Behind “Report (1)”: An Interview with Diane Glancy
BY RUSSELL BOGUE
Russell Bogue: You’ve spent decades building a life and career out of writing, and your success over the years is pretty evident: numerous awards, published novels, plays, and poetry collections—you seem to have done it all. But where did it all begin? How did you realize that writing was your life’s passion?
Diane Glancy: Where was the beginning? I couldn’t do anything else. I always was shy, and there was something solid in writing. There was an identity there. It was something I might be able to do, and I could do it by myself— not in front of others. The irony, of course, is that you finally have to stand in front of others to give a reading.
RB: What do you find most difficult about writing? Are certain forms— poetry vs. prose, for example—more difficult? Certain subjects? Or does it depend on the mood you’re in?
DG: The hardest part of writing is all the drafts it takes for me to get the piece of writing where it should be. The University of North Dakota has collected my papers. I’ve often been embarrassed to send them all my drafts for a single manuscript. Piles and piles of papers.
RB: Your heritage as part Cherokee seems to have influenced both your writing and your outlook on life. If you had to sum up that influence, how would you do so? In other words, how has being Cherokee manifested itself in your thoughts, habits, and beliefs (and, by extension, your writing)?
DG: My father’s Cherokee heritage has been the most important influence I’ve had. It’s odd. It’s also been the most discouraging, shameful, and has caused more trouble, as I am an undocumented Cherokee, which brings criticism from some people. My great-grandfather was no longer in Indian Territory when the Dawes Commission took their rolls at the end of the 19th century. He had fled because of a crime he had committed. Therefore, his name is not on the rolls. And that is what determines official tribal membership. Nonetheless, the culture has been a great influence on my writing. When I research the Cherokee Trail of Tears, or Sacajawea, or Kateri Tekakwitha, I travel to where their history took place. The land carries their memories and stories. I couldn’t hear their voices if I didn’t know that. Native heritage is an awareness of the past, of the closeness of the ancestors, and whatever is spirit.
RB: To continue the discussion of your heritage, obviously you must be quite proud of being Cherokee, but are there any parts that you’re ashamed of? Are there aspects of that culture that you don’t like and wish to distance yourself from, or has it ever made life more difficult for you?
DG: Being Indian was looked down upon. I think anyone who could, kept it secret. It just wasn’t talked about within the family. There was discrimination in those days against anyone with a certain shade of darkness. I was left out of the European culture because I was “other.” I am sometimes marginalized in the native culture because I do not live within the community.
RB: How has being part European (English/German) and part Cherokee played out in your life? Given the historical animosity between the European settlers and the Native Americans, do you ever feel a sense of tension between your two conflicting bloodlines?
DG: Definitely. My mother and father were very different people, yet they stuck it out until the end of their lives. It was one of the reasons I chose divorce when the time came. The European heritage came from my mother whose parents were German and English. They were organized, punctual, down-to-earth, middle-of-the-road people without a lot of myth or imagination or ceremony other than family dinners at holidays.
RB: The poem you submitted to The Adroit Journal, “Report,” seems to express great frustration or sadness with the cultural normalization, to put it politely, forced upon Native-Americans by the American government. You talk about wolves writing government reports, about how “Once our stories were round/but the wolves made them square as their homes.” What inspired this poem, and what do you want readers to take away from it?
DG: “Report (1),” begins a new manuscript of poems, Report to the Department of the Interior. In 2009, I received an Expressive Arts grant from the Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. to write about the history of native education. It always was a painful subject because school was hard. It was a place I didn’t fit. Yet it was in school I found my way. After all, I’ve taught most of my life. Even after retiring from Macalester College, I taught at Kenyon College for two semesters, and a few weeks ago I moved to California to teach at Azusa Pacific University. The difficulties of the boarding-school experience are well documented. For most natives, it was a place of horrors including severe punishments, separation from family and the life the Indian children had known. With the grant, I explored mainly the beginning of native education, focusing on the Fort Marion prisoners who were sent from Oklahoma at the end of the Plains Indian Wars to St. Augustine, Florida, 1875-78. It was Richard Henry Pratt who began the process of Indian education. From Fort Marion, he established the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. The poems in this new manuscript came out of my research. They are leftover poems. They didn’t fit the Fort Marion story, which by the way is called The Catch. There were enough of them, that I had another manuscript. The cover of Report to the Department of the Interior will be a ledger-book drawing by Howling Wolf in which the prisoners sit at a table at Fort Marion. A white teacher stands before them holding up a book. To the side of the drawing, the ghost of a native person stands watching. The idea I took from the drawing is that the square book the teacher holds is a square sun, and the school lessons are a new sun dance. Education became a necessary ceremony the Indian has to go through to live in this world.
RB: What are the greatest challenges the Cherokee people face today in modern America?
DG: For me it was being raised at a distance from the culture. I heard Les Hannah speak at a Five Civilized Tribes Conference last year. “What defines the Cherokee now that there are mixed-blood issues?” He asked. His answer—being part of the native community.
Diane Glancy is professor at Azusa Pacific University. Her latest collection of poems, It Was Then, was published by Mammoth Press in 2012. Her latest collection of nonfiction, The Dream of a Broken Field, was published by the University of Nebraska Press in 2011. “Report (1)” is from a new collection of poems, Report to the Department of the Interior, about the Native American experience in education.