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A Reign of Words

The first Taos poet laureate begins her term with well-chosen words

In 2017, SOMOS, the literary society of Taos since 1983, realized a long-time dream of creating the position of Poet Laureate in Taos. In August, the Taos Town Council approved the idea. A call for entries commenced, then a jurying* process ensued. By the end of the year, Sawnie Morris was announced as the inaugural Taos Poet Laureate. Her two-year reign began when she was introduced to the Taos mayor and city council members on January 23, 2018.

Sawnie Morris in Town Council Chambers, January 23, 2018

On February 15, 2018 Sawnie Morris spoke to an enthusiastic audience of SOMOS friends. Here is a transcript of her first public presentation as Taos Poet Laureate.

Comments from Taos Poet Laureate

My gratitude goes to Jan Smith, members of the Board of Directors of SOMOS, the Town of Taos, the Witter Bynner Foundation, the judges, and to all of you who took the time to be here today to celebrate poetry with me.

I am honored to assume the role and responsibilities of the Inaugural Poet Laureate of Taos.

The first thing I want to say is that this is not about me – this is about us!

The poet laureateship is about living in a community that values the literary arts enough to recognize them in this way. It is about all of us who are mad enough and blessed enough to consecrate our lives to writing – and to do so in a small rural town in the mountains.

No matter what genre we write in, poetry is at the core of it.  Every word is a poem. Every word began as a metaphor, an image, a sound meant to evoke something or someone, meant to communicate with others. As past U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins has said, poetry is the way the human heart tells its story.

We need that.

I am keenly aware that we are all in various stages of becoming and in this room, in this community, exist many, working more or less anonymously, everyday, who  –  because of their commitment and courage –  are contributing to the light of consciousness that is poetry – and whose work, because of their dedication, will be recognized.  I applaud and want to encourage that.

I am also aware that many people are afraid of poetry, until or unless they have an encounter when their guard isn’t up. With that in mind, my project as the Inaugural Poet Laureate is called POETRY IN WAITING and was inspired by the Poetry Society of America’s Poetry in Motion project, and an intimate encounter I had with a fragment from a Wallace Stevens poem that was on the wall of a subway in Manhatten in the early 90s. Taos does not have an extensive public transportation service, but we do have waiting rooms. For my project, I aim to post a poem or poem-fragment everywhere that people have a moment – by choice or necessity – to wait – which is to say, to pause, sit, reflect. For example, a bilingual poem by Neruda in the ER, a poem by Joy Harjo or Sherman Alexie at the movie theaters, a Juan Felipe Herrera poem on the Chili Line, a Mary Ruefle or Gwendolyn Brooks poem on the walls of doctors’ offices, insurance offices, auto repair shops, the jail, the DMV. (And, as more than one person has joked, maybe we need two poems in the DMV.)

Finally, I wish to make acknowledgement of just a few of the institutions, structures, and people working on behalf of poetry in our community. This list is, of course, not exhaustive.

  • We have SOMOS: Phyllis Hotch, Dori Vinella, Jan Smith, and all of the members of the board of directors now and over the years.
  • We have SOMOS’s annual Poetry Series, which is part of National Poetry Month, and which Veronica Golos has curated for a number of years now and Arianna Kramer will be curating for 2018.
  • We have James Navé’s Taos Poetry Festival
  • We have the Taos Journal of International Poetry and Art, editors Veronica Golos and Cathy Strisk
  • And its forerunner, the Taos Review, that was primarily edited by the late ‘Annah Sobleman, along with Bill Gersh, Steve Rose, Renee Gregorio, and myself.
  • We have KCEI’s recordings and interviews of poets, thanks to Mike Tilley, Robin Collier, and Nancy Ryan.
  • We have Poets Outloud at the high school, with Francis Hahn and Annie MacNaughton.
  • We have the Wurlitzer Foundation, which has brought so many writers to Taos, many of whom have stayed and/or discretely returned for extended writing retreats.
  • We have Andrea Watson’s  3: A Taos Press.
  • And in the past we had the Taos Poetry Circus, thanks to Annie MacNaughton.

We also have a number of poets with national reputations who are teaching poetry independently and/or through SOMOS: Lise Geott’s fire side chats and seminars; workshops with Veronica Golos, Cathy Strisik, and Leslie Ullman, and also the late Elaine Sutton; as well as, Robin Shawver and Kate O’Neil at UNM; and in the schools, Ned Doughtery and – one way or another – I’m sure, John Biscello; and for many years Sue Goldberg. I also want give a nod to the therapists working behind the scenes, who bring poetry in their practices; and all of teachers who are providing their students and clients with the special form of attention to the world that poetry provides.

I am also thinking of the liturgies that are spoken throughout our town on a weekly basis. And I want to express my personal gratitude for the Pueblo and the ceremonial dances that take place there and that are, in my experience, an ongoing and profoundly rooted manifestation of Poetry that through a kind of osmosis, if nothing else, have had a deep influence on my life and my work.

All of this reflects the values of our community – and in many cases the people who visit our community. Thank you.

Sawnie reading at a SOMOS event in 2017

The Literary Legacy of Taos

Taos has a strong literary history. I have assembled a few poems and poem-fragments – written by poets who have made Taos their home or spent a great deal of time in Taos – that I want to share with you.


D.H. LAWRENCE lived and wrote in Taos in the 1920s.

KNOW THYSELF MORE DEEPLY

Go deeper than love, for the soul has greater depth,
love is like the grass, but the heart is deep wild rock
molten, yet dense and permanent.

Go down to your deep old heart, and lose sight of yourself.
And lose sight of me, the me whom you turbulently loved.

Let us lose sight of ourselves, and break the mirrors.
For the fierce curve of our lives is moving again to the depth
out of sight, in the deep living.


ROBERT CREELEY lived and wrote in Taos in the 1950s.

AMERICA

America, you ode of reality!

Give back the people you took.

 

Let the sun shine again

On the four corners of the world

 

You thought of first but do not

Own, or keep like a convenience.

 

People are your own word, you

Invented the locus and term

 

Here, you said and say, is

Where we are. Give back

 

What we are , these people you made,

Us, and nowhere but you to be.


TONY MARES died just a few years ago. Though he was from Albuquerque, this fragment is from his book-length poem Astonishing Light, which presents in poetic form a series of conversations with Taos sculptor, Patriciño Barela.

Mira, hermano, there are good priests.

But I try to avoid them all, the good and the bad.

I carve my figures from what I see here,

inside myself. A tender world,

mellow and rich como una dulce guitarra,

is what I see in the wood. Old people,

children, parents and friends

are alive in the grain of the wood

I want to play like a sweet guitar.

Their voices come to me softened

by the morning fog. The drift

and spiral from the twists and turns

of splintered lives. These voices

have the fresh scent of cedar in the forest.

I try to set them free. That is all.


LUCY TAPAHONSO is Diné and the Inaugural Poet Laureate of the Navajo Nation. She is a frequent visitor to Taos and her work was important to me in my very early days in Taos. This fragment is from a poem in her collection Sáanii Dahataal, The Women Are Singing.

BLUE HORSES RUSH IN

Before the birth, she moved and pushed inside her mother.

Her heart pounded quickly and we recognized the sound of horses running:

 

The thundering of hooves on the desert floor.

 

Her mother clenched her fists and gasped.

She moans ageless pain and pushes: This is it!

 

Chamisa slips out, glistening wet and takes her first breath.

The wind outside swirls small leaves

and branches in the dark.


JOY HARJO spent decades living in Albuquerque and has also spent time in Taos. Her poems had a tremendous influence on my own in my early years of writing. This is an excerpt from her poem “Grace” that appears in In Mad Love and War.

GRACE

I could say Grace was a woman with time on her hands, or a white buffalo escaped from memory. But in that dingy light it was a promise of balance. We once again understood the talk of animals, and spring was lean and hungry with the hope of children and corn.


‘ANNAH SOBELMAN, who lived in Taos off and on for a total of close to 20 years and died last summer. This is her poem “A Physics of Desire,” from her collection, In the Bee Latitudes.

A PHYSICS OF DESIRE

at  first  she  thinks  the  attraction  does not
fill  her  with  enough  blood ,  but
with  a  thing  like  the  dove —    White and coloured
feathers   —   Bones  unlike  her  own
bones  that  gravity  can’t  pull  down  ,  a milky  thing
unlike   the  seas .           Fills
           her  with    a                      wind —    Starch  rustle  of the quick
passing  of    things  ,  then    silence   afterwards
of  the  things that passed —    that gave the wind
                            its  sound      ,   not       unlike     what   split
the fireworks  in  the  high  school  park   into   fanning particles
of  flame .    The   peacock    that      is  the   world ,         bird
of       breathing  colour    between  them —    Bird
that  is  everything to  choose from   —   or the one thing  ,
    sacred bone of the particular    —

JEAN VALENTINE has been a repeat resident at the Wurlitzer Foundation and returns to Taos from time to time to write. This is the title poem from her collection, Door in the Mountain.

DOOR IN THE MOUNTAIN

Never ran this hard through the valley

never ate so many stars

 

I was carrying a dead deer

tied on to my neck and shoulders

 

deer legs hanging in front of me

heavy on my chest

 

People are not wanting

to let me in

 

Door in the mountain

let me in.

 

I want to share this additional poem of Jean Valentine’s because it is so relevant to our time, published in the New York Times Magazine.

ICEBERGS

In blue-green air & water God

you have come back for us,

to our fiberglass boat.

 

You have come back for us, & I’m afraid.

(But you never left.)

 

Great sadness at harms.

But nothing that comes now, after,

can be like before.

 

Even when the icebergs are gone, and the millions of suns

 

have burnt themselves out of your arms,

 

your arms of burnt air,

you are with us

whoever we are then.


Taos has an illustrious and inspiring history of poets and poetry!

 

Clothespins on the Line by Sawnie Morris

I’ll end with a poem of my own that appeared last April in Poetry, titled “Clothespins on the Line.”

CLOTHESPINS ON THE LINE

                            look like birds. Scrawny

winter   birds   balanced by   two   sarong

 

tail   feathers.   Some   look west,

others north-

 

east   toward   the

mountain.   Stiff in the   cold &

 

remote.   They  haven’t  been   loved

enough.   They grow

 

thinner   and thinner   in their   woody

streaked   feathers,   held together  only   by

 

the exposed   spiral   of   internal

organs.   After  a  while ,   the sun comes

 

out and   all o f   the birds,   clutching   wire,   turn

an     electric            silver.

 

This is     hopeful,,    but doesn’t   last.         Clouds

take a  break   from   one   another , ,

 

re-

convene.   A half-inch of

 

snow is rolled out   with   perfect    evenness

across               the picnic   table,   as though

 

someone made a blank

for what was

 

coming.    The nice thing

about   clothespin    birds   is             they   don’t

 

“excrete.”

Jays   &   grosbeaks   &   finches

 

&      mourning    doves    + ravens   leave

their   paintings

 

everywhere , on   benches & limbs ,, , on fallen

pine needle fascicles \|/                    feldspar & quartz _ __

 

though   all  has  now   become

gesso    beneath    snow.   After   a  certain amount   of

 

feeling

hopelessly under-

 

accomplished,   you look at   your   nails

and   want   to

paint them.         Is this how   birds

 

feel?                 No.         Birds fly

and   don’t    look

 

down.      Or,   they   sit   `’’   amid branches

and    peck   at the   brittle   waffled   bark

 

& tiny    bugs    buried

in   the marrow.  .< sszt sszt sszt .<   You, too,

 

peck.  Familiar letters    on t he   keys have   lost

their    definition        and   resemble   finger-

 

tip-size   daubs of   bird   paint   on back-

lit platforms.   You   recall the   s   e   &   m

 

only   via   entrenched   neural   pathways ,

while   the   l   and   c      continue to

 

morph   into tiny   archaic

symbols.    As though,  the  unconscious

 

is forming      a message.       ( Always   “it”   has   something

unearthly     to say. ) Except

 

the unconscious   is

the earth ,    it’s   just   we

 

don’t  know   how   she               does it.

 

St. Thomas of Aquinas  got  a delirium

 

hit of   t hat   at the end

and decided  to   marry   it.   Each day

 

your thumbs   grow   paler,   nails   coarser,   evolving

toward   the ptero-

 

dactyl: part  reptile,  part   bird.

As  a  child

 

pterodactyls   scared you,         which meant

they   had  your             attention.   Refusing to stay

 

in   the   lineage,         they became

their  own            form.

 

They had  an  iguana       for     a     father

and  a   pelican   for  a    mom,

 

crispy  and  dipped  in  molasses.

If you were big enough

 

you could   eat   them

the  way   some people   eat grass-

 

hoppers.  Compulsive hole-

punchers,  if less   manic

 

could be    sculptors,

though it requires d-e-t-a-c-h-m-e-n-t

 

to see  it    that way , , if  you  are

a   lilac   leaf   sketching   outside

 

the   library   window.        What are those    books

doing   in there   together ?!                  Nothing !

 

When a   new    one arrives,   they   fall  in

love,,  one   by one.  Inside  their  covers,

 

a   million   leaves, each

w/  black   growth.     A pattern of       fungus ,

 

the  shed  skin  of          snakes  &  dna

traces.   Like   bird   poop,

 

but   more orderly     and the message is   see-

through. Don’t you

 

wish    you   could   lift   the   letters

and   release them       halfway

 

back   to

the  liquid   state ,, ,   before they   got   connected   to

 

the   circuitry?   It might be    kind   of

relaxing.  You might be

 

as good of a

painter

 

as a         cuckoo    bird.    A few nights   ago

you  dreamt   you were very     pregnant &

 

in need of    a  place       to give   birth.   Your  boyfriend

had   left         you     and  2    therapists

 

let   you    live         w/ them

because   you    resembled   their     daughter  —

 

though they were     suspicious.   Who    can blame  them?

As for your nails,

 

find  a     mani-

curist,   someone  who   knows   what they are

 

doing.  Druids never  lived   here,

that was    Europe,    but  you

 

and   the   sage-

brush

 

are   distantly   related      via     microbial

ancestors;         in spite of    yourself,   you are

 

surrounded

by   family.   \\|/

 

 

Thank you for being here and for your support of poetry.

About Sawnie Morris

Sawnie is a poet and a prose writer. She teaches poetry, prose, and dreamwork privately, online, at universities, and for small groups at her Ranchos de Taos home studio. Sawnie is an environmental activist and served as director of Amigos Bravos: Because Water Matters for many years. She is married to Taos artist, Brian Shields.

 

Learn more:

SOMOS, Literary Society of Taos

Sawnie Morris

About Poet Laureates (by Wikipedia)

 


* The four poet laureate judges were Ceramic Sculptor artist, Deborah Rael-Buckley; Middle School teacher and Town Councilman, Nathaniel Evans; Director of the UNM Library, Kathleen Knoth; and musician/artist/writer, Joshua Concha.

108 Civic Plaza Drive: A Place for Words in Taos

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