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Pulitzer Prize-Winning N. Scott Momaday Talks About His New Collection Of Poetry


N. Scott Momaday led the renaissance of Native American writing when he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1969. That was for his novel "House Made Of Dawn." But much of his work and acclaim has since come from his poetry. His new collection of poems is called "The Death Of Sitting Bear." And Scott Momaday joins us now from Santa Fe. Welcome to the program.

N SCOTT MOMADAY: Thank you. Good to be here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In a recent documentary about your life and work you said, quote, "there is no such thing as poetry in Indian traditions." Explain that. And also, why has your writing now gravitated towards poetry?

MOMADAY: Oh, I was trained in poetry. I was interested in writing poetry from an early age. And then I won a creative writing fellowship to Stanford in poetry. And I studied poetry for four years there. And I was anchored in, you know, traditional English poetic forms. But the oral tradition of the Indian - there is no such thing as poetry if you define poetry as a statement concerning the human condition composed in verse. There is no measure in the oral tradition. It's a storytelling tradition. So you have songs and prayers and spells and stories. But you don't have verse.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And you wrote these poems over 50 years. Is that right?

MOMADAY: That's right. Yes. I've been at it a long time.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Have you seen, when you looked back at some of your early works, an evolution in your voice and what you wanted to say?

MOMADAY: Yeah. I think that the oral tradition prevailed at first. I was writing out of my experience of hearing stories. And then I had the formal education in poetry at Stanford. So I began to incorporate traditional forms of English poetry into my work. And so now I have the combination of both things, which suits me quite well.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm going to read "The First Day." It goes like this. (Reading) The fading moon and the vanguard of the sun alchemy, the immensity of mountains rising black from the underworld - I behold creation. In this mindless moment, I am intensely alive. There is, again, the birth of my soul. I am who never was. It is the first day.

MOMADAY: Thank you for that (laughter).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: My pleasure. I like to read poetry.

MOMADAY: Well done.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Can you tell me a little bit about that poem? Because there's so many evocative poems here about the land and its resonance and this idea of creation.

MOMADAY: The American land is my mainstay when I'm writing. I do a lot of descriptive writing. And I do a lot of descriptive writing of the land itself and the features in the land. That appeals to me very much. And that makes for a wonderful canvas on which to place things that are meaningful to me. But that poem - yes, it's about - I imagine the first day. You know, origin - stories of origin are very important in Native American tradition, as they are in other traditions. And so it seemed a good thing to write about the first day, I imagine - the first day and myself witnessing the sun rising on the first day.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Is there a new urgency, do you think, in those bonds between Native peoples and the land in these modern times in the midst of climate change and all these other stresses?

MOMADAY: Yes. I think there's a great urgency. I think the Native American who has an experience of 30,000 years in the North American landscape has developed a kind of conservative notion of the land. I think of that experience as enabling him to become what I call a multiple-use conservationist. He wants to save the land. He understands that the land is possessed of spirit, and it's sacred. And so when he sees the land being torn up and desecrating, it is a sad thing. And so he expresses that sometimes in his stories. And I have followed suit.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Is there something that you'd like to read us?

MOMADAY: I did pick out a poem that is fairly recent and one that I - that appeals to me. It's called "The Snow Mare." (Reading) In my dream, a blue mare loping, pewter on a porcelain plain, away. There are bursts of soft commotion where her hooves drive in the drifts. And as dusk ebbs on the plane of night, she shears the web of winter. And on the far blind side, she is no more. I behold nothing wherein the mare dissolves in memory beyond the burden of being.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's beautiful. Why did you want to read that?

MOMADAY: It's a point that means a lot to me. It really is a commemoration of my former wife, who died of ovarian cancer. So this is a memorial poem.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You got your Pulitzer in 1969. And, you know, in many ways, you're viewed as as one of the most celebrated Native American authors, poets. What do you see now in terms of a new generation coming up from First Nations peoples? Because there are many.

MOMADAY: There are more and more all the time. And that's a very encouraging sign. I know young people who are writing and publishing now. And they have overcome a great barrier. You know, the language barrier has been really significant. But now we are seeing young people writing and publishing. I just met a young lady who is going to read with me in a few days at a bookstore here in Santa Fe. Her name is Layli Long Soldier. She is Lakota. She writes brilliantly. She's a brilliant poet. And she's won some important awards. So we have people like that coming up. And I'm very pleased about that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's N. Scott Momaday. His new book of poetry is called the "The Death Of Sitting Bear." Thank you very much.

MOMADAY: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.