I said yes. [Laughs.] It’s like lightning going through you. I realized in that moment that I had to say yes, especially because of what it means for native people.
How do you envision your role?
I probably have seven project ideas that I’m trying to combine into one. I think the appointment is certainly at a crucial time in this country, in the world, especially dealing with shifting political realities everywhere. At the center of it, which is sometimes spoken and often not spoken, is our global community is in a dire environmental moment in our collective history.
In your new book of poetry, “An American Sunrise,” you draw a direct line from the brutality of the Trail of Tears to the recent treatment of immigrants from Central and South America.
As a Muscogee Creek person whose family roots are deeply embedded in what’s called the South, I’ve been watching this. So to see the way these people are treated, you know, it’s the same with our peoples. They kill the children. They separated the children from their parents by sending them to mission and government schools. They took them away from their families and culture and people. And so in that way, you know, it’s the same thing. And it’s so difficult to not just despair.
That’s interesting because the title of the book has this feel of optimism, and I wonder if that’s what you meant by it or if you meant something else?
Because I have children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and because in the Muscogee way all of the children we come into contact with are all our children, I have to do what I can to help make a place for sunrise, for there to be a sunrise. And so I have to go in that direction.
The book is dedicated to children “so they may find their way through the dark.” Do you remember a poem as a child that gave you hope?
Yes, it was Emily Dickinson’s “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” I don’t want to sound self-aggrandizing, but as a child I always felt I was here for a purpose. And the path was often difficult in my home. I often felt alone, but the aloneness was, for the most part, a refuge. Because that’s also the place of the artist, the place of the poet, the place of the philosopher. It’s in that place that I knew myself, that I could know myself. It’s a place walking out into the sunrise with the plants and the natural world. And so in that place, I knew myself to be who I am. That poem really spoke to me because in that poem, even as a small child, I knew that she knew that place.
You once said that poetry “directly or inadvertently mirrors the state of the state.” And I wonder what you think the state of the state is right now?
Everyone wants a place where they feel safe, where they feel like they might know what’s going to happen tomorrow and that they could wake up in a universe in which they feel supported. Where we know we can practice our ways and not be jailed or censored or anything. Most people want that. But I think the state of the state is marked by a great insecurity, a great insecurity running through everyone, whatever so-called side you’re on. And so I think people are really looking for connection and trust to build some kind of stability — and for some kind of leadership in which we have leaders who are trusted because they have a history of compassion, of knowledge, and they’re willing to work across any kind of political lines. Those are real leaders. The real leaders care about the people, not about the opinion of those who are going to give them money for their campaigns.
There’s a beautiful, poignant poem about your mother in this book, and I wonder what you think she would think of you becoming poet laureate?
She had a sense of that before she passed. She didn’t say, “You’re going to be poet laureate,” but I was with her the three months before she passed, and we did a lot of healing in that time. She was very much a seer, and I can’t remember the exact words she said, but it was something along the lines of, “You know, you have no idea what wonderful things are going to happen.”
This interview has been edited and condensed.