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A Chat With Joseph Bruchac

Joseph Bruchac's picture
Date:Jan 10, 2001
Topic:Poetry: The heartbeat knows no borders
Duration:One hour

It is said, it is simple to be happy but difficult to be simple. Joseph Bruchac is a person who knows how to be simple. "The central themes in my work are simple ones - that we have to listen to each other and to the earth, that we have to respect each other and the earth, that we never know anyone until we know what they have in their heart," he adds. He blends unique talents in poetry, prose, and storytelling into a brew that is loved by everyone - from eight-years to eighty-years old. Author of more than 30 books, he runs Greenfield Review Press with his family members.

Transcript of the Chat

Anu Garg (Moderator)
Welcome to the second online chat at Wordsmith! Our guest today is Joseph Bruchac, poet, novelist, story-teller, and publisher. His latest book is a collection of poetry, titled No Borders. He is joining us from New York.

Welcome, Joe!

Joseph Bruchac (Guest Speaker)
Thank you. I'm pleased to be part of this chat. But you'll have to bear with me because I'm (even in this electronic age) a two-finger typist!

ruthie -usa
Have you written any poetry lately?

Joseph Bruchac (Guest Speaker)
Ruthie...yes, indeed I have. I spend almost every morning when I am home writing and I generally am working on new poetry several times a week.

Jean - USA
How can we get more people interested in reading and discussing poetry? Particularly Baby Boomers who seem to have slept through poetry classes and don't see a need to learn anything about it.

Joseph Bruchac (Guest Speaker)
Jean, that's a good question. For more than 30 years now I've worked with Poetry in the Schools programs, encouraging children to express themselves through poetry and to find that creative center which is within everyone. My own approach has always been to work with young people, to help inculcate a love of poetry and a respect for their own abilities to understand and even compose.

Walt Conrad -USA
I have been a chemistry prof, but took poetry as an undergraduate, and have loved it for the next 60 years. I was impressed from the beginning by E. A. Robinson. What do you think of him?

Joseph Bruchac (Guest Speaker)
Walt, I would agree with Arnold on a number of things (though I tend to be much more of a spiritual optimist, never having felt 1/2 dead and the other 1/2 powerless to be born). I think that great poetry often enables us to see things, experience things, in new and surprising ways. However, it also points us in the direction of seeing the everyday which we might otherwise ignore. . .

I glanced through your biographical story in Bowman's Store. What philosophy of life would you recommend to youngsters today? Do you see any role for poetry in this busy world?

Joseph Bruchac (Guest Speaker)
Continuing my answer to Jean. . .and adding on SG's concerns, it goes further than than just working with kids. We have an overall culture in the United States that devalues the spirit and celebrates the surface. I think that all of us need to try to be kinder and more open, that small acts of kindness open the doors of the spirit and connect us to a deep reservoir of energy--an energy often expressed within poetry.

Bryan- USA
How do you deal with criticism? I took part in a poetry slam and was, well, slammed... I took it very personally and didn't handle it very well

Joseph Bruchac (Guest Speaker)
How do I deal with criticism? I think that most people (me included) tend to hear criticism louder than we hear praise. So I try to hear, to really hear, the good things. Then I carefully consider the criticism. If it is useful, I try to use it to grow. If not, I let it go.

For someone who does not have any poetry reading experience, where do you suggest one should begin ?

Joseph Bruchac (Guest Speaker)
kredit. . .I envy you. One of the highest states (according to a Zen master friend of mine) is that called "Beginner's Mind," when everything is being encountered for the first time. It seems that you can start there with poetry as one new to reading poems. Where to begin? Let me think and make a little list of some directions you can take, but there are so MANY roads. . .

Before I got further, let me apologize for all the typos. The box I am answering in was made for haiku. After the third line I can no longer see what I'm typing.

Back to kredit. . . I'd recommend a couple of places to start. One is to buy an anthology of contemporary poetry (of which there are many). If it has folks such as Robert Bly, Gary Snyder, Denise Levertov, Adrienne Rich, James Wright, William Stafford (who was a dear friend and is one of my favorites) then it is okay

Then also pick up an anthology of "modern" poetry, (which means that it is mostly 20th century and mostly people who are dead). THEN, pick up a collection of "multi-cultural poetry," where you'll find some of the liveliest and most exciting voices, then get a collection of "world poetry" (because even in poetry there are many schools) See who you like in all that jumble and then start reading more by them. Don't expect to like everything and just take it a poem at a time... good luck!

Hello I am a reading teacher and admire your children's books greatly, Joseph.

Bhargava 1
Is it possible to change this culture which devalues the spirit and celebrates the surface when goodness and kindness are supposed to be not practical and ruthlessness is the order of the day

Joseph Bruchac (Guest Speaker)
Oops, just lost everything that was on the screen!

To respond to an earlier question about the cruelty of contemporary culture, I think that we have to look first to ourselves, to do our best. Then we look to our families and our friends and our close circle. We move outward in those circles ring by ring, like the rings made by a pebble dropped into the water. . .

But if we look first at the vastness of the ocean around us, we may lose hope and see no purpose in our small strivings, our little lives. Yet everything is there in that first small circle, and the ripples made by the small pebble may touch some very distant shores.

Walt Conrad -USA
What magazines do you recommend for a person who loves poetry. Is the Saturday Review still a viable entity?

Joseph Bruchac (Guest Speaker)
Walt, I have to say I'm not a reader of the Saturday Review. Insofar as magazines that are well circulated, I always find good poems in THE ATLANTIC and THE NEW YORKER (but I tend to read them in the doctor's office). Small literary magazines are the best place to find good new poems, magazines such as EPOCH, THE PARIS REVIEW, CALLALOO (wonderful "ethnic" poetry) but the list is to long. Look into a copy of a directory of presses and magazines such as Poet's Market (from Writer's Digest) or The International Directory of Little Magazines and Small Presses (from Dustbooks) or the CLMP Directory of Literary Magazines.

ruthie -usa
What would a person do if they wanted to start to write poetry?

Joseph Bruchac (Guest Speaker)
Ruthie, if you are just getting started writing poetry there are only two things that you need to do. One is to read lost of poetry, poems of all kinds, new and old, modern and ancient, in translation, in English. Two is to write. If you want to write poetry, start trying to write poems. . .

Joseph Bruchac (Guest Speaker)
I meant, of course, read "lots" of poetry. But it isn't a bad idea to get lost in poetry, either.

Cami Buster-Vermont
Joe, how do you choose what stories you will tell?

Joseph Bruchac (Guest Speaker)
Cami. . . how do I choose the stories that I tell as a storyteller (and, often, as a poet since I love narrative poetry and poems that tell stories)? Welllll. . .

I have to admit that often the stories seem to choose me. When I sit down to write, I often don't know what I'm going to write until I do it. I just put down words, listen for a voice, and see where it takes me. . .

The same thing is true when I do storytelling programs, I just stand up and listen, listen for whatever story comes to me. Of course I say this after decades of writing and storytelling--and more importantly, of reading poems and having stories told to me.

Sean - USA
Joe, our twins are not quite two. Would you recommend Between Earth and Sky : Legends of Native American Sacred Places for a bedtime story book? Do you have some other suggestions too?

Joseph Bruchac (Guest Speaker)
Sean, I would recommend that little book of mine (and Thomas Locker's--Thomas illustrated our book and he is one of America's finest landscape painters and his illustrations are full of illumination--in every sense of that word) for two year olds or ninety-two year olds. People are never too old or too young for poetry and for the sacred.

But I also recommend people to read to their children before they are born. I know a good many mothers-to-be who read and aloud to their children and swear to me that they know their child is responding. You can find a list of my books on-line at nativeauthors.com and I think any of the picture books I've done would be appropriate. Two others done with Thomas are The Earth Under Sky-Bear's Feet and Thirteen Moons on Turtle's Back, both are books of poetry like Between Earth and Sky. I could recommend many other writers for kids. But there are so many. One great children's publisher I'd like to call everyone's attention to is Lee & Low Books. They do wonderful multi-cultural books for kids.

Anu Garg (Moderator)
It is interesting that you mentioned this, Joe. In Indian (as in India's) mythology, Abhimanyu learnt the art of war while he was in his mother's womb and his father narrated war tactics to his mother.

Joseph Bruchac (Guest Speaker)
Anu, good point. There is a truly ancient understanding about that in many cultures. It is commonly said among Native Americans that the first music the child hears is the heartbeat of the mother. It is our first poetry, our first song.

Anu Garg (Moderator)
I just received this in email from a linguaphile in Poland:
"I am sorry, but I cannot enter the chat with the author which was translated and published in Poland, and whose words are always my escape from the hatred and brutality of day-to-day life. He is right that we see the same sky and touch the same earth by our feet everywhere, and that our imagination can see the same beautiful story despite different languages used by Abenaki, American or Polish people. I do not know why I couldn't meet you. I cry."
Marek Nowocien, "Tawacin" editor, Poland

Joseph Bruchac (Guest Speaker)
Marek, my friend, thank you for your words. You know, there are borders on human maps, but there are no such borders on the earth. The hawk in flight does not see national boundaries and the heartbeat is the same in all of our breasts.

How many revisions of a poem do you do? I often find the entire poem comes out at one time.

Joseph Bruchac (Guest Speaker)
In terms of writing and revision, I have to admit that I am only a good writer. But I think I am a VERY GOOD rewriter. I revise everything I write many times. I read it aloud and listen to my own words. It is true of many of the best poets. I remember sitting behind my friend Galway Kinnell (one of the great modern poets) . . . (one of the truly great modern American poets) as he gave a reading. I could see the poem he was reading over his shoulder. He had a pencil in his hand and was making revisions as he was reading it!

When teaching about Native Americans, what do you think teachers should emphasize? Please consider this question in light of the fact that Native Americans have been negatively portrayed and stereotyped in books, magazines, films, etc.

Joseph Bruchac (Guest Speaker)
Lynn, I'd urge teachers to emphasize the fact that Native Americans/American Indians are people, not cultural icons or cliches. They are not just in the past, but in the present day. And I'd urge them to read the work of contemporary Native Americans. I recommend the book Through Indian Eyes (Oyate Books, edited by Doris Seale and Beverly Slapin).

We are talking a lot about poetry, but what is the best way to develop short stories and get published?

Joseph Bruchac (Guest Speaker)
Short stories are a form that I truly love to work in. I've found, as with poetry, that reading the work of masters of the form (Chekhov, Grace Paley, Leslie Silko) is always helpful to give you a feel for the form. Listen to people talking. Good dialogue is a gift in a story. Keep a journal and write down things you hear. Getting published is not what you should think of first. First think of learning the form and working in it.

Anu Garg (Moderator)
That was our last question for today. Thanks to all who participated, and asked questions, even if we couldn't field your questions due to limited time.

Thank you, Joe Bruchac, for being our guest at Wordsmith.org, and thank you to all the linguaphiles for joining in.

Joseph Bruchac (Guest Speaker)
My apologies if I haven't done the best job of answering. I can't type fast enough and there were such good, thoughtful questions. Let me end by urging everyone to keep listening, listen to the voices of others, listen to the sounds of nature around us, and listen to your heart. Everything is there. Wlipamkaani, nidobak. Travel well, travel a good road, my friends.,

V Black - USA
Thank you, Anu.

haha US
I am new to the computer generation and this is the first "chat" room I have been in for more than two minutes and have enjoyed it very much. Thanks for the questions from all of you and your answers, Mr. Bruchac Haha

ruthie -usa
Thank you very much, I have enjoyed this chat very much!

Marie in NC
Green blessings, sent your way.

Mike C...Canada
Most interesting. Thanks

Jean - United States
Very interesting - thank you

Jean - USA
Very interesting - thank you for your time!

Bryan- USA
Thank you, Joseph. good night

Anu Garg (Moderator)
Our next guests are Princeton University professor Robert Hollander and his wife Jean Hollander. Their new translation of Dante's Inferno was released last month. This chat takes place on Jan 16, 2001, 1 AM GMT (8 PM EST US) at https://wordsmith.org/chat/hollanders.html. We hope to see you all there.

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