Wednesday, March 26, 2014




Hello, little crescent moon.

Good morning icy March wind.

Good morning house wren’s sharp trill

in a sleepy indigo sky.

Good morning oak branches

pointing out directions.

Are you all here to remind

one lost Indian woman to ask

for help from the Ancestors?

Yes, I have forgotten again.

Yes, I went to sleep last night

thinking I was forgotten.

Good morning cold air

bathing me like a newborn.

Good morning sun whose steady approach

pushes indigo to robin’s egg.

Good morning, Ancestors whose spirits

watched over me last night, my body

curled in a child’s vast sorrow.

Saleki asatsa.  I’m here at last.  I’m

here again.  Saleki asatsa, matsa. 

Saleki asatsa, ashi. 


                        Deborah Miranda

Tuesday, March 25, 2014



swept up
 in this swirling
  Sunday siren’s mass
   beating of a thousand
    hearts like the bioluminescent
     swarm of saltwater’s dark matter
       pulling me through a fluid map-maze
        toward a child caught without compass
          somewhere between oceanic depths and
           the feathered thunder of wings    we fly
           three thousand miles on broken sestinas
          and prayers of ancestors back to that slice
         of land squeezed between an open vein of
         hungry saltwater and a backbone of ice
          a blue dot on the map just to rock that girl
           sing her starry stories made of constellations
            show her a home etched somewhere in the
             mystery of her tough turtleheart    we can’t
              navigate that map without vortex-
                generating wings and gills for breathing
                   saltwater angel and mermaid aim for
                    landmarks shining like stars salmon
                      berries trilliums Cedar Waxwings
                                     and her pulse  beating
                                      hard as wings  know 
                                        know that in some
                                          DNA saltwater
                                       everywhere Sunday
                                     is a flock of starlings
                                       who don't need a
                                               just sky

Deborah A. Miranda

Monday, March 24, 2014



It’s early in the morning here on our beautiful campus.  I’m in my book-lined stereotypically cluttered professorial den prepping for the day.  I have a skype interview with students in Hawai’i on my schedule, but forgot to bring a copy of my book to work (normally I keep a copy here but must have taken it home by accident).  Luckily, my institution’s brilliant librarians purchase copies of all faculty books, so I type the title into our e-catalog and my book pops right up.  That, however, is when my heart falls – no, not falls, but actually plummets:  the call number started with an ‘E’ … and I well know what that means.  This book is buried in the bowels of the library, in the ethnology/anthropology section.  Not only that, but in the CALIFORNIA INDIAN section, where no one on the entire campus except our sole California Indian – me – ever ventures. 

This is what my book looks like in the card catalog’s list:


See me?  There I am, 20th-21st Century memoirist, poet and writer: accompanied by Stone Age spear and arrow points of California and the Great Basin, Handbook of Indians of California, Indians, missionaries and merchants: the legacy of colonial encounters on the California frontiers and California Archaeology.  You might also notice that First families: a photographic history of California Indians by L. Frank and Kim Hogeland, another book from my publisher Heyday, is also consigned to this dungeon (it should be in with photography and/or art).  Since Bad Indians is a memoir that also contains poetry, short stories, artwork, photographs as well as some re-purposed ethnographic materials, placing it there with stone age arrowheads and California archaeology pretty much guarantees that it will never cross the path of a creative writing or English student browsing through any of those sections.   

The book is, in effect, hidden from sight.  None of the Creative Writing Minor students whom I hope will envision me as Mentor/Writer will ever see what is, in my mind at least, my literary masterpiece and a pretty interesting take on the memoir genre as well.  They'll see the books of their other professors on those library shelves, but not mine.  How does that look?  For someone like me - female, Native, lesbian - establishing a professional identity at a university with very few people of color or out professors is a hell of a lot of work.  But thanks to a simple number, it’s kind of like my book, and my life as a writer, don’t even exist.  Those words “Native American/California Indian” trump everything when it comes to classification of my literary output. 

I'm in my office again (the hours spent in this chair would stun you), taking a quick break to read some news from the outside world.  What catches my eye?
An article on the “post-racialization revolution” on television’s post-apocalyptic/zombie/futuristic series now in vogue celebrates the more realistic view of society with black, mixed-race, Asian, Latina/o, female leaders (as well as zombies; not too long ago, the zombification of the world was all white, something Key and Peel make fun of in this brilliant skit).  The article lists with celebratory acclaim the actors of color, along with scripts that avoid type-casting all villains and zombies as black or Latino/a, which now regularly populate our television screens.  Quite a change from even the recent past!    

But wait.  Did I hear the names of any Native American actors or roles?  Nope.  Apparently, Indians – who have survived colonization, Missionization, reservations, poor nutrition, bad health care, mind-blowing governmental abuse and a multitude of other metaphorical zombies - will NOT withstand the zombification of America.  Even the epic novel World War Z in unabridged audio form (over twelve hours long) – the fascinating, detailed novel by Max Brooks, not the lame movie - features just one Native woman fighter – Lakota, of course - who, of course, dies (she does pick up a turtle, murmur “Mitkuye Oyasin,” in her very brief cameo, however).

We do, of course, have the sci-fi/Western thriller Cowboys and Aliens, with Adam Beach as – oh, wait – the whiteman’s sidekick who, naturally, dies while saving said whiteman.  So really, does that even count? 

I would be remiss (and embarrassed) if I didn’t mention a great indie film titled The Dead Can’t Dance.   Shot in 2009 and released in 2010, the film is about 3 Indian guys who survive a virulent gust of wind that turns everyone else into zombies, but leaves them untouched.  Why?  Because they’re Native American and have some genetic immunity to the zombie virus.  GET IT?  Genetic immunity!  This is where being left out can be useful, I guess.  The meek shall inherit the earth and all that.  Or just poetic justice, dude.  (What are the chances of this film coming to Lexington's State Theater, I wonder?  Or YOUR hometown?  Is it even on Netflix??)

Again, I can’t leave you without Cutcha Risling Baldy’s excellent blog post on using a zombie lens to read contemporary Native existence, telling us, “Zombie-pocalypse sounds eerily similar to California Indian history...”  She’s brilliant.  Watch out for this woman.  Cutcha flips the paradigm around to read Indians as Zombies, but making very clear that this is not exactly a good thing.  

Sigh.  Sometimes being the only Native academic (or, let’s just say it, person) at my academic institution feels a lot like being the last Indian on the planet.  Maybe I’m in one of those sci-fi shows and I just don’t know it.  W&L is famous for being under a powerful "bubble" that keeps all unpleasantness (poor folks, third-world problems, ugly people) at bay.  Could it be the end of the world has already happened and I missed it?

Obviously, my next project needs to be an edited anthology of Native American zombie-apocalypse pieces.  Along with all the other projects lined up in my head.

Here's a sort-of-happy-ending to part of this story.  There was one thing I could do about the placement of my book in our institution's library:  I emailed one of the librarians and told her my story.  She was enormously sympathetic, and immediately said that she had no idea that’s where my book was located, and that when I returned it to the library, to bring it directly to her; she would go about the process of recategorizing it so that it sits with other memoir/short story/poetry literary works.

Wow.  All I had to do was ask.  Actually, I didn’t even do that; I simply relayed my dismay, and Elizabeth was all over it. Thank you, Elizabeth.
Of course, Elizabeth is an extraordinary human being and I can’t count on all librarians being quite so receptive, but, would it hurt any of us Native/Native Scholars/Writers/Allies to check out the call numbers on Native books, and request that they be moved into their appropriate literary category?  Or to do the same thing in the many bookstores out there where I routinely find Native poets in with either Native history or White People’s Woo-Woo Crystal-Gazing-How-To’s?

It would be a start.  The rest of the world might not be as responsive as my small liberal-arts university librarian, but a concerted effort would be better than becoming part of the living-yet-dead-Native-authors down in the basement.   

It’s hard when even the zombies (or those who animate them) don't want us.

Saturday, March 15, 2014


       for Susan Schultz 
"The tract through which we passed is generally very good land, with plenty of water; and there, as well as here, the country is neither rocky nor overrun with brush-wood. There are, however, many hills, but they are composed of earth. The road has been good in some places, but the greater part bad. About half-way, the valleys and banks of rivulets began to be delightful. We found vines of a large size, and in some cases quite loaded with grapes; we also found an abundance of roses, which appeared to be like those of Castile."
"We have seen Indians in immense numbers, and all those on this coast of the Pacific contrive to make a good subsistence on various seeds, and by fishing. The latter they carry on by means of rafts or canoes, made of tule (bullrush) with which they go a great way to sea. They are very civil. All the males, old and young, go naked; the women, however, and the female children, are decently covered from their breasts downward. We found on our journey, as well as in the place where we stopped, that they treated us with as much confidence and good-will as if they had known us all their lives. But when we offered them any of our victuals, they always refused them. All they cared for was cloth, and only for something of this sort would they exchange their fish or whatever else they had. During the whole march we found hares, rabbits, some deer, and a multitude of berendos (a kind of a wild goat)."
" I pray God may preserve your health and life many years."
" From this port and intended Mission of San Diego, in North California, third July, 1769."
[excerpt from Seventy-five years in California , page 371, by William Heath Davis]


We   here
are composed of earth
valleys and      rivulets
vines     loaded with grapes
an abundance of roses
We     Indians     on this coast    
carry on
very civil,     old and young 
decent     on our journey   
we treat with      confidence and good-will
all lives

always care for
the whole
a kind of wild

s     o    n     g        o     f

I I ‘ U R*
(* one of the Kumeyaay words for Juniperus californica)

         - by Deborah A. Miranda

I've had examples of erasure poems pasted into my notebook for years, but somehow the idea never grabbed hold of my imagination.  Until this morning.  And probably this inspiration came from skyping with Susan Schultz's Documentary Writing class yesterday (from Virginia to Hawai'i thanks to the magic of the internet!).  Susan has long been one of my heroes; the publisher of TinFish Press and so many of the quite beautiful chapbooks in my collection.  But she's also dear to my heart because of our mutual fascination with creating poetry (i.e., truth) out of the documents that pervade our lives.  

Speaking with her students yesterday, digging deep for answers to their questions and questings, I thought again of all the letters and diary entries left behind by Father Junipero Serra, the man responsible for making the idea of California missionization happen.  Bad Indians contains two "found" poems constructed from Serra's letters, but the layers of meaning in the word 'erasure' drove me to try something different this morning.  Yes, I wanted to erase Serra from the San Diego landscape from which he writes.  Yes, I am going to hell for this.  Yes, I am looking forward to all the really awesome poets who will be waiting for me at the gates.

After I wrote this poem, I wondered how to write ABOUT the form of an erasure poem, the concept of them.  Turns out lots of other people have attempted this, so I will just point you to Via Negative: A Literary Weblog, where Dave Bonta says:

"Just as (we are told) there are no atheists in foxholes, so the erasure poet comes to believe that there are no truly prosaic passages in a passage of prose. You can only look at arrangements of words on a page for so long before you completely lose track of which are the expected sentiments, the set phrases. Strangeness affects them all. You look deeper: within words, and between words widely separated on the page. New possible poems spark with electricity, like Frankenstein’s monster just before full reanimation. But it’s a zero-sum game: for one poem to open, countless others must remain closed. Syntax, like time, only flows in one direction. Knowing this, you hesitate over the source text. The poems are parallel universes, each with their own laws. And as in physics, any pretense of the observer to a god-like standing above the observed phenomenon is impossible; to observe is to recognize, and to recognize is to implicate oneself in an inherently contingent origin. Perhaps the Daoists are right, and the only perfect art object is the uncarved block."

And perhaps erasure poems must themselves be erased and transformed.  This poem is for the students in Susan's class who gave so much of themselves to me yesterday, and who have so much beauty to give to the world.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Luna, Seal, Bear, Turtle

Luna, Seal, Bear, Turtle

You are luna moth.  Instar, between, you inhabit this shape just long enough to find your way to the next, shed what you don’t need, leave it behind.

You are seal.  You pop your head above the waves to cock an eye at us, flip and dive into a sea of fickle disappearance.

You are bear in hibernation.  Groggy with sleep, one day ravenous, immobile the next; you snap and snarl when I try to rouse you.

You are turtle.  You withdraw deep inside your shell, pull up the hatches, shut us out, make safe, make home.

I keep waiting for you to spin your silken cocoon, construct the architecture of lime green canopy with painted eyes, emerge all wet and breathless, pump blood into the sails of elegant wings.

I keep my eye on the dark surface of your private salt sea, catch your whiskers above the surface, your bright brown eyes winking, laughing at me, your sleek black head rising up.

I keep guard over the entrance to your cave, prepare food for your huge hunger, mind your teeth when sleep savages you, admire that desire to live inside dream.

I keep watch outside your shell, hold you in my palm, stroke the perfect plates, sharp ridge of your back, smooth ivory of your belly.  I call your name in a language older than time.  Come out, come out.

          - Deborah Miranda

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

My Mother Plays Solitaire While I Lie Awake in the Next Room Waiting For the World to End

My Mother Plays Solitaire While I Lie Awake in the Next Room Waiting For the World to End

I love the way she shuffles,
imagine shiny cards arcing up into
curve between thumb
and forefinger;

perfect cuts of paper
obey her like soldiers,
ruffle into a sound like satisfaction,
like control.  She shuffles

random, shuffles chance,
shuffles luck.
She bangs the deck
on the table, two,

three, four times, cuts the stack
like a slab of butter, bangs again,
her gavel of judgment.

Deals off the top,
one two
one two three

one two three four
all facedown, hidden,
mirror-twin bicyclists
peddling like mad  --

then the starter card, face up:
fat moment of fate hanging
between what could be, what is.
My mother’s totems

are red and black,
hearts, spades, clubs,
diamonds, slick ritual
spells against desperation.

She works with what
she’s dealt:  thumbs three cards,
slaps down, makes use,
makes do.  Three more.

And three more.  Threes
and threes like the Father
the Son the Holy Ace
as if her life and the lives

of her children and grand-
children depend on these
hands shuffling, dealing,
thumbing, slapping, banging. 

As if my mother saves the world
card by card, game
by game.  She knows if she
loses it only lasts until the next

shuffle.  Knows if she wins,
the game’s never over.
Some women knit their
sanity together every day

with yarn and the clackery
of angry needles.  Some women 
solve crossword puzzles.
Chainsmoke Pall Malls.

Whatever witchery makes
a way to carry on: go on mothering,
grandmothering through storms that
cannot calm, brokenness that cannot

heal.  My mother plays solitaire,
ignores The Joker she’s exiled
off to the side like a naughty child.  
Soon, she knows,

she’ll have to let him back
in but for now she shuffles,
shuffles, shuffles cards, a sound
like wings, like time being killed,

like the odds will be better
tomorrow and I lie in my bed,
listen hard, learn 
the art of prayer.

             - Deborah A. Miranda

Friday, March 7, 2014

Son of a Poet

Son of a Poet
          - for Danny 

The son of a poet enters this world quietly, glistening with blood and amniotic fluid, peers out from half-closed lids with ancient wariness.

The son of a poet curls into the arms of a mother who sees metaphors in the shiny dark eyes of her boy, lineage of song in his tiny palms. 

The son of a poet already knows about loss and grief, the phoenix of love spread across his tender flesh like the shadow of an old tattoo. 

This male child soaks up languages no longer spoken from the milk of his mother’s breast. 

He hears too much, too soon, and can’t forget – anything. His small body hums with the confusing voices of ancestors. 

At three the son of a poet might call the first snowflakes he sees angels come down from heaven. 

At seven, the son of a poet weeps behind the sofa over the casual massacres of history.

At ten, music calls him, that fierce language remembered from the watery thrum of his mother’s voice.  

At twelve and thirteen, he watches his mother slumped over blackened pages, witnesses the terrible spilling of ink like slit wrists. 

He chews Thai peppers like a sacrament, baptizes his tongue in fire so it can speak the truth.

At fifteen, sixteen, the son of a poet endures taunts while fury rises up like a fever, seeps out to extremities of fingers, toes, hair, erupts into a rage that demands reparations for what’s been stolen. 

He learns about violations of the soul, how to turn a father’s slur with wry shrugs. 

He learns about laughter hammered out of betrayal, wonders why that’s so hard to understand. 

Mistakes make him writhe with shame, but the son of a poet never makes the same mistake twice.

At eighteen, the son of a poet walks out into the world forged like iron, melted like lead, brilliant as beaten copper.  

He travels far away from his mother, finds new teachers, tests mind and body as if neither will ever wear out.  

In this world, the son of a poet waits tables, rides the bus home with the night shift, the sleepless, the homeless. Spirits watch over him, hero of his mother’s best rhythms, drum beat of her heart. 

He survives love and the death of love.  He plunges his hand into his own chest, pulls out musical notes and medicinal incantations, brings his love back to life. 

Keeps walking toward the perfect language, just out of reach.

The poem his mother never thought she could write.

            - Deborah A. Miranda

About this poem (and my creativity-drought-experiment):

People are asking me for more commentary about my creativity-drought-experiment here on the blog.  Where are all these poems and pieces coming from if I'm in the middle of a dry spell???  What's the secret???

When I realized that I hadn't been writing at all, for a very long time, and did not feel any springs about to burst forth, I took one step that has turned out to be very useful: I started journaling again.  I used to journal daily, but again, it was almost involuntary - I could not NOT journal - yet, for a couple of years I hadn't even been doing that.

So I started journaling as a way to be able to say "at least I'm journaling."  It doesn't feel good.  They aren't GOOD journal entries.  I do them on my laptop, quickly, and to be perfectly honest, they are quite often WHINEY PIECES OF CRAP.

I write them anyway, keep them in a file on my laptop and, until beginning this experiment, I never looked at them again.  I don't date them.  I barely title them (give each one a semi-descriptive title or sometimes, lazily, just the first sentence as a title).  I mean, this is MINIMAL.

I've been doing that for the last few years.

Another thing I continued to do: participate in the timed free-writes I assign any current poetry workshop.  I do those in longhand, but keep the notebooks (and I had to buy notebooks rather than use writing pads, because I'd lose the pads or tear off the pages, and that wasn't allowing me to squirrel things away.)

Finally, if a word or phrase causes me to pause and say, "That sounds like a poem," I TRY to write it down in my notebook.  Even just the phrase.  Sometimes, I have time to freewrite using that idea.  That goes into the file unedited; good, bad or ugly.

Today's poem began with a chance conversation with one of my colleagues at W&L.  On December 28, 2011 (2011, folks!!!), Ed Craun said something to me about "the sons of poets" and I sat down at my computer, bashed out a paragraph (one long unbroken, unpunctuated, unedited freewrite) and sent it to him. 

Then I put it into a word file, moved it into my freewrite file on my laptop, and DIDN'T LOOK AT IT AGAIN UNTIL THIS MORNING.

Basically, I write crap, but I SAVE IT, and guess what?

It isn't all crap.  Sometimes it isn't all crap.  

So during this drought-ending-experiment online, I have been going back through journals and freewrites and making myself pick one to work on each morning.  Sometimes it takes half of my 1 to 1 1/2 hours of writing time to just choose one that doesn't suck too badly.  (That's key: I wake up, make tea or coffee, and HIDE AWAY FROM MY LIFE to write for one full hour.  Sometimes, on a lucky day, I get 1 1/2 hours.  This means, of course, GETTING UP AN HOUR EARLIER THAN USUAL.  Even when I haven't gotten enough sleep already.  Ugh.)

Why post it publically on my blog?

A couple of reasons.

First, public posting is a way to hold myself accountable.  Even if no one reads my blog, I IMAGINE that someone is reading my blog, and *I* am reading my blog, so I have made a contract to deliver something to that blog daily.  As I noted a few days ago, I cannot always keep that promise, but I give it a hell of a try.  That's good for me.  For my writing muscles, for my self-esteem, for keeping my committment to myself as a writer.  I wasn't SURE it would work out that way; I had to try it to learn that this daily exercise was working.  Now I know that it does provide me with motivation, so I'm even more likely to keep the promise.

Secondly, I have a book out there that I am also committed to promoting - for the important information in that book, for my tribe, for my publisher (whom I adore, Heyday!), for the Indian students, grad students and writers out there who have put their faith in me.  Blogs promote books, keep a writer's presence in the world fresh, snag new readers, and all sorts of other wonderful things.  Bad Indians cannot do all the work of lifting by itself, simply by existing.  Someone needs to advocate for it.  That someone must start with me.  Others can help - and you do! - but the primary responsiblity is on my shoulders.  I need (want) to be accessible, findable, meaningful for the readers of my book.

Thirdly, when a writer's blog is stale and not updated often, people googling that author for information are, to put it politely, UNIMPRESSED by that blog, and that trickles down immediately to the author and her book.  My colleagues Lesley Wheeler (The Cave, the Hive) and Chris Gavaler (The Patron Saint of Superheroes) both model the effectiveness of updated, fresh blogs for me in very inspirational ways.   If I am going to have a blog, I need to make use of it, use it to maintain contact with readers and researchers, use it to keep Bad Indians out there and viable.  Otherwise, my blog could actually do more harm than good.  Yikes.

Fourthly, I took part in the Postcard Daily Poem project last summer, posted them all to this blog, and it DID NOT KILL ME. In fact, I have a few good starts out of it that I'll continue to work on. 

HERE'S THE THING.  I know that posting daily writings on my blog is risky.  I KNOW that these pieces are not fully formed, not finished, not my best work.  I know that somewhere, some writer is laughing at what I put out there because I left in a cliche or missed the boat entirely.

That's okay.  That HAS to be okay.  No matter what, I am still exercising more control over my writing life than in the past few years.  And hey - revision is made for risk-takers.  

So that's the basic scoop.  I am writing to save my creative life.  I do not want to be another creative writer whose juices are dried up by the relentless pounding of academic concerns. Teaching full-time while having a full-time life as wife, mother, grandmother is NOT A WRITING-FRIENDLY SITUATION for many of us.  I used to feel very smug about my ability to write through anything (and inappropriately smug, since writing seemed to be a force of nature which came to me as an obsession rather than a gift - NOW who's sorry?!), and now I am one of those people gasping for words.  I was very resentful and very angry about that for a long time.  

Eventually, I had to put that resentment away and DO SOMETHING about the actual problem.

There you go.  Messy and not at all scientific.  But it works for me.  Hope this helps some of you out there too.