Armando Celayo & David Shook
This interview took place while novelist, playwright, poet, and painter N. Scott Momaday, who won the Pullitzer in 1969 for House Made of Dawn, lived in a modern apartment in downtown Oklahoma City, during 2007. During that time he taught a single course at the University of Oklahoma, where he was able to freely discuss his favorite books. What first strikes you upon entering his apartment is the artwork on his walls: Momaday’s father, Al Momaday, created twelve illustrations to accompany the prose narrative of The Way to Rainy Mountain, and all the original art is hung on the west wall of his apartment; the opposite wall is lined with paintings of bears and dancers by the younger Momaday.
We want to begin by talking about the oral tradition. Dana Gioia, the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, has talked about hip hop and slam poetry and cowboy poetry being the new popular culture, and it’s definitely an oral medium, but would you consider that an oral tradition? Or is it missing something, let’s say, that the oral tradition must have?
I guess I would say that it could become an oral tradition. I don’t think it has yet. And I think generally speaking the quality of that poetry is not yet what it ought to be. I think it’s moving in the right direction perhaps, and it is a new trend. I think it has a ways to go, and then when it’s refined a bit more it will become, I think, and oral tradition.
So you think it’s just missing time?
Yeah, I think time is largely the missing factor.
In the NYTBR Richard Powers just wrote an article about how his past couple of books he’s written using speech recognition software, and he went into briefly mentioning the history of dictating stories orally. I was wondering how dictating a story orally and the oral tradition come together? With one medium you’re creating and the other one is based more on memory instead of imagination.
I’m not sure I know the answer to that. In the first place, the kind of machine he was using, I don’t know what that is. Do you? Have you seen such a thing?
I’ve heard of this software where all you have to do is just speak what you want, what you’re going to say, and it’ll dictate everything. It’s kind of like having a stenographer, someone who’ll just write everything down for you. And the software he was using, I think he said that he just lies in bed.
Yeah, I read that piece, yes. He speaks what’s on his mind, and it just records everything onto, I don’t know if it’s in a word document. Yeah, I don’t know. I wish I could see that in action, maybe try it. It sounds like it has good potential. I think one thing to say about that is that memory, it seems to me, is indispensable in the oral tradition. It’s one of the chief ingredients, so the less you use the memory, I think the more fragile the oral tradition becomes. So, I don’t know what might develop in terms of exercise of technology, but at this point I think the oral tradition is pretty much as it always has been, a kind of exercise of memory and the use of voice.
In the article Powers mentions James Joyce using Samuel Beckett, when he was his assistant, to write down much of Finnegans Wake. And I think he mentions Dostoevsky using a stenographer to write down a novel in six weeks. I’m just curious how one tradition that’s based more on imagination and the other one is based more on memory, and in your writing how much do they come together? How much of it is based more on history and how much of it is based more on your imagination?
I think it’s probably nearly equal. You know we speak from memory because all we have is our experience, and the only key we have to unlock the experience is memory. Everything depends upon that. The imagination I don’t think you can divide from the memory. The memory is imaginative. What you remember you also imagine, and it gives you a foundation for imagining. I suppose this is the way novels are written. You have your own experience, it may be vicarious, but it’s all you have to work with. It can be vast, it can be very complex, but there it is. You don’t have any access to what’s beyond it, and how you deal with it is determined by the memory. So, I think they’re equally important, but there’s much more to say about imagination, but I think that imagination and memory are indispensable.
I’ve heard you talk a lot about the fragility of the oral tradition, and I hear a lot of writers complain about the rise of the internet and television and video games, taking away from their spotlight. I was wondering do you think the same thing is happening with oral tradition? Or does it maintain some sort of vitality, some sort of sense of being a part of a group or a community that, say, a novel doesn’t maintain? Do you think that it’s future is secure?
I want to say that its future is secure, but I think we can’t say that with real assurance because we don’t yet know what the impact of technology is or is going to be. I think there are ways in which technology can support the oral tradition. When I watch programs on television some of them, it seems to me, are in the spirit of oral tradition. The vocal work is impressive, and so it may be an aid to oral tradition. Or it may not. It could threaten oral tradition. And I think it’s too early to tell which it’s going to be. So the jury’s still out on that.
Relatedly, do you think that the medium language is essential to the oral tradition? Do you think that if the Kiowa language were to become extinct, would the Kiowa oral tradition follow? Or do you think it can maintain itself through English, through you and your children’s grandchildren?
I think that the spirit of the oral tradition—Kiowa tradition to use that example—can be maintained even if the language is gone. It will never be completely gone because you as a linguist know that we can retain remnants, vestiges, of it though it is no longer spoken among people as a major means of communication something changes, we lose something in the process. If you really wanted to preserve the Kiowa oral tradition you would say it really does exist in the language, in the Kiowa language, and once you don’t have that context, it becomes something else, but it needn’t represent a complete loss of the oral tradition. That can be salvaged I think in translation.
Your formal education is in the Western canon, but you also have a strong background in Kiowa oral tradition. Where do you think you fall between those in the sense that you blend the two traditions in your work?
It would be very difficult for me to estimate the proportions, but both are certainly important to me. I was trained in school, in terms of Western literature as you say, and certainly that had a great influence upon my writing. I learned what I know about traditional forms of English poetry in class and books, but I also have retained a sense of Kiowa oral tradition by hearing the stories and thinking about them and sometimes reworking them or transcribing them. I want to write using what I’ve learned about English literature, but I want to incorporate into that literature my own experience of the Native oral tradition. It can be done, I’m quite sure of that. So, I don’t know which of the two may be more important to me, it would be hard for me to say that, but I can say that they’re both really important to me.
I wonder about the universality of poetry. Do you think that the definition of English language poetry fits other poetries? I mean, do the Kiowa have poetry, or do they have a verbal art that’s equivalent?
They don’t have poetry, because “poetry” is an English word and it has a certain requirement in terms of a definition, it uses meter and rhyme, and Kiowas don’t have that, but they do have its rhythm and the rhythm can be very similar, or maybe even the same in both traditions. The Kiowas have songs and prayers and spells, and these are all poetic in kind, they’re not realistically called poetry, but they’re very much like poetry. They are equivalents.
So really, it’s a matter of terminology.
Probably. You can be pretty definite about the definition of English poetry by saying that it’s metrical and based upon the iambic pentameter line. You don’t say that about Indian poetry. But if you take an example like “The Prayer of the Night Chant” from the Navajo and set it beside Ben Jonson’s “To Heaven,” there are certain similarities and things that are common denominators. They’re alike in certain ways, unalike in other ways. Both it seems to me are extremely valid forms of poetry.
You studied under Yvor Winters at Stanford, along with a who’s who of American poets. We were wondering about his influence on your work? Were you there at the same time as any of the contemporary American poets that he taught?
He taught me. [Laughs]
There was some interesting people there in the four years that I was at Stanford, and others who were not there but who were influenced by him, people I got to know, like Thom Gunn and Alan Stephens and interesting people of that kind. J.D. Cunningham, for example. He wasn’t there as a student, but he came frequently to campus and he would give readings. I got to know him pretty well.
The influence of Winters on me, there has to be the influence of his teaching me the forms. I don’t think I write like him, but what I know, as I say, of English forms, traditional forms, he taught me. Because when I went to Stanford I had very little knowledge of prosody, and in the time I was there I took his “The Writing of Poetry” class about five times, and it was always as small as three people, as large as six. It was always a small class, and we would write poems, and then we would distribute them in the class and people would comment upon them. It was very useful. And then he lectured. He gave a course called “The Lyric Poem in English,” and of course that’s where we talked a great deal about prosody. When I went to Stanford I thought I knew what a poem was, but I had to revise my thinking there because I didn’t know a spondee from a dactyl. That’s the kind of information I got, and I found it extremely useful.
I think the other kind of influence that he had on me has to do with his taste in poetry. He was very definite about this poem being a great poem, or a nearly great poem. He had a habit of saying, “Well, this is in the top five.” That sort of thing. But his taste was extremely considered. He thought about poetry very deeply, and he wrote about it, talked about it with great responsibility. People are said to be “Wintersians” and I find that term rather meaningless. A great many really fine poets pass through and came under his teaching. His influence is considerably hard to measure, and what particular kind or maybe particular kinds. He didn’t turn out poets who were writing as he did, but he turned out poets who were writing with great thoughtfulness and each honed their skills.
I know Donald Hall, another one of Winters’s students, said he’ll revise a poem literally hundreds of times, hundreds of drafts, and even when he republishes a poem in a later collection it’ll be different. It’s kind of like what Walt Whitman did, you know, always fixing his poems. Do you have that rigid sense of revision?
I guess not. Certainly I don’t revise a great many times. On occasion I look at a poem that’s three or four years old and I will say, “This could be changed, this could be better if I did this to it.” I don’t often change poems in that way, but yeah I think revision is important.
Do you have a certain amount of time after you’ve written a poem that you require for it to sit before you’ll look at it again or before you’ll publish it?
Not a specific time, but usually I do let it sit for a number of days, or sometimes weeks, and go back to it without thinking of having it published until I do that last step, and I go back and look at it with fresh eyes. That’s the important part of it.
What do you think of the teaching of poetry and the MFA programs? Can writers be taught?
Certainly they can be taught certain things about writing, but I think there is a kind of terminus, a kind of point beyond which you can’t be taught how to write, you have to write out of some drive within yourself as a matter of temperament perhaps. When I wrote The Bear-God Dialogue in which Urset says, “Can you teach me to write?” and Yahweh says, “I can teach you to write, but I can’t teach you to write Moby Dick.” It’s that difference, that distinction, that I think finally matters at last. I would say that writers are born rather than made. You can learn a lot about writing by going to classes, listening to writers talk about the craft of writing, but finally when you face the page—the blank page—it’s really a matter of your own experience and your own insights.
I’ve heard you talk about Shakespeare. I also know that you’ve said before that poetry is the crown of literature, but Shakespeare is normally known for his plays. Which do you prefer?
The plays. I think he was an excellent poet, but he was a better playwright. It’s probably not profitable to distinguish between poetry and drama. They’re the same thing when it comes down to it, especially in Shakespeare. Shakespeare writes poetry in his plays and poems. I think that he reached his highest mark as a playwright. Hamlet and King Lear, which are my two favorite plays, are, I think, unequal in his literature. That’s dangerous to say perhaps. [Laughs]
I have a couple of questions about your art. How do you see your art influencing your writing and vice versa?
I think that they are closely related in that they are pictorial. The imagery on the picture plane and the imagery on the writing, they’re both things that I concentrate on. I think of myself as being descriptive in my writing. I have great fun when I think of the landscape and I describe it in words. To me that’s very satisfying, I think there’s a way to do that with great skill. I probably pay more attention to that kind of description than many other writers do. And it’s the same thing in my painting. Painting is much more spontaneous to me than writing. I can go to a canvas or a piece of paper with no idea in mind, and I can put something down that becomes an image. [Points to the facing wall] This painting of the dancer, the second one there, was very fast. I did it in a matter of minutes. It took form as I was doing it. It’s not something that I thought about in advance, where as with writing it’s very different. Writing is much more highly concentrated, so you have to bend your mind to it in a way that you don’t have to when you’re painting. Painting can be almost relaxing. I can paint and listen to a ballgame, say, and I can’t do that in writing. The two things happen to go well together for me because I can go from writing to painting and find the kind of release, a kind of relaxation, a kind of rejuvenation of some kind that doesn’t demand so much of my mind or concentration. But both things express my spirit I think equally. So they’re both very important to me. But writing is by far the more difficult.
Do you think there’s a difference in difficulty between the genres you write? You write poetry, fiction, plays—you’re pretty versatile.
Of those forms—like the novel, poetry, plays, essays, travel literature, and that sort of thing—probably the most difficult is poetry, and I think it’s because if the poem is well-executed, it requires absolute concentration, and there is no room for waste. You can’t waste a syllable. It isn’t that way with writing a novel. You have lots of elbowroom, and you can use language for its effect in a different way than you do with poetry. The easiest thing to write is probably essay, you know just working with a limited number of words on a given subject, and just polish it off, do with it what you want to do, but it has limitations. You don’t need to think about making it expand in a way that you would with a novel. And writing plays, I like that. I like the genre. That, as I’ve said in class, is probably the closest thing to oral tradition that we have in the forms of English literature. And I enjoy that. One of the things I like about plays is that there is a difference between writing a play and then seeing it or producing it, directing it. I haven’t directed a play, but I’ve worked closely with a couple of directors. The way that things change from the page to the stage, that’s exciting. That can be very creative in itself, and I like to see that. I think plays ought to be departed from in various ways whey they’re acted on the stage. I’m not sure Shakespeare would approve of that statement. It continues to be a creative process from the page to the however many productions, and it’s always interesting to see that, to work with actors. They’re all individuals and have different things to bring to it to be a different production, and when you have really creative actors it’s wonderful to see how they work. Very inspiring.
Did you watch the BCS Championship game last night? Who were you rooting for?
I was happy to see Florida win because I’m for the underdog. I didn’t have any great investment in either team, but I kind of dislike Ohio State because they are generally so successful. But I was quite surprised. You could see how one-sided it was. I think Ohio State just became somehow confused in the process and couldn’t get their game together, and their Heisman trophy winner [Troy Smith] had a terrible night. And I saw the Oklahoma game, of course, but that’s another story. [Laughs]
I read an interview where you say that a childhood hero was Joe Lewis. I’m curious to know what role sports have played in your life?
I’ve always enjoyed sports. When I was in high school I played basketball and baseball and football. I never was very good at any of those things. I did at one time train myself to be a really good shot in basketball. I made baskets from all over the place. And I’ve always enjoyed sports. Joe Lewis to me was the greatest fighter of all when I was growing up. I loved to see his fights. I was convinced that he could beat anybody else, even after his time. I would say, “Well, if Rocky Marciano were in the ring with Joe Lewis, he wouldn’t last very long.” But then now I’m not so sure that my view of that is accurate. If you think about Muhammad Ali, I kind of liked to see them fight, but I think Ali would win.
And football, yes, I grew up wanting to be a star football player. That passed when I realized I wasn’t fast enough or couldn’t see well enough. But I had heroes like Johnny Lujack, and Glen Davis, and “Doc” Blanchard, and a lot of different people I admired.
What teams do you like?
I’m a great Notre Dame fan. I like Notre Dame. And I like the Chicago Bears, I don’t know why, but they appeal to me like the Chicago Cubs. I like the Cubs of baseball, too. And I like the University of Arizona basketball team. I’m a great fan. They’re number seven I think, even though they’ve lost twice.
Yeah, they have a great program, and I think they won the title not too long ago.
I saw them win their NCAA championship against Kentucky. I was in Russia, and I thought there’s no way that I’m going to see this game, but I was flying home, and I had a layover in Frankfurt. I dined in The Admirals Club, and they put the game on so I got to see it.
But generally I like college sports more. I very rarely can get enthusiastic about professional basketball. I know they’re good, and they do impossible things, but I can’t get as excited about them.
A lot of critics say that you were the first Native American novelist to gain prominence. And then a lot of the younger Native American novelists of today look to you as role model. I was just wondering if you think that categorization is fair to call you a Native American novelist instead of, say, an American novelist or a novelist? Do you ever feel that critics or readers box you in too much with that category?
Yeah, I think they do. I feel that way about it, but I feel that way about people talking about Jewish writers as well, or Black writers. A writer is a writer. I certainly don’t mind the label “Native American” writer because I am after all. But if you attach some sort of prejudice to that label, then it’s not accurate. House Made of Dawn was published in 1968, and about that time, within a year of that one way or the other, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee was published. I think that together those two books did bring about a kind of interest in Native American literature that was not there before that. There had been Indian writers for the early part of the century, but that was a banner year, and I think people began to see that there was something to the Native American experience and the literature, writing about it. I was fortunate that the timing was good for House Made of Dawn and Bury My Heart. The public was ready for such an exhibition of Indian writing and history. I don’t think of myself as a spokesman to Native Americans. I’m not political. Politics doesn’t interest me as much as the lyricism of the Indian voice. In a recent book, Robert Warrior says I do have some political interests. I like what he said, but I’m a far cry from the kind of political statement than I’m made for example.
Have you read any of the other younger contemporary Native American writers like Sherman Alexie or Louise Erdrich?
I don’t read everything that they have written. I know Sherman. We’ve been on the same stage together, and I admire his candor. I think he has a ways to go. I think he’s developing into a significant writer. He’s a young man. Nobody at his age is going to write immortal things. I like what I’ve read of Louise Erdrich’s work. I haven’t read a lot. The person I admire most out there today is Deborah Magpie Earling. I think she’s really talented. I’ve not read a lot by her, but what I’ve read I’ve really admired. I know Simon Ortiz’s work and I like Simon’s work very much. And Joy Harjo’s. I sort of know the people who have established a reputation, but there are a lot of people out there that have not yet established a reputation, and I’m sure they’re going to do really good things.