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Once Upon a Time

“Stories are holy things, they enable us to transcend ourselves,” said N. Scott Momaday during his reading last Thursday night at Knowles Chapel. His reading is the first of five for the annual Winter with the Writers. Earlier, during a master class with Rollins student writers, he remarked, “I feel rusty,” but at seventy-eight years old, Momaday surprised audiences with his distinctive voice, wry humor, and his overall powerful presence.

In his long and extensive literary career, Momaday has published sixteen works, including: poetry collections, novels, and one memoir. However, he considers himself mainly a poet. His poems are “songs in Indian tradition” in his opinion. During the reading, Momaday read some of his “prose poems” such as A Poet in Love and some “syllabic poetry” like Snow Mare and To an Aged Bear.

His voice was quite remarkable; it reverberated through the packed pews of the chapel. Many of his poems shared the overarching themes of aging and mortality, including Benign Self Portrait. For instance, in To an Aged Bear, Momaday spoke, “mortality is your shadow and shade.” Momaday also read aloud passages from his memoir, The Names, published in 1976.

He chose an excerpt that describes the 1960’s, a turbulent and changing decade, a decade that Momaday still refers to as “the most dynamic period of the century.” “Were any of you there?” he jokingly asked the audience full of students.

At the end of his reading, Momaday received a standing ovation from the audience. A brief period was allotted for question and answer, where Momaday spoke more in-depth about his Native American heritage and childhood on the preservations.

Momaday explained that rhythm, repetition, and imagery are the fundamentals of Native American oral tradition; one cannot spare any useless words in oral poetry. Currently, he is working on his latest memoir and has been experimenting with the haiku, which he calls “a marvelous way to exercise the mind.”

Momaday also founded the Buffalo Trust, a non-profit organization for the preservation and return of Native American cultural heritage. While he believes that, for a time, American poetry was greatly threatened, he said that there is a “kind of revival” occurring, and I think he proved that night that he contributes to the rebirth.

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