New Navajo Nation Poet Laureate

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Arizona State University English professor Laura Tohe has been named the new poet laureate of the Navajo Nation at an official ceremony in Crownpoint, New Mexico. Tohe will discuss her new post and her work.

TED SIMONS: ASU English professor Laura Tohe was recently named the new poet laureate of the Navajo nation at an official ceremony in Crownpoint, New Mexico. Here now to discuss her new post and her work is Laura Tohe. Welcome to "Arizona Horizon."

LAURA TOHE: Thank you for having me.

TED SIMONS: Congratulations. What exactly does a poet laureate do?

LAURA TOHE: That's a good question that a lot of people have asked me. I looked it up online just to make sure I would have an answer. The poet laureate actually goes back to the Greek civilizations who gave this honor, this laureate status to its athletes who excelled, also to the people who excelled in science and the arts. And the Navajo nation took this and made it part of our culture so that the poet laureate and I am the second one, is being recognized for our work in the arts, in literature and in my work, specifically, in poetry and in writing.

TED SIMONS: How can your position help further Navajo culture?

LAURA TOHE: Well, one of the duties of the Navajo nation poet laureate is to promote pride and respect for the Navajo people, for the language, for the culture and to promote literacy in Navajo and English. We also feel that we should promote self-esteem among the Navajo youth which is very important. We also want to promote an appreciation for the Navajo poets and authors who are Navajo. One of the ironic things about the youth of today is that very few know of Navajo poets and writers. That are writing and publishing, some are winning awards and are being nationally recognized. So on the schools on the Navajo reservation, our books, meaning Navajo writers, are not taught in the schools.

TED SIMONS: Why is that?

LAURA TOHE: Well, I think one of the reasons is, there is not an awareness of the teachers and perhaps the school administration and maybe the Navajo nation itself that there is a group of Navajo writers who are publishing their work. And I think it also maybe has to do with the kind of standards that the reservation has to go by in that they teach more of the mainstream writers, non-Navajo writers. So one of my goals is to try to promote more of the Navajo writers and poets on the reservations in the schools. So that the youth will know who we are.

TED SIMONS: It's interesting. I want to talk about your relationship with poetry. How did that begin? Was it story telling? Lots of poets and writers begin by listening to mom and dad tell stories.

LAURA TOHE: Mine started out, I lived in this little community crawled Crystal, New Mexico. And I grew up without a television. No newspapers. I had, we had a radio. And my brothers used to read comic books so I read those. I was introduced to the "Dick and Jane" reading series at school so I learned to read from that. We didn't have a lot of entertainment, this little community where I grew up. My mother used to take us to Gallup to the library and we would check out books and that's where I started to want to become a writer. Because I wanted to write about these things that these writers were writing about because when I was growing up, I never read a book or a poem or anything written by a Native American person. And I always questioned, where are my stories? Where are the stories of my people? Where are the stories of our heros and our history and our culture? And it was a complete void in my life when I grew up.

TED SIMONS: Were there books then, considering the void, what poetry, what fiction, what books did inspire you as you got older and as you realized, this is something I can do? I am good at, I want to pursue.

LAURA TOHE: Well, I like would fairy tales when I was growing up. And I liked these stories of these witches. And I remember one story I read about this witch who lived in a house that stood on chicken legs. And another story about a girl who was so virtuous that when she walked through a doorway, gold fell on her. Those kind of stories really stuck to me but the other thing that influenced my decision or my wanting to become a writer is the stories I heard around my own family. As you mention, a lot of these stories came from my own family. My mother used to tell us stories in the car on our drive from Crystal to Gallup. And she told us stories and I remember once about these two children who turned into prairie dogs. This is a Navajo story. It's really about the how parents can neglect their children and in doing so their children change. And that was the first story that I wrote when I finally took my first creative writing class and that story was eventually published. But the teacher that I had opened my eyes to realizing that I had story tellers surrounding my life as I was growing up but I never realized that because I always thought only non-native people could be writers.

TED SIMONS: Well, and with that in mind, as you write poetry now, are you writing for an audience? Are you writing for yourself? I mean, how does that work?

LAURA TOHE: Well, it depends on what I am working on. I wrote a libretto for the Phoenix Symphony and that was the story about a warrior or a service man who comes back from the Middle East with PTSD. I was commissioned by the Phoenix symphony to write the lyrics for this oratorio called -- it just slipped might mind.

TED SIMONS: That's all right.

LAURA TOHE: It's a Navajo oratorio, "Enemy slayer." I know the audience was going to be particularly people accustomed to going to symphonies and people who were a patron of the arts. I was very aware that my audience would be someone who might need a lot of context for this libretto I was writing. Other times I use words in my own language because I want the people, my own nation, to have texts that they can read in the Navajo language because many of our, many of the tribal nations in this country have lost or their native languages are diminishing. As a writer I feel it's partly, I feel there's a need that I can perhaps fill by writing in Navajo.

TED SIMONS: Does that mean you have a particular message when you begin a poem?

LAURA TOHE: Not really. I don't think I have a message. Someone asked me a question similar to that and I say that, a lot of times the poem comes to me. And my job is to listen and to open myself to that poem.

TED SIMONS: Do you wait for the muse or do you try to go find the muse?

LAURA TOHE: It happens anywhere. I can be standing in line at a 7-Eleven and something will happen and it form an image in my mind that I might want to write later on. So it's really just, it can happen at any time.

TED SIMONS: So we have about 30 seconds left here. Folks on the reservation, Navajo people, what kind of response are you getting from them?

LAURA TOHE: A couple of weeks ago the Navajo nation had their annual fair and I was in the parade riding a red Cadillac. And this is something I had never done before. And I had people would come up to me and shake my hands. And clap as I went by. And it was very, it was gratifying to know the people recognized this honor, that it's not just my honor but it's also for the Navajo nation as well.

TED SIMONS: All right. Thank you very much for joining us. It's good to have you. Congratulations on the post.

LAURA TOHE: Thank you.

TED SIMONS: Thank you. That is it for now. I'm Ted Simons. Thank you so much for joining us. You have a great evening.

VIDEO: "Arizona Horizon" is made possible by contributions from the Friends of Eight, members of your Arizona PBS station. Thank you. When you want to be more informed, eight delivers news and analysis with multiple perspectives. Thanks to financial support from you and --

Laura Tohe: Arizona State University English professor

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