March 3, 2020
Our Bearings is a collection of narrative poetry that examines and celebrates Anishinaabe life in Modern Minneapolis. Crafted around the four elements— earth, air, water, and fire— the poems are a beautifully layered discourse between landscapes, stories, and the people who inhabit them. Through keen observation and a deep understanding of Native life in Minneapolis, Molly McGlennen has created a timely collection that contributes to the important conversation about contemporary urban Native life in North America and globally.
Here, Molly answers five questions about her new poetry collection.
What inspired you to write this work?
Our Bearings has not only been part of an ongoing personal project of narrating my experience of growing up in Minnesota, but also part of a long-term creative and scholarly project which was focused on Native American urban experience more broadly. In my first book of poetry, Fried Fish and Flour Biscuits (Salt, 2010) I submit in my preface that “poetry is a form of community-building, a means to locate oneself in relationship to a network of people and places and memories.” In my scholarly monograph, Creative Alliances: The Transnational Design of Indigenous Women’s Poetry (University of Oklahoma Press, 2014), I explore how urban Native women demonstrate through their work the ways in which “poetry serves as a direction-finding tool for navigating various forms of (what I call) ‘dislocations’ and reclaiming urban centers as Indigenous territories.” Taken together, the projects are evidence of how I think about the ways Minneapolis, my hometown, has been historicized, shaped, and continually claimed by Indigenous peoples— and how my family’s stories add to that history and present reality. Our Bearings helped me think through what a poetic mapping of this history and reality would look, feel, and sound like: what Nativeness is in the present tense.
How do you think found poetry and poems which are rooted deeply in specific places help document the history of a city or state?
In general, poetry delivers emotional truths and accuracies that maps, written communications, archives— tools of western documentation— rarely convey. Some of the poems in the collection live as poetic documentation of my experience of the city based off of physical “findings” (such as flyers, signs, brochures, etc.). Some are experiential “findings” based upon the many trips back home with my two small children revisiting old (and new) stomping grounds with my family. And, finally, some are poems based upon my experience of working alongside my dad reading through documents archived at the Minnesota Historical Society, which consisted of correspondences and letters between my dad’s great grandparents begging for their children to be returned to them from the Owatoma School for Dependent and Neglected Children. My intention with the poems in Our Bearings was to offer the reader not an alternative history of Minneapolis, or even an alternative mapping of it, but rather to use poetry as a way to seek out stories of sustainability: Poetry as the vehicle to tell and tell again of what is undeniably and crucially Indigenous to this land. My poems are the stories of Native peoples shaping their own future, rather than the ones being acted upon by colonizing ideologies and racist federal laws, policies, and campaigns.
In the preface to this collection, you explain Anishinaabewakiing as an “ecosystem that explicitly includes people, their culture, and history.” Considering the cultural and historical impact of the current generation, what do you think the urban ecosystem of Minneapolis will look like in the future?
I think the ways we imagine the future are based on how we understand the instrument of memory. Poetry can be, in my opinion, one of many decolonizing efforts and materials needed to disarm the hegemony of settler colonial histories and realities. When we lean into specific Indigenous cultural knowledge to better understand a place (a city, a reservation, a suburb, an institution, a country), we harness tremendous power in recalling what has mattered to us, what works for us now, and the tools to safeguard Indigenous futures. I’m not certain what Minneapolis will look like in years to come. I am certain that Indigenous knowledge is crucial to the planet’s future, as the logics of extraction and monoculture almost ensure it’s endpoint.
The poems in this collection range widely in form. In your opinion, what is the relationship between the form and content of a poem? How do you hope the form of your poems impacts your readers?
I feel I was especially attentive to form in this collection. Because of what I understood as both reflective impulses and storied impulses happening as I wrote, I was seeking a way for form to signal and enhance those influences. For the storied poems, I needed the prose poem form to stretch long those narrative lines and to distinguish the edges between story and verse. For the reflective poems, I leaned into lyricism, visuality, and experimentation. Often, I felt as if I was drawing elements of a mental map onto the page, where experience was imagistic and cycles could appear across the pages. I hope the reader can see each poem as a little story of Indigenous Minneapolis, a way to imagine how we connect to it and each other.
What are you working on now?
One of my interests for some time now has been Native women’s visualities: the way narratives are located and found in visual art; artists use of text in their work; and the conversation happening between and among Native women across artistic mediums. There could be a book of poems coming that interacts with the visual storytelling Native women are creating. We shall see!
Below, read a poem from McGlennen’s Our Bearings.
She wants to write about basketball in this poem
and #21—always a Timberwolf—
She wants to say Defensive Player of the Year
and franchise records in this poem.
She wants to be able to just utter the fact
that she was there, finally made it
to the Target Center, for one
of his last nights in the NBA.
She was there.
She wants to just type the word hip-hop
in her poem. Like it is her last poem to write.
Where there are no rules about what she can say
or not say, think or not think.
She wants to speak the names Tall Paul and Chase Manhattan
in her poem, because she's a fan.
Because if she's honest, basketball and hip-hop matter—
sometimes more than poetry.
Wants to shout out
Mint Condition and Next
and Morris Day.
Wants to just keep listing things. Because
they sound good out loud, like KMOJ 89 dot 9,
and she can imagine saying them out loud—
the way poems are supposed to come into the world.
She just keeps scribbling without
thoughts of editors or colleagues,
about what she ought to type or censor.
Because, when it comes down to it,
she'd rather think about basketball and hip-hop and 90s R&B—
and talk about it too. With someone.
Someone who loves it all the same.
Someone who knows every street she utters in her poems,
and the corners, and every person who's died and who's still living,
every hospital visit and wedding, and giveaway.
Every canoe trip and coffeehouse,
every lake and swamp.
She wants to give these words all away
to that person. Again and again.
And with them, trace and retrace
the designs embossed in her memories,
the fibers that become the maps of home.
Molly McGlennen received her Ph.D. in Native American studies from the University of California, Davis, in 2005, and her MFA in creative writing and English from Mills College in 1998. She is an associate professor of English at Vassar College. She is the author of Fried Fish and Flour Biscuits and Creative Alliances: The Transnational Designs of Indigenous Women’s Poetry. McGlennen’s writing has appeared in Sentence, As/Us, Yellow Medicine Review, and Studies in American Indian Literatures.