Igneo, May 2016

TALKING STICK 30 years of interviews with the writer

, by Margaret Randall


A talking stick, sometimes called a speaker’s staff, is an instrument of aboriginal democracy used by many native tribes and adopted by a number of contemporary groups—political, discussion, creative, therapeutic, recovery—as a way of assuring all voices will be heard. The person speaking holds the stick. Others listen. When the speaker has finished, he or she passes the stick to the next person wishing to say something. These interviews and other texts are conversations, in which questions are asked, answered, and in turn lead to further questions. Although the focus is on my ideas and experience, each interviewer or introducer has an essential role in shaping the conversation.
Why a collection of interviews, not from among the many I have done with others throughout my life as an oral historian, but a sampling from those others have done with me? It’s about engagement. When someone asks probing questions, I am moved to think in new ways. The essential difference between these texts and my own essays, narratives, and poems, is that in most cases someone else determines the agenda, chooses the form and establishes limitations of direction and length. I walk the landscape of the interviewer’s map rather than my own. In some of these texts the questioning becomes a real dialogue, one in which my experience and thinking find reflection or challenge in the interviewer’s no less compelling ideas.
The pieces in this book span almost 30 years but reflect more than a half century of life. There is a text from 1987, and the earliest interview dates to 1988, although most took place more recently. Some reflect my anguish during the George W. Bush years. Many were done when Barak Obama had taken over as president and I began to understand that the change we’d anticipated wouldn’t be forthcoming. The latest is a conversation with the historian Roxanne Dunbar Ortíz that was published in January, 2016.
I have divided these texts into seven sections, covering various identities with which I have engaged: as woman, mother, poet, socialist, feminist, activist, bridge builder, oral historian, translator, photographer, and editor. Although the lines between these identities are often blurred, the collection seemed to call for organization. The reader will find experiences of class, race, nationality, social change, choice and risk-taking, travel, craft, culture, gender, and sexual identity running through all these pieces.
Along with the interviews I have included a few texts written by others about me: introductions to a talk or reading, or a contribution to a panel on some aspect of my work. You will also find a few of my own previously unpublished texts. The interviewers and others range from people I’ve known for many years (Blanche Wiesen Cook, Víctor Rodríguez Núñez, Kate Hedeen, Karín Aguilar-San Juan, Janet Zandy, Mirta Yáñez, Jonah Raskin, Lisa Albrecht, Anne Waldman, and V.B. Price) or who spent a great deal of time and research preparing for our conversation (Maité Hernández-Lorenzo, Lea Aschkenas, Maria Maloney, Aurora Levins-Morales, Lauren Camp, Edric Messner, Christopher Schafenacker, and Stephanie Anderson), to others whose journalistic obligations and deadlines necessarily produced a narrower scope.
There is some degree of repetition among some of these pieces. Except where it would have been frankly annoying, I opted to leave these overlaps. Emerging at different moments in my life, in discrete contexts or in response to differing sorts of questions, presenting complete answers seemed more respectful to the integrity of each conversation. I’ve also left the graphic and formatting preferences of the interviewers in their original configurations, even when this detracts from the book’s visual consistency. I feel strongly that form is an integral part of content, and want to honor the ways in which the interviewers or the publications in which the interviews originally appeared conceived of our conversation on the page. In preparing this collection, the only change I’ve made has been to add additional in-text explanations or notes where a reader north of the border might not immediately understand an allusion made by someone from the global South.
Section VI remembers El Corno Emplumado / The Plumed Horn, the bilingual literary journal I co-founded and co-edited with Mexican poet Sergio Mondragón out of Mexico City in the decade of the 1960s. Over the years, interviewers have been interested in what would come to be seen as an important cross-border publication, and in January 2015 a series of events in Mexico City honored its history. Three of the texts included here are from those events: one by me, another by Mondragón, and the third by Julio García Murillo and Regina Tattersfield, two of the organizers of that illuminating week.
A few of the interviews were conducted in Spanish and published for the first time in that language, most notably in Cuba in January 2011, where I was invited to be a judge at the Casa de las Américas literary contest and where—because I had lived in Cuba in the 1970s and judged this contest once before—there was an unusual interest in talking to me about a range of issues. In all these cases, the English translations are mine.
After I decided what I wanted to include in this collection, and why, it occurred to me that all these pieces focus on a particular historic period or on one or another of my identities. What seemed lacking to anchor the collection was a conversation heavier on ideas. Immediately, I knew with whom I wanted to have such a conversation: Albuquerque poet, journalist, teacher and good friend, V.B. Price. We meet routinely to read poetry to one another and our talk is always energizing. Why not turn one of our get togethers into a more formal attempt to get at the overarching issues that concern us? I conceived of this piece not as my being interviewed by someone else, but as a two-way conversation. V.B. agreed. And so this became the book’s final interview.
Although some of these pieces have appeared in print or on-line publications, and a number of them came out in other countries (several in Spanish), none have found their way into a book. Taken together I believe they deserve a reading. My thanks to the interviewers, presenters and others, who gave me permission to include their words along with my own.
And thank you, readers, for allowing me to hold the talking stick. I appreciate you hearing me out, and pass it back to you.