Happy (Belated) Birthday Simon Ortiz!

This is another commemoration in a continuing series of posts celebrating the birthdays of important Native authors. I include authors of all forms whether literary, academic, or both (as so many of our finest Native novelists are). If you have any important folks you want to make sure I don’t miss, drop me a line!

This may be the first birthday post that is not an unbroken stream of praise. For Simon Ortiz is a writer who I like much more as a person than as a poet. I often feel bad about this when I read his poetry because I wish I could like his poems as much as I like what he says about his poems. Perhaps it is the simplicity of his poetry that off-puts me; I slip so easily into mazes that a straight line seems somehow like cheating.

Simon Ortiz wearing his signature wild patterned shirt but without his signature spectacles.

Ortiz often says that his role as a poet is to “demystify language.” His language works not only with the things people say (many of his poems are conversations) but with the things the land says. He describes the shape of the land, the creatures within it, as landmarks in a larger universe of stories. It is the universe of the Acoma Indians, the universe Ortiz was raised in and knew through the Acoma language.

Ortiz was born on May 27th 1941. Like many Indian children of his generation, Ortiz was sent to a boarding school for his early education. The struggle to maintain a connection to his tribal stories and language against the strict enforcement of a English is something that resonates in much of his life’s work. Ortiz speaks often of the difficulty of translating Acoma stories and perspectives into the dominant language. Yet the age old cliche of the Indian torn between two worlds doesn’t work here. Like many Indians, Ortiz has found a way to make it work, to continue in English what has always existed for him in Acoma. So as he devoured every book he could get his hands on, he placed the English world/language in a continuum (not a binary) of his Acoma upbringing:

“…when I learned to read and write, I believe I felt those [Acoma] stories continued somehow in the new language and they would never be lost, forgotten, and finally gone. They would always continue.”

Ortiz was certainly a precocious one, nose always in a book and ear always tuned to a story. And as a man after my own heart, he would listen to and absorb the country greats like Hank Williams He could sometimes be found digesting the dictionary word by word. His father often called him “the reporter” because of his incessant need to know and understand the things people said.

This desire, near-obsession, to remember everything, to always connect this present and the ever-coming future to a past, is what gives many of Ortiz’s poems the feel of a journal entry. He is a recorder; his pen presses like a needle into unmarked vinyl preserving every small vibration between him and the world. He not only wants to tell us everything he felt and saw within the poem, he wants to tell us how he wrote the poem. So before we read “The Wisconsin Horse” we learn it is “late at night, lying drunk on the floor, hearing a church bell across the street, remembering that Wisconsin Horse this Spring.”

As much as Ortiz’s poems center on the small experiences of the everyday, there is an unmistakable political intent in his poetry. This is in large part because of Ortiz’s insistence that Indian language and identity are the strongest ways to hold onto Indian land. He studies the microcosms, the conversation at the bar, a trick of light in a canyon, and tells the bigger story of dispossession, loss.

I leave you with the 11th section of a 13-part poem called Many Farms Notes. It was, Ortiz tells us, written on a trip to Many Farms, AZ in the spring of 1973:

“What would you say that the main theme

of your poetry is?”

“To put it as simply as possible,

I say it this way: to recognize

the relationships I share with everything.”

I would like to know well the path

from just east of Black Mountain

to the gray outcropping of Roof Butte

without having to worry

about the shortest way possible.

This poem and everything I quoted from in this post is from the collection Woven Stone, an anthology of three books written by Ortiz and the best place to start acquainting yourself with the poet.


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