Missing Robert J. Conley

The other night—when sadness had a heavy grip around my throat, I poured myself a shot of whiskey—something I seldom drink unless it’s in a pumpkin pie.  But Robert J. Conley had died a week ago.  Since I never had the privilege of drinking with him, that night I toasted him.  So many of us in Indian Country have lost a good friend, superb storyteller and beloved educator—to mention only a few of the roles he filled for everyone that knew him.

Robert J. Conley
Robert J. Conley

Robert J. Conley, a Kituwah author of over 85 books—poetry, fiction and western novels based on Cherokee history—passed on February 16, 2014.  He and his wife Evelyn have been my friends for many years.  Thanks to Evelyn’s superb marketing skills and my thorough delight with Robert’s storytelling, no other author’s books take up more space on my bookshelves than Robert’s!  And I have read them all. My favorites are his love poems to Evelyn in The Rattlesnake Band and Other Poems.  Of his novels in the Real People Series—I loved War Woman the best.  Brass—a sort of horror story whose main character is an ancient, evil Cherokee spirit gone modern—was another thriller.

I first met Evelyn in the mid 1980’s, when the Tulsa United Way sponsored a grant to the Cherokee Nation in Tahlequah.  Evelyn was the Cherokee lead person.  The source of the grant monies was a national program funded by the Kellogg Foundation to the national office of United Way of America.  Since I was on the national United Way staff and connected to Blueprint grantees, I got to see Evelyn at various events.  We became good friend and remained so after I left the national staff and moved to Chicago.

It was Evelyn who first introduced me to Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers & Storytellers after Alec died.  And things have never been the same.  It seemed like a latent artist within me emerged and I found a new path for the rest of my life.  I thank the Conley’s for this gift…especially Robert.  When I retired from the United Way movement in January of 2006, I poured myself into poetry and the lively writing community that exists in the St. Louis area, my new home.  During a visit to Robert and Evelyn shortly  thereafter, I sort of “contracted” with Robert to critique (a word he hates) or help me gauge what I had to do to improve my writing.  I waited.  And waited.  Finally, I emailed him, asking him what he thought about my manuscript, Games of Transformation. Here’s what he emailed back:

I’m probably not very good, especially if you want some kind of analysis, commentary, etc.  I have read your poems and thought they were very good.  I think you are one of the best poets at work around these days….The reason it took me so long to write is that I kept trying to think of something really bright to say, but all I can say is that they are GOOD, so move on.

What a shot of confidence his words gave to me!  I was overjoyed.  And this is the Robert J. Conley who doesn’t mince words!  The author of Cherokee Thoughts: Honest & Uncensored!  Well—yes, I am being over-dramatic.  But another well-known author had refused to blurb my manuscript, claiming it wasn’t “ready.”  Needless to say, Robert’s words were a wonderful balm to my bruised ego.  A little later, at its 2012 Returning the Gift Festival, Wordcraft Circle awarded Games of Transformation as the “Poetry Book of the Year.”

Robert, my friend—I didn’t mean to carry on like this.  These few paragraphs were supposed to be about you.  Well, I am hard put for all the accolades you deserve, and will continue to get in the next months.  Just know that I am profoundly grateful to you for your encouragement and good words.  I am awaiting The Brothers in the mail from your publisher, Goldmines. Still, I am sad that you didn’t get around to spin a continuing tale about the son of Brass, who still lurks under the sea.  And that little glass of whiskey was enjoyable the other night.  If you run into Alec—he likes whiskey, too.  Maybe you two could enjoy a few jokes about that all-too-serious woman who misses you both very much.

Wonderful News

Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers selected my book–Games of Transformation–as the poetry book of the year.  I haven’t stopped smiling since the news came to me a few weeks ago.  Nothing beats recognition from one’s peers.  The award ceremony will be Friday evening, September 7, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin at Wordcraft’s annual festival, Returning the Gift, September 4th through the 9th.  Here are a few more honorees:

  • Kim Blaeser, Drama for Museum at Red Earth;
  • Geary Hobson, Fiction for Plain of Jars and Other Stories;
  • Lois Red Elk, Non-fiction for Our Blood Remembers;
  • Allison Hedge Coke, Editor of the Year for Sing: Poetry for the Indigenous Americas; and
  • Dianne Glancy, Film for Dome of Heaven;

On Saturday and Sunday, I will be reading with some of these illustrious poets, including Rain Gomez, Denise Sweet and Denise Low.  The last two are former Poet Laureates from Wisconsin and Kansas, respectively.  As I will be rooming with the two Denise’s, don’t be surprised if the hotel’s roof might lift away from its moorings with so much poetry passion!

Visit either Facebook at Returning the Gift National Native Writers and Storytellers Conference 2012 or  www.Yukhika-latuhse.org  for more information about this fantastic writer’s conference.  The Oneida Nation’s art journal, Yukhika-latuhse, is the co-sponsor of this year’s Returning the Gift Festival.

For more information about Games of Transformation, scroll down a ways to my November 10, 2011 post.  Finally, I want to thank Albatross Press and its editor and publisher, Terry Straus and Michael Brehm, for their belief in and support of my creative work.  This has meant the world to me.

My New Book of Poetry

[quote]It is a pleasure to have these poems from Alice Azure. They tell stories that bring alive for us the Old Ones of Cahokia Mounds, and the New Ones of her own family and tribal people. It is good to hear them and I am grateful to her for sharing them with us.[/quote]
—Carter Revard, Osage Poet
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This past March 2011, Albatross Press in Chicago released my book of poem about Cahokia Mounds.  A United Nations World Heritage Site on a par with the pyramids of Egypt, the Grand Canyon and the Great Wall of China, the mounds were once North America’s largest pre-historic city.  They are located in Collinsville, just a few miles from where I live.With many thanks to my editor, Terry Straus, and to the book’s designer, Michael Brehm, it gives me much pleasure to present it to readers of this blog.  During the extensive research I undertook in preparation for this work, I came across many archaeological scholars who dedicated their lives to understanding Cahokia. In particular, Robert Hall’s An Archaeology of the Soul  captured my attention.  Of Native Stockbridge/Mohican ancestry himself, his underlying premise within this marvelous book seems to say there is a great spiritual connectedness among the ancient ceremonies and practices of the aboriginal inhabitants of America’s Midwest and Plains.  When I expressed to Terry Straus my delight with Dr. Halls work, things began to happen.  One thing led to another and I found myself on the phone asking Dr. Hall if he would consider writing an introduction to my book.  After looking over the manuscript, here is what he wrote:
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      There are places that exist in myth that have left no ruins to direct a pilgrim’s feet. There are places that exist as ruins that have left no myths to tell their story. Cahokia is one of these — ancient Cahokia, prehistoric Cahokia on the Illinois bottomlands of the Mississippi River — a planned community of urban proportions. Over a hundred earthen mounds dot Cahokia’s landscape, most of them marking where a temple or elite residence once stood.
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     Considering its size and onetime importance, it defies belief that Cahokia has left no memory of itself among native peoples of the Midwest, yet, that is the case. Most of what is known of Cahokia comes from what archaeologists can find with shovels and trowels. Stains in the earth trace the paths of massive palisade walls that once enclosed the Grand Plaza fronting on the Great Cahokia Mound and the mound itself, Monks Mound so called from an incident in its later history. Other stains trace the outlines of dwellings and temples reduced by time to mere discolorations in the soil. Some stains define monumental post circles that were material expressions of a cosmology that we can only guess at. These things are visible to the archaeologist, but there is more visible only to the poet’s eye.
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     Alice Azure lives behind the bluff line that defines Cahokia’s eastern horizon. Seven, eight, nine hundred years ago, a thousand years ago, Cahokia priests surely greeted the sun as it rose above that horizon. In Quotidian Dimensions the poet Alice backs away from priestly exultations in favor of the canine choruses that just as surely began Cahokia’s days. “Was this how old Cahokia awakened?” she asks, then describes the everyday life that must have filled those days.
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     In Cahokia at Dusk the poet Alice reverses the Cahokian view, looking west from the bluff toward the sun’s setting. As daylight fades, dancers appear that only she can see. Drummers time beats that only she can hear. The Grand Plaza comes alive and Alice shares with us her vision of that scene.
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     Cahokia Mound 72 deftly weaves together scenes of the human sacrifices whose bones fill that mound with scenes of the senseless slaughters that provide today’s headlines. Like Cahokia Mound 72Horseradish Blues makes a comparison that spans a millennium. It contrasts ancient Cahokia as the City of the Sun with the latter-day importance of the area for cultivating horseradish, a comparison of the sacred with the profane symbolizing the descent of Cahokia from its prehistoric grandeur. Cahokia’s crop was corn, sacred to Cahokians as it still is for so many Native Americans. Horseradish is a condiment that bites the tongue but cannot stir the soul.
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     Helping to shape Alice Azure’s image of Cahokia was a muse, if that be the right word, in the form of a spirit being she calls Red Cedar. The centuries shrink as Red Cedar speaks. Less ethereal in influencing Azure’s interest in Cahokia has been her own training in urban and regional planning. Happy the coincidence that a Native American poet with such experience should find herself living within the bounds of the greater Cahokia community. Even so, in this collection of poems Cahokia is but one of many stages on which characters from Azure’s background make a curtain call — a Maine vegetable garden, a Meskwakie powwow,  church schools, a football field, more. Most of her poems are very personal, and this infusion of the personal binds the collection into a whole.
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Dr. Hall’s introduction to my little book of Cahokia poems is a special gift.  I will always treasure his kind words here and his awesome insights to American Indian spirituality as expressed in An Archaeology of the Soul.
Dr. Hall’s book is available at the Cahokia Mounds, giftshop@cahokiamounds.org.
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Available at the Cahokia Mounds giftshop as well as www.nativeauthors.comwww.amazon.com and at www.stlbooks.com.

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