“River City,” a poem
Laura Da’ is a poet and teacher. A lifetime resident of the Pacific Northwest, Da’ studied creative writing at the University of Washington and The Institute of American Indian Arts. Da’ is Eastern Shawnee. She is the author of Tributaries, winner of the American Book Award, and Instruments of the True Measure, winner of the Washington State Book Award. Da’ lives near Seattle with her husband and son and is a writer in residence at Richard Hugo House.
Tributaries (University of Arizona Press)
Instruments of the True Measure (University of Arizona Press)
What inspired you to write this piece? Are there any writers or works that have influenced the way you write?
LD: I was inspired by Shawnee cities and their beauty and complexity, both before contact and removal and now. There is a colonial narrative that presents Indigenous people as “unsettled” but the reality for the Shawnee is that we were a tribe that established large, complex communities with significant social structures and capacities. This poem takes inspiration from that truth and questions what a city can be.
I would like to mention two poets who inspired me in my creation of the poem “River City”. The first is Cedar Sigo, whose poem “What did you learn here? (Old Man House)” moves over land and time with deep regard and sensitivity. Sigo’s poem takes its impetus from Joy Harjo’s gentle imperative “What did you learn here?”
MR: You create rhythmic movement in “River City” by enjambing the end of every stanza, continuing the ideas past their chosen line breaks. What was the intention behind this choice?
LD: The word “stanza” holds the conception of a room inside its etymology. This is a framing I considered in the form of the poem. I want this poem to push itself outside of the expected spaces and create tension through the enjambment of lines and the juxtaposition of images and ideas.
MR: The narrator contrasts the “river city” and the “divine city” while speaking of colonization and exile by settlers. What influenced you to broadly title this piece “River City” as opposed to naming a specific location?
LD: This poem turns on the tension of exile. It struggles with worldviews that seem irreconcilable. For example, the first two stanzas place the speaker in a territory of longing—she wants the river city of her ancestors, but is compelled to use the terminology of western world view “the clock’s / lavish precincts” and Christianity “the heavenly city”:
Grasping for the home sense
of the river-city, I become
with the heavenly city
ticking inside the clock’s
lavish precincts. Hours I did not
count on becoming
the river home I long for.
This tension fuels the poem. The choice to leave the river city unnamed honors this complexity and allows the possibilities that all the cities: the Shawnee city, the heavenly city, the city of the mind, are all present and whole in some space in time.
MR: Words such as “precincts” and “bucolic” stand out while communicating the deeper conflicts of this poem. Did you make other diction choices that changed the trajectory of this work?
LD: English is a wonderful language for telling on itself. The word “bucolic” is an entire world. It erases the violence of settler theft, violence, and extraction and replaces it with a paradise of green. These words are small wars, and they have been waging campaigns for centuries. I made these choices in diction to make the poem turn on itself and question the narrative.
MR: How did the length of this piece shift from its initial to final drafts?
LD: The poem is much shorter than its first iteration. I think this poem went through four significant changes in form, from a long, ranging poem to this tighter final draft and around twenty drafts from start to finish.
MR: What is it like for you to read this poem out loud?
LD: Reading a poem aloud is the ideal way to feel its agency, leave my sphere of control, and exit into the world. It always thrills me, and I learn more about the poem’s will when I breathe it out into the air.