Mark Turcotte is an Ojibwe writer who was born in 1958 in Lansing, Michigan, to a Scots-Irish American mother and Native father. Much of the first decade of his life was spent on the Turtle Mountain Chippewa Reservation, in addition to various stints in migrant camps throughout the western United States. When Turcotte was five or six-years-old, his father left the family. And when Turcotte was about ten-years-old, he returned to Lansing with his mother and older sister. Following high school and one year of undergraduate studies at Grand Valley State, he hitchhiked throughout the American West and Southwest, working odd and blue-collar jobs. In 1993, he moved to Chicago, where he immersed himself in the local poetry scene. The same year, he was the first recipient of the Gwendolyn Brooks Open-mic Poetry Award. Turcotte received his MFA in creative writing from Western Michigan University in 2008. His published works include The Feathered Heart (1995) and Exploding Chippewas (2002). He is currently a senior lecturer at DePaul University.
TQ: When did you first encounter, or interact with, poetry?
MT: I discovered poetry in the Yogi Bear coloring book I had on the reservation. It had black line drawings and little captions. I started playing with the captions, changing the order of the words until I came up with phrases that sounded interesting to me.
It was a language that made sense and tickled something deeper in me. It sparked my curiosity, and I wanted to investigate it. Then my mother, over my shoulder one day, said, “What are you doing there?” I was rearranging the words of some caption. “That kind of sounds like poetry.” That was one of the first times I ever heard the word “poetry.”
Over time I realized it was a language with breakable rules, which was appealing. In a cheesy way it was just easier for me. It was a language that was more natural to me. I liked being able to speak in half-ideas, half-thoughts, and fragments.
TQ: Did that encounter cause you to think about writing as a possible occupation, or did you arrive at that state of mind when you were older?
MT: I think I’ve known since the Yogi Bear coloring book that I wanted to be a writer. But thoughts of an occupation, no. Those early encounters with words made me think I had something to say. You know, in most of the worlds we grow up in, self-expression is frowned upon. Or, more rightly, self-expression is encouraged until you say something that doesn’t fit the script. It’s okay to speak if you parrot, you merely echo. I received plenty of reinforcement for being able to mimic—like reciting the Lord’s Prayer or the Twenty-third Psalm very early—but not so much when I soon expressed doubt about the message.
Later, a stronger impulse to write came upon me after we ended up in the so-called “white world.” Being able to read and write in a somewhat advanced way was a means for me to win over some teachers who might not have been as welcoming as you’d hope. I saw it as my strength. It was my way to identify myself, to reinforce my identity.
TQ: Did you have a stronger sense of identity, especially in regard to Nativeness, on the reservation?
MT: I identified as Native, even though my mother was white, and when I lived among Natives on a daily basis and had a relationship with them, I felt widely accepted.
Weirdly, it gave us a little bit of status, that my mother was this outsider. They welcomed her and showed her the most acceptance and love she’d ever experienced in her life, I think. She spoke about that to her last days.
But living in the white world was the first time—at least in very overt and kind of day-in, day-out ways—that I experienced prejudice, bigotry, and being “othered.” It was a struggle for me. Part of me wanted to go back to the reservation, even though it meant tremendous violence and poverty. I felt safer there. I would come home from school and cry about the things people had said and done to me over the course of a day, and my mother would say, “You don’t really mean you want to go back to the reservation.” It hurt her because she was doing her best. I’d say, “Yeah, I know, but this is so terrible every day.”
It was a classic predicament for a lot of Native people in America—that experience of being removed from your community—or removing yourself because you have to leave in order to flourish, or to avoid violence, or numbing poverty, or other kinds of danger. It isn’t unique to Native people, but the rez-versus-America thing complicates it.
TQ: Were you exposed to Native writers on the reservation?
MT: I never read Native writers during my childhood. Books were few and far between. I read whatever was handed down to me; it was the basic American fare. A lot of it I didn’t like, but I simply read. Catalogs, cookbooks, church pamphlets. The first time that I held a book in my hands and said, “Is this a Native writer?” was Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. It woke me up at a pivotal time in my early teens. Of course, I soon discovered that Brown himself wasn’t Native, but there was no denying the impact of that book.
I had been off the reservation for a while, and I didn’t know any Natives in Michigan. There were members of my family who had left the reservation and were in the Lansing area, but I had very little contact with them, and by that time I had no contact with my father. It was me and my very white mother and sister.
I let my hair grow, wore ripped and torn-up jeans with all sorts of radical statements scribbled up and down the legs, feeling like some sort of militant. AIM—the American Indian Movement—was going on, and eventually the occupation at Wounded Knee happened. It was inspiration for me to start feeling my roots a little bit, to get reacquainted with myself. But, I was being Indian all by myself.
I had a teacher who put some black writers in front of me, and that made me a little more aware of speaking for a group, or as part of a group. I remember writing a really vicious poem about fences. I think the last line of it was, like, We will leave the white man hanging from the white man’s rope, or something like that. And what’s surprising is that my teacher thought it was cool. She said, “Oh, that’s a little rough,” but she got it. I was lucky to have some teachers by then who at least tried to understand me, who saw me and didn’t try to restrain me.
I was like any other kid in their early teens, trying to figure out their identity, to place themselves in the world. Mine was maybe a little more complex than others’. It’s funny, because I’ll talk to people who are dealing with gender issues, or who are gay, and we seem to have a very similar story. Any thirteen-year-old is complicated. Then you add other layers of identity that are mysterious and sort of unwelcome. It makes it harder. In a way, it was kind of safe for me to express my sense of Indianness in that isolated little space because I wasn’t a threat to anyone. You know, one Indian is okay, tolerated.
TQ: Any other influential books or writers?
MT: Custer Died for Your Sins by Vine Deloria. Other people were reading that, besides Native people; it spoke to white people even though it was written by a Native person, and it was also funny. A teacher saw me with that or Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and said, “Did you know there’s a Native American who won the Pulitzer Prize?” I didn’t. So, they introduced me to House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday. It was very different from reading the nonfiction. I was a fairly sophisticated reader by the time I was in my early teens, but that book was a challenge for me because it was about some internal stuff that I hadn’t even begun to consider. I just wasn’t mature enough. I think it was going on in me, but you just don’t realize it until you go, Oh my god, this sounds like my dreams, or someone else is in my head, or in my bones.
I was reading, but mostly devouring the usual Faulkner, Henry Miller, Hemingway, Sartre, Dostoyevsky, Kafka, and lots of Vonnegut. You know, the men. But nothing by Natives.
I graduated from high school in 1977, and in 1978 I tried a rather drunken year in college. I had a professor who hinted that if I could struggle through undergrad, there were these things called “MFA programs” that I could do, and that would be a very different experience. But she wasn’t adamant about it, so it didn’t really register with me. A couple of professors that I met in college said to me, “You are a writer. You need to write.” One even said, “Just sit in the back of my classroom and write,” trying to protect and maybe nurture me. Even though I was getting those messages, I just couldn’t handle being in school.
Now, I realize I missed the train that some other Natives seem to have caught. Those Native people who were managing to get to, and stay in, college were encountering each other, and they sometimes had professors putting Native work in front of them, so they were getting a pretty good education—or let’s say, encounter—with Native literature.
Meanwhile, I left school, and I ended up doing oil exploration, hanging doors and windows, pouring cement, and doing all kinds of other work.
Looking back, I think I purposely walked away from an environment that was starting to nurture me and give me positive reinforcement for being an artistic person. Self-sabotage. I went as far away from it as I could. I mean, like being a field hand on an oil and gas exploration crew, where I worked with guys who had been in jail for stabbing somebody who took their stool in a bar. Not the sort of territory where one gets much reading done. If you read, people suspect you of being weird; if you have a book, then you must be queer or something. I knew there was nothing wrong with being queer, but it made it very difficult to get along.
I have a biological wanderlust, as well as a biological need to undermine myself, to learn things the hardest possible way and to make mistakes over and over and over again to really perfect them.
TQ: What caused you to reconsider your life and eventually reconnect with your artistic identity?
MT: A former high school teacher of mine—and dear friend—was living in Chicago, and she talked me into visiting the city in the winter of 1992, then staying to remodel the basement in her three-flat on Kenmore Avenue in Lakeview. She had been fairly frustrated with me and vocal about it, saying, “Why are you in West Texas? Why are you working in Montana? In Chicago you could encounter all these other things and maybe have a chance to pursue something different.” So, as part of her plan, I stayed here in Chicago for a while, and right away she and I started going to venues to hear poetry. I was hearing all this poetry, and I had to start writing something in order to have something to read, so that’s how I began writing again.
Before that I was stuck in West Texas for what seemed like a long time. Even though I have to admit to having had a pretty good time out there, I never really felt like I belonged. I always knew that it wasn’t meant to last. I wasn’t really realizing or being myself.
One of the things I preach to my students is, Don’t waste time not being yourself, start doing it right away. And even if you don’t know who you are, start thinking about it and aiming toward it now. Once I began pursuing a truer version of myself, things began to improve for me. It wasn’t perfect, but it was better.
TQ: Why did you wait so long to return to school to obtain your MFA?
MT: To be blunt, there was no room in my life. I was too busy paying rent and trying to be a husband and father. There are some people who can work a full-time job, tend to family, and go to school at the same time. I’m not that person.
TQ: What changed your mind?
MT: Other people kept putting it in my face. When I would gripe about my life of delivering lumber or hanging sheetrock on Monday and then going out to be a poet on Thursday, they would say, “Why don’t you get a degree so that you don’t have to hang sheetrock? If you get a job teaching, then you’re in that world all the time.” I didn’t take them seriously because they didn’t know me and my history. What was I supposed to do? Go back and become a forty-five-year-old sophomore? People had to literally sit me down and say, “Forget being a sophomore. Just do the MFA.” It took years for them to convince me. Of course, it became easier to imagine after my divorce.
TQ: How did the program benefit your career and writing?
MT: I had my mind and my heart expanded. I decided I had to hand myself over to it and be open, and not treat it as a vehicle to get a teaching job, even though that was one goal.
I was grumpy about it sometimes. I wasn’t always as good at it as I should have been. But there’s no denying that I learned. I learned from my professors and teachers, from my colleagues, from staff people whom I met, in the same way that I’ve learned in every other area of my life.
It all breaks down to the idea that one should immerse themselves in their own life. You can’t put life aside while you do other things, strategic things. What good is it to get yourself to some goal only to realize you haven’t lived your life on your way there.
TQ: In regard to the desire to teach, was that impulse, like your interest in writing, present from an early age, though gradually built upon as you got older, or did it arise later?
MT: I dabbled with the idea when I was a kid. The teachers I encountered, once I got to the white world, were pretty pivotal for me. I had a couple who were pivotal in an awful way at the late elementary level. And then through my junior high and high school years I was in a really small school system where the teachers overlapped, so you would end up having that teacher for seven or eight years. Or the school was so small that even if you didn’t have classes with them, you knew them and talked to them.
I think I stood out in that school a little bit, so teachers paid a little extra attention to me. I’ve been lucky in that way, just as far as the attention and care that people paid toward me. They didn’t always know how to reach me, but at least they recognized me. I valued teachers.
Later, when I got to Chicago and I started doing readings and I was being invited to speak to classes or visit a university, my hosts would often comment, “You’re really good in front of my students.” People suggested that I might be good at it. But I knew there was a huge difference, and it’s been proven to me since, between visiting and being a teacher for a day and doing the everyday work of it.
It’s like a lot of things. People say you’re good at this or that, and you start to consider whether they’re right. Then, people would flatly say, “You should put yourself into a position to teach. That makes sense. You’re not all that happy in your work life, where you’re just brutalizing your body every day, so why wouldn’t you pursue something that’s not only better for you, but that you’re quite good at?” That made sense to me. And, as I said, people had to keep telling me this for quite a while, and then I had to get into a position of thinking, Okay, my life is already changing dramatically in this divorce I’m going through, so I have the ability now to add this new path.
But I realized right away, as soon as I got into a workshop—my first workshop at Western Michigan was with Stu Dybek, and was in prose—that I needed to hand myself over to this, or it was not going to be a pleasant experience. I was going to be fighting it the whole time because I thought I already knew a lot about writing and who I am as a writer and what it means to write. It’s like what I expect from my students when they walk into my classroom: I know you’re all who you are, you’re all yourselves, but let’s make a bargain where you’ll hand yourselves over a little bit. You’ll give some faith and trust to me and this classroom. I had to do it with a lot more baggage behind me, but once I did it, I had a really amazing experience. That doesn’t mean I didn’t have moments where I had conflicts, but even those conflicts were about me caring. It wasn’t just some stupid exercise where if you do this for two or three years, just lollygag your way through it, then you’ll end up being a teacher. I just wasn’t going to do that. It wasn’t going to be productive for me or anybody else. And as I’ve maintained contact with those acquaintances and friends I made in the program, that’s all been confirmed for me. Some of my best and most meaningful friendships are with people who came out of that program, even though they were quite a bit younger than me. And now it’s been more than ten years, and I’ve watched them grow and become writers, have families, and make lives.
As I’ve been saying, you’ve got to treat your life as if it’s your life. You can’t put it on hold while you do some little task. You may say to yourself, My life is on hold till summer’s over and then I’ll do some thinking. But you can’t do that because over the course of the summer you realize, I still have to keep living. The rest of the world is still living and going on, I can’t just put things on hold. I’ve had to remind myself of that idea over and over again. You only get so many years. Your life is still happening whether you know it or not; it can be interesting and productive or just tedious.
TQ: You have a certain wariness regarding the exclusiveness, or isolation, of higher education. Did obtaining your MFA alter your perceptions or provide fresh insights into this world?
MT: When I landed in Chicago, I quickly became involved in the live literary scene that existed in the coffeehouses, bars, galleries, bookstores, and other street-level spaces around the city. That scene was created by and existed for those who felt unwelcome in the academic spaces where literature typically was housed. The live scene was a rejection, even, of that old system. Certainly, the Slam movement was a big Fuck You Too to the system that claimed dominion over poetry. The tower, the keyholders. There was little respect between these two, um, forces.
As I began doing readings, in the mid-1990s, at many universities, I often felt unwelcomed by anyone other than the person or persons who directly invited me and, of course, their students. I received plenty of openly hostile questions about my so-called credentials. The implication was that I didn’t belong, that I wasn’t in the club. One professor told me that he had fought against my being invited. Another asked me how I was able to publish without an academic resume. I was far too polite to both of them, though I asked one of them what they wrote about since they’d done nothing but go to school since kindergarten.
So, the academy was wary of me, as much as I was wary of it. But it’s much better now, in both directions. There is more crossover and acceptance, and even celebration of the diverse origins of today’s writers. Not perfect, but way better. When I stepped into my MFA program, I encountered the best and worst of my fears, but came out feeling quite good about the people I spent time with.
TQ: How would you describe your poetic voice?
MT: Since I write about my life, I think it’s my natural voice. Someone called my voice “experienced.” I’d rather not be slanted or vague. It’s already hard enough for us to understand each other. Whether it’s in personal or family relationships, school, or just trying to make your way from one end of Chicago to the other, you have to communicate with people all the time, and I have always had the best result when being direct. Often, I read poetry or stories that feel like they’re being oblique on purpose, and I find that art to be as unessential to my life as I find oblique people.
I grew up that way. Especially when you grow up with violence; violence is very direct. You don’t have to sit around trying to figure out violence. Poverty’s not real hard to interpret, either. And when you encounter things like bigotry, you hope it’s a foreign thing the first time you encounter it; you have to learn its language. After that, it becomes very obvious and direct.
TQ: How much weight do you give to readers’ expectations for, or ability to establish a connection with, your work? Is it something that plays a significant role in what you choose to produce and publish?
MT: I want the same thing from my writing that I want from my lover, my friends, when I walk through a museum and look at paintings, when I read your work or somebody else’s work: I want to be invaded in a good way. I want to be touched, I want to be affected, I want to be intruded upon.
I often feel like there are three layers to my typical poem. There’s a version that only I know—a poem that only I comprehend and understand. There’s another poem that maybe three or four people on the planet who know me, they see that poem. And then there’s another version that anybody who encounters it, I hope, can get something from it.
I think it’s helpful to write without concerns of how it’ll be received. But then you write and publish something, and then there’s a book, and you do readings, and people start having expectations of you. It’s great to have so-called fans or people who read your work. But you have to be careful that you’re not writing toward those expectations.
For me, in a way, backing off from publishing was like a little self-preservation kind of thing. After Exploding Chippewas I could’ve written Exploding Chippewas 2 and probably it would’ve been very successful, relatively speaking. But I resisted that impulse. I’ve heard the Mojave writer Natalie Diaz talk about the same thing. Her first book was so successful and admired by so many people that there was a lot of pressure to put out a second book and ride that wave. She’s so talented and skilled that she probably could’ve produced a really high-quality book. But why? She resisted that, which I think is important.
I’m lucky that I’m not in one of those positions where I have to produce for someone else’s satisfaction. But I am starting to feel some of that pressure. It’s not bad pressure, just from people saying, “I’d love to read another book by you. Don’t be selfish.”
TQ: What about the actual reading, the vocalization, of your writing? How crucial is that aspect to your self-conception of being a poet?
MT: It’s essential to me at, like, the organic or cellular level, and the only place I can trace it to is my early reservation years. When I was a kid, I vividly remember dancing to drum music. It was a regular thing. Also, people were constantly playing fiddles and guitars. It was live music.
From the beginning poetry was sung to me more than spoken. That led to storytellers. Even if it was just a bunch of slightly drunk aunties and uncles sitting around a table trading stories and barbs, there was a rhythm to it. If you were a kid sitting on the floor, playing at their feet, you were listening and absorbing. My father played guitar and sang. His presence was brief but his influence on me was long-lasting, so that has to be in there somewhere.
I also think that the way I write, the rhythm, the music, is influenced by the fact that I tend to write in my head or out loud rather than on the page, at least in the early stages. When I was hanging sheetrock in Chicago in the early 1990s—the same time I was visiting the poetry scene almost every night—I would be at my job and, just under my breath, writing poems. I would speak two or three lines and then stop, start over, speak those two or three lines, and add or remove a line. I think that has a lot to do with how the rhythm happens, because it’s very much connected to my natural way of breathing.
Louise Erdrich, with her big heart, gave me a blurb for my first book. She’d seen my work on the page but had never heard me read. Still, she described my work as “sound-vision,” so it must have been audible to her.
TQ: Would you say your blue-collar experience adds significant value to your writing?
MT: Well, it added flavor to my life, so I hope it has done the same for my art. I come from working folk, on both sides, so I’ve always attached a sense of honor to it as part of a lived life. Of course, I’m not saying that you have to have been a field hand or poured concrete in order to have lived an honorable life. I guess I’m trying to contrast that work experience with those who, essentially, did not have to start working at the age of thirteen, you know. A life of lifting and toting adds a certain depth to a person. Something is at stake in that life.
Congratulations, I guess, if you’ve never had to wait tables or dig a ditch, but I can’t imagine that life. I’m sure people who are in that lucky situation would disagree with me, but I value the sweat and toil, a life that’s a little more precarious, a little more unsure.
Do you have to have been a working person to make good art? No, but it shows. Do you have to have lived a tragic life to make good art? No, but it shows. Not everyone I know who has lived a tragic life later became an artist, but just about every artist who’s worth my attention has experienced something essential in their lives. Things have been at stake.
There’s also a bold reality about being a working person, someone who has to pay their rent and feed a family by using their body as a machine. I think it’s a certain kind of reality that you don’t get in other settings, like working in a cubicle. Those jobs might be taxing, and you feel tired at the end of the day, but it’s a whole different sort of tired. I don’t think there’s enough appreciation for a working background. I hope people sense it, and it shows up in my work. I hope it also keeps me humble. When I find myself complaining about teaching, I try to remind myself that it beats hanging sheetrock.
Jim Harrison, the great American writer, told me one time, after I won a fairly substantial money award for my writing, “Never forget where you come from, that you’re a working guy, because that’s the thing that will keep you from becoming the limp sack of shit that most writers are.” Jim was pretty practical, and that has stuck with me.
TQ: Is there anything you won’t write about?
MT: Before my mother passed away, there were things I knew I wanted to write about but couldn’t while she was still alive. When she passed, I found myself writing about some of that stuff I hadn’t let myself write about before.
People used to say to me, “How come you don’t write about your mother as much as your father?” And I would say, “Well, there’s just a lot more to write about with my father.” But it was also because he was distant, and I’d been pondering him since my beginnings.
When he passed away, I was already in a state of looking at my life and thinking, I need to change. I need to be more myself and really pursue what I’ve been avoiding—writing, or being an artist. I felt like, even though he was only in my life for a brief amount of time, he was pivotal to me making that leap. I mean, the influence was there forever. And then, it was my first real writing, even though I was a much older person by then. The first things you write about are your beginnings and origins, so even though I was in my mid-thirties, I had to start there. He is very much about my beginnings.
But with my mother, I’ve covered that part of my life, let’s say, without getting into a lot of detail about her. She’s in my work. You’re not reading carefully if you don’t see my mother in my work.
I’ve always had a tremendous amount of love and respect for my mother, even though I can list a lot of complaints about the life she made, or tried to make, for us. I’ve also tried to be aware that my story is also her story. It’s not because I didn’t want to reveal deep family secrets or something. They were also her stories, so who am I to presume, or own, this joint story as long as she’s still around and telling it? Then, someone smarter than me suggested that maybe the story really wasn’t complete, or finished, as long as she was alive. You might write a story about you and your mother going to the beach when you were a kid, and the story ends with you falling asleep in the car. That’s the end of that story, but it’s not the end of the story; your mother and you still have a lifetime together, so that story is just continued.
The older I’ve become, the more that idea has intensified. I feel it more strongly than ever. It also comes from being a Native person; I have an awareness of people telling my story, or the story of my people, who don’t really have a right or the authority or authenticity to tell it, so I try not to do that to other people. There’s been a tremendous amount of disrespect by the larger culture when they decide, “We’re going to write about whoever and whatever we want.” In a way, they take ownership of it. The larger story is that their writing often replaces our stories—the imagined story about Native people and experiences, which is the politest way I can put it, by some non-Native writer becomes the standard of what people assume is the story. Then, when Native people write their own stories, they seem inauthentic, or, more rightly, they tell a story that non-Natives don’t like.
TQ: The idea of shared stories, and the need to recognize, or even honor, the experiences and perspectives of all parties involved before presuming to share a particular narrative, is one that resonates. In regard to your mother—and of course this applies to all close and complex relationships—would you say the urge to succumb to nostalgia, or to avoid negative characteristics and events, plays a key role in the reluctance to publish, or take full ownership of, a shared story while the other owner is still alive?
MT: In a way, your living parent, who’s in your life every day, is so busy being your parent, that they’re not even as noticeable as your dead or missing parent—they become static in your memory. The story of my mother and me hadn’t finished yet, and it still hasn’t, even though she’s gone. But now I can look at it and measure it and think, I hope, objective things about it, make decisions and come to some conclusions about it.
The impulse is to be gentler when you look back, especially because I have a lot of respect for the fact that my mother, despite her failings, ultimately loved me and did her best. You don’t want to come off as disrespecting that. I guess the views, or the stories, that I’m telling in my work about me and my mother are probably more balanced. Obviously, I’m more mature—not that I wasn’t mature when I started writing and publishing in my mid-thirties, but it’s more studied. But you could call it cautious.
TQ: So you’re seeing your mother as more of a person, grey areas and all, as opposed to just a parent. It’s like attending someone’s funeral: the deceased could’ve been a terrible person with few redeeming qualities, but they’re going to be eulogized in way that tries to salvage the good in their lives.
MT: It’s perfect that you bring it to that place, because I was just going to say that watching your parent die changes everything you understood about that person. I experienced that with my mother, but not with my father. In a really precise way, it gives you no choice but to see them more as a person than a parent.
My mother passed away when she was ninety-four, and by that time, just about everybody she knew had gone as well, so there weren’t a lot of people who were able to come to her funeral. Old people sometimes can’t make it to each other’s funerals anyway, but there was this sadness about it: this woman who, over her life, had lots of friends had a sparsely attended funeral. It was in winter, so it was awful and cold, and there wasn’t a religious person who knew her and could talk about her, so they just had some random pastor eulogize her.
I thought, This guy has no idea of the person he’s talking about. I took advantage of the moment to say a little something of my own. Mostly it was about remembering that this was a person who never got a break. It was important for me to say that in front of people and to say that at her funeral. She got treated badly for most of her life and never really got a break, and it’s kind of not fair. But this whole thing about “In the arms of God, and Jesus and la la la . . .” No. Why didn’t God or Jesus insert themselves when she couldn’t pay rent or was being beaten by some man? Where was Jesus then? That griped me, so I stood up and said something about it.
TQ: As a Native American writer, a representative and voice of a marginalized community, what is your reaction to white writers’ insistence upon writing about unfamiliar topics?
MT: In general, there’s this idea that people hold pretty dearly to—that it’s fiction anyway, so why does it matter? “My novel is from my imagination. Why are you holding me to facts and details?” I understand that they come from that tradition, and it has been acceptable for a long, long time, but that’s because there’s been nobody who wanted to question it.
Let’s say somebody writes a story about the seamy underbelly of prostitution in New York City, and it becomes the book that people read to learn about that. Until some prostitute comes along and says, “It’s not like that at all.” But that person’s voice usually isn’t in the conversation; they’re not in those classrooms to question any of that stuff, and that’s part of the problem: a lot of the people who hold these beliefs have never had their beliefs questioned. I would say that that applies to every area of American art. Anyone who might question their authority was being excluded. That’s changing.
TQ: Why is this mindset so prevalent in American society?
MT: Until recently there was no one with a loud enough voice to suggest that appropriation was a bad idea. It’s formed in a colonialist mind-set. You know, “Wow! Look at that mountain! I want to carve the faces of my heroes onto that mountain.” They think it’s fine and it’s the way you do things, until somebody else goes, “Eh, some of us liked that mountain the way it was. You should leave that mountain alone.”
When they encounter that other point of view, they’re defensive about it. They reject it because they’re so used to having it their way. For me, this stuff is the crux of what is wrong with so-called American culture. Right now, our culture, in a lot of ways, is encountering the fruits of its really ugly history. I really believe that Trump and his way of looking at, and operating in, the world—what he’s trying to do to our country—are the results of the ugly roots of the seed that was planted. And until the people who need to—and they’re the ones who don’t want to—look at that and acknowledge it, nothing’s going to change.
TQ: Do you think those attitudes, specifically in the academic and literary communities, are changing?
MT: I don’t think it has changed enough, but I see signs that it can change. The people who thought a certain way years ago usually still think the same way. Those people haven’t just died off.
I’ve learned that there are some hard-set ways of looking at this stuff. For instance, the professor who years ago was pretty sure that anybody should be able to write about any damn thing they want to, well, she’s still that way. She doesn’t believe in the author, let alone authority.
Students in my classroom today are far more open to the ideas that I’m sharing than when I started at DePaul in 2009. I think a lot of it has to do with what has happened, in a larger sense, in our culture. People are far more accepting of the idea that there are other ways of thinking. Usually when I say to a roomful of students, “Columbus didn’t discover America,” they all know what I’m talking about. But unbelievably, there was a time when I could say that to a roomful of students, or even adults, and most of them would be aghast. It wasn’t that long ago. And then you go back another ten years and it was a hundred percent of the people in the room. Now, some states are replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day
More than ever, my students are open to the idea that people who aren’t from a certain culture or group shouldn’t be trying to express things for that culture or group. Mostly, it’s because people are more able than ever to be themselves. Once diverse people infiltrate the tower, it starts changing the tower.
TQ: Even as a person with a diverse background, have you been forced to reevaluate your own societal preconceptions?
MT: When I left my dinky little town where I went to high school, I felt like I was pretty aware, pretty open, not prone to a lot of bias and prejudice. And it was true, in that setting. In that setting I was the most liberal-progressive-socialist-crazy person that there was. But then I moved on to that college that I went to, and I met people who had to pry open my mind.
I was behind when it came to feminist thinking. A young woman I was befriending told me to stop referring to her as a “chick.” I automatically did that dance, you know, where you swear you don’t mean anything bad by it, blah blah. She said, “I don’t care, just stop it.” So, I stopped. It was easy, really.
It’s amazing how much that can accomplish, to just let go of your own stupid idea. But I also was a person who was used to having my own way of looking at things questioned or labeled as wrong, so I was more open to it. Maybe if I came from a culture or background in which I was used to me, my parents, and everybody else in my life being right all the time, and the proof that they were right was that they owned everything, and everyone agreed with them, and they had created the American Dream we were all striving for, then maybe I wouldn’t be so open. Maybe I’d say, “No, I’m sorry. I’m going to keep saying ‘chick.’ I don’t mean what you think I mean by it, so just get over it.” I guess we call that entitlement.
TQ: Is there a reason why you haven’t published anything since Exploding Chippewas in 2002?
MT: Books? A large part of it had to do with personal stuff. I was deeply involved in trying to resurrect myself, scrambling to remake myself after my marriage ended. I’ve been writing for much of that time, writing books, but I haven’t felt any call to publish anything. Plus, publishing has changed in bad ways. I haven’t wanted to be part of it.
Still, I enjoy it when my students or former students publish. It seems more natural. I encourage them to work toward it. Avoid the idea that everything you write is worthy of publication, but instead think of publication as the product of good work.
I consider myself an active writer, though. I’m accepting more invitations to read, and I try to attend the readings of other writers. I try to be a good example of that with my students. It doesn’t do much good to urge them to get out and encounter writers, if they don’t see you there. You have to demonstrate that it has value.
TQ: Are you close to publishing new material?
MT: I’m probably closer than I’ve been in a long time. I’ve been trying to find excuses not to publish, and my friends are like, “Uh, publish the books, dumbass. You know you might get hit by a bus tomorrow,” which is true. Again, I don’t feel a driving need to publish every damn thing I write. I’ve never liked that idea. I don’t sit down to write something with the idea that I’m writing this to send to a magazine. But I also feel like I write books. So even if it’s a book that’s never published, I’m still writing toward a book, not toward a poem or a story. I have a larger idea in mind with everything I write.
I’ve been doing an experiment where I’ve been accepting readings, like, local, unpaid readings, mostly as an exercise for myself, playing with stuff I’ve written to see how it sounds out loud. Part of what I read at a reading recently was stuff I think of not as poetry, but as prose. But when I read it, people thought it was poetry. I like that idea. That makes me want to publish a new book.