Art Talk with Poet Tanaya Winder

By Paulette Beete
an indigenous American woman stands in front of a microphone one arm thrust in the air

Tanaya Winder. Photo by Saydie Sago

For Tanaya Winder, writing poetry is about much more than language. It's about what that language can do. As she put it when describing her first recognition of that potency, she realized that "words had the power to hold people in the way they needed to be held." Winder--who is from the Southern Ute, Duckwater Shoshone, and Pyramid Lake Paiute Nations--writes poetry for both page and stage, in addition to working with youth across the country. She is one of the founding editors of the literary journal As/Us: A Space for Women in the World, and also runs Dream Warriors, an Indigenous artist management company. She has most recently published the poetry collection Words Like Love with West End Press, and is the co-editor with Joy Harjo of Soul Talk, Song Language, a collection of interviews with Harjo. We spoke with Winder by telephone about her writing process, and about poetry as both a force for healing and a type of time travel. 

NEA: What’s your origin story as an artist?

TANAYA WINDER: As an indigenous woman, I feel that songs and storytelling have always been a huge part of who I am and of my culture. In the beginning I was like this sponge, absorbing what was going on around me, taking it all in. In fourth grade there was a poetry competition. and it was writing poems in response to The Diary of Anne Frank, which we had just read. I don’t really remember exactly what I wrote about, but I remember writing on this really nice paper. I remember drawing barbed wire on the edges of the paper. And I remember that being the first time I felt that art could be in response to a trauma and that art had its own sort of magical alchemy about it. After that, writing and art became this space of healing, where it could create healing but also create a space for healing.

Many years later, during my senior year in high school, when my grandfather passed away unexpectedly, I really turned to poetry to heal. That was the first time I had been asked to write a eulogy. I remember telling stories [about] the way my grandpa exposed me to the world and the way I saw him. I remember the words flowing out of me and writing it in his bedroom. Then when I read it, I became so overcome with emotion. I remember my sister and cousin being there to stand behind me as I read it and struggled to get through the words…. People talked to me afterward about my words resonating and capturing the essence of my grandfather. It was then I knew that words had this power in the way they were strung together in that you could hold people with those words. I think [that experience is] what taught me that words had the power to hold people in the way they needed to be held. That really opened this wound in me, this passageway that my writing continues to flow from.

NEA: Can you say more about poetry as a type of healing?

WINDER: I’ve always turned to poetry whenever there’s been some sort of rupture or soul wounding in my life. I feel as an indigenous woman and person of color in this country, with the particular history that indigenous people have, that a lot of those soul woundings and ruptures parallel for other people and allow them to resonate. So I think when professors or people tell you, “Don’t write for therapy,” I think maybe they envision therapy and healing in the selfish way. And we’re not taught that way, like you have to heal yourself. You can help heal and help serve others.

I’m really blessed in that I get to travel a lot doing poetry workshops for native youth and college students from reservations and to [other] communities and colleges. One exercise that I like to break the ice with is asking people if they could have any superhero power, what would it be and why? And for me, mine is always I could time travel. Poetry allows me to travel time like that. It allows me to put all of these different events together in this mosaic and if I need to return to [a particular] time, if I need to rewrite an event or a scene and slow it down to really privilege the moment where an exchange or just a small moment can have the same importance and significance as [a large] event, that to me is healing. Because you can return to what you need to return to and write it the way and render it the way you need to render it. So I find it very, very healing in that way. I think when people see you doing that work and they see you remembering, you’re literally putting yourself back together again…. That’s what I mean when I say writing is healing. Even in the practice of it, the patience it takes in crafting a line, in crafting a poem and giving yourself the emotional distance from it, to return to it again then critically, that to me is healing. Because anything traumatic in your life is like that, right? Right away you feel the emotion and the weight of it all…. It takes time to be able to go back and look at it critically the same way it does in a poem

NEA: Where do poems start for you? What’s your writing process?

WINDER: I think the poems always start from a place of emotion. Like I said, from a rupture. There’s this poet and an author and writer. He’s First Nations and his name’s Richard Van Camp. He has this book called The Lesser Blessed, and there’s a quote in it that says: “I have to tell you something. I have this God-shaped hole in my heart, and I think you do, too.” I know my poems start from that hole. I used to think of it as this hole I would try to fill. Like my less than, my not enough than hole that I think a lot of us have. But the older I’m getting, I’m realizing that that’s not where I’m diminished. That hole is where I get my strength. It’s not to fill; it’s to let things come through.

I probably shouldn’t wait for the muse as often as I do, but if something happens, whether it’s the Dakota Access Pipeline [protests] going on right now or the epidemic of murdered and missing indigenous women, or the high rates of suicide [I know about] since I work with youth, whenever I see or hear about things happening, it always moves me to write…. For me it all comes down to love, whether it’s environmental love, social love, community love, or self-love. I think coming at an issue from any of those inlets of love is a way to help people understand it, to give that different vantage point to an issue. A lot of my poems flow in and out of that, and it takes me a long time. I’ll just go with my intuition about the lines. I was really lucky that my first poetics class was with Eavan Boland, and she gave me a really good understanding of white space and how important it was to break a line for meaning and to control how you want your reader to breathe and the mental pacing. I really am conscious when I break the line and when I choose to do form. But sometimes when I get lost in [a poem], I’ll just make it one big block and one big paragraph and start again. I imagine that’s how sculptors think of it. Like this big piece of clay. You know what’s under there and it’s your job to slowly lift [the clay] off.

My actual first poetry teacher for my undergrad where I started studying the craft of it was Gabrielle Calvocoressi. The first poem she taught was “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop. It’s a poem about loss and losing in this very strict form a villanelle. To be able to put something that has no rules, like loss and how it affects people--whether it’s losing time, procrastinating, to losing a person, to ultimate loss--to put something with no rules into a form with absolute rules and structure, that contrast between the content and the form, [she taught me] that’s where poetry lives. I’ve never forgotten that and I always think about that when I write. Now that I work with youth too, I’m doing more performative pieces or spoken words ones, just because if it’s something that I know is meant to be spoken, I try to think about that in the form too. So those thoughts are all going through my head when I write a poem.

NEA: What’s the advice that you find yourself giving your students most often? Or what’s the most important thing you want them to learn while working with you?

WINDER: I want them to know and understand the power of love as a force of change. I think a lot of people think about intimate love, but I try to open and expand the way people think about love. That means that you can love your family, but you can also love yourself. And leaving you home to study what makes you happy and not what you’ve been told is successful is a form of loving yourself. It’s possible for all those different loves to exist in the same universe and in the same body that a person has. I think a lot of times the youth I work with, just because of the day-to-day things and the other struggles in the country, I think sometimes they don’t get the privilege of dreaming that anything’s possible. We’ve been told success is becoming a doctor or a lawyer, and that’s how you can make money so you don’t struggle. But I think it’s rare to sit youth down and say, “Well, what makes you happy? Can you build your life around what makes you happy? What are you good at?” And not just what you’ve been told you’re good at, but what you want to be good at. And again, what makes you happy? Because you want to be able to do what you love for your life. I think that that’s the most important thing. I think art and poetry are ways to help them find that healing, that self-belief, that self-love, and hopefully empower them to choose whatever path makes them happy..

NEA: You touched on superheroes earlier because you must’ve known I was going to ask you: What’s your superpower as an artist?

WINDER: I think I’m able to help transport people through time. So I’m not just the only time traveler, but I can bring them with me. The poems and the art transport them to remembering similar situations in their life that might’ve needed healing. So I guess in that way I suppose that my superpower is to heal people.

NEA: And in terms of being an artist, what do you wish you were better at?

WINDER: I wish I was better at making time for my art. Because I think that out of all those other things I do, sometimes I put myself and my art on the back burner. I need to be better at not doing that. I need to have more balance. When you fly on planes [the safety instructions tell you] you have to put your own air mask on before you assist others. I think sometimes I’m guilty of putting on other people’s air masks to help them and their art and my students, and I need to also focus more on why I do what I do and making sure my art gets enough time and energy as well.

NEA: The final question is for you to finish this sentence. The arts matter because…

WINDER: The arts matter because they tug at the heartstrings in ways that facts and politics and rhetoric could never access.

Did you know Joy Harjo is one of our NEA Big Read authors? Read our 2015 interview with her in NEA Arts magazine.