Q&A with Cedar Sigo: ‘Guard the Mysteries’ and Knowing Your History

Ray Levy Uyeda

In his new book, Guard the Mysteries (126 pages; Wave Books), comprised of five talks presented for the Bagely Wright Lecture Series, Cedar Sigo draws from his experiences as poet, teacher, writer, and thinker to tell us about the life of a poet and the work of his poetry. In the lectures, inward reflections become outward, and what elements start as external (such as a listener’s question) are absorbed into the inside. In other words, poetry is revealed to be a metaphysical, transitive process, always in movement, and always capable of connecting dual sides of a truth. “More and more, I see the poet’s work as connecting bits of language as they begin to surface out right,” Sigo writes in the lecture “Becoming Visible.” He continues: “My dream of composition is not to convey narrative but rather to illumine the fact that scaling these gaps aloud creates intimacy.”

Sigo is the author of eight books and pamphlets of poetry, including Language Arts (Wave Books) and Stranger in Town (City Lights), and is a mentor in the low residency MFA program at The Institute of American Indian Arts. ZYZZYVA spoke with him on the phone to discuss Guard the Mysteries, the spirituality of poetry, and what happens when reading compels us to write.

ZYZZYVA: At the beginning of the collection, you present two quotes, one from Amiri Baraka (“Was it ever so quiet the room began to ask you questions?”) and one from Joanne Kyger (“The quest / is to find those lost vibrating overtones / of the poetry stone”). Why did you choose these quotes? Are they in a dialogue with each other?

CEDAR SIGO: I think maybe I put that on as a gloss to address this isolation we’re feeling now because of COVID since it wasn’t explicitly addressed in the lectures. And also, there’s a sense that there’s something political at work in these lectures that was never visible in my critical writing before. The Joanne Kyger quote was something I lifted from a blurb that Alice Notley wrote for her collected poems, and it’s really interesting because that line doesn’t sparkle so much in the context of the original poem, and I think that’s why I lifted it out again, to let it sparkle.

Z:  Who are your poetry elders and ancestors?

CS: Definitely John Wieners, who was a friend of Joanne Kyger and Amiri Baraka. For a lot of these, one name just folds into the next and forms a cosmos. Definitely Jack Spicer. I mean, it gets very regional, too. I lived in San Francisco from 1999 to 2015, and a lot of the poets that I consider ancestors or that belong to my family tree are poets that spent some time in San Francisco, often critical periods of their life. And then, recently, I feel like I’ve been welcomed into the Native American circle of poetry and like I’m filling out a family tree with Native authors now, kind of late in the game, which I address in the lecture book, too. I would say Luci Tapahonso, Joy Harjo, and dg nanouk okpik. these are poets who I now see as family, and they’re living poets, too, which is nice.

Z: You wrote, “I want to reach as many folks as humanly possible and by any means necessary.” Can you speak on your usage of Malcolm X’s “By any means necessary,” and how this sentence reflects your goals as a poet?

CS: I think that behind that statement is really the fact that it’s not just that we are writing beautiful fragments in our notebooks but that we’re getting out, we make small publications, we edit publications, we curate art shows; I mean, a lot of activities can belong to the realm of poetry, even outreach, like feeding the homeless. I see all kinds of outreach as belonging to poetry and poetry bringing a relief, and not just through our readings but through organizing and seeing beyond these lines of punk versus academic, versus feminist versus this and that. I think a lot of this book is about friendships, about the power of friendship in poetry across aesthetic lines. So, I think that’s what that means—by any means necessary, forming friendships with poets who, maybe we’re on the opposite end of aesthetics, but what do you have in common that you could work on instead of saying, you know, I wouldn’t write it like that, therefore I have nothing in common with you. I see this attitude often within the poetry world. So, it’s working around that first set of assumptions that keeps us from working together or listening to each other’s work, by any means necessary.

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Z: If I’m reading it correctly, you write in many places throughout the book that poetry lives in the body and is just searching for a way to get on the page.

CS: Yes, I quoted Charles Olson in my lecture “Becoming Visible” where he says, “The HEART, by way of the BREATH, to the LINE.” That always made so much sense to me, a lot of the other parts of that lecture I couldn’t make heads or tails of, but some of the quotes lifted out of [Olson’s manifesto] “Projective Verse,” they do hold true to a mapping and movement that hopefully is happening in the body while I’m writing.

Z: I noticed a lot of connection between the physical body, and the space that exists between our own physical bodies, and the relationship or the energy that lives in that space. You quote Barbara Guest: “I want to emphasize that the poem needs to have a spiritual or metaphysical life if it is going to engage itself with reality.” What do you think Guest’s quote means regarding poetry as a tool for building relationships?

CS: I quoted it because it excited me so much—that sense of the spiritual or that there’s something at work here that I don’t quite control, or the sense that we search for the poem and then when we find it, we latch onto it for the duration of its being written. After that, we may have certain habits in place as writers, but really, we are just searching for another vessel to latch onto. I think she’s saying that the poem has to offer more than two dimensions. You have to want something out of poetry, it’s not something that you master.

I wrote that down because I love her book of lectures, Forces of Imagination: Writing on Writing. There are more questions than answers in that book, as well as big gaps, which are instances of erasure. It’s a kind of collaborative reading experience and almost feels like you fill in your own desires for poetry while you’re reading it. She invites elements into her essay writing that intentionally trouble the surface of it. She is very questioning. She asks you to repeatedly step up as a writer, as does Keats as does Rimbaud in that lecture; they ask you to surrender to the portals within poetry. Do you accept the call? That’s really the question in a lot of those, and that’s what I think that spiritual plane is about.

Z: You said as a poet you’re endlessly asked to redescribe your process, and it seems like there are a lot of people who have asked you questions about the “how” of poetry. What do you think people are really trying to understand from you when they ask that question?

CS: I think they’re really asking about when reading turns into writing or when inspiration overcomes you to the point that you are helpless to write, whether that’s by hand or the computer or on your phone, whatever, when you are moved to enter into a field of language. I’ve given descriptions that sort of mirror Charles Olson’s description. But really, it’s very much like the experience of reading the lectures in that those things that I chose to excerpt throughout the book are quotes that just excite me so much, that I am moved to write. That’s why a lot of this book seems like I’m propping up these voices that I admire and exploring how to situate them. Guard the Mysteries is almost 25 percent other people’s writing—it’s very much about what inspires me so in that way it’s kind of an open book.

But I think people are also interested in the fact that a poet is moved to write musically. They want to know what it’s like to be in that bracing fit of music, and really, it’s like asking a jazz musician in the middle of a solo what they’re doing. They don’t know exactly what they’re doing. They’ve built everything up to that moment and then they’re asked to release upon the keyboard or what have you. So, it’s this build-up to the performance of being in the space and not being cognizant of every note you hit; the notes become joined, they cascade, and the knowledge cascades, too. I think that’s why I’m willing to write about the process because I know what the parts are but I don’t know what joins the parts.

Z: You mention Eileen Myles a few times in the collection. You quote their commentary on Allen Ginsberg: “His taking pictures, his capacity to read the newspaper at a table full of young poets who wanted him to pay attention to them, his lips, his voice, all constellate to yield one thing only which was Allen Ginsberg, again and again, and so when you try to see him as gay, you only see him as Allen.” Are they saying that Ginsberg managed to maintain a robustness without assimilating? Is this part of a broader question implied in the collection of how to maintain wholeness under empire in America?

CS: Yeah, and the only way to do that is to be unapologetic. So, being unapologetically poor, unapologetically Native, unapologetically unacademic. It’s just, take me or leave me. You know, I don’t have time for anything other than that and I feel like that’s how Allen was. And definitely, that’s how Eileen is, and maybe more so in a sense than Allen because they have to be.

Z: You wrote a beautiful essay about Billie Holiday and how racism and sexism in the industry conspired against her. In the essay you ask a question: “Why must we constantly recast history within the myth of the American dream?” Can you talk about this tendency to mythologize the past?

CS: A good example of that is how popular the land acknowledgement is before a reading, and it’s often a white person doing it, offering this lame two-minute land acknowledgement. They’re not saying, “We’re on this land, why don’t we discuss the treaties that were broken upon that land?” Why don’t we get specific in ways that make non-Native people uncomfortable, and not just when they’re expecting it, when they pay admission to hear that kind of thing?

I say something else in the essay, let’s draw on each other’s histories within the classroom. Why are we teaching the 1700s instead of last week? Why is everything situated as so far away? A lot of times I get non-Native people wanting me to engage with them, wanting me to email them to absolve them of some perceived guilt, or clarify some Native issue that they need my opinion on, although they’ve never met me. What is your role in healing this? Is it just that you’re considering it? That you’re doing the land acknowledgement? Is that enough? Are you really looking at history or are you depending on the generalizations that have been handed down by your parents, your grandparents, and your teachers? There’s also that poem in this book that Diane Di Prima writes. She says, “Who wrote the history books where you / went to school?” Everything about that question makes the nominal American uncomfortable. To not care about that, to know that and go beyond it intentionally, to go below the surface and know your history, and know other people’s history. Because they’re going to throw their personal experience up at you, so it’s good to know other people’s histories, too.

There are so many Native nations in America and still we get lumped together with these assumptions of buckskin or that we lived in the desert or that we all did the ghost dance. There are all these specificities within these cultures that deserve to be respected. It can’t just be, “Oh, this land was once occupied by these people,” and saying that is enough. That is never going to be enough. In fact, in some contexts that comes across as offensive, like you’re putting a cap on it, and that’s just to make a largely non-Native audience feel comfortable.

Z: In the final lecture you talk about your work editing and collaborating on When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through: A Norton Anthology of Native Nations Poetry. Did you learn anything that surprised you?

CS: There were something like fifteen other Native poets, besides myself, who were contributing editors. We worked on it for almost two years, and Joy [Harjo] really gave us free reign over our sections. I worked on the Pacific Northwest, Alaska, and Hawaii sections. Joy was so democratic in a certain way, and most of my choices were included. I felt like she really listened, and so did Jennifer Foerster and Leanne Howe—the three main editors.

One thing that I learned that I didn’t know before is how difficult it’s been for Native poets to get one book out under their name. I’ve been very spoiled—that was another thing that I realized. A lot of the poets in my section would have one book out in the Eighties and then nothing, or the next book came out fifteen years later. So there were a lot of gaps in our poetic history. We were not well cared for. We’ve actually had to form our own presses or do a series of native nations books like the University of Arizona does. We wouldn’t have a contemporary Native American poetry scene without that press, for instance, because they’ve been committed to doing “experimental,” creative, and contemporary writing. What we were able to put in this book makes a grand statemen. It was edited only by Native poets and enrolled Native poets, too. That was one of the biggest things, just how necessary it was to put it all in one place.

Z: Did your approach to poetry or poetic voice changed through the process of editing?

CS: Yes. I wrote a couple of poems after that, which dealt more specifically with Native history. One of them was called, “What did you learn here?” I visited the site of our winter long house, which is no longer standing. It was burned in 1870 by Catholic missionaries that came to Suquamish. I wandered around the site and I asked myself, what did you learn here? That was a prompt that I lifted from Joy Harjo, and it worked well. What seemed to happen was that I started talking about objects that we made and tools that we made out of cedar and out of grass and bark and all of these things that we made in order to survive and how they were used, and not how they’re shown under glass in a museum, but how we actually used these objects to survive. They’re not artifacts—at one time you had to be a maker in order to survive as a Native person, you had to make poetry out of the landscape. There’s no pen and paper for that. What if that’s your invitation, what if that’s your first exposure to poetry, is having to coax a lifestyle out of a landscape? That’s the ultimate translation, I think.

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