Upon our nearly simultaneous returns to Albuquerque after adventures took us afar, I had the opportunity to catch up with friend, fellow poet and former work-shop peer Tanaya Winder. She has been busy in the most worthwhile of ways since our days of collaborating poetry in Joy Harjo’s poetry class, and clearly understands the challenges of an emerging writer. I am happy to share tales of Tanaya’s experience and strength in today’s interview. Please enjoy Tanaya’s lovely poem, which is followed by our interview.
measure by measure: the body begs
by Tanaya Winder
at the soul’s release please do not leave.
The last crescendo – breathing and
the body intertwined, two hands
offered as a gesture like grasping at butterflies,
longing to hold something precious.
The legatos of trying –
hear the search in continuous acts,
the staccatoed beats.
Dal capo al coda,
go back to the beginning
in the music of being human,
the final score and the counterpoint:
hands outstretched as if
to say I cannot stay –
You have accomplished quite a lot since we attended a Joy’s poetry workshop at UNM together. Tell me more about what you have been up to.
Since Joy’s workshop in 2008, I’ve been writing as much as I can. Entering the MFA world was quite different than I expected. I imagined entering a community of fellow writers who were all so passionate about writing that they’d discuss it continuously, and through that discussion inspire each other. This isn’t to say that I didn’t find any inspiration at UNM, I did. I met fellow writers who enjoyed writing and even some who felt it was their life’s calling; but still, I felt something was lacking. Fortunately, Joy Harjo took me under her wing and agreed to let me take an independent study with her the semester after our poetry workshop. That independent study ended up helping me get involved in my biggest and most influential project so far, “Soul Talk, Song Language: Conversations with Joy Harjo.”
Joy mentioned wanting to put together another collection of interviews. We ended up really connecting in our views. I read her work and she read mine, so it made sense for us to collaborate. I spent the next two years assisting her with her book and was credited as co-editor of the collection. During those two years, I also ended up taking time off from the MFA program. I felt inundated with the teaching load and coursework. I wanted space for clarity and time to read what I wanted to read, to write what I wanted to write. I moved to Boulder, Colorado to work as the Assistant Director for the University of Colorado at Boulder’s Upward Bound Program. It was a good move for me physically and mentally.
In Boulder I started training for my 1st half-marathon and since then have completed 4 half-marathons. I also was able to take classes in CU’s MFA program, which offered a variety of courses and subjects that weren’t available at UNM. One month in my lyric poetry class gave me the inspiration and insight I needed to view poetry in a completely different way. Inspired by the coursework, I wrote the poem “The Impermanence of Human Sculptures” in an eight-hour sitting. I went on to edit the poem twice and submitted it for the “A Room of Her Own Foundation’s Spring 2010 Orlando Prize in Poetry” and ended up winning a $1000 first prize. I took that as I sign that I was where I needed to be.
You’d be surprised how much writing/work you can get done with a steady 8 to 5, 40 hour a week job. I read what I wanted to in the evenings, jotted notes, and even started a writing schedule. I’d wake up at 6AM every morning to write for at least 30 minutes, even if it was just stream of consciousness writing. On weekends I didn’t have any “homework” that I was required to do, no grading, or prepping for classes – all I had was time and I was grateful for it. I found a writing partner who recently moved to Boulder after completing her MFA in screenwriting. We met at coffee shops on Saturdays and Sundays to write and chat about writing. It was then that I realized – I am, indeed, a writer. I didn’t need a program to write, I didn’t need a teaching assistantship and I didn’t need a “workshop.” All I needed was determination to write. A poet-mentor of mine told me that the hardest part of finishing the MFA is continuing to write; he told me he believed I’d make it if I kept up with the writing I was doing. In my time away from UNM and my MFA program, I published 12 poems, 1 interview, 1 essay, and got the book deal with Joy Harjo through Wesleyan University Press.
I did realize that while I don’t need a MFA to be a writer, I do need it if I want to teach. As someone who absolutely believes that poetry is important to the community, I want to be able to teach in both university and community settings. In my first year at UNM, I felt the intersection between community and poetry was somewhat lacking, so I decided to drive home to my reservation once a month to teach a writing workshop at our local library. I loved it. It fed my soul and people enjoyed it. They kept coming back each month.
I think it’s important for poetry and writing to have presence in the community because it reminds you why you’re doing what you’re doing. Sometimes writing can be so solitary. You write, research, write, edit, revise, and write some more. You submit, get rejected, submit again, and again until (hopefully) acceptance. Aside from the occasional reading/performance we writers rarely get to see and interact with our readers, but in community work you get to interact with readers and help others learn how to render their own experiences through story and words. I am a person who hopes my own writing and poetry reflects the times and the needs of society; without interacting with the community the poetry cannot attempt to reflect communities and so I believe poetry must intersect with community. Poetry has the potential to create community for people who are searching for it by providing a space to interact and share experiences on the page.
But finding balance between teaching, community work, and writing can be difficult. I try to think of writing like working out: you don’t find the time for it – you make it. Like exercise, I find that poetry is necessary for me to maintain my health. Now that I am back teaching at UNM and finishing up my MFA I don’t wake up at 6AM to write. Coursework and all that is involved in teaching takes up a lot of time, but I still make sure that I put in at least an hour of “writing work,” which means researching or revising if I am not creating something new. I use goals to help force me to write by looking up special calls for submissions and tell myself that I am going to apply to them. I find deadlines and use a planner to fill in dates where I tell myself that I will submit to at least 3-5 magazines/journals a month. Even if I don’t have something “ready” I send it anyway to keep myself in the habit of writing and submitting. All of these, of course, are small goals in terms of the big plans I have.
It’s important to dream big. In the back of my mind I tell myself I want to have collections of poetry published and one day even have my 1st collection win a 1st book prize. I want to be a Stegner Fellow and dream of becoming a U.S Poet Laureate. I’m well aware of the odds of some of these things actually happening but that doesn’t keep me from dreaming because the dreaming pushes me to work harder. I know I have a lot of work to do before I get to where I want to be with my writing, but that’s the fun of it. You don’t get to where you want to be without putting in the work, and that’s true of both life and writing. Sometimes you sit there and re-work a poem revising lines, individual words, and structures until it seems like a big mess and then…clarity. The funny thing is you wouldn’t have gotten to a point of clarity without diving into the wreck and coming out on the other side. And hey, that’s life, that’s writing.
“Soul Talk, Song Language” by Joy Harjo and Tanay Winder are available at Wesleyan University Press through their website at http://www.upne.com/0-8195-7150-4.html
Tanaya Winder is from the Southern Ute and Duckwater Shoshone Nations. She graduated from Stanford University in 2008 with a BA in English. Tanaya was a finalist in the 2009 Joy Harjo Poetry Competition and a winner of the “A Room of Her Own Foundation’s Spring 2010 Orlando Prize in Poetry.” Her poems have appeared in Cutthroat magazine, Yellow Medicine Review, Adobe Walls, and Superstition Review, amongst others and are forthcoming in Drunken Boat magazine. She teaches Composition and Introduction to Creative Writing at the University of New Mexico where she is currently pursuing her MFA in poetry. She is currently the Assistant Director for the University of Colorado-Boulder’s Upward Bound Program – a college prep program for over 85 Native American high school students from different reservations all across the country. In her free time she enjoys coffee, karaoke, and teaching a monthly writer’s workshop at the local library in her hometown, Ignacio, CO.
Tanaya also writes a blog “Letters from a Young Poet” at http://tanayawinder.wordpress.com/