A Conversation with Cedar Sigo
BY TIFFANY TROY
Cedar Sigo was raised on the Suquamish Reservation in the Pacific Northwest and studied at The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at the Naropa Institute. He is the author of eight books and pamphlets of poetry, and has taught workshops at St. Mary’s College, Naropa University, and University Press Books. He is currently a mentor in the low residency MFA program at The Institute of American Indian Arts. He lives in Lofall, Washington. All This Time is his newest collection that pays homage to artistic influences that have shaped his poetic practices.
Tiffany Troy: How does the opening poem, “On Distortion” set up the rest of the collection?
Cedar Sigo: The clue is the first line of the poem, “(Welcome everything in)”. I was interested in the literal question of how distortion shows up as an element in poetry. I wanted a long poem that was almost like a basin into which the voice was really set free. In that poem, there is a kind of paranoia within the voice, which talks about civil war and mistrusting my neighbor’s children. It was written in 2018, I think. I was getting psychic waves about our further collapse in some way that were coming through in the actual shape of the poem.
TT: That’s amazingly prescient. To me, the voice hinges upon paranoia and is mesmerizing.
How did you come up with the title, All This Time, which starts with the line, “Wake up,” in the title poem, “All This Time”?
CS: I have written a lot of poems for poets for a lot of different reasons. In “All This Time,” I am paying homage to Ed Berrigan and the poem shows the influence that his collage-like style of writing had on my own practice.
I’m also reflecting on how long we’ve been in touch as poet friends and how long I’ve been learning from his work. I make stylistic references to Ed’s jump cuts and twisted syntax, and how over time those bonds get stronger. Because other people leave the room and you really see who is still in the room (writing), and which poets are not just writing poetry, but editing, organizing poetry readings for younger poets, helping to publish first books.
TT: In “Twilight of the Gods,” you write, “They think we make it up as we go along / Instead of our heated suspension, precious time resealing the vault / buried alive for a midnight thrill / I can just mistake the light for another line of entry”—which I read as a way into your writing process. Could you speak more about the process of writing this collection?
CS: That’s a very apt take because what I’m describing is the ceremonial aspect, trying to illustrate how much belief lies behind the gesture of writing poetry, especially in the line “precious time resealing the vault.” For some of us, it’s a very arcane, almost alchemical process. Sometimes to explain the journey of a poem you have to utilize this high and vaulted diction.
There are five longer pieces in the book that are dated at the end. These were just new ways of breaking up time. I create ridiculous rules for myself in order to break it up differently. I definitely wanted to examine a sense of dailiness in this book. The death of Joanne Kyger, who was probably my closest friend and my first poet friend, is kind of a shadow figure—almost an arc—within the book.
TT: I’m so sorry for your loss. Thank you also for sharing a little bit of your process. How does form inform your collection?
CS: I’m always toying with form or creating a kind of boundary around my process in the hope that I create some other kind of creature, some other edge of my voice that has gone dormant, untouched, or undiscovered. I know that’s not really possible because I have my voice, and my sense of the syllable, but I do all I can to kind of keep that sense shifting. For me, the more edges of my voice uncovered, the better.
The long poem, “The Prisoner’s Song” is a collage of Native voices and Native writers that becomes its own new voice, with its own (somewhat) solid message. It wants to speak across centuries and that came out of a very strict cut up process, very indebted to Brion Gysin and William Burroughs in terms of the literal approach.
There are lyric, arrow-shaped poems, densely quilted sonnet-length poems. There are also poems resulting from travel over the past five or six years.
My books are often all the ways of capturing a voice, and I want my books to do impossible things, with tones that ordinarily wouldn’t stand next to each other. Each of my books is really reflective of its time frame.
TT: Could you talk a little about the themes of the book and what you want the readers to get out of them?
CS: I find that the music of language is important. My work is attuned to the syllable and only certain words are allowed through that door.
Sometimes I am just surfing the language and poetry is only issuing fragments. I court those fragments and attempt to orchestrate them, quickly if possible.
The poem, “Six Lines Missing,” I titled it that because I didn’t allow myself to erase anything during the week that I was writing it, before finally allowing myself to erase six lines. There is an element of wanting to assert less control from the outset, knowing that the edits will be brutal later on.
Another aspect to All This Time is my moving back to the Suquamish Reservation around five years ago. There are site-specific poems that relate to the history of the Suquamish Reservation. I find myself easily transported back in time when I visit Suquamish. I can just be walking on the beach, and because I know my Suquamish history, I know that this particular beach was the site of Old Man House, which was our winter longhouse. I know that it was burned down in 1870 after the death of Chief Seattle and I know the way of life that was present there forever before that.
Poetry is like a visitation in that moment. It shows up as an escape and as a teaching, very much like a map.
TT: Who are some of your major literary influences and how do they show up in the collection?
CS: Alice Notley is a big influence. I still read her extensively even after she got into the epic. Her work is really important to me because of the constant oddity and tumult within the line. I’m interested in not the cleanest line but about that unlocking and rush of language. It’s almost as if Notley’s words first land as a collage. They don’t have to be fussed with after the fact in order to achieve that sense of the line splitting in two.
Jennifer Foerster, who is a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation, has been an incredible influence on my work and my life. We met about ten years ago, just as my work was becoming known in Native Nations poetry circles. Jennifer pulled me into the scene and let me know there was a place for me, even with all of my intensity and/or desperation. She’s a wonderful poet and very experimental, and you know I think people still have a problem, thinking of Native artists as experimental. We are also forever bonded over our mutual love for the poet H.D. I really value Jennifer’s latest book, Bright Raft in the Afterweather. She also has a new collection coming out from The Song Cave in 2022.
TT: Many of your titles are quite playful, like “Six Lines Missing” for a translation on Sappho: how do you come up with your titles?
CS: I just lift old titles because they are so evocative that they seem to fit onto a medieval poem as well as they do a Hollywood movie.
“Twilight of the Gods,” for example, is just the European title of the film Sunset Boulevard.
Sometimes the title is an obstruction and I can’t get past it, so I will just take one to help get into the space of poem making. Getting the title first can feel as though you have unlocked the door to the poem in advance.
“Secrets of the Inner Mind” is a phrase lifted from the poet Philip Whalen. “Summer Triptych” is the title of a painting by Alex Katz. “We are the Ancestors” was the title of a show at The Suquamish Museum.
“November 19, 2016” is Joanne Kyger’s birthday and I wrote this poem while she was alive, on what turned out to be her final birthday. Though I didn’t type it up until after her death.
TT: What are you working on today?
CS: Tomorrow I am giving a workshop at Chief Kitsap Academy, which is a tribal high school on the reservation, as Poet Laureate, Joy Harjo created a project called “Living Nations, Living Words.” Joy wanted poets to go into our communities and to use writing to make connections with our youth. Young people somehow always write the best stuff. Maybe because they don’t carry around this dichotomy of good/bad writing. They have fun. They write with charm and instant tonality.
I’m always writing new poetry as well. Poetry becomes larger than your notebook and the words that you are writing down inside it. I’m learning more about poetry as an art and that the longer you hang in there, the more dimension and reflection it presents.