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Navajo poet’s work relates art to life at poetry reading

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – Standing at the south end of the west wing, Navajo poet Luci Tapahonso recently returned to her alma mater for a poetry reading at the University of New Mexico’s Zimmerman Library in Albuquerque.

Tapahonso earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree from UNM in 1980 and 1983, respectively. She said it felt good to be back in the Land of Enchantment.

“I like going back to Albuquerque. It is full of memories,” Tapahonso said.

UNM history professor Jennifer Denetdale introduced Tapahonso to the roughly 80-person audience.

“I often find myself reading her work in English and thinking about it in Navajo,” Denetdale said.

An instructor of Navajo history, Denetdale said that Tapahonso’s poetry reaffirms the significance of Navajo women.

“It evokes the memories of Navajo cultural and tradition through imagery,” added Denetdale as she welcomed the poet to the unusually large podium.

Tapahonso began with a poem about the Navajos’ belief in the Beauty Way and its strong conviction in elders and the weak following among the youth.

Some people closed their eyes as they listened to the rhythms that echoed through the acoustic ceiling and Pueblo mural. Other audience members steadily took notes and nodded in agreement.

Three UNM students at the reading had waited several years to hear Tapahonso read her poems. They were first introduced to the bilingual poet in an English class.

“The way she talks about family and the importance of tradition is what has drawn me to her writing,” said Stephanie Gustafson, who is writing her dissertation on the many relationships between a mother and a daughter.

Tapahonso dedicated a poem called “Long Drive to Shiprock” to her family. In a soft voice she mentioned her father’s death, her mother’s old age and her sisters’ ritual update on family news.

Writing about family is a Navajo approach, Tapahonso said.

“It’s a natural thinking process, whether writing, teaching or creating a [Navajo] rug. It’s an approach to life.”

Rebecca Hooker of Albuquerque said she was fascinated by the way Tapahonso takes form poetry and makes it humorous.

“Not understanding Navajo never gets in the way of enjoying the poem,” Hooker said.

Tapahonso usually incorporates Navajo humor in her poetry, but she claims that it is not meant to be humor but everyday jargon.

Another of Tapahonso’s most requested poems is “Raisin Eyes,” which is about Navajo cowboys and the women who just can’t leave them.

Tapahonso read, “These Navajo cowboys with raisin eyes and pointed boots are just bad news, but it’s so hard to remember that all the time.”

“I write about what I remember my relatives saying or doing,” said Tapahonso.

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Taphahonso said she enjoys writing in a sestina form, which uses six words that are repeated seven times in a fixed combination.

“I love the way she challenges herself by using Western forms of poetry to make it a Navajo poem,” Hooker said.

Navajo literacy forms are much more complex than Western forms because it is not written, but rather understood and memorized, Tapahonso said.

Donna Epler from Albu-querque said the sestinas for which Tapahonso is known bring out a natural rhythm in the poem.

Some of Tapahonso’s favorite non-Native writers are James Wright, James Hershfield and Flanery O’Conner.

“Their work is not convoluted, but clear and precise,” Tapahonso said. “It strikes something familiar and that’s what poetry is supposed to do.”

Laughter and applause revealed the audience’s favorite poem. One of Tapahonso’s first published poems, “Hills Brothers Coffee,” was requested. The poem is about Tapahonso’s uncle, who really enjoys the tough caffeine kick.

Tapahonso and her husband, Robert Martin, have five children and seven grandchildren.

“Being a grandmother is wonderful,” Tapahonso said.

Martin, Cherokee, is the associate director of American Indian studies at the University of Arizona. He was also the former president of Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kan.

Tapahonso read a poem about moving from Kansas to the reservation and having to return the “K-Tag” at the last turnpike.

The night of poetry ended with a book signing. Anthony Beauvais remembered Tapahonso from his junior high school graduation, where she was a guest speaker. Beauvais, also from Shiprock, was excited to receive a free book.

Beauvais credited Tapahonso for her life experience and having the courage to put it on paper for others to read.

“She is a leader for all women, not just Native American women; even men can learn from her writing,” he said.

Tapahonso is currently a professor of American Indian studies at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

“If I could afford to go to U. of A., I would take all her classes,” Beauvais said.

Her new book is scheduled for release by the end of the year. It’s called “A Radiant Curve.”

The reading was part of the Summer Sunset Lecture Series, sponsored by University Libraries and the Office of the Vice Provost for Academic Affairs.

Recently, a fire in the basement closed the library for a few months. Assistant Dean of Public and Research Services Johann Van Reenen said, “We couldn’t have had a better speaker to heal this library.”

The Indigenous Nations Library Program’s Mary Alice Tsosie organized the event. Acoma Pueblo poet Simon Ortiz will read his poetry at the next scheduled lecture.