Reading was part of National Poetry Month celebration

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FARMINGTON — Navajo poet Luci Tapahonso read her poems to a large audience on Thursday at the Farmington Public Library as part of the library's National Poetry Month celebration.

"I appreciate the way people take ownership of poetry. It means that they feel their voices are heard. Their experiences are being told," she said to the crowded room.

Tapahonso, who grew up in the Mesa Farm area in Shiprock, earned a bachelor's degree in creative writing from the University of New Mexico in 1980 and published her first poetry collection a year later.

She told the audience that she started UNM intending to study journalism but changed her focus after acclaimed writer Leslie Marmon Silko encouraged her to pursue creative writing.

It was in Silko's poetry class that Tapahonso wrote "Hills Brothers Coffee" and "Raisin Eyes," two of her poems that remain favorites of her readers.

"There's just something about them. I think the language, especially with 'Hills Brothers,' it's translated from Navajo. The syntax is Navajo, but the words are English," Tapahonso said in an interview on Friday.

Tapahonso retired two years ago from the English Department at UNM and remains busy with writing, family and speaking engagements.

She lives in Santa Fe, where her husband is president at the Institute of American Indian Arts, and she often travels to Shiprock to visit family.

She was one of 20 artists selected this year for the National Artist Fellowship from the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation, a philanthropic organization dedicated to the perpetuation of American Indians, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian arts and culture nationwide.

The fellowship includes an unrestricted award of $20,000 to support Native American artists as they explore, develop and experiment with original and existing projects, a press release from the organization states.

Tapahonso applied for the grant and will use the amount to complete a new book and to update her website. The book will offer new poems and stories, and publication is slated for next year.

Tapahonso was also busy writing scripts that profile three Native American artists as part of a new exhibition called "Creating Tradition: Innovation and Change in American Indian Art" for the American Heritage Gallery at Walt Disney World's Epcot in Orlando, Florida.

"They finished the recording, and they're going to send me the final versions of it next week. I'm anxious to see it. That was a good experience. It tested my poetic skills," she said.

Among those in the audience on Thursday were Farmington residents Katie Toledo and Joan Arrowsmith.

"She's a storyteller. The stories are entertaining. They give a view of her childhood growing up on the reservation, and I enjoy it. She has a lot of humor," Toledo said.

Arrowsmith enjoys Tapahonso's writing because the emotions and experiences she writes about are universal. The poems about Tapahonso remembering her mother and dealing with loss struck a chord with Arrowsmith.

"I was thinking about myself and my mother, and what it was like to lose her," Arrowsmith said.

"And I think good writing does that, when you can relate it to yourself," Toledo added.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 or by email at nsmith@daily-times.com.

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