I design in our Tlingit formline design style explained most eloquently by Bill Holm in Northwest Coast Indian Art: An Analysis of Form. I create paintings in acrylics, drawings in graphite, and carvings in alder and cedar. I get inspiration from our history, land, people – our culture. I am inspired by works of other artists.
I write in open verse using my personal way of speaking, acquired by growing up in “the village.” I create poems inspired by our history, land, and people – our culture. I am inspired by works of other writers.
But what if inspiration doesn’t come? How do I face that frustrating blank canvas, that sheet of stark white paper? In my poem, “Reconstruction,” I am paralyzed by the task my tribal uncle has given me, to carve a dance staff that tells the story of our Tsaagweidi migration and reconciliation of two houses into one clan. In an attempt to conjure the creative spirits, I pin old photographs of Kake to a clothesline I string in my uncle’s house. I play an old cassette recording of the Kake dancers from 1964. I turn the volume loud enough that the photos begin to dance, and I begin to see images floating in front of me:
have to design the dance staff to tell our story.
OUR story, Tsaagweidi!
I struggled with it for nights.
pinning worn out photos to the clothesline inside:
The Kake dancers, their drums, their paint, elders long gone, old regalia, old
They were fading.
I wanted it. I wanted it to come back;
For Topsy’s memories to be my memories.
So I played the songs, I turned it REAL LOUD till the house itself sang, till
the photos began to dance and sway, till the designs came on their own.1
There are methods I can use to invoke a creative state. Many times I forget this. I think I must wait for inspiration to come to me. Then I wonder why I’m not writing poems, why I’m not designing my next painting or carving. Why indeed! The answer is simple: because I am waiting!
What then, must I do to bring on the creative state? First, I must simply show up for the work at hand. I must have a regimen that includes daily sketching and daily writing. This is where the sketchbook and journal become the portals to more finished works.
I have drawers of bursting with sketches waiting for transformation into paintings or carvings. I have sheaves and notebooks of journal entries with lines waiting to be transformed into lines of verse. These derived from sketching or writing no matter where I was: I’ve sketched on restaurant napkins and written on brown paper bags. The sketches and writing came from a habit of daily practice.
While writing the novel, The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck kept a daily diary in which he wrote of the daily act of showing up, using his diary as a tool of discipline:
writing, habit seems to be a much stronger force than either willpower or
inspiration. Consequently, there must be some little quality of fierceness
until the habit pattern of a certain number of words is established. There is
no possibility, in me at least, of saying, “I’ll do it if I feel like it.” One
never feels like awaking day after day. In fact, given the smallest excuse, one
will not work at all. The rest is nonsense. Perhaps there are people who can
work that way, but I cannot. I must get my words down every day whether they
are any good or not.
I often get far too busy to do the very things that nourish my creativity, and then I am in a quandary over my seeming paralysis. Oh how simple the solution! Merely suit up and show up. Bring the body and the mind will follow.
poet originally from the village of Kake, fully engaged in his heritage and
culture. He describes the creative impulse for his poetry and carving this way:
“My desire to create comes from a drive to connect my past to the present, to
redefine the traditional as present day cultural practices.”
in Alaska Quarterly Review, Vol. 26 No. 1 & 2, Spring/Summer 2009, University
of Alaska, Anchorage and in Village
Boy: Poems of Cultural Identity, 2014