January 11, 2024
Ancient Light by Kimberly Blaeser uses lyric, narrative, and concrete poems to give voice to some of the most pressing ecological and social issues of our time. With vision and resilience, Kimberly Blaeser’s poetry layers together past, present, and futures. Against a backdrop of pandemic loss and injustice, MMIW (Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women), hidden graves at Native American boarding schools, and destructive environmental practices, Blaeser’s innovative poems trace pathways of kinship, healing, and renewal. They celebrate the solace of natural spaces through sense-laden geo-poetry and picto-poems.
What inspired you to write this collection?
Because I grew up “off the grid” on White Earth Reservation, my perspective or world view has often not run parallel with contemporary beliefs. Because the lens through which we view the world arises partly from cultural influences, I sometimes see things in a different light—measure it against another value system. I have written, for example, about a “cosmology of nibi,” a cosmology of water.
The more the functioning of the current systems in power have faltered or failed, the more my awareness of older stories, traditional knowledge, as well as Anishinaabe beliefs, understandings, and ways of being has seemed to assert itself. The current paths look more and more like dead ends or like they will lead to continued exploitation and ultimate destruction of our planet as well as to deterioration of our spiritual health. Many people realize we need a new model.
I began to think of the imprint of Anishinaabe teachings as “ancient light,” as wisdom that can help to illuminate the current situation and serve as a method for navigating new challenges.
The phrase itself arose when I was working on the title poem and the picto-poem “Waaban: ancient light enters.” Both feature a great blue heron and arise out of a pair of lengthy encounters with herons. In one, my son and I paused while canoeing, mesmerized as the heron landed and lifted off dramatically, skewered and feasted on fish, and flew elongated against the setting sun. In another encounter I observed a heron panting and backlit by the sun, its long tongue visible through the thin membrane of its neck. Each of these felt like stop-time moments, but remained “flat” in the photos I had made of the encounters. I realized we regularly enhance our seeing with our bank of understanding. The moments for me felt linked to Anishinaabe stories of birds as messengers, felt illuminated by stories of the crane clan. I worked with layers of text and image to help suggest the larger context. As I added woodland beadwork for the sky and snippets of language into the image, I further solidified my notion of “ancient light” as alive in our everyday experiences and began to write and create with that focus in the back of my mind.
How did the themes of MMIW (Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women) and hidden graves at Native American boarding schools inform the poems in this collection?
Each of these contemporary situations arise out of a possessive mindset, a colonial perspective that claims “ownership” and the right to manipulate, consume, destroy. The power dynamic such a system represents permeates other aspects of our society—may stand behind much of the environmental destruction, for example. Taken together, I think the poems indict settler colonialism as a system. They ask: How do we survive colonization? How do we resist? More importantly, they ask: How can we recover and flourish? They ask this not only for Indigenous people, but for all human beings and more than human beings.
Ancient Light includes pieces of your artwork. Would you tell us more about how your art and your poetry work together in the collection?
Working within and between mediums feels like my adult playground. Of course, Indigenous creative work comes out of a tradition of intermingled arts—dance, beadwork, weaving, song poems, drums, etc. In contemporary literature, the work of many Indigenous writers often spills across genres and artistic forms. For a long time, I have made photos and written in several genres, I have created ekphrastic poetry in response to other people’s art or, if truth be known, in response to the art in nature. For example, I have one piece which I entitled “The Lineation of Water.” It demonstrates my long-held belief that we exist in an environment filled with many kinds of communication (with many kinds of poems) and we can learn to “read” the other languages around us.
I spend a good deal of time out of doors in natural areas, often kayaking in the waterways near our cabin which is adjacent to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. The many transformational moments I have experienced in nature have over the years been cast in art as both photographic and poetic images. They began to blend and inform one another. I might have a moving photo and write a poem in concert with that or vice versa. Then, inspired by Anishinaabe pictographs and Native American Ledger art, I started experimenting with layers of text and image. I leaned into palimpsest as a form, and began to create what I call Picto-Poems.
Although different pieces work differently—some ekphrastically in pairs, some as a single layered picto-poem, I continue to play with creating intersections of meaning through layers of text and image. One image in the book, a silhouette of a Green Heron, felt like a poem itself. It moved me in the way poetry does as it pushes you beyond language into experience (like haiku). I think a lot about gesture in poetry and silence that vibrates with possibility. Both poetry and photos can bring us to the edge of the known and invite us or push us into the unknown. That particular moment and later the photo had that impact on me. I experimented with ways to match that energy in words, to match the delicate lines of the bird. I turn to suggestive concrete poetry in the process. In the poem, I use the word “trace,” and I think that word suits both visual and verbal renderings—suits each vision.
What is the connection between being an Anishinaabe or environmental activist and a poet?
For me, poetry has dual roles to play—to be beautiful as language, as art; and to do something in the world. I talk about it as both affective and effective. I am aware not everyone holds this belief about poetry or art, but in Indigenous traditions our arts play a role. They were not and are not only beautiful or merely decorative. Songs are used for healing or protection as well as celebration. We wear intricately embroidered clothing, dance on “priceless” beaded moccasins. The process of making poetry/art or using art is often tied to ceremonial or subsistence elements of culture, often arises in community (think, for example, of harvest festivals that involve song or dance).
In contemporary circumstances that celebration, protection, or healing I mention as among the roles or impacts of song poems, might extend to our environment—to water bodies, animal relatives, etc. In a culture based in animacy and reciprocity, we use our gifts responsibly when we use them for the earth community to which we belong.
That philosophical system may seem naïve or stereotypic, but in my day-to-day life I do use my writing, photos, and picto-poems frequently in my activist or environmental work. We need poetry/art because it is an act of attention and can become an agent of change. When we awaken someone to the experience of an alive world that may be new to them, we plant a seed. Seeing differently may be the first step toward acting differently. In the ideal scenario, successfully rendering in lyric a particularly impactful natural scene, image, moment changes both writer and reader.
On a yet more practical level, I literally fold my creative work into my activist work. For example, I am a plaintiff in a lawsuit filed against the United States to protect the BWCAW from potential copper mining. The official declaration I wrote actually includes passages extracted from creative works—since that art arises out of the same ethic of reciprocity, kinship, and sustainability.
For me, one other important aspect of creative activism, especially Indigenous environmental activism, involves the use of Anishinaabemowin, the Ojibwe language. Because the language carries important teaching—environmental, spiritual, and subsistence teaching (among others)—using the language in poetry can also carry that Traditional Indigenous Knowledge into the world at a time our planet desperately needs it. Through the #LanguageBack focus initiative in the nonprofit I founded (IN-NA-PO, Indigenous Nations Poets), we recognize the way language learning and teaching through poetry supports our survivance as Indigenous peoples and protectors of the planet.
What is your next book or creative project?
I have several projects I am excited about. Although I have been less prolific in fiction and creative nonfiction, I do write and publish both. I am very close to completing a short fiction collection—I am in the arranging, revising stage. I am also more slowly at work a memoir, gathering flash memoir pieces that I can weave into a full volume with other kinds of text and images (including letters, boarding school documents, etc.).
Of course, I also have another poetry project in the works, too. I won’t say too much lest it slip away in the telling, but I have a foundation of poems and phrase my focus this way: “What If We Are Not Broken By Our Histories.” Finally (and with excitement) I am working on an art exhibit (which may become the seeds for a book) which will include photos, poems, and picto-poems. In the wings, I have a tentative editing project.
I’m taking bets on which of these will surface first!
Kimberly Blaeser, former Wisconsin Poet Laureate and founding director of In-Na-Po, Indigenous Nations Poets, is a writer, photographer, and scholar. Her poetry collections include Copper Yearning, Apprenticed to Justice, and Résister en dansant/Ikwe-niimi: Dancing Resistance. Recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award from Native Writers’ Circle of the Americas, Blaeser is an Anishinaabe activist and environmentalist enrolled at White Earth Nation. She is a professor emerita at University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee and an Institute of American Indian Arts MFA faculty member.