversation and wonderful food,” he said. “She had many maps on display around her house. A reminder that writers and artists are always on a journey.”
During her reading, Erdrich said she enjoyed working with the new but very accomplished writers. “It is a two-way program. I have been incredibly enriched,” she said. “I had such a good time sharing their work and being challenged to expand my ideas of ways I want to teach and write—especially in terms of genre.”
Erdrich read several poems, explaining historic references, inspirations, or significance before each piece. The evening was filled with moments of laughter and contemplation as the audience listened to her reflections on poetry and writing.
A few of the poems came from Erdrich’s third book, National Monuments, forthcoming from University of Michigan Press. Many poems in that book refer to bodies—sacred, buried, celestial, and monumental.
She noted that one poem was inspired by her discomfort with the 2006 Body Worlds exhibit at the Science Museum, which displayed plastinated human bodies and organs. (Plastination is a vacuum process in which all the water and fat are replaced with fluid plastic that hardens and retains tissue shape. It was developed by Dr. Gunther von Hagens.)
“I grew up knowing that Native bodies—hundreds of skeletons, millions of remains—were held all over the world,” Erdrich said at the podium. “They’re not all ancient. I knew that Indian skulls and Indian bones had been put on display, so I wasn’t comfortable with Body Worlds.”
The reading ended with a social hour, where Erdrich spoke with members of the audience. It included an opportunity to buy her books at a table provided by Micawber’s, an independent book store in St. Paul.
Santek believes all the writers have benefited from Erdrich’s participation in the Mentor Series. “It has been a pleasure to work with Heid,” he said after the reading. “All the writers—both poetry and prose—have gained a lot. As Heid said early in the year, it’s helpful for fiction and nonfiction writers to ‘poet up their prose.’ Heid is such a warm and generous person, being with her is inspiration to keep on with the writing life.”
Erdrich is looking forward to more collaborative projects in her role as curator at Ancient Traders, an American Indian art gallery in Minneapolis. In 2007, she left her teaching position at the University of St. Thomas to take the new job.