Horsefly Dress is a meditation on the experience and beauty of suffering. Rich in the imagery of autumnal foliage, migrating birds, and frozen landscapes, Heather Cahoon’s collection calls forth the sensory experience of grief and metamorphosis. The transformative powers associated with the human experience of loss belong to the past, present, and future, as do the traditional Salish-Pend d’Oreille stories that create the backbone of these intricate poems.
Below, Heather Cahoon answers a few questions about her beautiful new poetry collection.
The poems in Horsefly Dress are influenced by traditional Séliš and Qĺispé stories. How do you think these stories guide and impact the contemporary lives of Salish-Kalispel peoples?
I think it varies a lot from individual to individual and depends on each person’s exposure—or lack thereof—to the stories. There are many reasons for the lack of exposure but among the foremost are federal Indian policies of assimilation that were designed to acculturate American Indians. These policies were very aggressive and included on- and off-reservation boarding schools for Native youth, the banning of sacred spiritual practices, and the forced allotment of reservations, among other collateral outcomes from these policies. Federal assimilation efforts were obviously never fully successful, however, and many people managed to maintain their traditions to varying degrees. As a result of both of these sort of countervailing efforts by federal officials and tribal people, American Indians today may have more or less access to their cultural traditions, including their traditional stories. That said, there are definitely segments of my community whose contemporary lives are very much guided and impacted by our traditional stories. These stories are hyperlocal and relevant; they are located right here where we live out our daily lives and they continue to have so much to teach us about inhabiting this place and about being human.
Avian symbolism plays a powerful role in this collection. Could you please tell us more about the significance of birds in your work?
Some of the significance is tied to tribal symbolism but most of it, in this collection, is personal. Whenever I’m out trail walking or hiking there are birds present—you can hear them, you often see them moving about the forest and so much of the time they seem to be just part of the scenery. But every so often, one steps out of that in a way that penetrates my experience or perception of being the primary observer and suddenly I am aware that I am being perceived by something just as alive and sentient as I am. Some of these exchanges or interactions are longer and more drawn out while some are very brief. Each one is unique but they are all so poignant and meaningful that they’ll often make their way into my poems.
The poems in Horsefly Dress are bursting with vivid foliage, animals, and natural elements. What is your process for weaving nature so intimately into your poetry?
My family has spent so much time outdoors in the mountains. Growing up, my father made a living by hunting and by selling things he could harvest from around our reservation and we often helped him in these endeavors. He sold Christmas trees, firewood, landscaping stones and even dropped deer and elk antlers, which sometimes he would make into antler lamps and chandeliers. We also spent time as a family just driving to pretty places for either camping or fishing or just to enjoy the peacefulness and smell of the mountains. It has been my father’s belief that for whatever ails a person, all they need is to retreat into the mountains in order to become well. Needless to say, I continue to spend time in the outdoors and the experiences I have with local places, flora and fauna inevitably end up in my poems.
Dreams are featured prominently in this collection. How do dreams affect your creative process?
I occasionally have dreams that are so vivid and powerful that I think about them off and on for days, sometimes even years, until I understand their meaning. Interestingly, it’s often the creative process of making them into poems—the act of writing about them in such detail—that helps me fully understand them, to see or hear or decode their messages for me.
What are you working on now?
I am working on and off on a longer-term project that involves revising and expanding my 2005 poetry chapbook Elk Thirst into a full-length collection. Besides this, I recently launched and direct the American Indian Governance and Policy Institute at the University of Montana and am working to develop a comprehensive tribal public policy needs assessment for each of the tribal governments located our state. I can get mentally caught up in my policy research and writing, which is very cerebral, but this state is countered by writing poetry, which brings me back to into the present and helps ground me in a bodily experience of time and place.
Read a poem from Horsefly Dress, included below.
RENDER May I be worthy of my most embattled moments. May I find a way to render meaning from the blood marbled-memories cached inside the carcass of the past.
© 2020 by Heather Cahoon
Heather Cahoon, PhD, earned her MFA in poetry from the University of Montana, where she was the Richard Hugo Scholar. She has received a Potlatch Fund Native Arts Grant and Montana Arts Council Artist Innovation Award. Her chapbook, Elk Thirst, won the Merriam-Frontier Prize. She is an assistant professor of Native American studies at the University of Montana. She is from the Flathead Reservation and is a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.