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Writing the Big Collaborative Existential Poem. Our Interview with Tanaya Winder.

Why do we write, and who are we writing for? It is a theme that comes up over and over in our interviews. Tanaya Winder has some interesting thoughts that explain how her work as an activist, academic and poet informs not only the why of her writing but also the how and the what.

Tanaya Winder is part African-American and part native-American tribes of Southern Ute, Pyramid Lake Paiute, and Dine. She grew up on the Southern Ute Indian Reservation in Ignacio, Colorado, a small town where everyone knew her and expected her to go to college in Stanford where she would study law and defend the rights of Indigenous people. That was the plan.


The muse has other plans

Poetry came calling instead. In her TED talk she discusses when she changed her major from law to literature after a friend committed suicide. She realized that teaching poetry was a way for her to help others speak up and access their voices. With the support of her mom and sisters she decided to pursue an MFA instead of a law degree, studying with artists such as Gabrielle Calvocoressi, Eavan Boland, Li-Young Lee, and Robert Pinsky. Before she even knew how highly regarded these writers were, they, “Blew [her] mind open”, and she began falling into spoken word performance.

Since then, she regularly tours towns of indigenous and minority populations, listening to their stories and voicing their concerns, establishing relationships that last for years. Some of her students have told her she is writing, “for girls like us,” and they follow her example, feeling empowered to express themselves openly and share their words. She lets her work reflect not only her own struggles and joys but the experience of others as well. In some ways she says, “We are all writing the same big existential poem.”


A God-Shaped Hole

Tanaya feels she doesn’t write her own poetry as much as she allows for an open door – a “God-shaped hole” – and channels what comes through. The more she lets go, the easier the poem is to write. In order to do this channeling she needs to get out of her head and into her body. Part of the difficulty is in being a member of a colonized community who might not feel that “in their body” is a safe space. So Tanaya meditates, practices yoga, smudges her space, listens to music, sets the space.

When she is writing she often plays a piece of classical music on repeat until she feels she is ready to “break.” It helps her surrender. Her poetry, in part through instinct and in part due to her spoken word background, is incredibly musical. The poems “lift off the page” with “sonic stitching.”

In writing her “difficult” poem in Words Like Love, was a poem about her friend’s suicide. (You can hear more about this story in her TED Talk.) She says the guilt was still there for her, and she used music to help her surrender to being able to write the poem.


The Milky Way Escapes My Mouth

(Audio Here)

whenever two lips begin to form your name
I cough stars lodged deep within my lungs. They rush
from tongue weighted in dust, words
I didn’t ask

where are you going? or notice the blank spaces
in your breathing as you slept. They say
the more massive the star, the shorter
the lifespan.

They have greater pressure on their cores. Yours burned
so brightly I should have known you’d collapse, disappear
into image, a black hole dissolving
trace amounts.

I am left stargazing five times a day for years. Catalogue
phrases. Chart each word. Label every facial expression.
Telescope until eyes bleed constellations
even then

I can’t navigate my way into understanding light years –
how we let darkness slip in. Is it madness to wonder
if it ever really happened? You, a shadow never leaving until I

inserted continents between us. I lost you in the crevice
between night and day. You died while I was sleeping
dreaming of a galaxy far far away where
love eclipses.

A rising tide of longing fills my body, bones, the ribs
sheltering the cave within me echoing. Each night,
I open mouth sky-wide to swallow stars
and sing

to the moon a story about the light of two people
who continue to cross and uncross in their falling
no matter how unstable
in orbit.


Writing Exercise

Try listening to a piece of classical music on loop until you feel something move inside you. Then write, paying attention to sounds more than you pay attention to meaning. If you need something more to get you started, try this prompt Winder says helped her. “Write about a prediction.”


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