Anthony K. Webster on his new book, Intimate Grammars: An Ethnography of Navajo Poetry


Interview by Juan Luis Rodriguez


Sometimes we hear Navajo poets but don’t really recognize what they are saying even when they speak English to us. This is one point your book makes really clear for the reader. Can you introduce your book to us and share some insight into why is it that people so often read or listen but not really get Navajo poetry, even when it is written in what seem to be a transparent code (English)?

Many thanks for reading the book, for engaging the book, and for the kind words about the book. I think that there are profound and debilitating expectations, in the sense that Philip Deloria uses this term in Indians in Unexpected Places, about Native peoples and, in particular, Navajos, that point readers to particular kinds of understandings, particular kinds of readings. There are, to borrow from Bakhtin, “a world of other’s words” that inform our readings of Navajo poetry—often times, that world of other’s words are not Navajo words, but the ways that Navajos and Native peoples have been imagined. My book was an attempt to put the words of Navajo poets at the center of my analysis, and to try and tease out something of what they were trying to tell me. José Ortega y Gasset, in his piece on “The Difficulty of Reading,” begins—I think rather famously—by saying that, “To read, to read a book, is, like all other really human occupations, a utopian task.” Where “utopian” is really seen as a worthwhile endeavor and where to “read” is seen as full or complete understanding of a text. From this follows Ortega y Gasset’s two axioms: every utterance is deficient (not saying enough) and every utterance is exuberant (saying too much). Our expectations of Native peoples, which we (as Americans, anyway) are socialized into in a host of ways that scholars from Robert Berkhofer on have highlighted, of what, for example, Navajos can and cannot be, of what they can and cannot say, in what languages they can and cannot express themselves, feed into these deficiencies (putting in too little) and exuberances (putting in too much). And when people approach Navajo poetry, they often hear what they want to hear, see what they are predisposed to see. Like the lady tourist in Blackhorse Mitchell’s story at the end of the book. This is especially pernicious when the poems are written in Navajo English, which is sufficiently similar to be misrecognized as some kind of “failure” in writing some imagined “mainstream” English. And this, as Barbra Meek has argued in “Failing American Indian Languages,” is a persistent way of imagining Native peoples: as failures—failures to hold onto their “traditional” languages, failures to speak English “correctly,” etc. Getting beyond that, or at least creating some kind of reflexive self-awareness, means “really listening”—and that’s a capacity, according to Navajos that I have talked with about the matter, that needs to be worked on, that needs to be cultivated. My book tries to point out something of the way one might go about listening, really listening. I don’t claim, obviously, to understand exactly what Navajos have been trying to tell me, but I do hope that I’ve provided enough ethnography—that is context—to provide a glimpse, or a possible—and I hope reasonable—glimpse—to make what they are saying interpretable. I think it useful to paraphrase Ortega y Gasset here, to say that, to understand, to understand humanity (to engage, that is, in anthropology), is, like all other really human and humane occupations, a utopian task. My book is utopian in that sense. We will never completely understand each other, but the task is to try to understand our fellow human beings, what is relevant and near and meaningful to them, and to recognize our limits in so doing; when I was in graduate school—in the mid to late 90s—we called this “partial knowledge;” glimpse seems a more useful metaphor for this, and I make much of that in Explorations in Navajo Poetry and Poetics, though it recurs in this book as well. We should be careful, not just with each other, but also in not pretending we understand more than we do.  We can’t listen if we imagine we already know everything.

 You develop the idea of intimate grammars in relation to Elizabeth Povinelli and Michael Herzfeld’s work on intimacy. Yet, intimacy in your work seems a little different because it is associated at once with surveilled boundaries between self and other and felt emotional attachment to linguistic form. Can you talk a little about the tensions between these ordeals of language and the pleasures of aesthetically pleasant verbal art in creating a space of linguistic intimacy?

A long time ago, my notes tell me 3/31/98, I finished reading Michael Herzfeld’s Cultural Intimacy: Social Poetics in the Nation-State, and it lingered—lingered in the way books sometimes linger. There was something about it, this idea of things we do among ourselves that give us a sense of ourselves, but that we are often embarrassed by when others, not us (they, if you want), see it. Especially important for me was his concern with the question of iconicity, with the resemblances of something to someone. I then, much later, read Elizabeth Povinelli’s chapter on “Intimate grammars: anthropological and psychoanalytic accounts of language, gender, and desire,” and I sensed a kind of common theme there, though to be honest I have not honored Povinelli’s concern with the psychoanalytic at all and I have—like we often do—made, as you noted, of intimacy something rather different. What I was interested in was a kind of social and personal intimacy—which is more in keeping with Herzfeld’s use of the term. But Povinelli has this wonderful passage in her chapter on the uses of “he,” “she,” and “it” and the ways that “Conservative language critics” dismiss such feminist language projects; but what struck me in reading that was the persistence of such usages that violate some imagined standard English; the tenacity of such forms in use and—while not explicit in Povinelli—the possible pleasure and delight in using such “transgressive” forms.  Now it just so happens that one of the features of Navajo English is a kind of free variation with the use of the pronouns “he” and “she” (I have multiple transcripts of conversations where the speakers shift between “he” and “she” while talking about a single person)—as far as I can tell, in Navajo English the pronouns “he” and “she” do not code for gender. This was often read, of course, as “confusion” on the part of Navajos speaking English—the same kind of “confusion” as when Navajos “thought” Christians worshipped trees because they prayed to God which sounds like gad ‘juniper tree’ in Navajo. In both cases, of course, the confusion is not with Navajos, but with outside expectations—not understanding that Navajo English pronouns don’t code for gender or missing the obvious interlingual pun between English and Navajo (and the hilarity of the Christmas tree in such punning). Navajos that I know are often quite aware of this alternation of “he” and “she,” and while they may recognize it as an object of outside scrutiny, it’s also something they have a certain amount of felt attachment to, a kind of pleasurable expression of we-ness. A classic bit of intimate grammar. So there is this pleasure in the uses of linguistic forms—and other forms as well (I make note that lip-pointing for some Navajos is also a bit of intimate semiosis, something pleasurable, but also something that can be scrutinized by others)—and also the simultaneous recognition that such forms are objects of scrutiny. And of course, these linguistic forms gain such felt attachments through use, and in so using such forms, they come to feel non-arbitrary and consubstantial. Poetry is one such use of languages. These linguistic forms don’t just index an identity; they come to be feelingfully, to use Steve Feld’s term, iconic of that identity. So, intimate grammars are linguistic forms in use that may delight—give pleasure and expressive satisfaction—even under scrutiny.

Ellen Basso’s haunting and brilliant piece on “Ordeals of Languages” reminds us that there are times when we do not speak; to, for example, maintain some imagined civility—when we are complicit, at times, in our own subordination. And, when like both Navajo and Navajo English, your language has been an object of scrutiny and marginalization or dismissal for a long time, there are times when you don’t use the Navajo English forms, or you don’t speak Navajo in an off-reservation town or in the presence of elders who you worry may be hypercritical of your Navajo. And then, of course, since my focus is on verbal art, on poetry, about how all of this plays out in the poetry written and performed by Navajos. What struck me is the pleasure of saying, of writing, in these intimate grammars for Navajo poets, and the courage that such acts require. Many Navajo poets, certainly not all and not always, provide ways to imagine growing intimate with languages; stigmatized and dismissed as those languages may at times be, they can be deeply feelingful (partly because of that marginalization). Laura Tohe’s poetry on the boarding school experience (which I explore in Chapter Two) evokes a way imagining Navajo and growing intimate with it. To take another example, Navajos who told me that in reading the Navajo English work of Blackhorse Mitchell they could hear their grandparents in his writing—Bakhtin, again, reminds us that our words are always already other people’s words, and sometimes, sometimes if we are lucky, we can recognize those people, we can hear the voices of particular people—grandparents or other relatives; this is yet another way of becoming intimate with languages. I think, and here I merely echo a point repeatedly made to me by my advisor Joel Sherzer years ago when I was a graduate student, one important task of the linguistic anthropologist is to look at places, in its myriad senses, where people take pleasure in their uses of languages, where they find aesthetic delight in their uses of languages.

One of my favorite poems that you analyze in the book is Blackhorse Mitchell’s Beauty of Navajoland. What strikes me about this poem is how Mitchell refuses to let visitors to the Navajo nation off the hook for ignoring what is obvious. But at the same time, his use of English words like beauty and ugly are not necessarily what others make them to be. The semantico-referential function of the poem produces a critique of oblivious tourists and, at the same time it addresses a moral and aesthetic Navajo sensibility with words that overlap but do not mean the same in Navajo English. Can you tell us more about the play of denotational vs. poetic function in this example?   

It’s a really fine poem, and Navajos that know the poem think it a strong poem—one that gets them thinking about the world as it is and, in so seeing the world as it is, it offers the possibility to change the world (which seems like what strong poems should do). In the book, I think I describe this as recognizing that poetry is not just about the world, but of the world and being of the world, poetry offers the possibility to change the world—which is what some Navajo poetry seems to be trying to do, to get people to listen and hence to think or imagine, which is the beginning of getting things and people to change—a process of restoring things from something like hóchxǫ’ (ugliness, disorder, out of control, etc.) to hozhǫ́ (beauty, harmony, order, control, etc.). There’s a sense, to paraphrase Kenneth Burke, as I am wont to do, of some Navajo poetry as equipment for living. Now in Navajo English terms like ‘beauty’ and ‘ugly’ are false friends—in the linguistic sense—with the terms in a kind of Midwestern English, call that my English. So I tell the story in the book about hearing people described as ‘ugly,’ and my Midwestern (Indiana) sensibilities (a compulsion for politeness) were jarred by that. Until, after a while, probably longer than it should have taken, I realized that ‘ugly’ was being used to describe that person as being ‘out of control’ or ‘disorderly’ and in need of a ceremony. So in talking with Mitchell about his poem, I began to realize that the ‘beauty’ in the title and refrain, which is meant as a kind of echoic mention of what a tourist said about the Navajo Nation, needed to be understood as talking about hozhǫ́—which is a kind of moral order. And in that sense, as the poem makes clear and the conversations that I had with Mitchell about the poem (several transcripts of those conversations are included in the chapter), the Navajo Nation is not beautiful, rather it is ugly or disorderly or out of control—and these are all moral terms. Conceiving of beauty as only pretty scenery misses the deeply moral component of ‘beauty’ for Mitchell and for other Navajos as well. So too with poems—seeing them as beautiful in form only—misses the moral work of such poems, their capacity to get people to really think. If all you hear is the beauty of form in a poem then you probably haven’t been really listening. Mitchell makes this point rather explicitly, I think, in the transcript in Chapter 3 when he is talking about one of his teachers congratulating him on a “great” poem, but it seems clear to Mitchell that the teacher failed to “see” what he was saying in the poem—and the poem, as Mitchell tells it, is about not wanting to be in school behind barred windows. The repetition of ‘beauty’ and its ironic use seem to highlight—in the sense of poetically foregrounding—the importance of attending to it, this concept of ‘beauty,’ in a more self-consciously reflexive way—that is to ask, am I understanding what Mitchell is saying, getting closer to an understanding on his terms (our utopian task as a sort of beautiful failure), or am I just following my habitual grooves here and understanding on my terms (that is, not really listening).

One thing that is clear from your book is that attention to details of grammatical choice can produce tremendous insight into the moral and political stances taken by Navajo poets. This is beautifully put in your analysis of optional grammatical choices in Chapter 5. Now, let me turn the tables on you and address your own grammatical choice. In your introduction, you have one of the shortest sentences I could find in your book. You wrote: “Languages are cultural.” The shortness of the sentence caught my attention and I hope I am not over reading into it. I take this shortness to be iconic of a pause in your thought, and as an invitation to pay attention to your own intimate grammar. When I read it, I thought of you packing ideas for the reader and inviting us to unpack this sentence in the course of the book. The two things I kept present at all time then were the plural form in languages and the adjective form of cultural. Would you care to elaborate on those two intimate grammatical choices?

Without pretending to know exactly what I was thinking when I wrote that, let me try and sketch out something of the context in which such an utterance might emerge. First, I think it a bit of an axiom for linguistic anthropologists—that languages are cultural. So I don’t think it particularly novel on my part. And the voices that I hear in that short phrase are multiple. Two spring to mind immediately. The aforementioned Joel Sherzer was and is fond of short little statements that seem to encapsulate a great deal without saying too much—and so there is some of that in there, I would imagine. Indeed, I may have heard him say something very similar at some point and then imagined it as my own formulation. As for the adjectival form, there is an echo of Edward Sapir in there, especially in the use of “cultural.” Sapir often talked about “cultural” as against “culture”—and I’ve found that a useful way of thinking about such matters. We do not encounter cultures so much as cultural practices and the like—or perhaps, better, people engaged—wittingly or not—in cultural practices. As for the plural marking on language, it seems to me that a key feature of our object of study—as linguistic anthropologists—is never “language” (or worse, “Language”), but particular languages within particular sociocultural and historical moments (another key feature, of course, are the human beings who use said languages). So foregrounding the pluralness of languages seems important, it gets us away from thinking that Navajos speak some bounded thing called Navajo, and that if they speak—as they do—a variety of other languages, that is somehow “unexpected” (to use again Deloria’s formulation), in need of explanation. The quickness of the phrase, as well, as I reconstruct it now, does indeed seem like an invitation for thinking—the way, for example, the short poems by Rex Lee Jim are invitations for contemplation (the way, I now suspect as well, Joel’s aphorisms were also invitations for contemplation).  And so, yes, I’d like the reader to try and make sense of “languages are cultural” as they read the book, to come to understand why that is so and what, possibly, that might mean—especially in the case of Navajo poets and poetry. One rather unfortunate tendency has been a view of languages and cultural practices as somehow separate, that languages are somehow not cultural (which leads to a host of rather silly formulations about “language and culture” or “language in culture”, etc.). But I don’t want to overstate, to infringe on your imaginative work, on your imaginative capacities, by talking too much about what it should or should not mean.

I don’t want to end this interview without talking a little about the influences in your book. Four linguistic anthropologists who recently passed away loom large in your work. Paul Friedrich, Dennis Tedlock, Keith Basso and Dell Hymes. What do they mean for your work and for the book?

In many ways, I can’t imagine my book having come into existence without the influences of Keith Basso, Paul Friedrich, Dell Hymes, and Dennis Tedlock (among others). All of them, in one way or another, took verbal art—and poetry—as important to the work of linguistic anthropology, they saw the role of actual human beings, that is individuals, as important as well to the work of linguistic anthropology, there was, in all their work, a careful attention to linguistic details that ramify and ripple across social and cultural doings, and a recognition of the pleasure and delight in the using of languages. They all saw languages in a broad and multifaceted way and, hence, eschewed a narrow vision of language. They all saw languages as a human phenomenon, deeply entangled with the lives of actual people. They all pushed back against any theory of language that removed human beings and verbal artistry from the equation. They rejected a sharp division between linguistics and anthropology, seeing the two as deeply intertwined. And each, in their way, not just through theory, but through a sensibility, a sensibility about languages and about people, influenced my own sensibility about languages and about people.

Obviously, Tedlock wrote a blurb for the back of my book and so there is a kind of directness about his influence on the book. But, Tedlock’s The Spoken Word and the Work of Interpretation should still be required reading in linguistic anthropology. His concerns with translation, with the sounds of language (including ideophony), with questions of performance, and with the cadence, the rhythm, of talk, all inform my own ways of thinking about Navajo poetry. There are also a couple of lovely articles—can we say that about academic articles?—that are really quite thoughtful in their explorations of sound, translation and of poetics; “Toward a Poetics of Polyphony and Translatability” and “Written in Sound: Translating the Multiple Voices of the Zuni Storyteller.” Though I don’t cite them in the book, I’m sure that they have influenced my thinking in a variety of ways. And, of course, Tedlock’s concern with the dialogic emergence of culture and the importance of the dialogic in anthropological writing has certainly influenced my own work as well.

Friedrich’s work was also hugely influential on my thinking, especially a couple of essays from the 1979 book Language, Context, and the Imagination (a title which comes close to summarizing some of my interests as well)—“The Symbol and Its Relative non-Arbitrariness” and “Poetic Language and the Imagination: A Reformulation of the Sapir Hypothesis”—as well, of course, as his later book The Language Parallax: Linguistic Relativism and Poetic Indeterminacy. Friedrich’s view that poetic language is a crucial site for understanding linguistic relativity really lurks in a number of chapters in the book—and I make it a bit more explicit in a review essay I did for Journal of Linguistic Anthropology and a piece in Semiotica (both published in 2015). Friedrich argues in his non-arbitrariness piece that one reason to see the symbol as relatively non-arbitrary is the “subjective intuition of the speaker,” and that lurks in my sense of the felt attachments to linguistic forms in my formulation of intimate grammars.

Hymes’ influence—especially In Vain I Tried to Tell You: Essays in Native American Ethnopoetics—on my work is, I think, rather obvious. Paul Kroskrity and I edited a volume from Indiana University Press on The Legacy of Dell Hymes: Ethnopoetics, Narrative Inequality, and Voice, that gives a bit more than a hint as well about that influence. But, a kind of careful attention to expressive devices, which occupies much of the discussion of Chapter 5, is influenced by Hymes—I think particularly of “How to Talk Like a Bear in Takelma.”  More prominently, I think is Hymes’ concern with narrative inequality (much of that collected in his Ethnography, Linguistics, and Narrative Inequality: Toward an Understanding of Voice), the places where a variety of ways of speaking can be and are marginalized and devalued, becomes a lens to think through, for example, the reactions to and misreadings of the writings of Blackhorse Mitchell (witness the reviews of his book Miracle Hill that I discuss in Chapter 3). Ethnopoetics, this attempt to understand, in that utopian way I spoke about earlier, locally meaningful and feelingful ways of organizing discourse—poetry here—is really central to the project of this book. And, for Hymes and Tedlock and Friedrich and Basso as well, that meant attending to linguistic form—often linguistic forms that were marginalized or ignored in certain narrower visions of languages (forms like puns, expressive devices, ideophony, etc.)—and the kinds of felt satisfaction in using such forms. Poetic forms don’t exist in a vacuum, hermetically sealed from the world. They are fully implicated in wider fields of meaning—and those are often about perduring structurings of inequality; what gets counted as poetry and what gets excluded are not neutral endeavors. There’s a wonderful piece that ties much of this together, “Tonkawa Poetics: John Rush Buffalo’s ‘Coyote and Eagle’s Daughter’”, from a volume edited by Joel Sherzer and Anthony Woodbury, Native American Discourse: Rhetoric and Poetics (which turns 30 next year)—and that piece is also a defense of a particular way of conceiving of languages and the work of anthropology, a tradition he traces through Boas, Sapir, Whorf and Hoijer. A defense well worth continually making, I would add. It’s a tradition I see myself in as well.

Basso’s influence can be seen in a variety of places in the book (some of which I have already suggested). Certainly my interpretations of the portraits of tourist encounters that frame the book are read, in part, through the lens of Basso’s Portraits of the Whiteman. There is, again, his sensitivity to the aesthetic delight of linguistic form, the pleasures in saying, for example, Western Apache place-names. The importance of attending to the insights of those you work with and to acknowledge those insights. Blackhorse Mitchell’s influence on my thinking, I hope, is evident throughout much of Intimate Grammars. I came of age in graduate school in the mid to late 90s, and Basso’s Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language among the Western Apache came out in 1996 (though some of the chapters had been published prior) and has, for a long time now, seemed like a model of how to practice a certain kind of linguistic anthropology—a linguistic anthropology, as I suggested earlier, of attending to people and to linguistic details, “that linguistics and ethnography are integral parts of the same basic enterprise,” which, in shorthand, is that utopian task of understanding our fellow human beings and the cultural worlds in which they and we live.

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