Susan Deer Cloud, a Catskill Mountain Indian, is the recipient of an NEA Literature Fellowship, two New York State Foundation for the Arts Poetry Fellowships, and an Elizabeth George Foundation Grant. Published in numerous literary journals and anthologies, some of her books are Before Language, Hunger Moon, Fox Mountain, Braiding Starlight, Car Stealer and The Last Ceremony. She edited the Native American anthology I Was Indian (Before Being Indian Was Cool), Volumes I & II, and the Re-Matriation Chapbook Series of Indigenous Poetry. After earning her B.A. and M.A. at Binghamton University, she continued to live for three decades in the Southern Tier. During that time she often visited Cayuga Lake and Ithaca’s gorges and falls, especially Taughannock Falls which is pervaded by manitou and much beloved by her. A long haired rover, currently Deer Cloud spends her time between wandering in this country and abroad and writing in the quiet wild of the Catskills she dwells in once again.
When did you start writing?
I grew up in the Catskill Mountains, surrounded by oral storytellers who also liked to sing and play music. I cannot remember a time when I did not love to tell stories, and I believe I was born a poet and storyteller. My father used to take us for long rides in the mountains, during which my parents and siblings and I would sing songs. If the others fell silent for a while, I would sing stories that flashed into my brain. After I learned how to write in school, I started writing both fiction and poetry. I even have two stories that I wrote in grade school, including one about Evangeline illustrated with a colored drawing of her.
What draws you to writing poetry, compared to other writing forms?
I am not solely drawn to writing poetry, and even before this current era when more and more writers work in mixed genres I was writing in that way. I never understood why there had to be strict borders and walls placed between fiction, poetry, and non-fiction. I certainly can say that I love poetry because it more readily allows me to travel closer to the mystery places, but I have a passion for all writing in its wild luminous energy and fluidity.
Do you draw from your own personal experiences in writing poetry? If so, how has this process served as a tool for reflection?
Yes, I do draw from my personal experiences. I come from a background of being silenced, especially because of “growing up girl” and being “part Indian” in the 1950s and 1960s. I was relentlessly discouraged from affirming who I was as a human being, not to mention from celebrating who my beautiful people and old mountain ways and language were. I am fascinated by how the very act of writing can bring a person vividly into the deepest truth of her (or his) life, and by extension into the realities of other human beings’ lives. There is that Zen expression referring to “the face you had before you were born.” For me, drawing from my own personal experiences has been not only returning to that face but returning to the voice I had before I was born.
Apart from personal experiences, what especially inspires your work?
I am tempted to say, “What doesn’t inspire my work?” I am so interested in all of life, in that which most immediately surrounds me as well as inner and outer space. I work a lot with bearing witness to what occurs on Mother Earth, and also with transformation of what is tragic into something new and strong and wondrous. Getting back to the very act of writing, I see writing as being similar to ceremony in the sense it brings careful attention to its subject matters and can result in a restoration of balance and understanding.
If you were hosting a dinner and could invite any 3 guests, from the present or the past, who would they be and why?
Only three? What kind of dinner is that! I’ll keep this to past people: my medicine woman ancestress, Cornelia Catherine Ann, who lived not too far from where I now live in the Catskill Mountains; Lalla the Kashmiri Sufi poet; and Dostoevsky the great Russian novelist. And why?
I would like to ask my ancestress what it was like for her in the mid-nineteenth century and perhaps learn about her medicine and find out her Mohawk name which was not allowed to be put on her gravestone. I would like for us to talk about our different lives and what has happened on Turtle Island from the very beginning and since she was alive.
I would like to meet Lalla, because she was so tapped into the mysteries of life and used to whirl naked while singing her poetry because she did not want anything “to come between Lalla and Allah.” I would like to meet another woman poet from that many centuries ago (14th century) and see how it was for her. Also, when I went to school and even university, there was a vast silence about so many of the women creators of the past. I have long wished to learn more about these women who have too often been censored from our history books and very consciousness.
Lastly, I would like Dostoevsky to come to my dinner because he is one of my most beloved writers whose work soars with passion, poetry, ideas, complexity, and the love Jesus the poet-activist was really speaking about. Crime and Punishment was the first great adult literature that I read, when I was twelve years old, and all of Dostoevsky’s work has been a guiding light for my own writing fired by crazy sprawling existence mated with dream and vision.
Do you follow a regular routine/process when writing poetry?
Not really. I write when the muse shows up, which is usually “’round about midnight” since my muse is not one bit domesticated and tends to prefer the company of late night coyotes and Catskill wild cats. My poetry flashes in at me fast and it doesn’t take me long to write a poem. It can take me longer to revise my work.
What do you do when you’re not writing?
Despite the centuries of rumors that writers mainly float around on clouds of their own making, I engage in the same quotidian work that other people do, like cooking, cleaning, buying groceries, and weed whacking. Yes, Virginia, there is a poet who cleans toilets. Besides those chores and my writing, I love to read brilliant literature, watch fine films, have gatherings with family and friends, take photographs, and travel with the person I call my roving companion. An essentially shy person, I am most fond of sitting quietly in my solitude and daydreaming in the direction of the mountains, sky, and occasional eagle spiraling.