ojan Louis (Diné) is a force. He is a poet, fiction writer, essayist, and Poetry Editor for RED INK: An International Journal of Indigenous Literature, Arts, & Humanities, as well as an instructor at Arizona State University’s Downtown Campus, a musician, and a former electrician. His first book of poetry, Currents (BkMk Press, 2017), speaks to all aspects of Bojan’s multifaceted life, and his poems ignite, question, and resonate with a voice that is steeped in Spanish, Diné, and English tones. Bojan's poems exceed the expectations of their rural and reservation background while singing to an audience that understands the power of faith and word, and they bring to light injustice to Indigenous communities and the environment. Bojan’s poetry is a testament to the power of voice, of language, and of story. Recently, the Fugue staff had the opportunity to ask Bojan questions about his work, and his answers were as insightful, eloquent, and powerful as the poems themselves.
—CMarie Fuhrman, Assistant Poetry Editor.
FUGUE: We'd love to know more about the similarities between writing and working a blue-collar job (specifically, being an electrician). Or differences, if you consider them massively different.
BOJAN LOUIS: I think that they’re different, but not without their similarities. Both require long hours and, if you’re not a hack or simply in it to get paid, attention to detail and craftsmanship. You have to be mentally prepared, or aware that you’ll work through the weekend when you hoped to be done Thursday evening. Electrical work has definitive standards and codes to follow. Writing does as well, but they can be broken, reimagined, because no one will get seriously injured or killed. You can’t burn down a house with a faulty, shitty poem or story, though you might want to after reading one. When I worked full-time as an electrician I saw a poetics in the process and design of what I did in order to get through the long hours, the racism and vitriol surrounding me. Now that I’m a full-time Instructor of Composition, I do side jobs to feel like I actually exist in the world, to feel the motions of my body. Also, it takes years and years to “master” both. If memory serves me correctly, an electrician is considered a master electrician after twenty-five years and perhaps a test. In regards to literature, that aspect is more abstract and mired in judgment and jealousy. With literature, the possibilities seem endless—with a trade one can easily realize limitation and repetitiveness.
F: What are your thoughts on language and repetition to get at description—using words from several languages to describe what might appear to be the same thing? One example of this can be found in your poem "The Nature of Mortal Illness," where "tierra" and "nahasdzáán" are used in close succession. A similar move in that same poem uses forward slashes to provide different angles of description:
The earth and its things:
medicinal/panacea/antipsychotic whatever the fuck,
How are these techniques related, and what do different words (from different languages or the same) offer that others don't? Are these moves attempting to suggest a struggle for meaning, or is it simply that sometimes more than one word is required for completeness of description?
BL: Language can define, inform, and divide how we view ourselves and how others view us. I’m from and live in the Southwest. There are a vast amount of Indigenous languages here. Long before Spanish or English. There’s been a long standing fear and hatred for Indigenous languages, and Spanish even—any language not English. For me, nahasdzáán is a consciousness of existence, though its meaning can be a diluted translation to earth, or even Mother Earth. It’s not simply a place, and certainly not an appropriated and white-washed term like Mother Earth. It is a place of existing with which one might want to seek balance. Tierra is in reference to the Spanish influence on this land, both in the colonial aspect and that of it being the colonial language of the Indigenous Peoples of the South, as well as North, American continent. Earth, of course, is earth, the reference to the thing. The line: “The earth and its things:/ medicinal/panacea/antipsychotic” is a move, as you say, intended to conjure the Western ideal of medicine and its blind faith in pharmaceuticals, and its treatment of indigenous plants as narcotic or illicit. I’d rather trip-out a little on, say, mushrooms that will cleanse your liver and reduce your anxiety than take a pill that may cause rectal leakage, internal bleeding, or death. But then again living causes death.
F: Could you talk a bit about your process for constructing a collection of poems (i.e. the work, or approach to the work, that happens after the poems as individual pieces are considered "ready" to go into a single volume, and/or how you study the conversations happening between them)?
BL: This was the most difficult aspect of “making” the book. The poems themselves were difficult, and there are many that didn’t survive being discarded or forgotten in boxes. I didn’t receive my MFA in poetry, and I think a large portion of that experience is the focus on organizing a collection, which I certainly studied for short fiction in the academic sense. Currents underwent many transformations and mutations. I suppose I had difficulty envisioning and doing the work of organization since my inherent notion was to construct a type of narrative while also fighting against that. In early drafts of the collection, I chunked poems together in regards to themes. I hadn’t realized the chorus occurring in the collection—the movements, so to say. I think organizing the poems felt something akin to following Julio Cortázar’s alternate reading instructions for his novel Hopscotch. I imagine I was a bit naïve—perhaps I still am. It took a lot of consideration and help. The most significant feedback from my editor and the comments from the readers was on organization. There was a clear suggestion of what should begin and end the collection, though the rest was left up to me. It took about a year after the manuscript was accepted to reorganize the collection to its present form.
F: How does writing in multiple genres influence your work. Does writing an essay or creative nonfiction piece help influence a later poem or fiction piece, and vice versa? If so, how? Or does writing in multiple genres simply allow you to write more and explore different topics?
BL: At this point in my writing life, each genre has its own place and purpose. I know what type of poetics I want to write with—often playing with forms and deep imagism, avoiding the confessional when I can, and crafting a voice or persona within each poem. Short fiction is psychology and description, a narrative aimed at encompassing a world through a moment or instances. The novel, of course, is a world—a better conduit of creation and destruction, innocence and apocalypse. I’m currently at work on a novel, but really, it’s at work on me. Creative nonfiction terrifies me, as it allows bends in truth because memory is so unreliable and faulty. There’s a resemblance of a mask to write behind. Also, it’s like knowing Slayer’s “Raining Blood” is in E minor, and then you throw it down in a major key, and you get power metal. Then again, I dig power metal.
F: Considering your use of different languages (English, Navajo, Spanish), what are the functions of these languages in your poetry? Assuming much of your audience can’t fluently read all three, do you consider the use of all three as a way to assert your heritage into a desperately unilingual American audience? Or are you addressing a bi- or multilingual audience?
BL: The function is the future. Maybe not of language in its entirety, but certainly a prefiguring of my future. I dream of my child or children being trilingual, though the procreation aspect should probably happen first. For that to occur, I need to have my language game on lockdown. I’m writing to address my future offspring and to remind myself that this multilingual reality is possible no matter how incredibly impossible it feels. Those aspects of my poetics are for me and not any audience, aside from my ethereal brood.
F: In your book, Currents, you leave the last few pages in the back to talk about the impetus for your poems, which seems like a thoughtful and interesting move—and rare, too, though it's often seen inside CD jackets. Can you talk a little bit about this choice, and how (if you know) it has been received?
BL: I don’t know if I ever had the inclination to include a notes section when I first completed a draft of the collection. I did, however, consider footnotes, or something like them, but ultimately found them messy. I was urged by my editor and readers to incorporate this and felt no immediate aversion to it. I appreciate how you liken it to CD jackets, but I also think of LP design. There is so much (the art, the inserts) that can go into that book-like format some albums have. The Notes are an additional story, a poem that revolves around the “guts” of the collection. Sometimes aspects, words, ideologies, ways of knowing, and impetus need their own moment(s) aside from the form of the poems themselves. I give them there. As far as I know, people have been digging the Notes, and I’m pleased with that. I didn’t want them to be willy-nilly, but more of a lyrical essay.
BOJAN LOUIS (Diné) is a poet, fiction writer, essayist, and Poetry Editor for RED INK: An International Journal of Indigenous Literature, Arts, & Humanities. He teaches various composition courses at Arizona State University’s Downtown Campus. His first poetry collection is Currents (BkMk Press 2017).