About the Author:
“Allison Adelle Hedge Coke’s books include Streaming, Burn, Blood Run, Off-Season City Pipe, Dog Road Woman, Sing: Poetry from the Indigenous Americas, Effigies, Effigies II, and Rock, Ghost, Willow, Deer. Awards include an American Book Award, a King-Chavez-Parks Award, 2015 Lifetime Achievement Award NWCA, 2016 Pen Southwest Award in Poetry, the 2016 Library of Congress Witter Bynner Fellowship, and 2017 Tulsa Artist Fellowship. She is a contributing editor for Black Renaissance Noire and Kore Press, directs the annual Literary Sandhill CraneFest & Retreat and is a Zoeglossia board member. A founding faculty of the VCFA MFA in Writing & Publishing program, Hedge Coke is a Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing at the University of California at Riverside. She came from working fields, factories, and waters and is currently at work directing a climate change documentary. ”
Author photo credit Vaughan Hedge Coke
A conversation on Streaming between Jan Beatty and Allison Adelle Hedge Coke
Jan Beatty: Allison, after reading your brave new book, Streaming, I was stunned by its range and depth. This book is life-changing, a book that opens into other ways of seeing and being—in an alive, breathing way. You have written amazing poems that invent, straddle, report, and document this and other worlds. It feels often that we as readers are hearing voices from these other worlds: the invisible world, the material world, the underground world, the world of ghosts and voices, the world of things gone. Can you talk about accessing these worlds in your poems?
Allison Adelle Hedge Coke: Thank you so much, Jan. I am humbled by you saying this and feel as if maybe the hope and intent I have for the book have been realized in your response. I want the reader to transition, to transform, to visit and query the knowns and unknowns around us. I hope to present work that speaks to larger issues and presences and larger realms of existence. I intend for the work to supply ample throughways for passage to occur and that the ride is one whereas the reader feels driven to continue and to abandon themselves somewhat to the flow.
For me, these movings, that access is essential. It is what makes us human and what brings us closer to every other living thing in our world, and I truly hope beyond. That dust of the stars is out of reach but also made us. The magnitude and the smallness of this truth offers us access, at least in the thinking we do, our input.
JB: The book begins with an elegy for your mother, which is so beautiful. The book opens, then, with great heart and wisdom. When I read the poem, I felt that as a reader, I had already arrived at a remarkable moment of change in the book. Writers often work up to these moments in a book—what made you begin with this poem?
AAHC: With her leaving, her transition/transformation complete, the essence of expected eulogy, finality, presented immediate impetus to explore, to seek, what it is that holds us human, essentializes or counters our emic/etic sourcefield, our knowns/unknowns, and in this, what is unknown is, for me, the seat of search for reason and our vast and sensitive sensory passion to follow that detail, to begin to know. Here is the opening close death presents, the invocation. Elegy is a motive force in each of my books, in some way, however subtle. Perhaps there is nothing more evocative.
JB: In Streaming, you skillfully work with sound, movement, and voice—as you have in previous books. But this usage of compressed sound, expansive movement—this voice feels so different than that of your previous books. It feels even more inhabited, wise, intimate. Would you say that this is true?
AAHC: The deeper the well, the sweeter the water. Maybe we all reach luminous junctures with which flow is more than purge. Maybe this is where poetry revels. Always much more than expression, it is, for me, maybe for us, an attentiveness our intentionalities secure. When one feels secure, whole, maybe the embodiment is second nature. Maybe I am reaching some place of second nature in the work. Maybe. Duende offers such manifestation, as does the meeting of journeys, life, motion and our moving through while others, and our experience with other things, pass through us. It is the motion which gives us sensibility, maybe. An accord, and challenges to it.
Again, the emic/etic search comes into play. Maybe this is also the source of poetic device, of our need to provide the exactness of what we realize, witness, envision. Hence, metaphor, musicality, intellectual shaping and embodiment—perhaps that which cannot be figured, as well as what is ripe to gift. I am still learning and hopefully will continue to attempt to make sense of things, to follow that which leads, gives us measure. I hope this is a just a beginning for me. A new fold/crease in the echo-wrinkle of personal existence. Existence itself. Our fabric.
Also, I am a person who often thinks in music before words materialize. Sometimes the prosody appears and the poem finds success, strict or atypical nonce, or not. Sometimes the freedom that is the heart of music expands to voice, a soulness. One hopes the voice comes into being in this way. One hopes. And, for this, it is my hope to present this as a passage into several worlds ranged through intentional, impromptu, coincidental, accidental entry, purposeful and chaotic, timely and untimely. A gesture.
JB: In the title poem, “Streaming,” there are openings of time, space, place, and the body: “Once, we walk long grass into weave . . . Some of us flew them, cicadas . . . Some of us squirmed underworld . . . Here, in the cylindrical and spherical,/in the curvilinear space . . . intuition/memory intersect . . .” This movement between worlds with collisions and intersections seem essential to the heart and “story” of the book. Can you talk about the “idea” of streaming and the shifting of worlds in your book?
Streaming is a concept I’ve employed for much of my life. To detail the idea of momentum, the physics of ceremony, of migration, motion, collective movement, the impetus of reason beyond thinking, consciousness. Inspirational elements include the salient cranes who offer the lean toward direction after the scouts have reported back where the best air currents, feeding places, safety zones are for the work of the day in migration. If trusted, if sentinance delivers trust, the rest will follow, all first leaning the same directional point prior to lifting, then joining into the force, or lack thereof. I was told as a child that migration is a learned thing, within families of other people, beings, animal forms. Luckily, Kristina Gil came to work with cranes in the same place a collective of us had begun to gather, wherein we shared with her our feelings and she followed and proved that crane migration is learned. Of course it is and always has been. I am interested in this factor of trust as much as in the motion itself and feel as though they are linked through belief in and giving into greater forces. I am interested in where trust derives within familial encouragements, cultural nuances as culture nurtures story just as much as story nurtures culture. Equidistant.
I have been working on what became the title poem for this book for a number of years. There are public performances of drafts of the piece, on record, for several. The poem is my salute to a continuum, a momentum we lean toward within the everyday function and its instigative reliance upon memory and reason, and the songs that call to mind the origins, collective, our stepping from and back into continued longevity nurtured by culture and music, by dance, by all of our singing and immeasurable returns. Streaming as thermal gliding, as collective turning, in migration, in poetic movements, in a memetic encoding postulating itself to carry, to collectively coerce and offer a sense of relaxation within the work. As in field songs, as in working songs, as in rowing songs that permeate traditional musics all over the world.
Having relied upon the concept, having taught the idea of streaming so much over the years, Natalia Trevino, a former graduate student, interviewing Jonathan Frazen, when his book came out, including the term, similar and maybe exactly as to what I had referenced, to what I had envisioned while developing the concept, for myself, and my students, spoke in depth about its construction detailing her learned familiarity with this concept, with my work with migration, with Sandhill Cranes specifically. And, let me add, with their magnificent display of collective orchestration and use of thermals to kettle, for that matter, of murmurations starlings and other blackbirds swell within, of what we do as humans when we exist in narrativising culture, conversation, musical and life harmonics, what both delivers and compels us. I believe her knowledge source came as a surprise to him. I don’t know. It is primary to my work, to my thought process and whatever understanding of the world I have come to, thus far. It is both drive toward and release into collective flow. It is aligned with purpose, I believe. It is the reason I sought to mathematically encode the verse-play Blood Run, to demonstrate the choreographed geometry and architecture of the mound city, its inherent property, and is directly derived from my familial and personal cultural upbringing and that legacy, something I attempted to speak toward in Dog Road Woman, initially. It is present in the labor, and constructions I’ve contributed, as well, as attributed to in Off-Season City Pipe. A book of work, of eco-ethos, of that momentum tha feeds us while we endure. It spoke to me while I was a field laborer, a commercial fisher, a construction worker, a factory worker. When it comes down to it, the unravelings and threadings/mendings I shared in my memoir, Rock, Ghost, Willow, Deer, are also a reflection of this thought. It is a way I see, or perceive things, beyond thinking. Something we give ourselves to when we get it. Transformative thinking, as well. Probably the same frame of thinking that led to the term in digital use. It is all around us. The web. Some of that fabric has always been and some is constructed, built, learned.
Of course my mother’s death allowed me to visit and exist in a multitude of realms during the course of this year and of our intersections and departures and essentially pulled the book together much in the way that I perceive the action works. Though in each inclusion, this was already in existence, as well. And, in my own thoughts and experiences of moving through worlds and spiritual junctures, ghosts, leavings, departures, melding, and the incremental motion all of this propels, or repels, to bring us closure, perhaps opening.
JB: As the book continues, there is great eruption and cataclysm in the poems. With enormous skill, you take us through massacre, dust storms, tornadoes, and into fire. These poems are powerful and disturbing, yet we feel always a pattern, a sense of rebirth embedded here. For example, in section three, “May Suite,” you present us with four poems of tornadoes. It seems that the sense of inevitability and tragedy is always accompanied by otherworldliness. Can you talk about that?
AAHC: The “May Suite” presents popular music as vessel to ride out the storm infused with the only station still carrying sound, an oldies station, both manifesting and embodying the storm in some ways. Nearby, dozens are losing their lives, catastrophe ensues, and the reasoning to encourage the listener to see through this are a fistful of old songs accompanying the terror of the literal force.
We move through passions, through kinships and cultural manifestations into the natural forces surrounding us and challenging us. The water, wind, and dust of storms, the firestorms in major burns, the shape of the world and what elemental forces are upon us always. And yet, if you are attentive you find they are also what feed us, nurture us, and (again) deliver us into something richer, more knowledgeable, more full, and also less concerned with what we have and more interested in what we have come to, moved through, experienced, and survived. It is the development of soul, of purpose. This is our pattern. It is our orchestration and gives us permanence and release from the need for it. Realms that beguile.
It seems, I have always been intrigued, inspired by these realms. I am fortunate to have been endowed with a life so touched and marked by my mother’s musical genius and her formidable madness, chronic schizophrenia. By my father’s genius insight and sense of reason and purpose. By both of their natures, steeped in curiosity and follow through. And, surely by their lives in the Depression and Dust Bowl, in war, and knowledge of shifts in climate and change, overall. With parents, that by all rights were well old enough to be my grandparents, and my father’s parents age difference, the same for him. Those generations of multitudes of causality, of solution, are with me. The blood memory, the genetic memory, yes, but far more the story and the actualities that played out in my life, thus far, in witnessing the techniques and wisdom demonstrated to me, to us, in mapping and coping with the challenges presented with a mother between worlds.
Additionally, I had lack of air at birth, bad forceps delivery, late term, thus have mild Cerebral Palsy, epilepsy, and various other conditions of being in this life. I was malnourished within the womb (long story) and again several times in my early life. Also, I was, once again, without air from asthma and revived within infancy. My father saw his mother (ghost of) at the foot of the bed and her pointing at him and her face tilted toward where I was sleeping, in a room with my sister. He doesn’t remember waking or walking but then found himself, seemingly immediately along with my mother taking turns breathing me back to life from the cold blue, I had become. I then technically died from anaphylactic reaction to anesthetics when my wisdom teeth were impacted at fourteen, and from Penicillin at sixteen, and have crossed many thresholds having survived fifteen years of cancer, and a lifetime with Central Auditory Processing Disorder, synesthesia, maybe some strain of Misophonia, some parasympathetic instances, and who knows whatever else. I suffered back, neck, and brain injury in 2004. Plague, The Year of the Rat. Had been through complicated and grossly deliberate assaults and abuse in the hands of partners and community members who claimed to have loved me. And I lost the love of my life, when I was still very young, twenty five years ago this year, and am still processing that sobering event, in some ways. Always surrounded by and impressed by ghosts, ghost images, ideas, sympathies and associative qualities, including poetic leaps.
JB: There is a strong sense of family and ancestry in the book, especially with the mother, father, and grandfathers. It feels as though the ancestors are tangibly present in the poems, walking through them and under them, and also speaking. There are many dreams referred to in the poems also. In the writing of the poems, did you invoke the language of visitations, dreams, and channeling through time?
AAHC: We come from a long line of dreamers and it continues in my family today. We see it present in the youngest ones, regularly. I often write from dreams upon waking after convincing myself before I sleep that there is something to be revealed. As I was taught to as a young child; sleep on it. Sometimes this regards a question, or curiosity I have, sometimes it is the missing of a loved one gone, or other loss. Our minds are worthy instruments when we invoke them and set them to task. The work happens on a streaming level in our sleep. It plays out for us and if we are quick, upon waking, we catch it. I often feel more awake when I am sleeping and tired when awake, strangely enough. Or, maybe it is not strange at all, but that intellectual processing that excites me, us.
The divination of life/death, awake/asleep, bright/dull, dark/light/darkening light, is the line of realization and quickening, defining and finding, that, for me, become remarkable entrance into figuring out this world and life we are born to, and how much of it we participate in once we are referred to as gone. That essence of us, spark, energy, the apparent and vanished – all intriguing. We exist in parallels and embark upon them as we learn to trust or adhere to. Time plays with us that way, and its creases allow the passage, maybe.
We are who we come from. Our genetic code carries so much. Like it or not, those tracings in the past give us motion today and probably impress our response to it in some way. The same for our children, and theirs. I respect my ancestry and my ascendants. They made me who I am and I owe them everything. I hope I live up to a bit of what they were moving toward. I hope I get it.
JB: Towards the end of the book, in section five, the element of fire becomes primary and alive with relentless language: burnside tangling, black plumes, scorched, tinder, back into blaze, smolder, waving red, yellow flames, fiery sear, self-immolated, torched up, heat plates, prairie grass ignition, blistered skies, black crusts, first fire. At one point, you say: “Insides turning out, twisting up like lead turns turning.” This move towards fire at the end of the book and this moment of “Inside turning out” seems to point to transformation and rebirth, salvaging and remaking. Can you discuss the element of fire as a primary choice in the book?
AAHC: Fire is essential to life. Without the stars, our sun, our cooking fires, our hearths, we would not exist. Sunlight is a purification as well. It sterilizes germs. Fire is also the quickest leveler and devastator. It reclaims us in the pyre and we return to it in crematoriums, or in grass fires, in highrise arsons, in domestic violence and covering of crimes, in greed. In envelopes us and returns us to the dust from which we emanate. It depicts, portrays passion and all its beautiful and horrendous presentations.
I began this section while my mom had finished treatment for espohageal cancer and her bones were beginning to breakdown with osteoporosis. I was in a Lannan residence at Marfa and in the midst of the worst fire in colonial history in that landscape. Yet, all of that land is a caldera. It came from fire to begin with. It was returned to it. My heart went out to everyone and everything around me affected in the burn and the beginnings of the poem are my homage to that which brings us together in the face of endangerment and in our frailty and resilience in tragedy. This, coupled with my own history with fire and belief in the nature of fire, that brought about the epic nature of this piece and within the book, its significance. I respect fire greatly. The eternal flame is an ever-present notion in my family.
JB: There is great love, intimacy, and mercy in this book, which arises through surprising movement in the poems. As a speaker who has seen great fires and patterns of disintegration, can you speak to the tenderness, love, and hope that surface in the midst of these patterns?
AAHC: Thank you, again, Jan. I hope to bring those exact measures of humanity through the collation of the poems. I hope to represent a journey into the larger experience of humanity, or our living and transitioning, our transformations and possibly understandings and therefore, mercies. For me, love and that which embraces and challenges love, exists in exact parallels, just as positive and negative energy coexist and have equal measure upon us. This journey runs the divination and the parameters we collide with, soar with, are nourished and damaged by, that generate our beyondness as something more tangible. We realize love through all of it, or we miss it. Sometimes we return and embark upon the many similar journeys just to get it, to know it. For me, journey is the instrumental force that drives that momentum and causes us to find the signature motions that we acclimate to and develop through. Hopefully we mature and come to the deeper aspects of ourselves in this way and then learn to lean in, to lead, to release, to give, beyond the grieving. To find the miraculous in the everyday and relish in it. Repeating this process, directing our loved ones, our students, our friends into the leanings of life, in our work, our creativity, becomes our measure. What we gifted. It is not what you keep, after all. Is it?
I have learned about transporting audience through Quincy Troupe’s running style, through Amiri Baraka’s life journey to speak for a collective voice, through Sonia Sanchez and Nancy Morejon’s stunningly choreographed musicalities in their poems. And, in other incantations, a chapbook of this poem, this journey is illustrated by Dustin Mater, Chickasaw artist, and is being translated by the Beloved Woman, Myrtle Driver. A CD recording with the tremendous musician Kelvyn Bell will contain both “Burn” and “Streaming” (as the title poem) that I trust readers will also be interested in and enjoy the collaborative performance. Kelvyn and I are teaming up on several projects, currently. I’ve also performed this poem with John Carlos Perea and Jimmy Biala, both amazing musicians I feel truly fortunate to work with, and, with Kelvyn and the poet Sherwin Bitsui, whose “Flood Song” runs parallel to “Burn” so together we work to weave them into a Burnsong in live performance. So enjoyable and challenging. I love it.
My mother was cremated, by choice. A part of us in the flames with her. Right now, thinking about it, I long to firegaze, right here this moment. The portals there, dimensions. Fire is the spark of life and of existence in the stars and in our world and it is the deliverance of us as well. Wind brings us here and conditions our turning. Earth gives us base and a form to travel upon. Still, we are water, electrified; the living. It is our essence, our parallel. Fire is the signifier. A fire starter is essential to the survival of a whole and twisted can also be our ruins. Then what springs forth, the phoenix, or in this case the rebirth and knowing.
JB: You end the book with a “Coda” which includes one poem, “Harp Strings,” a palindrome about sweet rain, joy, releasing song. This is a surprising choice after the railing intensity of this collection. Can you discuss the framing aspects of this choice?
AAHC: Realizing the harp, the strings of rain, the music played in our sensory shifting, brings lyric passage to a seal; a sealing that reveals an alternative passage, a resonant reflection and opportunity to exit or return, with the image/impression musical synesthete. Like the rain in Casa Blanca, changes tone and is also the scene change, as in any traditional sense of shift, of lifting, of moving to resolution, to coping, rain both heals and provides further invitation to reimagine. In this, is my invitation to study the intersections, the light/dark, real/surreal, death/life, apparition/embodiment, the full orchestration closing in soft song. Then, followed only by the quiet after the storm, our transformed deliverance, and if we are very lucky, our new way of reasoning, of thinking, of being. Cleansing. Hope.
A few months after my mother’s death, Alex Shoumatoff came out to our annual Crane Retreat, in the epicenter of the migration, working on a relevant story for Smithsonian magazine. He brought wildlife photographer Melissa Groo with him to chronicle the migratory influence around us. I asked Melissa if I could see some of her recent work. She showed me an array of images in her finder. When the image of the tanagers came up, I was moved on a guttural level and knew it was the cover for this book. I immediately asked her for it, for this, and she told the story of the tanagers, who had both collided with glass and died. How she’d arranged them in the pairing. I thought of the obstacles in our built world and the catastrophe we make and of their beautiful lives and own migratory passages and returns, their patterns, and sudden endings, the loving care given their last impressions, their bodies laid to rest, and was hooked. I am extremely grateful she agreed to bring them to this book. This too is a journey, stunning, remarkable. That it presented in this way, in concert with our shared work in attending to the streaming world, was, for me, necessary.
Jan Beatty is the author of The Switching/Yard (2013), Red Sugar (2008), finalist for the Paterson Prize, Boneshaker (2002), and Mad River (1994 Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize), all published by the University of Pittsburgh Press. She has toured widely, with appearances at venues such as the Los Angeles Times Book Festival and the Geraldine R. Dodge Festival. For twenty years, Beatty has hosted and produced Prosody, a public radio show on npr affiliate wesa-fm featuring national writers. She directs the creative writing program at Carlow University, where she teaches the Madwomen in the Attic writing workshops and in the mfa program.