A Poetics of Survival: A Conversation with Demian DinéYazhi´
In September 2018, I saw Demian DinéYazhi´ perform their long-form prose poem, AN INFECTED SUNSET, with musician Holland Andrews at the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s Time Based Art Festival. Demian read all 100+ pages of the piece, taking us on a spiralling journey through the western part of the U.S—back roads in the New Mexican desert, grass lawns in Southeast Portland, a waterfall along Highway 30, Rooster Rock, the Columbia River, Standing Rock. This is a poem that can’t be contained. Though it takes the form of both a chapbook and a gorgeous artist’s book, it is also neither of these things. Much of it, a section called ‘The Liberated Poem’, is a loose collection of pages meant to be performed, tossed away on to the stage floor, rearranged by the reader, or given away. Perhaps they are meant to be lost. What Demian writes into the world through AN INFECTED SUNSET is a new kind of subject, one that can reveal the fraught stakes of Indigenous queer existence, one that trespasses the lines between online and physical worlds to show us how we are constantly situated on a knife edge between beauty and mourning—where the pleasure that sex and the natural world provides is unrelentingly joined by the pain of witnessing an American settler colonial nation-state’s remorseless, unchecked cruelties.
Demian began work on AN INFECTED SUNSET in August 2016, “in the wake of the Orlando nightclub shooting, police killings of unarmed Black men, and in the midst of the Standing Rock #NoDAPL Resistance,” and continued writing the poem through the 45th U.S. presidential election, at which time it took on a new shade of urgency. Over two years later, the momentousness of the piece has only grown. Demian continues to perform the poem at venues across the country, and has recently exhibited artwork at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Henry Art Gallery, Pioneer Works, and the Portland Art Museum. I am grateful to be able to share this conversation on their varied practice.
Demian DinéYazhi´: I think of it as a book length poem, but it does have a chapbook built into it—it’s referencing that tradition, but then it breaks apart from it. There’s a second section of it that I dubbed ‘The Liberated Poem’. I was interested in how poetry, particularly that piece, was speaking with Indigenous and POC communities that have been affected by settler colonial heteropatriarchal structures. There’s a part in the book where I say “manuel asks me if I edit anything I write, and I tell them no, who has time for that”—having the liberated poem there is interesting because it allows for a continual edit to take place, if the reader or the person interacting with the object chooses to do so. You have full reign over how that piece is assembled, or put together. I think there’s also something precious about it—whether you give a page away or something is lost, or just falls out of order naturally. I’m really interested in what kind of relationship that has with a reader.
AT: So, the pages are meant to be potentially out of order–they’re not numbered.
DDY: Yes. I was interested in breaking, in small ways, the tradition of how books are assembled and constructed within a Western publishing world. So there are no page numbers. A lot of it I wrote on my phone and would just plug in to the poem. It felt like it was just one continual thought broken up—broken up, in part, because there’s often not a lot of time for writers and artists to continually create and focus on one thing. Another major factor was that during the writing of the poem, we went through an election. So, you know, the settler colonial state was fully functioning, putting up two horrible candidates that have terrible histories of war mongering and capitalist death grips against Indigenous people, against POC—super violent traditions that will not dismantle this empire. That was really distracting in writing the poem.
The poem itself, primarily the chapbook section, most of it was written within three days. My initial intention was to write as much as I could in that similar style and then release it and have it be a thing—but then all this political shit happened and I felt like there were so many different thoughts and emotions that took place, not only for myself but for the community. And I think of this poem as an offering to Indigenous and POC communities.
AT: In addition to releasing AN INFECTED SUNSET, you recently had a solo exhibition, The Brink, up at the Henry Art Gallery at the University of Washington. I’d love to hear more about your career trajectory as both a visual artist and a poet. When and why did poetry become attractive as a form to work with? Do you see any challenges to working between these forms?
DDY: It’s interesting—the spaces that have been supportive of this writing have more often been in the arts sphere—like art institutions and galleries. I feel like the Portland art community, in a lot of ways, is supportive of thinking outside the box, of doing things differently on our own terms. I’m really grateful for that. I started off as a creative person mostly through writing. I’ve loved writing since I was in fourth grade, and once I got to middle school, high school, it started to have this more poetic tone to it. Earlier this year I released a book of poems from 2009 – 2016 called Ancestral Memory, and that included my thesis from PNCA, titled Tribal Memory: Post Apocalyptic Landscape Representation and Indigenous Survivance. Poetry was my gateway to creating visual work: at some point what I wanted the work to convey grew outside of just text. I became more interested in photography and how there’s this beautiful relationship between the body and the land.
AT: I’m also interested in whether you see your role as a poet and an artist intersecting with that of an activist. There seems to be an increasingly urgent conversation around whether art and art institutions can be effectual in driving real political change, both within the art world and at large. How would you say you navigate the art world as someone who is critical of institutional power structures—particularly the capitalist imperialist ones so much of the American art world tends to be complicit with?
DDY: I think for Indigenous and brown and Black POC communities, the label ‘activist’ gets mixed up with the fact that we’re just trying to survive and have a voice against white supremacist, heteropatriarchal, settler colonial capitalist structures. I think for the most part it’s just about maintaining a voice and presence. So, I don’t know if I consider myself an activist. My artmaking has mostly been interlinked with my own choice to survive, to a certain degree it’s a survival and coping mechanism—one that keeps me from doing stupid shit [laughs]. I’m trying to have a voice because I know that my ancestors didn’t have a choice. They didn’t have the platform to be able to speak to a larger audience in this way.
I’m very privileged so I use that to my advantage. And I do that through working within institutions—while also holding institutions accountable, trying to work on my own terms as much as possible. I don’t have gallery representation, my work isn’t completely manufactured to be sold. Most of my work has this—I don’t want to say a temporary lifespan to it, but it just has a lifespan to it. I’ve been talking about this a lot lately, how the way that I practice and the mediums and methods that I choose are very much tied to a continuation of Indigenous philosophy and Indigenous aesthetics. Most of my work is meant to disappear or dissolve over time. Nothing is forever, you know? Everything has a lifeline to it. Some of the pieces that I’ll have, I’ll wheatpaste them or they’ll just be on standard paper. I don’t necessarily see those things existing in 200, 500 years. When I start working in that way and I start using these elements—like earth from my ancestral land that is dug up, put into an institution, and put back into the ground—it’s hard for a collector to know how to collect that.
AT: Returning to AN INFECTED SUNSET, in The Liberated Poem, there’s a section which I’ll quote here:
It is important in these moments to remember my father grandfathers
uncles cousins and all the Indigenous men wearing tight blue jeans
some with hair that stretches all the way down to their
some _cut _clean
with a razor _like boarding school days
Indigenous diné men with straight white teeth
that smile through generations of wounded
it’s enough to make you lose
all sense of direction
Though your experiences of gender identity and sex, and particularly navigating the landscape of queer sex and community in Portland, are woven throughout the poem, this image—the queerness of this image you constructed—was so unexpected and so striking.
DDY: I’m happy to be living in a place like Portland, where people are a lot more conscious of the dialogue, language, and experiences of trans and gender non-conforming folks. But I also have to remind myself that within a settler colonial critique, we can’t forget the fact that Western cultures and civilizations and perspectives have completely erased the way that gender was being played out in the precolonial new world—or any precolonized space. The way that a Dine man has to assimilate to the construction of Western masculinity is really vicious and fucked up. Even in terms of asserting patriarchal values onto a community that is historically or ancestrally tied to matrilineal or matriarchal structures is really fucked up—I feel like it has a devastating impact on young Indigenous men. So that was a way for me to honor that—to honor Indigenous men who are brave enough to assert masculine values, whether those are Indigenous or Western, I don’t know. I’ve always really valued the fact that my father has long hair, and it’s just such a beautiful symbol. But I also really revel in the fact that I get to make those decisions for myself—in what feels comfortable. Growing up, we would leave the reservation or Gallup and go to Phoenix or Las Vegas, and it was always really fucked up to be around my father and my family and have some white lady come up and like ask to touch my father’s hair. Like, right in front of my mother! And just being like—y’all are fucking gross. It was so disgusting. So there’s a part of me that’s like, I don’t want to feel that. I don’t want to go through that. I don’t want some white lady to violate me. So, you know, the poem goes there but the poem’s also—there’s a part in it that’s like: we call it feminine energy but in a thousand years’ time we’ll come to understand and think of things differently [Note: the poem reads: we are born from mothers and fed feminine energy / we call it feminine but in 1,000 years time / we will come to embrace and invoke / unimaginable gender identities]. We’re building that language now. We’re building spaces in people’s minds to think about gender and sexuality in different ways.
AT: This ties in a little to the part where you recount a Facebook conversation, where someone you know is complaining about straight people occupying too much space at Rooster Rock [a gay nude beach in the Columbia River Gorge], saying, “remember when Rooster Rock was a gay beach?” and you reply “remember when Rooster Rock was Indigenous land?”
DDY: That whole summer, having these conversations with other queers about sex, and being in the middle of something like Standing Rock and Black Lives Matter—it was like, how can we be talking about this and radicalized in our sex when like, there’s other shit going on? When an entire tribe or ecosystem can be disrupted or violated because of extractive industries? What’s more important to us as human beings, and how does that have an impact on where we are and where we’re currently situated? We’re on Rooster Rock. This place would not be here if there weren’t these dams, there would be no queer Western post-colonial history here if it hadn’t been for the displacement of entire Indigenous populations. That part also brings up a good question for myself- what’s more important to me? My queer identity or indigeniety? Standing up for these two—it doesn’t necessarily have to be a choice, but at that moment it felt like it might have been one, you know? Is there a place for queer people at Standing Rock, is there a place for queer people at Indigenous reservations that have been assimilated into a heteropatriarchal structure? Those were questions I was asking myself at the time.
AT: There’s another section in AN INFECTED SUNSET where you state, repeatedly, “I should be at Standing Rock” and then write about some of the things that you’re doing instead. You were grappling with this desire to be there, weighing the necessity of being there, and what it meant to be there, against your very real day to day obligations. I was struck by the transparency with which you expressed your indecision over this.
DDY: I think it echoes a lot of what other people felt during that time. Especially if they’re Indigenous, and especially if they knew the history of the Indians of all Tribes and the American Indian movement—the different forms of resistance and attempts at reclamation of ancestral lands made by Indigenous people since colonization. Given the amount of trauma that we’ve already endured as Indigenous people, what does it mean to go into a space like that? I had a really hard time with that. There was a moment when I was so ready to get in the car and just take off, but I had prior obligations: an opportunity to partake in the Painted Desert Project down in Shonto, on my reservation, and interact with elementary school kids for a week. I feel like that’s just as important as doing something like going to Standing Rock. It’s just as important to go into those spaces and talk about Indigenous feminism and talk about a creative art practice. For young Navajo kids to see someone from their tribe actively out there making work and thinking outside of the reservation, just asking different questions about who we are as Diné people. I also did my damnedest to create as much awareness and support for the #NoDAPL resistance in whatever forms that I could. Releasing this book two years after the fact, those issues are still pertinent. Whether or not the people who were—what was it, when they checked in at Standing Rock?
AT: Yes, there was that viral Facebook check-in. I could be wrong about this, but I think the idea was that it would confuse law enforcement using Facebook data to track protesters and their movements? What did you think about that?
DDY: Well there’s that, and also people with their “I stand with Standing Rock” signs, and everyone’s allegiance or solidarity with the whole thing, but what happens when shit goes south? What happens when people get kicked out? What happens when Standing Rock and #NoDAPL is no longer a trend or a hashtag that people are regularly using, when it’s had its 15 minutes of fame? This goes the same for institutions supporting Indigenous artists—how far does their dedication stretch? How much are they willing to support Indigenous people when it’s not trending? When it’s ugly and brutal and deadly? I don’t see people, after Standing Rock, being there for Indigenous people. I think this book coming out two years later, while it was a little bit longer than I had wanted, is really nice, because it allows for a moment of contemplation and holding people accountable to that. Like y’all said you were going to be here for Indigenous people. Where the fuck are you? I think that’s all wrapped up into the poem.
Demian DinéYazhi´ (born 1983) is an Indigenous Diné transdisciplinary artist born to the clans Naasht’ézhí Tábąąhá (Zuni Clan Water’s Edge) & Tódích’íí’nii (Bitter Water). Growing up in the colonized border town of Gallup, New Mexico, the evolution of DinéYazhi´’s work has been influenced by their ancestral ties to traditional Diné culture and ceremony, matrilineal upbringing, the sacredness of land, and the importance of intergenerational knowledge. Through research, mining community archives, and social collaboration and activism, DinéYazhi´ highlights the intersections of Radical Indigenous Queer Feminist identity and political ideology while challenging the white noise of the contemporary art movement. They have recently exhibited at Whitney Museum of American Art (2018), Henry Art Gallery (2018), Pioneer Works (2018), CANADA, NY (2017); and Cooley Gallery (2017). DinéYazhi´ is the founder of the Indigenous artist/activist initiative, R.I.S.E.: Radical Indigenous Survivance & Empowerment. They are the recipient of the Henry Art Museum’s Brink Award (2017), Hallie Ford Fellow in the Visual Arts (2018), and Eiteljorg Contemporary Art Fellow (2019). @heterogeneoushomosexual
Purchase AN INFECTED SUNSET on Etsy: http://etsy.com/shop/DemianDineyazhi