Joseph Bruchac is the author of many books in several genres, including the poetry collection Voices of the People (Reycraft Books, 2022). Bruchac’s many honors include a New York State Arts Council Poetry Fellowship and a National Endowment for the Arts Writing Fellowship. In 2023, he was named an Academy of American Poets Laureate Fellow. Bruchac will work with students at Saratoga Springs schools to create a poetry anthology that draws on Indigenous history, connecting them with Native students at the Akwesasne Mohawk Reservation and the Onondaga Nation School.
Poets.org: What do you hope for the future of poetry in Saratoga Springs, New York, and what support do you hope future poets laureate in the state have?
Joseph Bruchac: My hope is that poetry and its possibilities will be more in the public eye and more accepted as a part of the everyday. I’d like to see financial support from city governments and/or New York State arts organizations alloted for future poets laureate here. Although I received (and am deeply grateful for) an Academy of American Poets fellowship, I think that the role of poets laureate should also be supported by their local communities and the state. As it is right now, I am officially—though chosen through the mayor’s office—a volunteer in my role.
Poets.org: How has being a poet laureate changed your relationship to your own writing?
JB: I would not say that it has changed my relationship to my writing. Writing is still a central part of who I am and what I do every day. But being a poet laureate has given my writing more of a community focus, broadened my perspective, and widened the possibilities for community engagement as a poet.
Poets.org: How can a poet, or poetry, bring a community together?
JB: I’ve been invited to open city council meetings on several occasions by reading original poems, and each time, I have been told that the poem I read set the tone for a more peaceful and civil evening. Poetry, I believe, can help those who hear it to see themselves and the world around them more broadly and more clearly.
I’ve put together a reading by four local poets at the Saratoga Arts Council (to a packed house) and curated a “Table Top Poems” project at Caffe Lena. In recognition of the thirtieth anniversary of its monthly poetry nights, I solicited poems from twenty-one local poets, which were nicely designed and printed on cardstock as individual broadsides, then placed out for every performance at Caffe Lena, one per table, for an entire month. The fact that many of those broadsides had vanished after every performance and had to be reprinted is proof of the project’s success.I am now putting them together to print as a chapbook, with the proceeds from its sales to be used as honoraria for featured poets at the monthly poetry night.
I’ve also read original poems at the opening of the Saratoga Book Festival, for the MLK celebration, Peace Week, and several other events at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs.I will be the keynote speaker at their Environmental Justice Conference on December 1. I have hosted several programs at Saratoga High School, focusing on spoken word, poetry and music, and the poetry of peace. Starting in 2024, I’ll be doing poetry workshops on poetry and the natural world at Pitney Meadows Community farm, a nonprofit organization and one hundred- acre farm within city limits.
Poets.org: What part of your project were you most excited about?
JB: I’m most excited about the workshops and classes I’ve conducted at Saratoga High School and those I will lead at both the Onondaga Reservation and the Akwesasne Mohawk Reservation that focus on poetry and peace and bringing Indigenous and non-Native youth together through poetry. Chief Tom Porter, a deeply respected Mohawk elder, will be doing presentations with me at each school, sharing the poetic oral tradition about the founding of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Great League of Peace beginning with a December 8 program at Saratoga High School. I’ll also be bringing one or more Indigenous singer-songwriters to the schools in 2024.
Poets.org: What obstacles, if any, did you experience when starting your project?
JB: The first weeks of my tenure got off to a rocky start because of a misunderstanding between the committee formed to choose the first Saratoga Springs poet and the mayor. At one point, the city’s lawyer drew up a “liability” contract for me to sign, which I refused, pointing out that I was not a city employee. After several meetings with him, the mayor realized that my work would be an asset, and his office has been on excellent terms with me since—inaugurating me formally at a city council meeting, putting my poems on the city website, and publicizing my work. My “poems of peace” project with the schools was received enthusiastically. There’s been more of an issue with scheduling than with acceptance. (It helped that I was inducted into the Saratoga High School Hall of Distinction—as a 1960 grad— in front of the whole school last spring). So I started here at Saratoga Springs High School, and I will conduct the programs at Onondaga and Akwesasne in the late winter and early spring.
Poets.org: Would you be able to speak more about what inspired you to create this conversation between Indigenous youth and non-Native youth?
JB: Having worked every year with young people in both reservation schools and non-Native schools, I’ve always been struck by how similar—and yet how unique—the things are that shape their worldviews and their personal identities. Both the idea of peace and its importance are central values in our Indigenous cultures here in New York, but perhaps less understood in the non-Native population (of all ages). All too often in the modern world, we may see those outside our communities as “other” rather than as human beings. My idea was that a sort of poetic dialogue, fostered by writing about peace and bringing together poems written by both Indigenous and non-Native young people (in a small anthology and during a shared reading, some in person and some by Zoom) would be a step toward bridging that gap.
Poets.org: Is there a poem on Poets.org that inspires you and your work in Saratoga Springs? How so?
JB: I’m sorry (or pleased) to say that I see so many inspirational poems on Poets.org that there’s no way I can just pick out one. I loved that collaborative poem [“Corsair”] by Cyrus Cassells and Brian Turner that woke me up at 6:51 AM this morning—a great way to start the day. And I had never seen that one on Sunday by D’Arcy McNickle , even though I’ve taught his novels for years. All of these poems point to so many possibilities in style, subject, content, word choice, format, you name it. So I just go around telling everyone to sign up!