The old ones tell us, “live as you are named.” / We sense the truth in our bones / if we listen.
~ from “Listening” in Weweni by Margaret Noodin
Last weekend, I attended the Mount Mary Publishing Institute in town, and during a workshop with Bridget Birdsall, I wrote a six-word memoir–not an easy exercise, but nevertheless, here’s mine: Mom, too introspective, my best feature. Introspection sends me down a rabbit-hole of worry sometimes, but it also adds layers to the understanding of myself, others, and the world around me. “Live in the layers, / not on the litter,” as Stanley Kunitz writes.
Layers of understanding and meaning are at the heart of Margaret Noodin’s new book of poetry, Weweni. This is a unique book as each poem is written first in Anishinaabemowin (the language of ‘the People of the Three Fires’–the Odawa, Potawatomi, and Ojibwa”) and then in English.
I can’t speak a word of Anishinaabemowin, but I appreciate the complexity and art of the language. As Noodin writes elsewhere, “[Anishinaabemowin] words stem from the center, the way stories say life began with a spark of light and earth and was made from a speck of dirt. Meaning radiates from a central spoke of action, and diversity of interpretation is important.” I also fell in love with several of her poems as translated into English.
And, I fell in love with the cadence of Anishinaabemowin when I heard this traditional song, called “Nindinendam (Thinking),” sung by Margaret herself on Ojibwe.net:
Margaret Noodin teaches American Indian Studies at the university where I work–the day job has its perks, meeting professors who you discover are amazing poets as well as great teachers. I’ve read two of her books so far, and I’m thrilled to host Margaret here to talk about Weweni and her writing. As is my custom, there’s also a giveaway. Drop your name in the comments below for a chance to win a copy of her wonderful book of poems (winner will be chosen on Tuesday, October 6th).
Now, welcome Margaret Noodin!
CC: I should begin by asking you where you are from? Then, how does the word “Weweni” translate into English?
MN: I am originally from Minnesota and have taught Anishinaabemowin in Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota. I grew up in the Lakota part of the state in a town called Chaska, but my own relatives are from the St. Cloud area.
Weweni is a word we use to wish one another well and hope they are able to “take care” as they move along their journey in life.
CC: Your book offers readers a unique look at poetry as each poem is printed in Anishinaabemowin and in English. What do you hope others outside of the Anishinaabe culture will take away in reading these poems?
MN: I hope they will become curious enough to visit www.ojibwe.net and listen to the language, maybe even try saying a few words and thinking about the ways those sounds fall together so differently than English. I also hope the translations help students confirm their progress and inspires readers to become students of the language. Perhaps even a few other poets will try writing in Anishinaabemowin.
CC: In another book you recently published, Bawaajimo: a Dialect of Dreams in Anishinaabe Language and Literature, you explain that the Anishinaabe people are “a ‘woodland’ culture” as much as a community tied to the waters of the Great Lakes. You say, “One does not move from the mutable seas to the stationary pines without traveling the land between,” meaning perhaps that it’s impossible to separate the land from the language. Many of your poems, such as “Bizindamaang | Listening,” illustrate this idea. When you write your poems, are you inspired first by the language or the landscape around you?
MN: I am inspired by the systems all around us – water systems, forest systems, the way swamps evolve over time, all of the life that constantly changes and recharges everything that is connected. I suppose, ultimately, all the old stories about “mishomis-giizis” and “nokomis-dibiki-giizis” (the sun and the moon) are at the core of it. The fact that all of this life is happening across vast distances and inside tiny molecules reminds me of the way we put sounds and meaning together to make words that allow us to actually communicate ideas and perceptions to one another. None of this is new, but taking time to notice all the influences of the universe certainly leads me to write.
CC: How does poetry influence other areas of your life, creative or academic (or vice-versa)?
MN: Building words and making connections is essential for using Anishinaabemowin and is the central approach to many of my poems. They often begin when a sound or piece of meaning echoes across a story or song into a topic I wasn’t expecting and I find myself wanting to follow the thread to see where it leads. As a member of women’s hand drum group I am always connecting moving between poetry and lyric verse.
CC: Who is another poet or Anishinaabe author you would recommend (or insist!) we read?
MN: Kim Blaeser and Heid Erdrich are two poets who have worked with me to create poems in both Anishinaabemowin and English. Each of them has a strong poetic voice readers might like to experience. They offer different views of the land and history. Jim Northrup is another writer who connects Anishinaabe language and culture to the land and seasons in his stories. His book, Walking the Rez Road, weaves poems and stories together in a way the blurs the definition of each genre.
Margaret Noodin has a PhD in Literature and Linguistics, an MFA in Creative Writing and is Assistant Professor of English and American Indian Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. A contributor on Ojibwa.net (a website dedicated to saving the language), she is also the author of Bawaajimo: a Dialect of Dreams in Anishinaabe Language and Literature.
Don’t forget: leave a quick comment for a chance to win a copy of Weweni.