Something that I have always struggled with as a writer is what our editor-in-chief, Daniel Bourne, calls “the right to write.” As a writer, what are my responsibilities? As a white woman living in America today, do I have the right to write stories featuring people of color? Do I have the right to tell stories dealing with oppression that I have not experienced? How should I address questions of complex history and write about people who I can never interview? Are there limits to the stories I can tell? Do I have a moral obligation to not write about certain topics? A collection of work found in Artful Dodge 52/53 confronts these questions head-on.
“Kit Carson and the Long Walk” is a collection of poems by Lavonne J. Adams that explore the life of Kit Carson through his accomplishments, his failures, and his interactions with the Navajo Tribe. What struck me most about her collection was how Adams carefully handled the sensitive subject of “the right to write.” She conducted extensive research on Carson and the topics on which she was writing, fictionalizing certain characters to make points about history. Ultimately, these poems paint a complex portrait of history, displaying both the love that this man had for his children and the bloody consequences of his treatment of the Navajo people, the “decimation” of their land. History is never simple, and in her poems, Adams clearly chooses each word with care, determined to provide multiple perspectives on the complicated figure of Kit Carson. From her poems celebrating the culture of the Navajo people (“Artifact: Arrow”) to the works that condemn the violence of Carson and neighboring Native American Tribes (“(Invisible) Relics: Spirits of Stolen Children”) to “Reckoning,” the final poem in the sequence, which explores Carson’s death, Adams portrays her subject matter with raw honesty and emotion. She says in her introduction, “…since I bear no Navajo blood, a certain amount of authorial distance for these poems seemed both necessary and respectful…I’m keenly aware that the Navajo story is filtered by my vision, recast through my own artistic sensibilities. Yet we are all pulled forward by the ghosts that haunt our lives. I am a poet, not a historian.”
Adams confronts the question of her “right to write” beautifully here by acknowledging that these are not strictly her stories to tell but explaining that she wanted to come to understand them through poetry. She quotes Natasha Sajé, who wrote that “…poetry itself is an exercise in othering, in trying to understand something or someone foreign from oneself.” In these poems, Adams is trying to understand Kit Carson and the Navajo people, and she does so through the power of her poems, which are taut with emotion and compel the reader to think more deeply about the history behind her words.
I still struggle with the question of the “right to write,” but I think Lavonne Adams’ collection of work is an excellent example of how one can tell a story that they find interesting and important while still acknowledging their own position of power as an outsider and an author. Ultimately, we read and we write to better understand the world. As long as we research and write carefully, as Adams has done here, I do not think we should hesitate in sharing stories that matter to us.
—Megan Murphy, Assistant Editor