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.

Mihku Paul’s New Poetry Book, 20th Century Powwow Playland

In an interview by Lisa Panepinto (“Renewing Images: Mihku Paul Interview,” River Pine Anthology of Civic Discourse, September 14, 2012), Mihku tells about a summer she attended a Sun Dance ceremony in North Dakota.  A deer had been killed so that there would be food for the celebrants.  However, no one knew how to cut up the animal’s body for cooking.  Having often helped her mother and grandfather skin and dress out animals for sportsmen who hunted around the Old Town area of Maine, Mihku knew how to butcher a deer.  At first she held back from volunteering.  Not only was it miserably hot and humid, but water was not readily available.  In the end, she persuaded herself to take charge of that deer.

Some of the poems in 20th Century Powwow Playland are like the chunks of deer meat that Mihku exposed that day in North Dakota.  Using the tools of her poetic craft, she masterfully hones sounds, verbs, images, rhythm and lines to cut open the skin (a word she uses often) of a latent colonization, revealing vicious racism, violence, poverty, anomie—all of which her family has had to endure in central Maine.

In the poem “Piecework,” she describes women who work out of their home, doing piecework for a shoe factory.  For Pauline, “complaining is her vocation, sex her currency / children are a thorn in her side / [she] …leaves to fend for themselves/ like feral kittens.” Another, Millie, has eyes that are “bloodshot” and which “…broadcast /a flag of surrender.” Pale Antoinette “shifts her generous flesh / shakes the bench and rises. / She makes more coffee, smokes another Camel.”  Mihku’s mother’s “…hands twist the awl, stacks the pieces, / until she must stop / fearful of ruining work / creased palms cracked and bleeding.”

A poem I like for its rich language and images is “Undertow.”  She talks about a drunk, a man named Froggy who drowned in the Penobscot River which rings the reservation, called Indian Island.  She then mentions her brother, who was also drinking at the time, and how he found another drowned body, a “…snagged / limp form of a boy his own age.”  She concludes the poem with a haunting, lyrical question:

Do ghosts whisper psalms in

the flooded branches of trees,

sing strange hymns beneath the ice, to

their next of kin, those newly arrived souls,

claimed by this river inside us?

Another poem caught my attention for the way Mihku created a sense of fear as well as promise.  In “Return,” everyone and everything is groaning in the sometimes stormy, sometimes moonlit dark—the earth, Mt. Katahdin, great pines, and a bear (Muin), with whom she travels.  He teaches her “…to welcome velvet dark / guided by the moon’s shape-shifted spark.”  Then, says the poet, “a steady warmth flowed gently up my spine, / Katahdin’s song rose up from granite stone.”

I am glad to have had the privilege of spending time with Mihku during the recent Returning the Gift Festival in Milwaukee, September 4 -9.  There, her spark and confidence were unmistakable, especially during a slam poetry competition, in which she won second place.  It was then I had a strong feeling that my Maliseet friend, with her wonderful sense of language, sound and images, was well on her way to becoming one of the most important poets to emerge out of New England.  I look forward to her next oeuvre!

20th Century Powwow Playland is available through http://:nativeauthors.com. Mikhu’s website is http://mihkupaul.com.

© by Alice M. Azure, November 2012.

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.