Interview with Ofelia Zepeda on Where Clouds Are Formed —
November 30, 2008
Ofelia Zepeda is the author of two previous books of poetry, including Ocean Power: Poems from the Desert, and the first grammar textbook of the Tohono O'odham language: A Tohono O'odham Grammar. She is a Regents' Professor of linguistics at the University of Arizona and is the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship for her work in American Indian language education.
Christopher Nelson: Your book is so richly textured in its subjects and tones. When people ask you what your book is about, how do you respond?
Ofelia Zepeda: My sense is that the book is about a range of experiences, events that I, or others I know, have gone through. The experiences are always in connection with the environment, both on a large scale and otherwise—that is, simple, basic settings. Environment to me includes a large number of things, and not just place, it includes time as well. So, the book is about poems that always have a connection to a place and time. These are very important, I think, in the writing I do. It helps me begin.
Nelson: While some of the poems weave together English and O’odham, the book is written almost entirely in English. Will you comment on that?
Zepeda: I find there are themes that work very well in O’odham, and so I take the process through for the piece in that language. Once the piece is completed in O’odham I have another decision and that is whether to have the piece in English. I don’t necessarily translate it but actually create a new piece that resonates the same theme. I know I also consciously decide to manipulate text by weaving O’odham and English in a single piece, and those are decisions I make and play with the language to see if it works. The few that are included obviously worked.
Nelson: I’m fond of the poem “The Other World,” which has multiple other worlds in it. What are the “others”—and the tensions or polarities—you are examining here?
Zepeda: I think the tension I am pointing to here is one that is part of my experience as an O’odham person. Although others who have similar life experiences may have these same types of tensions. The tension is simply that of being aware of the different spaces one must negotiate for the things one must get done, whether it is work, family, politics and so on. The dichotomy of two landscapes or multiple landscapes helps me to understand and better negotiate all the spaces I must walk around in.
Nelson: The motif of interconnectedness interests me; for example, in “An O’odham in Yosemite” and “Proclamation” we read of people connected to the earth and of people disconnected from it, but the poems don’t simply praise the connection and condemn the disconnection. And there’s an implication in “Traces” that the interconnectedness “leads nowhere.”
Zepeda: Yes, interconnectedness is sort of one of those big things that is really not that important after all—maybe because it is just so big, so important. I definitely think that being connected is important whether it is with people or the land. These are all important and big things on various levels, and when it is all there and working well for us we don’t notice it, we take it for granted. I think the ending of the piece “Traces” is a summary of all the connections made throughout the piece, but at the end of it, all those connections, connections made through a journey—a lifelong journey for that matter—sometimes don’t mean much to anyone else except the one who took it.
Nelson: At your recent reading at the University of Arizona Poetry Center, you mentioned that the U.S.-Mexico border, which cuts across the Tohono O’odham nation, has become more impervious since September 11, 2001. “Ocotillo Memorial” is a poem set in this context. It is a heavily understated poem—so much not said.
Zepeda: Actually, there are three pieces in this collection that are directly related to the border issues—as they relate to O’odham people. One is “Birth Witness,” another is “Lost Prayers,” and the third is one that one wouldn’t normally think of in that way, “Crossing Mountains.” “Crossing Mountains” is a reflection of the prayers and other forms of protection I thought we should have when traveling after the disasters. “Ocotillo Memorial” was not necessarily in the context of the border situation. I think this person was someone special to some person who decided to create this little memorial out there in the desert. It was a simple thing under an ocotillo plant that many may have walked by and never noticed. Various airlines know exactly where she is though—at least that is my version.
Nelson: In “The Other World” and “How to End a Season,” you gracefully take the reader from the mundane to the cosmic, to Mars and beyond: “the Milky Way in its dense gray majesty / resting quietly on a massive carpet of black.” I sense in your poems the silence and mystery of infinity. Does that resonate with you?
Zepeda: I love the closeness of something so distant. I have thought about the mystery of stars for a long time. I have been intrigued and fascinated by the Milky Way all my life. Again it has a great deal to do with spending much of my early childhood outdoors. My family used to sleep outdoors at home in the summertime because it was cooler outdoors than indoors. We spent many nights looking up at the sky and talking about things. As we watched we saw falling stars, meteor showers, the rare satellite (back then) go by right on schedule. The Milky Way was right above us it seemed, and as we slept it was our blanket. I remember clearly what the night sky looked like back then and never realized how much of a long lasting impression it made on me.
Certainly the moon and sun have always been important in our lives as contemporary O’odham, and of course our ancestors depended on their understanding of the moon phases for instance. We knew things like anticipating changes in the weather and season because of positions of the moon or the sun. Still today I rely more on the slant of shadows to provide hints about the changes in seasons than the weather channel. It is important for me to acknowledge the changes something as distant as the sun can have on how I see and understand the quiet and subtle changes of light.