Tiffany Midge in conversation with Amy Wilson
Tiffany Midge is a citizen of the Standing Rock Sioux nation, and a poet and writer of creative nonfiction and fiction. Her work has appeared in McSweeney’s, Indian Country Today, Massachusetts Review, Hunger Mountain, Waxwing, GAY Magazine, YES! Magazine, and more. Her poetry collection The Woman Who Married a Bear (University of New Mexico Press) received the Kenyon Review Earthworks Indigenous Poetry Prize, and her essay collection Bury My Heart at Chuck E. Cheese’s (Bison Books) was a finalist for a Washington State Book Award. Midge is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize, a Simons Public Humanities Fellowship, and an Eliza So Fellowship. Her book of poetry, Horns, is forthcoming from Spokane-based Scablands Press. Midge’s essay “The Jimmy Report” originally appeared in Moss Volume Two in summer 2016. A former poet laureate of Moscow, ID, Midge aspires to be the poet-in-residence at Seattle’s Space Needle.
Amy Wilson, a poet and organizer from Oregon who serves on the volunteer leadership team of Moss, interviewed Midge by digital exchange.
Hi Tiffany! Thank you for doing this interview with Moss. What is your personal connection to the Pacific Northwest? In what ways (if any) does the culture of the Pacific Northwest influence your writing?
I was born in Auburn, Washington, south of Seattle. My parents relocated from eastern Montana for employment opportunities, and my paternal (white) grandparents lived in Auburn. They formerly lived in eastern Montana also. I write about my life and experiences growing up in Washington. Before we moved to Kirkland, the eastside suburb of Seattle, we lived in Snoqualmie Valley, where my Dad taught in public schools. You mention culture, and there was a stark contrast of cultures from rural, dairyland and woods, to denser population, commerce, and suburbia. Those years in Snoqualmie Valley seem much more vivid and strange. The environment and the people held a quality of surreality that I could best describe as Twin Peaks. But there were idyllic, Mayberry R.F.D. / Frank Capra aspects to growing up there, also. There were no limits as to where I could explore, or how long I could be outside. I spent all my time in the woods, at the river banks, in pastures, and roaming through town, in and out of people’s houses. And because my dad taught at the high school, we were often hanging out at his high school events and games. I’ve written about it throughout the years, and surprise myself sometimes because I’m still writing about it. Those young years of mine. Jesus. White people who live in the woods. Yeah. But my homelife was weird, and definitely offbeat, too.
It is so funny to hear you bring up Twin Peaks as an accurate depiction of the environment and people you encountered in the Snoqualmie Valley. That show really has become a defining text of the Northwest! It’s also interesting to hear you reference Mayberry R.F.D. / Frank Capra and this vision of Americana wholesomeness in the context of the Pacific Northwest. My own dad who lived in Vancouver, Washington as a child in the 1950 and 60s has said the same thing. It seems to me in many ways these are facets of the same thing about the Northwest—the strange and surreal exists side by side with the wholesome and straightforward. I see that a lot in one of my personal favorite writers of the Northwest, Ken Kesey. Aside from Twin Peaks, what other texts say “Northwest” to you? Do you have favorite writers or artists of the Northwest, either those working right now or from our history?
That’s a fun question. And it’s great to know you’re a fan of Kesey, I don’t hear younger generations bring up his work very often. He’s featured in one of my flash pieces, “The Woman Who Married a Bear.” Which is really a vignette that’s part of a larger piece about kismet and synchronicity. I also mention his work, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in another vignette from Bury My Heart at Chuck E. Cheese’s, about my father (who is white) playing the role of Chief Bromden in a theater production. I often approach novels with Native characters written by non-Native authors with some wariness, but One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is kind of “grandfathered in”—much like David Seals’s Powwow Highway, Tom Spanbauer’s The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon, or W.P. Kinsella’s The Fencepost Chronicles. It’s hard to scrutinize those books, but then again, I haven’t read them in twenty years or more, either.
Northwest writers who’ve made an impact on my literary soul… in the early days, late 80s, early nineties, I took poetry classes, extended ed. classes offered at UW, from Nelson Bently, and Beth Bently. They were great. Nelson was a co-founder of Poetry Northwest and The Seattle Review, and his Friday night Castilia Reading Series might still be going on. He is the only poet I know, to this day, who used call and response audience participation in his poetry readings. And he was a finessed speaker of Old English. He always invited folks out for drinks at the Blue Moon Tavern after the readings.
I lucked into taking a day long workshop with William Stafford that made a big impression on me. He was very kind and supportive of some of my earliest efforts at writing poems. I took creative writing classes at Seattle Central Community College from J.T. Stewart, and edited on
The Ark. Her classes were very lively and mutually supportive. I got a lot out of them, she’s a wonderful poet and teacher. I experienced some real coming-of-age chapters through the friendships I made with that group of students. Babies were conceived and born. Not my own, but fellow students who I became close with. I came close to making babies with someone from the class, though. Or would have liked to.
I spent many Sunday nights with the poets from Red Sky Poetry Theater, a core group who were anarchists, activists, and proletariat poets. It was a very vibrant and exhilarating scene. I read my first poems at a Red Sky open mic, after spending months and maybe years, screwing up mycourage to present a poem. I don’t remember ever being that nervous—shaking, and my knees literally knocking together. I only mention that by way of offering encouragement to writers starting out. It’s daunting, it still is!
Eventually, my poems made it into the Raven Chronicles, and I felt like I’d arrived. One of the editors, Phoebe Bosche, was active with Red Sky, and along with folks like Kathleen Alcalá and Philip Red Eagle, they founded and produced this art and literature magazine centered upon multiculturalism with a strong emphasis on Native American art and literature. I felt a strong sense of belonging with Raven Chronicles, an authentic sense of community, and I continued to publish my work with the magazine, and to work on various projects and events with them, up until the present.
I enjoyed a lot of planning meetings for Native writing conferences and events in the Seattle area, and a lot of get-togethers, lots of readings, with the aforementioned Phil Red Eagle, along with Gladys Cardiff, and Gail Trembley, Duane Niatum, and several others. It was a nurturing environment for a young writer, very mutually supportive. I was always meeting new people, Native artists and writers, going out and socializing, there was always a literary event to attend, a soiree or after-party. I loved that.
My favorite books were and remain to be by Raymond Carver, Tom Robbins. Good lord! Katherine Dunn! Who could leave Geek Love out of such a list. Ursula K. Le Guin, of course. I’ve always been a big fan of Shawn Wong’s American Knees. Also, Kathleen Alcalá, Jess Walters, Sharma Shields, Eden Robinson, Donna Miscolta, Anita Endrezze. And essayists Elissa Washuta, Danielle Geller who lives in Victoria now, Deborah Miranda, and Sasha LaPointe. Poets include our new Washington State poet laureate Rena Priest, Laura Da’, Cedar Sigo, and Michael Wasson.
Your recent book, Bury My Heart at Chuck E. Cheese’s, is positioned as a humorous collection of essays and indeed, it is very funny. (“Reel Indians Don’t Eat Quiche: The Fight for Authentic Roles in Hollywood” and “Jame Gumb, Hero and Pioneer of the Fat-Positivity Movement” were personal favorites of mine!) Yet there are many pieces and moments in the book that deal with serious topics, from personal grief and challenging familial relationships to Indigenous genocide and the rise of Trumpism in the US. Why use humor to frame these topics? What is your perspective on the relationship of humor in writing to the other types of emotions writing might inspire?
It’s organic, for the most part. And isn’t comedy and tragedy, the sacred and the profane, between laughing and crying, all a part of the same spectrum? Jokes and humor are my go-to because that’s how the world presents itself to me. I suppose I look for the amusing, irreverent details to keep myself from going crazy. Or from being bored to death by the onslaught of our news cycle. It’s a form of survival. Responding with satire, and with cynicism makes sense out of things that make no sense. And if I can’t make sense out of whatever thing, I can at least use it as material, make something out of the thing, transcend it to the level of art. Just today I saw a meme with an explanation of how heyokas exist(ed) within D/N/Lakota society, and their function. The idea that a person who got too arrogant or full of themselves would be a target of teasing and ridicule from a heyoka. Maybe those types are all too common by today’s standards, like Trump, for instance. And it is pretty obvious that the D/N/Lakota metric of a heyoka would succinctly apply. And that kind of teasing is a huge part of the entertainment/political humor industry.
You are also a poet (a poet laureate of Moscow, Idaho, in fact!). Reading the essays in Bury My Heart at Chuck E. Cheese’s, I saw so much poetry in the structure of your work (especially in Parts I and II) and in your use of imagery. Can you tell me a little bit about your philosophy of poetry? What makes something a poem?
I’m formerly a poet laureate of Moscow, Idaho, with aspirations to be distinguished poet laureate of Seattle’s Space Needle. Which isn’t an actual thing, yet, but should be. Poetry is baked into the fritatta of everyday life—or lasagna, apple pie, tuna casserole, what have you. It transcends beyond simply language and words. It is a lifestyle brand. A spiritual contract (hopefully) one makes with the world. It’s an agreement with the cosmos to see “into” and “outside” of whatever boring or literal thing is being presented. I think poets are seers, visionaries, and soothsayers. Poetry should be as revered as religion and spiritual practices in this country, there should be poetry cathedrals and poetry churches and poetry ministries. Indigenous peoples are of this understanding. Indigenous peoples embody poetics within their everyday, traditionally. There’s dynamism reflected in Indigenous languages. Often the dreamworld coalesces with so-called reality. The inanimate have souls—rocks, and trees, bodies of water. Everything has a narrative, has a story, and it’s universally accepted that stories are medicine. That’s poetry.
Please excuse me while I take a quick break from this interview to get “poetry is baked into the frittata of everyday life” tattooed somewhere on my body… as a poet myself, I truly appreciate this perspective on poetry. It reminds me of the Worker Writers School organized by Mark Nowak, author of Social Poetics. His philosophy is also very much about seeing poetics in the everyday, whether that be on a factory floor, during a home health aide’s meal break, or in a cab driver’s cab. Yet poetry is often rarefied and institutionalized in this country, or assumed to be a pursuit of the wealthy and idle. Maybe that’s an aspect of the white supremacy and settler-colonialism this state is founded on, to attempt to strip land and people of their poetics. I certainly feel that capitalism is a series of attempts to strip working peoples’ lives of their poetry. What do you think would shift if we were able to institute what you suggest, to have “poetry cathedrals and poetry churches and poetry ministries” that were truly open to all?
We’d have a lot more poets. What if every corporate business and every institution had a poet in residence? Does Microsoft have a poet in residence? Does Boeing? And a poet for every county, town, and governmental department. Every library and bus station and sporting arena? Hospital poets. Can you imagine? It’d be like a speculative novel. The shift would be that poets wouldn’t be hired just for presidential
inaugurations. And that poets might edge out the National Anthem singers at baseball games.
Maybe that’s one of the attractions of going to church—to sit with liturgy, devotionals, and scripture, to be with language and commune with it. There are similarities between a sermon and a poetry recitation, with regards to rhythms and inflections and speech patterns. Some poet can punch you in the gut, just as some pastors can bring people to their knees. Both experiences can be cathartic, emotional, a high. I spent a lot of time in bars and coffee houses for poetry open mics. And I’ve also sat in and experienced Catholic charismatic revivals, and Pentacostol ministers speaking in tongues. I’ve never seen anyone pass out and convulse at a poetry open mic, but I knew a woman who often seemed orgasmic.
Thinking about your comment about society, or our robot overlords, stripping people of their “poetics,” makes me think of Indigenous songs. Honor songs. The idea that there is a song individually or coll-ectively, created for all kinds of occasions. It’s like a kind of prayer, or acknowledgement. And the idea that every being, be it animal, rock, tree or river has its own song, too. And we know that science has proved that to be true—that there are frequencies, and energies connected to every thing. There are a lot of analogies for what a poem is, and could be. But in this context, it could be the voice (or song) of one’s soul.
Many of the essays, especially in the latter half of the book, address the atmosphere in the US around the time of Trump’s election and the days immediately after. Reading them in 2021, I was struck with memories of those difficult days and the feeling of fear and dread that pervaded many of our lives. What was your experience as a writer and artist in the Trump years? What (if any) sources of hope were you able to draw on? Do you think these years have affected your work now and if so, how?
Oh, for sure, there was a tremendous amount of “influence” on my life as a writer. And those sections in my book—and several others in earlier sections, also—are manifestations (infestations?) of that. There’s no way around it, I mean, there’s a cartoon of Trump on the book’s cover! Leading up to the election, and the months following, I had been publishing all of the pieces as a column for Indian Country Today, so ICT is hugely responsible for Bury My Heart at Chuck E. Cheese’s being a book. Writing (and publishing) the columns was a hope-generating exercise. And this is true of any humorist or comedian. The country tunes into Stephen Colbert or Trevor Noah to be lifted, to transcend the despair and hopelessness of the news cycle. And in the simplest way possible, really, by just laughing. Laughing at one’s enemy is the ultimate defense, it’s akin to counting coup. Or as I mentioned earlier, a heyoka’s target for diffusing tension, healing, and reinstating harmony.
Insofar as the those years affecting my present work, it is likely that because of social movements, such as #WritersResist, and Black Lives Matter, along with #OwnVoices and #PublishingPaidMe, BIPOC artists are given more visibility, and more opportunities, and those social reforms have resulted in more doors being opened. A lot more doors. And I look forward to seeing the impact of those reforms.
The day after the 2016 election I posted these thoughts to my socials:
Cinema attendance was at an all-time high during WWII. I think of this as I wake to the realization that we’re living in a real time Dystopian YA novel, or just on the brink of it. And if the entertainment industry thrived in our depressed and harrowing era of war, back when the actual Hitler rose to power, it occurs to me that artists and creators are critically necessary now more than ever. Not just for escape and entertainment though, but for imagining better worlds, for instilling hope, beauty, ushering thoughtfulness and analysis.
So great to know about Indian Country Today and how their publishing your columns led to what became your book. You talk about social reforms in publishing and how these have led in the past few years to greater access and visibility for BIPOC writers, but it seems there’s still a long way to go before there is full equity for workers and artists in the publishing industry. Part of the mission for us at Moss is to build up alternative platforms and networks to counter what we see as inequities (in our case, regional ones) in the way the culture industry is structured. You could even call us “counter-cultural” ;-)
Your essay for Moss, “The Jimmy Report,” also appears in Bury My Heart at Chuck E. Cheese’s. One of the reasons I love that piece is its honest depiction of culture in a small-town environment of Bellingham—the quirky thrift shop, the sidewalk busker, the local tavern, the ways that sad and un-pretty realities can mix with moments of transcendence and joy. There’s also a wonderful piece in Bury My Heart about your experiences in a community theater growing up. Could you speak a little bit to the ways that culture shows up in these “unexpected” places, places that tend to be ignored by the wider world but are very alive to the people who live and experience within them?
It could be my age, and how different the social climate is, it could be the region I’ve lived in since 2005, going from Seattle to Idaho, there’s a lot of contrast there, but it felt like I was more immersed in grass roots, working class theater/literary artists, dance-around-the-fire, removed from academia careerism, kinds of “culture” when I lived in Seattle. Maybe it’s just nostalgia? Or maybe I’ve just become more reclusive. Obviously, living in a small town, there aren’t as many artistic niches. Maybe I haven’t discovered any weird enough people? Maybe I should move to Portland? It makes sense. I relocated to Idaho to pursue a degree, and although I loved the process, I loved learning, I didn’t really find the same kind of “culture” in academia. Does that sound awful? Maybe not the “culture” I was used to? Maybe academia is a nice living, and a comfortable environment, but is also a little antiseptic? One hears about academia being antithetical to art, or in this case, poetry and writing. And so often one reads about the negatives of the MFA industry. I don’t know. Having gone to two community colleges, and two different 4-year universities, I think I can say that I felt exceedingly more “at home,” and “in the stream of life” insofar as the arts—writing, theater—while attending community college, than I did at larger universities. A lot of that might be due to community college having more non-traditional students, and more people with jobs and families, etc… community colleges are more of a way station to someplace else, and that attracts different kinds of people, with different wants and needs. Easily, one could make a case for a non-academic approach in pursuit of a literary life. We don’t have the same expectations for the workaday as we would for a graduate degree program, and perhaps it allows for more freedom, takes away the pressure, and ultimately creates more spontaneous, organic events and situations. For places like community college, or community theaters, artists and writers and actors aren’t “professionals.” And maybe that’s the biggest difference. Maybe I’m just more comfortable among weirdos and amateurs. Maybe I’m just a weirdo and amateur. This one time after a reading event, one of the other presenters, who I had only just met that night, commented to me that my reading was “so real.” That I was “so real.” And I’m still unsure what they meant by that. All of this means to say, that I appreciate and would agree with your statement about culture showing up in unexpected places, the idea of finding the jewel, or the diamond, in the rough.
I do want to mention that in the last few years one bright shiny spot for me has been the writing community in Spokane: Spark Central, and the anthologies that Sharma Shields has published, her press, Scablands Books, the Pie & Whiskey reading series, Sam Ligon and Kate Lebo, GetLit!, The Inlander, and Carolyn Lamberson from the Spokesman-Review, the Summer Stories series, and Auntie’s Books. I also was honored to have been asked to write a poem for the Create Health campaign with Terrain and The Black Lens. And of course, the libraries have been creating some great programs that I’ve been lucky to have been a part of.
I could not agree more and will be sitting right next to you at the Weirdos and Amateurs Club! On another note, some of the most poignant moments throughout the book occur in relationship to the No Dakota Access Pipeline actions that began in early 2016 on your familial reservation of Standing Rock. These moments address the inaction of leading Democrats, President Obama and Secretary Clinton, as Indigenous water protectors and allies were attacked by local, state, and national law enforcement (in partnership with the private security firm TigerSwan). Before we conclude this interview, I’d love to ask you: when national media attention was directed elsewhere by the election of Trump and the never-ending stream of nightmares that ensued, what happened at Standing Rock?
If winter hadn’t shown up and life hadn’t interfered, there’d probably still be a bustling encampment. In February 2017, authorities cleared the camps. Factions of activists went on to fight against other pipelines in construction. People who were arrested dealt with the courts, or served jail terms. The details concerning the Dakota Access Pipeline can be confusing, unless one is familiar with law procedure and terminology. Currently, the pipeline is in use, oil still flows through the line, despite a federal judge revoking a permit and ordering an environmental assessment, last year. You can learn more about it here.
And of course there are recently published books that I highly recommend, such as Our History Is the Future: Standing Rock Versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance by Nick Estes, and Standoff: Standing Rock, the Bundy Movement, and the American Story of Sacred Lands by Jacqueline Keeler.
Originally published in Moss: Volume Six.