Poet, writer, and artist Layli Long Soldier is a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation. Long Soldier’s book of poems, Whereas, was published by Graywolf Press in 2017, and received the PEN Jean Stein Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Whereas was also a finalist for the 2017 National Book Award. Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA), Long Soldier is the recipient of a Whiting Award, a Lannan Literary Award, and a National Artist Fellowship from the Native Arts and Culture Foundation. Long Soldier holds a BFA in Creative Writing from IAIA and an MFA with Honors from Bard College.
Members of the Santa Fe Literary Review staff were honored to interview Long Soldier by phone on December 6, 2019.
SFLR Staff: To begin, please tell us a bit about the work you’re making now. What are you focusing on these days?
Long Soldier: I have several groups of poems that I’m working on at once that relate to different themes, but in some way they’re all connected by the idea of love. I know that’s really corny or cliché, but it’s what I’m doing. I have a set of what I call star quilt poems, which came out of an exhibit of visual art, using a pattern to make a star quilt, except I expanded that pattern so it’s about twelve feet high by twelve feet wide. I made two star quilts, and there are about eight poems in each quilt, so right now I’m editing and revising those pieces. It’s about sixteen in total. Then I have a group of poems that came out of an exhibit in Canada on the subject of grief, and so I’m sort of working with some of the submissions from that. Lastly, I’m just writing some love poems in general, which is kind of embarrassing – it’s embarrassing, but it’s necessary.
When did you realize that writing was something you needed to do? What fueled you, and who encouraged you?
My “decision to write” was a actually a very practical decision. I had come to a place in life where I needed to finish my education; I just couldn’t continue working minimum wage jobs or doing things that were sort of unsatisfying, not fulfilling a sense of purpose. There were a number of things going on, and it was both economic as well as for personal satisfaction. So I went back to college, this was later in life, and I was a returning student. I wanted to go into the arts, but I wasn’t sure what to do, so I chose the writing program at the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA), but I can’t necessarily say I had my sights on being a writer as a young person. It came down to a very practical matter. But when I started studying writing, I was surprised to find that I had skills and abilities I didn’t know I had before studying and discussing things and reading the way that we did at IAIA. It was really also the faculty and the environment there at IAIA that helped me to sort of turn my life around.
How important is publication to your identity as a poet? What benefits has publication brought to your career – and what challenges has it posed? We formulated this question because a lot of people, especially young writers, feel like they aren’t real writers until they’ve gotten published, and it seems like sometimes people make that a priority rather than the process or anything about self-discovery. How did publication change you as a writer – or how did it help you? How important is it to you?
First of all with publication, it’s important in the sense that you’re able to share your work with others, so your poems aren’t sitting locked up inside your laptop for eternity. It gives you an opportunity to share with others through journals, through magazines, or even in book form. But I certainly don’t think that publication makes you a poet, if that makes sense. I have, for example, friends who have not published their first books yet, and sometimes I think they hold the publication of a book as a marker of validation for who they are in the world as poets or as artists. I think that whether you have a book out or not, whether you have any poems published in journals or not, you’re still an artist and you’re still a writer. There are many, many, many ways to participate in the world around you creatively that have nothing to do with publication. So, I think that we cannot rely on publication to validate us – I think that’s a dangerous place to be. It’s really more about process and interaction and connection with others, at least for me, that has made me feel like I have a place in this world.
In your poetry collection, Whereas, the reader encounters crossed-out lines, boxed in text, and poems as shapes. We want to know how you decide what form and shape your poems will take. How does your use of typography inform your work?
My first feeling is that poets are also visual artists, and we sometimes forget that, but we are working with a whole field, or a whole canvas in front of us – the page. I think that we have to take into account the shape, and the visuals of our piece as well, and be as attentive and bold and joyful in the use of that space as we are with language, because I know this for sure: shape communicates. I think we all know that, right? Shape communicates before we even encounter any of the words or the text. For example, you can be flipping through a book, and you just stop on a certain page just because of the way it looks, because it’s an invitation, or you think, “Oh wow, this looks interesting,” or it grabs your attention. That is something I take into account when I’m writing as well. I want the visual effect, and I want the shape to be as inviting as the language itself.
Writers are sound artists too, and sometimes we’re really attuned to that, but sometimes we forget, so we need little reminders – Hey, you have sound available to you as well, to create feeling, to heighten emotion in your piece. It’s like we’re kind of driving these cars, the poem or the story that were working on, and we have all these things – we’re shifting the gear, we’re putting our foot on the gas pedal, we’re using the steering wheel – those are all the aspects of writing besides just language. We’re kind of utilizing to get where we’re going. We’re utilizing sound and the visual space on the page, and so on. It’s good to keep that in mind.
Please tell us a little bit about who – or what – inspires you to write and produce.
To be quite honest, lately I’m realizing more and more that art and writing and making things often comes out of a place of trying to climb outside of myself. I am trying to shake off an old skin, if you will, and there’s nothing else I can do about present conditions or situations or difficulties or questions that I have, except to write my way out of it. That is one way that writing and art functions for me, and that is what motivates me to write. The other thing is community, so working with others, collaborating with other artists, or simply being involved with different events. That human connection is the other motivator. It’s enjoyable. It’s a beautiful life, interacting with other artists, thinking together and resolving things together. I have those two things: the inner world and the outer world at work in what I do.
Might you describe an obstacle, or set of obstacles, you’ve faced in your writing career? How did you work with or through those obstacles?
When my book, Whereas, was published, I feel like I went from relative obscurity to a kind of level of demand that I was not used to, and it may sound ridiculous, but that was actually really hard. It was a very difficult learning curve I had to deal with. The poems in Whereas were written from a place of being nobody, and I don’t mean that in the sense of self-esteem or self-worth – it’s not like I thought that I was nobody – but in terms of visibility and being known as an artist, I really was not anyone important. For that reason, I think that was very healthy for the work that I was writing in Whereas. I think those poems came from a place of having nothing to lose, you know? And I think that was important to a kind of truthfulness and candor in that work. So after Whereas came out, I really had to adjust, and I have actually been working hard to slip back into my own kind of obscurity and a quiet place. I have found that that’s really essential to being able to write from a centered place.