My first impression of Simon Ortiz at the 2015 Sigma Tau Delta Annual Convention in Albuquerque, New Mexico, can be summed up in a single word: real. What I mean is the man is genuine, has an opinion and character, and shows these qualities in what he writes, how he lives, and how he interacts with others, particularly in the literary field. He is real, and so is his writing.
I was honored to host Mr. Ortiz for the aforementioned event, and so had the opportunity to spend significant time with him. It was an absolute honor and privilege. Simon refers to himself and his people as “indigenous people,” rather than “Native American” or “Indian,” both somewhat derogatory appellations. What Simon means in using the term indigenous is simply that his people were already here when the rest of the world arrived. The word is real, and describes exactly who and what Simon and his people are. Perhaps you begin to understand why, like Simon, I choose my descriptive word very carefully and call him real.
Simon’s writing is no less real than the writer himself. His poetry and short stories speak in honest words about actual situations and experiences. The Common Reader for this year’s Sigma Tau Delta convention, From Sand Creek, is a book of Simon’s poetry which examines the infamous Sand Creek Massacre of 1864. As Simon read from and discussed these poems, his quiet, powerful words filled the vast ballroom in such a powerful manner, every ear listened with eager intent. I have been to many entertaining literary events, but never one quite as engaging and meaningful as Simon’s. The ring of truth in his carefully composed verse is completely inescapable and cannot help but change the reader . . . or the listener. He can lay you bare to the bone and sew you up in the next sentence. That takes rather significant writing skill.
Simon did not speak too much about his writing process, except to say that all of his writing derives from life experience and his personal culture. His reading and address, even his answers to audience questions, were carefully considered and well spoken. “Words have power,” he said, “use them on purpose and use them wisely.” These few syllables, so carefully crafted, have great power and it is nigh on impossible to dispute them.
Simon delivered his address and reading simultaneously and so seamlessly I could not distinguish between the address and his poetry and short stories. What this shows me, as a writer, is that Simon is always in the story (or poem). “I write to tell people what I know,” Simon told me at his book signing, “I tell stories, and there are always new ones.” I can think of no better reason to write. Simon agrees. He told me that some people write to entertain or for fun, but he is not one of those. Simon writes because he has something important to say that people need to hear. That is why I write as well. No wonder we got on so well.
The theme of this year’s Sigma Tau Delta convention was “Borderlands and Enchantments.” Simon Ortiz comes from The Land of Enchantment, and knows a thing or two about borders, physical, philosophical, and political. Simon bridges those borders through the written word, predominately through poetry. His words draw two very different worlds closer together, have done so for decades, and promise to continue the journey for some time to come. Would that we could all write in such an utterly real fashion. The world would become the better place Simon and I believe it can be.
Sigma Tau Delta 2016 Convention, March 2-5, Minneapolis, MN