One of the longest running programs of The San Francisco Foundation, the Joseph Henry Jackson, James D. Phelan, and Mary Tanenbaum Literary Awards has been recognizing Bay Area literary artists since 1935. Past winners include Wendy Lesser (1988), Al Young (1968), and Philip Levine (1960).
This year, we were pleased to share this honor with seven emerging writers. In anticipation of their reading on November 13, we interviewed a few awardees about their craft. This second installment features writer Indira Allegra, a Native American/Black poet who is also a weaver and visual artist. It has been said that her writing, like her weaving, is full of subtle color, often taking its form from Native traditions and imagery. She has published in several anthologies and is preparing her first collection of poems.
Tonight there is a fissure
between the handle
and this mug
that has lived on my desk
with the dissertation.
EG: Tell us about your background. How did you start writing, and how did you get to where you are today?
IA: My first poems emerged in letters to pen pals in other parts of the country and abroad. I began letter writing as a way to create space where my perceptions of the world as a young person could live without being censored or contested by adults. I grew up extremely attentive to details in my visual environment and found that the more I detailed my sensitivities to others, the more intimacy I created between the reader and myself. My letters wandered in their focus from my favorite songs on the radio to the possible meanings behind the slow death of a tree behind my bedroom window.
Letter writing became a tender form of call and response. A way of befriending, comforting or even arousing other bodies – often bodies I would never have the opportunity to live near – through the written word. I have long been curious about the ability of text to impact the body. This curiosity lead me to become a sign language interpreter back in 2005 – a form of labor where-in the body literally takes the shape of the text through the position of the hands, expression of the face, and the speed and quality of movements.
My impulse to make language through gesture continues today, but as an artist and writer. Along with performance, I am drawn to weaving as a process of narration that occurs line by line, thread by thread, predating the written word. In fact, textile and text-based practices have always been linked – the word text is rooted in the Latin verb texere, which means ‘to weave.’ I think of my poems today as intricately and intimately woven cloths that the reader can either spread before them, fold and put away, or choose to blanket themselves with emotionally.
EG: How has being a writer in the Bay Area influenced your work?
IA: The diversity in the Bay Area supports the formation of a critical mass of culturally sophisticated readers. I don’t feel I need to distract myself from the work of poeting to detail exhaustive explanations about cultural references to others or justifying the presence of pleasure, disability, gender and class violence, Cherokee words, queer desire or descriptions of racism in my writing. I write poetry including such content because I believe such subjects can be entry points to exploring our broader interconnectedness as human beings. My fidelity is to the use of language in the poem, the characters and the revelation of a human experience on the page.
For the Cherokee
seven is a sacred number
of clans who survived
the great flood
migrated across broken
to the fractured back
of Turtle Island.
EG: What inspires you? Where do you find inspiration?
IA: Attention to intimacy inspires me, as do the aesthetics of grief. Attention to violence is invaluable. In a way, violence is an intimate act also, in the threatening closeness of another person’s body to our own bodies, or in the ability of a sharp word to slit our seams emotionally, causing us to come undone. All of this is included in my scope of poetic study.
EG: How has receiving this award impacted your creative practice?
IA: It feels wonderful to be respected in this way. I believe poetry is both an emotional and deeply intellectual practice – a methodology by which to think philosophically and theoretically. When The San Francisco Foundation turns their attention to respecting and recognizing poets, it validates the role of the living poet as a valuable thinker and cultural producer within society. I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to be recognized in this way.
EG: What advice would you give to other aspiring writers?
IA: Develop a practice that hones your perceptive ability and quality of concentration like life-drawing, playing music or learning another language – all of these have been helpful to me at one time or another. In a world wherein we are accustomed to skimming and scanning (not just text but also our visual environments) it is crucial to find places where our attention can live for a longer period of time. Develop the courage and stamina to keep your attention in one place and write about this place. Inhabit it. You don’t have to tell story in a linear fashion, but begin the process of translating your attention into text.
Here an Indian
inside the ivory boundary
of a mug
without a handle
the porcelain brand
of the university
will burn too deep
– Red Scholarship, Indira Allegra