Interview with Tacey M. Atsitty

by Emma Jones


The poems in your debut collection, Rain Scald, show your incredible range with form and language. I found myself particularly drawn to the narrative–driven poems in the first section of the book, Tséyi’, and also noticed that many of the poems here exist within the speaker’s childhood. What is your process for constructing these narratives — what details are included, omitted, or created? Also, what modifications are made to the poem’s language and syntax when writing for a child versus an adult speaker?

Many of the poems in Tséyi’ call upon memory to recreate those experiences and emotions. “Sunbeam” is the poem where the voice is a child recalling that horrifically sad day, and so it was essential that the language, metaphor, and narrative be simple and disjunctive— just like a child would retell something they saw or experienced. In poems such “Rising Song, Elegy,” the speaker is much older looking back on the experience, trying to recall what it was like.

Details and metaphor are created from voices in both poems, but the voice of the child in “Sunbeam” can only “tell” what happened, rather than the voice of an adult in “Rising Song, Elegy” who can use language and imagery to interpret that experience.

We can learn from the past and make no longer create monsters who tear us to pieces and eat our people.

You offered, in Rain Scald, a note about the poem “To Gorge”: in the Diné creation story, men and women were once separated, and as they grew lonely, both began to self–abuse. While the female speaker in “To Gorge” literally self–abuses, I also noticed subtle returns to this note in poems such as “In Dishwater” and “In Stitching”, where women are depicted as laborers of abusive work. In what way does the depiction of labor in your poems contextualize female experiences, personal or otherwise?

There’s definitely abuse in the poems you mentioned— varying abuses, some self-induced, others as a product of others’ choices. Much of Rain Scald muses on the imbalance of males and female connection in society, in ancient society and in today’s society. We can learn from the past and make decisions at the level of the individual to no longer create monsters who tear us to pieces and eat our people.

I read in another interview that you are not fluent in Navajo, but while reading Rain Scald, I felt that your history with the language influenced the sound — or, more precisely, the musicality of each poem. What is your experience with marrying, or even translating, these languages in your work?

The land sings her stories, and if you are quiet enough you can hear her voice, feel her voice within. Often I sing back. That’s been my experience.

The land sings her stories, and if you are quiet enough you can hear her voice, feel her voice within.

In addition to being influenced by the histories and creation stories of the Navajo Nation, the Church, and the earth, are there any writers or artists that have been influential to you?

Many of the writers and artists who influence my work are those whom with whom I was in close proximity: former professors, mentors, cohorts, and friends while I studied at Navajo Preparatory School, Brigham Young University, the Institute of American Indian Arts, and Cornell University. To name a few: Scott Nicolay, Susan Scarberry-Garcia, Ken Holmes, Jim Barnes, Scott Hatch, Arthur Sze, Jon Davis, Evelina Lucero, Laura Tohe, P. Jane Hafen, Diane Reyna, Heid Erdrich, Mark Turcotte, Adrian Louis, Luci Tapahonso, Layli Long Soldier, dg nanouk okpik, Kenneth McClane, Alice Fulton, Rueben Chinana, Benjamin Garcia, Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers, Clayton Pityk, Anne Marie Rooney, Nick Friedman, and Sally Wen Mao. And of course my family and those loves and almost-loves.

Are you currently working on any projects?

I am. Currently, I have half of a second manuscript of poetry done. This winter I’ve been striving diligently to move it along. I’m super excited about it, as it’s quite different than Rain Scald.

Tacey M. Atsitty Diné, is Sleep Rock People and born for Tangle People. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Cornell University and has won several awards. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Poetry magazine, Kenyon Review Online, Prairie Schooner, Crazyhorse, New Poets of Native Nations, and other publications. Her first book is Rain Scald (University of New Mexico, 2018).

Emma Jones is a poetry MFA candidate at University of Arkansas. She serves as assistant poetry editor at The Arkansas International. She received the 2018 Lily Peter Fellowship in Poetry.