This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Heid E. Erdrich, whose latest poetry collection, Little Big Bully, is out today from Penguin Books. Witnessing the country in crisis—the decimation of wild bird populations, the epidemic of violence against Indigenous women, the endless land theft—Erdrich asks readers, “How did we come to this?” Often beginning with personal memory, she writes with an eye for detail and an attention to how language can both reveal and conceal truth. In a world where the bullies increasingly demand, “Avert your eyes / not so you do not see / but so you are not seen,” Erdrich’s poetry models how to stand, see and be seen, and resist. “This book broke me open,” writes Amy Gerstler, who chose the collection as a winner of the 2019 National Poetry Series. “It electrified me and made my hair stand on end, tingling on my head like a mob of hypersensitive antennae.” Heid E. Erdrich is the author of several previous poetry collections, including Curator of Ephemera at the New Museum for Archaic Media (Michigan State University Press, 2017) and Cell Traffic (University of Arizona Press, 2012). She has received fellowships and awards from the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation, McKnight Foundation, Bush Foundation, and Loft Literary Center, among other institutions. She grew up in Wahpeton, North Dakota, and is Ojibwe, enrolled at Turtle Mountain.
1. How long did it take you to write Little Big Bully?
This book came pretty quickly—it was a deep dive and a shock, really. Most of the poems were completed in January 2019. A few poems are from before then, and one or two are from 2020, but most of the work came in a rush during the polar vortex of 2019.
2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?
Considering the personal when I generally write critical analysis through the second person or a kind of poetic persona who can stand for a lot of people as well as Native women like me. What I was trying to understand in writing Little Big Bully is the mechanism of abuse that puts all of us at risk. I had to write about my life, the events and abuse inflicted on me as a girl and adult, and worse, what happened in front of me as a child in a world beyond my family where I witnessed brutal misogyny.
3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
My writing practice is not disciplined. Sometimes I am in my unruly garden, or on a walk, or staring out our porch windows, or doom scrolling. I may look like I am not writing, but I am. I do have a study full of books and curious furnishings in vintage green colors I favor, and I go there most days. But mostly I try to catch a poem in the pool of my life—not unlike someone with a rod at a pond. If you look at them on a day when they don’t catch anything, you would not say they are not fishing. You may not see it, but I am always writing.
4. What are you reading right now?
The Old Road by Staci Drouillard, a family story about an Ojibwe community along Lake Superior; Apple (Skin to the Core), a memoir in poems written and illustrated by Eric Gansworth (Onondaga); and my sister Louise Erdrich’s new novel in manuscript draft. I read a lot of titles at once and I don’t finish a lot of books, which I’d like to change.
5. Which author, in your opinion, deserves wider recognition?
There are many great writers who don't get enough attention who happen to be Native. Maybe their work is not so Native-forward that it can marketed that way, so publishers take a pass. Of course there are dozens and dozens of Native poets who should be better known. You can find many in the new Norton anthology of Native Nations poets edited by U.S. poet laureate Joy Harjo.
6. What is one thing you might change about the writing community or publishing industry?
Well, we’ve been saying how male and white it all is and are starting to say how rich it is too. It’s all so mysterious what people get paid for books, what the process is for publication, who decides what, how to get into the biz, how people get prizes or notice or reviews. There’s a lot I don’t know after thirty years. From my time working with visual artists and performers, I don’t think other fields are so closed-mouth. I’d love to see publishers and literary organizations be more up front about who they are and how they support Native and Black writers in particular.
7. What is one thing that your agent or editor told you during the process of publishing this book that stuck with you?
I don’t have an agent—another thing that baffles me as, primarily, a poet. But my editor Paul Slovak and all the folks at Penguin really helped me to accomplish my vision in every detail from revision to design. It’s not what they said, it was that they did not say no.
8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started Little Big Bully, what would you say?
Don’t be too subtle and do read a bit more about narcissistic abuse before you hand off the book.
9. Who is your most trusted reader of your work and why?
My sister Louise. She pays a lot of attention to the overall shape and impact of the poems in total. She never suggests an edit or ideas or anything substantive, she just gives me her reading and if it matches what I wanted to say, I know I’m on the right track.
10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever heard?
“Ah, go on. You’re living your life”—said to me by Grace Paley when I was not writing every day.