Luci Tapahonso, a professor of English literature and language at the University of New Mexico, gave a poetry reading at the Honnold/Mudd Library on Sept. 29, hosted by Claremont Graduate University’s School of Arts and Humanities. Tapahonso was appointed as Navajo Nation’s first-ever poet laureate in 2013, merited by her large body of work. She is the author of three children’s books and six collections of poetry as well as recipient of several awards, including the Native Writers’ Circle of the Americas’ Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006 and the Wordcraft Circle Storyteller of the Year Award in 1999.
Tapahonso was introduced by Wendy Martin, a professor of American Literature and American Studies and director of the Kingsley & Kate Tufts Poetry Awards. Martin arranged to bring Tapahonso to Claremont this fall and organized the event.
Tapahonso introduced herself in Navajo and then in English. Both students of CGU and residents of Claremont unassociated with the Claremont Colleges listened to the reading and were able to enjoy Tapahonso’s poetry in an intimate setting.
“I’m at this event because, one, I love poetry, and two, I love exploring and learning from other cultures,” Antoinette Spillers CGU ’16 said. “What I liked best about it was the intimacy of the event. Being in a small room gave you a better connection with the poet and the poems.”
As she read her poems, Tapahonso paused only to take a sip of water or to tell an anecdote that would set up the next poem.
“When we arrived last night in Ontario, the first thing I noticed was the quality of the air,” Tapahonso said. “And that is why I wanted to start off with this poem.”
Tapahonso’s connection to her family and appreciation for everyday life ran deep throughout all of her poems. In fact, she cites her family as her greatest artistic inspiration. One of 11 children raised on a farm in Shiprock, N.M., Tapahonso considers her Navajo, or Diné, lineage a defining aspect of her work, and she more often than not incorporates Navajo language and rhythms into her poetry. Though Navajo traditions are embraced throughout her work, and she will often work through ideas in Navajo, Tapahonso finds English easier to write in because she was prohibited from learning in Navajo at the school on her reservation.
The poet has an impressive ability to take scenes from her own life and turn them into universal pieces of writing. “Afternoon in Yooto’ (Santa Fe),” details an afternoon she spent with her mother, for example. Other poems describe a new baby, a car ride with her dog and an onion festival in Italy.
“What makes her poems special is that they come out of daily life, the web of ancestors and relationships and celebrates the quotidian,” Martin said. “It’s a very important renewal of fundamental experiences.”
Other poems featured dealt with Tapahonso’s painful lineage. “1864” describes the tragic journey 8,000 Navajo people took from their home in present-day Arizona to Bosque Redondo, 300 miles away, during which 200 people died. Despite the brutal descriptions of death and loss, there is still joy and gratitude in her poem. Characters thank their ancestors for sticking together and protecting them throughout the 18-day journey. At the end of the reading, Tapahonso cites Bosque Redondo as the place where the Navajo people learned how to use flour and developed a taste for coffee.
When asked how she deals with the legacy of violence present in her everyday life, Tapahonso shrugged and said, “I think because it’s so much a part of our daily lives, we are always aware of it. It makes me more cognizant of how important everything is.”
Tapahonso explained that carrying on the traditions of the Navajo brings her great comfort and a sense of connection to her relatives’ lives.
“I know that sometimes when I feel insecure or unprotected, if I wear the dresses in the style that my grandparents did, if I do the things my grandparents did when they were under great stress and life-threatening situations, it just settles me,” Tapahonso said. “I can handle things better then. I’ve got clarity.”
Through her writing, Tapahonso hopes to help people realize the importance of their own histories and family stories.
“The longer that I write, the more that I understand and realize and have appreciation of that,” she said.
Writing has also allowed Tapahonso to travel, something she did not do before she began to write.
“I’ve been able to see different parts of the world,” she said. “I get to see different ways of life, but I also get to see the similarities.”
This ubiquity that comes hand in hand with transcending cultures makes Tapahonso’s poems accessible to readers, allowing each person to take away something a little different from the universal concepts she centers her work around.
“All cultures appreciate dogs, all cultures appreciate different kinds of foods,” Tapahonso said. “It’s the universal aspects of grandparents and family and babies.”