2011 Introduction by Mark Turcotte


WRITER, POET, PROFESSOR. Mark Turcotte implores his students to show him “what is at stake” in their stories and poems. This year’s student writing competition winners do so beautifully—and with necessary urgency. Photo by Steve Greiner

I was pleased when Laura Paskus, interim editor at Tribal College Journal, contacted me to ask if I’d be willing to be part of the annual Student Edition of the magazine, featuring its writing competition. I was especially pleased to know that I wasn’t being asked to judge the contest but instead to read the selections and write an introduction. Of course I had to accept. I mean, what a lovely position in which to find myself—the opportunity to read and contemplate the work of Native student writers from all over the country, without the heavy chore of having to make nearly impossible comparisons and decisions about their merit.

As I read the top three choices—as well as the selections for honorable mention—in fiction, poetry, and memoir, I was immediately struck with the sense of urgency I encountered.

Many of them open with that urgency. Anna Nelson’s poem begins with an expansion of its title, “Nights ‘round here devour us and by dawn we are dead,” and Darcy Medicine Horse plunges us into the poem, Reservation Guide, with, “Dig, dig, dig into these brown, Native eyes/and peel away your perception of me/your lies.” By contrast, Claudell Martin Tacheene lulls the reader into his poem, The Place Where White Skies Are Formed, with somewhat dreamy lines of snowy memory before quickening the pulse with, “little boy, he told me his inebriated father once threw him out into the freezing snow.” The poem continues this way, lulling and jolting.

No matter the path, each of these gratify me both as a teacher of creative writing and as a reader who, ultimately, wants a story or poem to invade my personal space. Time and time again I ask my student writers not only to portray a moment but to explore the ramifications and results of that moment. I implore them to show me what is at stake in their stories and poems.

As a reader, I often find myself quite sated by the craft and the language, the imaginatively drawn characters and places, the lines packed with cleverosity, but I’m just as often left with a pang that tells me something is missing. The missing thing, of course, is the intensity that happens when something is at stake. Too many times I finish a reading session without feeling as though my space has been invaded. Instead, I feel like I’ve just read an instruction manual, or a description made from a great distance. My friend, not a teacher but an avid reader, calls it the “So-What-Moment.”

“It’s that bleak moment,” she has told me, “at the end of a piece, when I realize that I am entirely untouched by what I’ve just read. Washing my hair could’ve been more experiential.”

The student prose here sometimes opens at high speed. “Soch’s body had long been shattered,” begins Brandon LaMere’s The Reunion. Mary Flatmouth opens her memoir piece, A Crystal Clear Dream, with the image of “white powder stuck to the walls of the little plastic baggie.” Likewise, the first sentence of Pollen Road of Life, by Brian Sloan, contains the words pounding, anguish, blurry, and distorted, instantly defying the tone of the title.

“It all amounts to urgency,” proclaims a writing instructor I know and admire. “When something is at stake for the people in the story, then something is at stake for the reader. The urgency, which can be delivered in many different ways, is there. It’s charged.”

Most of the writing by these Native students is charged. It has urgency. So I have to wonder if there is something about Native writing that allows for the creation of this sort of urgency and charge. Is there something special about these relatively new Native writers that puts them in touch with the ability to make something at stake in their poems and stories?

There’s a certain part of me that wants to think that we have an extra bone, or something, that infuses our writing with that deeply charged quality that I often find missing in the work of others. Of course, that’s ridiculous.

It’s the extra eye that does it. And the extra eye might belong to just about anyone who decides they need to write poems or stories. No matter who you are or where you’re from, if you have the extra eye, then you are going to write with that extra oomph. But, how do you get that extra eye?

A writing instructor I admire says it’s about the way the writer has lived their life or, perhaps more rightly and in Elder speak—how their life has lived them. If the writer has lived a genuinely intense life, it shows up in the stories. If they have lived a life in which something is at stake, it shows up in the poems.

So, the intensely lived life, the life in which things are at stake, gives some of us an extra eye—surely, not everyone who has lived intensely becomes a writer—and that extra eye helps us include that living in our work. Fair enough. I’ll go with that, for now.

The thing that matters most is that these student writers, each in their own way and level of development, have some urgency, some oomph, and they have very nicely invaded my space.

Mark Turcotte (Turtle Mountain Ojibwe) is author of four poetry collections, including The Feathered Heart and Exploding Chippewas. His work has appeared in many literary journals, including POETRY, Hunger Mountain, Kenyon Review, and Ploughshares. He is Visiting Assistant Professor in Creative Writing at DePaul University.

Introduction By Mark Turcotte
Reservation Guide By Darcy Medicine Horse
Nights ‘Round Here Devour Us By A.M. Nelson
The Place Where White Skies Are Formed By Claudell Martin Tacheene
Trial Day By Manih Boyd
The Reunion By Brandon LaMere
Pamatesēw By Racquel Boyd
A Crystal Clear Dream By Mary Flatmouth
Pollen Road of Life By Brian Sloan
Homecoming By Tamsen Star O’Berry
Ancestors’ Revenge By Tricia Fields
The 200 MPH Unicorn By Steven Jared Whitfield
Sometimes Mountains Need to Cry By Donna Hall
The Five Short Loves By Darcy Medicine Horse
Son By Claudell Martin Tacheene
Why? By Todd Brier
A Rude Awakening? By Steven Asay
Maki’s Plan By Brandon LaMere
Love For An Alcoholic By Kim Dickson
Motherless Intuition By Rosanda Platero
Never Give Up By Zachary Long
The Fight By Staci Ann Kaye

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