“1918,” a poem
LeAnne Howe (enrolled Choctaw) is an Eidson Distinguished Professor at the University of Georgia. Professor Howe is the recipient of a United States Artists (USA) Ford Fellowship, a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Native Writers’ Circle of the Americas, an American Book Award, the Oklahoma Book Award, and she was a Fulbright Distinguished Scholar to Jordan, in addition to many other awards. She shares a Native and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA) award for literary criticism with eleven other scholars for Reasoning Together: The Native Critics Collective. Her award-winning books include Shell Shaker, Evidence of Red, Miko Kings: An Indian Baseball Story, and Choctalking on Other Realities. She is co-editor of the book of essays on Native films, Seeing Red, Pixeled Skins: American Indians and Film. Savage Conversations is about Mary Todd Lincoln and a Savage Indian she said tortured her each night in an insane asylum, Batavia, Illinois, in the summer of 1875. Currently, she’s at work on a new play and books of poems. She and co-producer James. M. Fortier, are currently working on a new documentary film project, Searching For Sequoyah.
Your poem “1918” tells the story of a couple sick during he 1918 influenza pandemic. Did you start writing this piece before the current covid pandemic?
LH: Not exactly. I’d been skidding around the history of my grandmother’s life for years. She had the 1918 flu. She was deathly sick, she gave her daughter to her youngest aunt, because she believed she was dying. But she lived and her Irish husband died.
MR: Did the current situation inform or change the piece?
LH: Yes, I hadn’t really considered why she didn’t talk about her late husband. She was only 19 years old when he died. They’d married the year before, had a daughter, then the pandemic hit her community around Stonewall, Oklahoma. Since the current pandemic, I have a different understanding of why she didn’t talk about it, at least to me. She lost so many friends and relatives to the flu, and her husband. I believe those memories were still very painful to relive even 50 years later.
MR: Or does it resonate differently for you (or readers) now?
LH: Yes, I see an incredibly heroic young woman. Once she recovered, she became a housekeeper for a family in her community for room and board plus 50 cents a week. But it was a place she and her daughter could live together.
MR: You use repetition several times throughout “1918.” Could you tell us about why you chose to repeat certain words or lines, and how you chose when to use repetition and when not to?
LH: I was thinking in song while I was writing the poems, and epic poetry have repeating words and phrases. It just seemed natural.
MR: In section II of “1918,” Iva uses speech patterns and prayers associated with Christianity and old fashioned English (“Who hast / never bruised / a living / flower”). Why did you choose this style of speech and these prayers for Iva in this poem?
LH: Iva’s community was very literate, but for a long while the Bible was the only book she could afford, and I think the traveling Bible salesman may have only asked a quarter for it. I know this because she told me. She also had to write in the margins of the book, and later in other books. At the time, she could not afford paper.
MR: “1918” begins with John, the husband, repeating the word “no” and ends with Iva, the wife, repeating the word “on.” Could you tell us about the repetition and mirroring of these words, how they’re mirrors of each other and also their placement at the beginning and end?
LH: John knows he’s getting sick with the 1918 Flu, and likely that he will die, so he’s fighting against the disease. In the poem, there’s tension between living “on” and fighting it with words. In his case, “No.”
MR: As a writer who works in multiple genres, why did you choose to write about this subject as a poem, instead of in fiction?
LH: Writing is a mystery to me. Once the first poem emerged, and as I thought about it, I realized I wanted 1918 to be an epic poem.
MR: How does your experience writing novels, plays, and essays inform your poetry?
LH: I do a lot of research when I’m writing novels, so I brought that experience to this project.
MR: What are some books or writers you’ve read this year that excited you?
LH: Terese Mailhot’s Heart Berries. David Groulx’s From Turtle Island to Island Gaza (poems). Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s Noopiming (prose and poems). Heid E. Erdrich’s Little Big Bully.
MR: Do you have upcoming publications that you’d like readers to know about?
LH: Most exciting is a new film I wrote and produced, along with producer, director, and editor James Fortier, Searching for Sequoyah, is a sixty-minute documentary airing on PBS stations nationally in November 2021. We worked on it for five years.
1. Searching for Sequoyah, a documentary about the Cherokee educator, linguist, and blacksmith Sequoyah, produced by LeAnne Howe.
2. On the Prairie Diamond, LeAnne Howe’s blog.
4. Indian Country Diaries: Spiral of Fire, a documentary by LeAnne Howe who conducts interviews with various members of the Choctaw community about tourism, cultural preservation, and spirituality.