“Heritage X,” a poem
ELISE PASCHEN, an enrolled member of the Osage Nation, is the author of The Nightlife, Bestiary, Infidelities (winner of the Nicholas Roerich Poetry Prize), and Houses: Coasts. Her poems have appeared in Best American Poetry, The New Yorker, and Poetry, among other publications. She has edited many anthologies, including The Eloquent Poem as well as the New York Times best-selling Poetry Speaks. A cofounder of Poetry in Motion, Paschen teaches in the MFA Writing Program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
What inspired you to write this piece? Are there any writers or works that have influenced the way that you write?
EP: I am writing a book-length project whose working title is Heritage. The long poem began when I was asked to give a reading for Native American Heritage Month at the University of Missouri. As I was researching the history of the Osage in Missouri, I discovered a lecture by a fellow Osage presenter which inspired several of the poems in the sequence.
Around that time, I had also given a reading at Magic Books in Tulsa. Whenever I travel to Oklahoma, I visit our family house in Fairfax, as well as the graves of my parents and my Tallchief ancestors.
Another source of inspiration was Joy Harjo’s most recent collection of poetry, An American Sunrise, a book that haunts me. I am intrigued by her mythopoetic vision and by the ways in which she interweaves her family and tribal history into the poetry.
MR: What is your connection to the heavy white space and visual presentation of “Heritage X”? How would you like readers to engage with these elements?
EP: Throughout my writing life, I have approached poetry from a formal perspective. Most of my poems play with metrical sound systems. This long poem arrived out of the blue, and the spatial properties were organic. I would describe the visual presentation as an open field arrangement of staggered lines. The poems float across the page in hanging indent stanzas, a new mode of discourse for me to explore. Heritage is structured as a bracelet of poems where the last line of the first poem becomes the first line of the second.
MR: Do you find form to be limiting when trying to express the depth and severity of historical violence? What drew you to create this piece as a poem instead of another form?
EP: I instinctively turn to form when I write. Using various structures in verse allows me to discover order in chaos. Although there was a time when I had hoped to write about the Reign of Terror in prose, I have found poetry as the best way to articulate the horrors of the history of that time period.
MR: The speaker positions their family history alongside the Reign of Terror, when Osage people were murdered for their mineral headrights in the 1920s. What was it like to place such different histories in the same piece?
EP: The final phrase in Heritage IX is: “the year my mother was born.” It is rare this happens but, after I began the poem with that line, Heritage X essentially wrote itself. My mother was born in 1925 which was during the Reign of Terror. I am staggered to imagine what life must have been like for my grandparents, bringing their children into the world when so many Osage were being murdered in this small town of Fairfax, Oklahoma.
MR: Similarly, what do familial connections bring to your work? Do you write with particular people or audiences in mind?
EP: My mother, Maria Tallchief, is considered America’s first prima ballerina, and her life offers inspiration to so many. She was born on the Osage reservation in Oklahoma and became one of the great world legends in ballet. Ever since I began writing poetry (at the age of eight!), my mother has served as a source of inspiration. As I have mentioned, this poem is an homage to the Tallchief women in our family, beginning with my great grandmother, Eliza Bigheart Tall Chief.
MR: You have previously noted that this piece is the tenth in a series of interlocking poems in a book-length project called Heritage. How did you decide where to place “Heritage X” in Heritage? How do you perceive the impact of this poem when published apart from the rest of Heritage?
EP: The poem arrived organically in that all the poems beforehand (Heritage I – IX) led to the writing of this one. I suppose the impact may be that it is gut-wrenching to learn about this period of Osage history.
MR: How did you decide to separate your line breaks?
EP:I see the lines in the poem like floating clouds. This poem (and the poems which led up to this one) arrived in a flurry—as a gift. I am a consummate reviser and will spend many drafts on a particular poem. (I am currently working on a poem that I have drafted innumerable times!) These line breaks, miraculously, fell into place.
MR: How did the length of this piece shift from its initial to final drafts?
EP: Unlike most of my other work, the final version of the poem is not too dissimilar from the original draft. I was flummoxed by one adjective—how to describe the photograph of my great-grandfather. Joy Harjo and I exchange work with each other, and I had asked her about that phrase. I am grateful to Joy for suggesting I use the adjective “boyish.” I had played with many other descriptions, and then “boyish” struck the right chord.
MR: What is it like for you to read this poem out loud?
EP: I enjoy reading my poems aloud. When I was in high school, I entertained thoughts of becoming a Shakespearean actress—I even attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London one summer. Whenever I work on a poem, I read the poem aloud to hear how it sounds. This poem wrenches my heart. I find solace, though, in remembering what our family created for us in order to survive.
- A conversation with Elise Paschen about Maria Tallchief, and the Google Doodle honoring her life. .
- Information about Maria Tallchief, from the National Women’s History Museum, and a blog about her career from the Library of Congress.
- Elise on one of the first victims of the Reign of Terror, from Newshour.
- A documentary about the Reign of Terror against the Osage, from Oklahoma Educational Television Authority. .
- The Fresh Air interview with David Grann, about his book Killers of the FLower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI.