Linda Hogan on ‘A History of Kindness’: “I Would Call this Book a Tree”

Linda Hogan is a prolific writer and activist for the environment and Native American culture. In her latest collection, A History of Kindness, Hogan’s poetry reads like a soulful meditation on both. 

The poems in A History of Kindness are rich with reverence and love for humanity and the environment. This collection is also more than an act of kindness. It is an interrogation of our past and present relationship with ourselves, the animals, and our surroundings. Hogan’s poems remind us that we are all inextricably connected. The old woman walking on the side of the road, the young child playing in the yard, the bison roaming the field, the wild river flowing into the Pacific, the Milky Way reflected on the surface – we are all connected in one tremendous and sublime existence. 

Seasoned from a lifetime of keen observation and penned with a poet’s passionate heart, A History of Kindness is an activist’s petition for humanity to discover peace and harmony with our world.

Hogan’s poetry compels us to compassion for those in need, to “…leave your coat behind on purpose / what else would a real human do?” And to reflect on ourselves, “…to watch how I live, / to make sure it is / the right way.” And to resolve to be better, to be a person “that steps out to a new human accord.”

In this time of increasing environmental and social upheaval, Hogan’s wise message has never been more welcome.

Linda Hogan is a Chickasaw poet, novelist, essayist, playwright, teacher, and activist. She is a former faculty member at the Indian Arts Institute, Writer in Residence for the Chickasaw Nation, and Professor Emerita from the University of Colorado. Her novel Mean Spirit was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and her poetry collection The Book of Medicines was a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist. Hogan also received the American Book Award and Colorado Book Award and has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, A National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and Lannan Fellowship, a Native Arts and Culture Fellowship, and a PEN Thoreau Award.

I had the wonderful opportunity to speak with Linda via email about her new collection.

How would you describe A History of Kindness to someone who has not read your previous books?

This is a book that is not only about poetry and its quiet moments of magic, but about wisdom given by Elders and teachers we all want and need in our lives. It contains history as it dwells in the present, affecting our lives in the now, and goes beyond to the ways we learn to love ourselves and others. I would call this book a tree. It begins as a seedling and grows, rings showing the years and the roots are spread wide, in common feeling, in the roots of race, culture, the hatred of these countered by rich heartwood. 

A History of Kindness covers a breadth of beautifully interwoven topics: the human body, the environment, birth, life, death, and Native American culture. How did they come together for you in this book? 

I used to tell students that whatever is inside the psyche will come to the fore in poetry and writing and not to think too much about wanting to say something, about wanting a theme. It is already there. Given the chance, words will come with their own will. A poem knows what it wants to do even without the mind of the writer intervening.  Writers can’t create it on their own behalf and make it right. It is more like putting together a basket. The shape happens as the maker weaves. (Or at least it does when I try to make a basket.) 

Like many of your previous works, A History of Kindness centers on themes of the human body, the environment, and ecological harmony. What continues to draw you to these themes in your writing?

The environment has always been my interest. Even as a child. Even sometimes with fear, walking into the unknown forest or swamp land.   

As a watcher of the world, I am fortunate to have been born into a life that did not include most kinds of privilege.  No emphasis on school or grades. No one thought of higher education. Or what it meant to be a child who would achieve. We had no books. We had little money. Those things didn’t figure into our lives.

Instead I had the privilege of teachers and experiences with the natural world. I had freedom of a different sort. And natural curiosity. Over the years, I wanted to understand where we fit into this world. I found it mostly, later, by looking at my ancestors. Their ways of caring for forests, their creation of homes, and ways of living were so significant as participants in this world that even DeSoto, the Spanish Colonizer and killer/mutilator wrote about our forests and our care for them in his journals along with our ability to grow long regions of food.  

After I worked my way through school, a bit at a time, and educated myself, I studied everything and anything that interested me and it was usually in the area of environment and ecology. But I am self-educated and a researcher on my own. I feel fortunate to have had that freedom. It has allowed me also the freedom to write without fear.

I have learned to think of how we can live with a minimum amount of destruction to the near ruins of our present world, and to nurture and care for the plants and animals, even the insects, that surround us. This nurturing includes other humans. 

I want to understand the differences between peoples, but as an Indigenous woman, there are many that are hard to bridge in either direction. 

Your writing is rich with love and compassion – how do you stay rooted in those qualities when dealing with such tragic themes as the destruction of our environment and the treatment of Native Americans?

What other choice do I have? It doesn’t mean I have no anger about injustice. I do. I throw myself down when it is violent and painful. But it is also a matter of how to work against that injustice. I haven’t seen it succeed by fighting, yelling, rage, or outward anger. Think of those yelling faces you see on the news, mouths wide open. They lose. Their anger, their hatred has the opposite effect of what they are reaching toward. 

Some of it is a matter of difference in who we are. Imagine Black, Indian, or Latinx people going to the courthouse in Michigan to “talk to the Governor” while fully armed with assault rifles, wearing camouflage like the white men did recently. That is WHITE PRIVILEGE; anyone of us others would have been killed immediately.         

And having watched the military called against peaceful water protectors at Standing Rock, even a private military armed with chemical-laden planes flying over day and night, helicopters, tanks, I am very aware that we have had to find other ways of dealing with the enormous destruction of people and our earth. 

For me, and maybe I am wrong, fight has more than one way to exist. Change has to happen. Maybe a book does make a difference, I hope. Maybe words can make change. They have in the past. So I search for the right ones. Maybe it is not of use, but sometimes it is.

You are a prolific writer across many genres, what are some of the books that have most influenced your life and writing?

Since I read everything, it is so hard to say, but I have always loved Neruda’s work and when I am completely stuck, I open his work. I like books in translation, especially from Spanish. In essays, I absolutely love Laurens van der Post, John Hay, Terry Williams, and others. Fiction: I have very late discovered Alice Munro and can’t stop reading her stories. But I read absolutely everything, from science to political theory, history, anthropology, and so on. Still, poetry is my favorite. Right now I am reading Craig Santos…and the new book by Carolyn Forché, and looking at writers I have missed to see what made them good.

After reading A History of Kindness, I was drawn to learn more about Native American culture and how I might live in better harmony with myself and my environment. If you could hope for a message to the reader from this book, what would it be?

That is what I hope. That a person will feel the book, want to know real history, want to live in harmony. In traditional ways of well-being, of health and spirituality, to live in harmony with all the rest is the desire and need.

Your writing is a clear and vibrant voice for living in harmony with the environment and the preservation of Native American culture. In what other ways do you educate and advocate for these goals?

This would take a lifetime of learning, but I recommend books and people to pay attention to. It is complicated. What if I turned the question around and asked about the American way of life? How long would it take to really go into depth with that? And then, considering that there are so many nations, each one different, it is a difficult question. Everyone would not agree with what I do or how I think, in any case. So I can only recommend what I have taught and what I have written. I would love to work with young people again, and was doing it until 2017 and after that have found I have less energy than when I was younger and healthier. Although having to take care of my mustang and burro and land does require much work every day. One person asked his wife, Why does she do it?  I could only answer, Because of love. I love them. I love the land, as much work as it is. But in spite of what Joy Harjo, my friend and the new Poet Laureate! says, that age doesn’t mean anything, I have to disagree. Being an Elder is not an easy task.

A History of Kindness is a meditative journey into social and environmental injustice. Do you think poetry can influence social and environmental change?

We are remarkable creatures. That doesn’t mean we all read poetry. But I always think one person can create a beginning, one teacher makes a difference in a classroom of those who might never have thought something or considered a question. So perhaps poetry can influence change, although I began writing fiction because our lives are made up of stories and a story can change a life. A story makes a greater difference if read by the right persons. Again, it takes a reader. And this is a country with few readers. It was shocking to learn how few people read a book out of high school. That was years ago. Now I realize even fewer read a book in high school. It simply doesn’t matter to most. And that is why the US and some few other countries have such disastrous problems, and even policies. Yesterday, the president actually said, I don’t read. 

For those who have the resources of wealthy families or can afford private schools, the odds are usually higher. But then, they move on to positions in life that may not allow them the time to read. We are in a bind. The best educated, as Michael Moore’s film Where to Invade Next, showed that students left to their own resources of study learned more languages and other topics. They had terrific educations and the teachers were there to guide them to their interests and to be mentors.

In addition to writing poetry, you are a novelist, essayist, and playwright. I’m always curious about how writers decide on a genre or form when embarking on a project. For you, does the topic choose the form, or do you set out with a genre or form in mind? 

It happens on its own. I may sit down, lie down, to write, and whatever comes may not be what I had expected. I will look at it later and say, this isn’t a poem. It is prose. Or I find a place  in some writing, some old notebook, where a line stands out and I know with excitement that it is a poem. You never know what you’ll find when writing in the present but sometimes, you look at the piece and it comes to you. That is my key way of knowing; It Comes to Me. It is the best I can do. I have so many notebooks, they overwhelm part of a bookshelf. But inside them is sometimes inspiration. It is a wonderful experience and I’m sure it is true of all writers, that excitement of finding some magic.

What’s next for you? Any projects (or readings!) that you’d like our readers to look forward to? 

My readings all were canceled because of the virus. I lost my way of making a living, but it turned out to be a wonderful time of isolation and quiet, long periods of time watching birds. I won’t go on about all I watch. There isn’t time. But I did watch a nest from the beginning until they fledged. At the time, rare kingbird flycatchers returned from the previous two years. There are so many interesting things to do, writing, reading a book without interruption. 

I am waiting for my other new book, The Radiant Lives of Animals, to be out in October of this year. It includes essays on living with wildlife. Really with many other than human creations. Including ants. I am now at work on a novel that is both fictional and autobiographical. My family history is fascinating and so much in line with the history of all Native American experience through time, with the numerous Acts and Policies against us, with broken treaties and other lies. It is three generations of amazing people struggling with all of this. I hope it works, but it may not. 

I write poetry all the time, loving it as my first language. It’s what sent me back to school. I had to learn more after I discovered a first contemporary poem. And then, I also discovered the working class literature which rang home with me. So I write every day. And then I read. Alice Munro, my newly discovered great writer! Or whichever writer I discover next.

POETRY
A History of Kindness
By Linda Hogan
Torrey House Press
Published June 2, 2020