Posted: June 17, 2011

Interviewed by Chris Richards, June 2011

Menominee poet Chrystos is a warrior, writer, and arrow in the throat of colonization.  Publishing five volumes of poetry, Chrystos is an important voice in the world of literature showing that Native Peoples and Peoples of colour can write, they write well, and they can’t stop from being read and heard.
Chyrstos’ poetry is described by Gloria Anzaldua as, “Her words slide into our throats, feed the hungry soul, fill the lost and homeless heart. Her voice binds into wholeness our severed selves with self-esteem. It calls away from the death of invisibility, insists that we be seen and accounted to, no longer banished, no longer vanishing. She leaves her howl inside us.”

Can you give us a brief explanation of who you are and what you do?

My pen name is Chrystos.  I have been an activist for indigenous rights, lesbian equality, a more just prison system, for the earth, to protect women and children from the effects of testosterone poison, and on behalf of the Palestinian right to live in Palestine unmolested.  I’ve spoken internationally on these issues for 40 years.  My publication list is very long, beginning with ‘This Bridge Called My Back’ and including ‘Reinventing the Enemy’s Language’.  My books are: ‘Not Vanishing’; ‘Dream On’; ‘In Her I Am’; ‘Red Rollercoaster’; ‘Wilder Reis (German translations)’; ‘Five Power’ (available from me at Box 4663, Rolling Bay 98061); and ‘Fugitive Colors’ (available from Cleveland State Poetry Center).  I paint, I garden organically, I cook, and when physically able I still march for Leonard Peltier, against war and to Take Back the Night.

What Goals do you have with your writing and its impact on the world?

My goal as a writer is the same as my goal as a person – to discover how to be good and useful, how to live as lightly as possible, how to protect those weaker than myself.  In my private and public life, I’m committed to speaking out against injustice, cruelty and abuse, even though this has cost me personal relationships, jobs, and financial stability.  I want the world to focus on caring for the earth instead of exploiting her; to stop using war to generate wealth; to end the sex trade slavery; for men to live by their hearts instead of their dicks and so on.  I won’t be able to gauge if my writing helps impact these issues, or if my writing even survives. The focus is not my impact, but being willing to be a voice committed to a more just and far less greedy world.

Ideally, what experience or impact would a reader take away from your writing?

I hope for my readers to experience their true selves, to stretch and grow, to work for the causes which inflame them, to be inspired to stand up for justice even though we live in such very dark times.  I do not believe in violence as a means to an end, although I consider that self-defense is not a violent act.  I would hope that readers will be motivated to out-think the rich white men who run our lives, so as to create realities which function for the benefit of all.  I would hope that my writing helps other suppressed minority people to tell their stories.

What place does art & creativity have within building a resistance movement?

All resistance movements are dependent on art to move their causes forward – in posters, songs, poems, stories.  In colonizer culture, art is controlled and usually the funded art is about 100 years old (or more) i.e. opera, ballet, impressionist art, etc.  New art is almost never supported or respected (this is true even in counterculture) unless it’s revolutionary potential has been curtailed.  My impression is that art, in general, is considered a useless activity.  I think bowling, for instance, is useless.  Ultimately, art becomes the true history of a people.  It is the enduring story (which is why we still sing folk ballads about crooked judges from 1800, etc).  There is no way to inspire people to social change without art.  I define art very broadly to include witty protest signs, political cartoons, groups like Act Up, etc.

Do you have any favorite pieces or experiences you’d like to talk about?

My favorite pieces are the ones I’m about to put into a self-published chapbook.  I’m no longer useful to the publishing industry as a token, so I need to make my own way.  My life is rather chaotic at the moment, but I hope to have it finished by the end of this year.

You’ve worked with incarcerated women, how does this type of work impact your writing, or vice versa?  Are they connected?

Imprisoned women have changed the way I think.  I’m especially fond of one woman who said (vis-a-vis) “You’re all in minimum security out there”.  Because we aren’t free, we can’t even control the quality of our lives.  At this particular moment, the Blue Angels are roaring over my trailer, so loudly I can’t think, in preparation for tricks they’ll perform on July 4.  I don’t celebrate that tricky holiday, nor do I want to pay for the wasted jet fuel, the jets themselves, or the silly men making such an unholy racket.  I have no say at all in what happens over my head.  This is how prisoners live too.  I have learned so much from prisoners about courage, solidarity, spirituality, and sly tricks for survival.  One of the most painful events of my life was being refused entry to the prisons for my writing workshops.  I would say that my writing has been deepened by my friendships with prisoners and that I could not be who I am now without all the gifts they gave to me.

Does being queer inform or influence your writing?

I’m sure that being a queer woman has given me independence that is not possible for straight women.  I’ve never had a boyfriend I had to appease or tone myself down in order to protect his ego.  Being a lesbian is being an outlaw – I get to name my own poisons.  I cannot imagine being straight – men bore me, most of the time.  They very rarely are capable of nuanced thought.  If I had been straight, I would have had babies instead of poetry and I much prefer fighting with words than dirty diapers.  I’m sure I’m not supposed to say this, but I find heterosexuality passé – our poor earth is clogged with too many humans demanding to be gods.  We don’t need to reproduce any more children for 50 years.  Being queer is a healthy form of birth control, and it is true, the sex is much more interesting because the goal is always mutual satisfaction.  The Judeo-Christian obsession with heterosexuality began as an attempt to populate the world with their religion.  Heterosexuality is a part of a spectrum – certainly not the only choice.  Being a lesbian gives me the freedom to think about what I think, not about how to please others.  In over 50 years, I’ve never met a man who is capable of allowing me the freedom that I need to be myself.  A few of those men I’ve loved, but did not move into sexual relationships because I observed how they treated their girlfriends or wives (flirting with me, making passes was my first clue – I don’t take this as flattery, but evidence of a weak character).  I think men are at a great disadvantage – they have been brainwashed into being dominant, but this actually makes their lives more difficult.  Women have been brainwashed into seeing men as wallets.  This benefits corporate America, not people.

Do you feel that using your writing for social and political purpose has been successful?  How so?

I’m not sure how to answer this.  I feel I have failed utterly to affect social change, because there is still war, still rape, still prisons, still starvation, still clear cuts, still sexual abuse of children, still torture, still rampant injustice of all kinds.  The world hasn’t changed nearly enough to suit me, the Empress, as I joke.  When I was young, I believed we (and there was a nation of us, then) would change the world.  I didn’t notice that many of us were there to get laid, dominate instead of cooperate, get back at indifferent parents, use drugs, etc.  There are not many people of my age still squawking about injustice (without being paid).  Most of whom I considered my comrades, in the Lesbians of COLOR writing world, have died.  I particularly miss Pat Parker, Audre Lorde, and Gloria Anzaldua.  I no longer have a country with them.  It is extremely difficult to “soldier” on alone.  They still have not been respected for their great work – which leads me to conclude that my work too will fade away and disappear.  Other people tell me that my work has saved their lives, which touches me deeply.  I think I have changed some people (men, as well as women), but the necessity of justice is so great that I’m afraid this isn’t enough.  My life has been saved hundreds of times, by specific books that have arrived just in the nick of time.  The book which is saving me at the moment is Leslie Marmon Silke’s “The Turquoise Ledge”.  This is not “technically” a political book but profound spirituality is perhaps our only true source of justice in this culture.

Do you have advice for other writers looking to use their talent for political purposes?

Get rid of the word “talent” and substitute work.  That is what writing is.  The commitment to battle one’s own demons, to wrest truth from the brainwashing we all endure, to study the world for meaning.  READ.  Far and wide.  Internationally.  Know what others are creating who may not be your comrades.  Stick to the truth even when it isn’t flattering.  Do the grass roots grunt work – not just show up to be a “star” on stage.  Earn the respect of your coworkers.  Learn to recognize “burn out” in yourself and fix it (I retreat for periods of time).  Don’t lie, except to the police.  Don’t do any crime unless you can do the time.  My relatively uninprisoned life is due to an absolute aversion to jail “food”.  Don’t brag.  Be kind whenever possible.  Don’t misuse other people, even those you consider enemies.  Keep a journal no one else reads.  Write there constantly to develop your voice.  Grow something.  Organic vegetables will teach you everything you need to know about richness of word usage, editing, surprise, disappointment, failure, deliciousness.  Don’t bother to compete with any other writer – your only true rival is yourself fighting to be the very best writer you can be.  Don’t show your work to others when it is new and fragile.  Read publically at every opportunity – an audience is a great editing device (you can hear their boredom and their excitement).  Read Shakespeare – one of the first chronicles of injustice – particularly Othello and Merchant of Venice.  The first ‘Christian’ playwright to put a Jew and a Moor onstage as humans.  Read the dictionary.  Use the 7 senses in your work: sight, sound, taste, feel, humor, psychic, and smell.

Many blessings and Love, C