Calaya J. Williams - Featured Poet 7

"I think all our poems, songs and stories are young plants whose hope for growth lies in shared soils, however we share." - Calaya J. Williams

Calaya brings a lot of her life and background to her poetry and it is told in her own voice which has the unique ring of authenticity. Her work is intriguing, challenging and evocative. In many of her pieces there is a feeling of inclusivity into which the reader is drawn and made to see the world in a new way. - Jim Bennett

Calaya J. Williams - Featured Poet 7

Tell us something about yourself.

A few years ago I took advantage of an opportunity to explore writing as a career and have been seeking a degree in technical and creative writing at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. I'm also a visual artist so I'm excited about future opportunities to learn new technologies and explore multi-mediums.

Although I generally abhor labels, because both details reflect in my current work, I'll tell you that I'm 56 years old and one of seventeen million Americans who chose the multiracial/multicultural category on the 2000 census. (Cherokee/African American/English).

How/when did you start writing? Was there anything that particularly influenced you?

I started writing when I was ten. Life circumstances seemed aimed to stop me from expressing myself, even in writing. By ten I'd decided that human 'truths' were concepts that evolved primarily from language. So, if I read and wrote enough, I'd learn these truths; I felt desperate to 'know.' The first book I read was a Bible. My first shared writing was an interpretation of Revelations, a school assignment. That resulted in severe parental punishment but in the writing process, I'd discovered a method to relieve internal pressures, so I decided to keep my scribbling secret. The internal pressures I expressed were those of surviving a 'childhood' of no real personal choices. I was afraid I was stupid or crazy for a long time after age three, after a very sick man almost killed me. I felt tossed, against my will, into an unsolvable mystery. I felt alone, separated, and even from myself. In the meantime, everywhere around me folk spoke of 'truths' and most of their truths left me feeling more alienated.

The first person who encouraged me to write was a high school teacher. She also accused me of stealing the first short story I wrote (from a library book). I burned that story and nothing sparked me to write again until the rock 'n roll music of the sixties. The first writer who rekindled my urge to write was Ram Dass/Richard Alpert, Ph.D. speaking in a '60's, freshman psychology class. I read his book, Be Here Now, (1971) which was the beginning of an conscious awareness of being within a larger 'reality processing.' What the heck has that got to do with writing poetry? Well, feeling grounded as a human translating my reality-- in part of a larger reality processing gives me confidence to set down words, validates my perceptions, essentially feels like the 'personal truth' I'd sought... and *writing guided me into that awareness.

Do you have any strong influences on your writing now?

I'm very drawn to writers whose works seem, to me, to reflect their reality processing. Although they might disagree with me about this, my examples include Rainer Marie Rilke, Joy Harjo, Simon J. Ortiz, Mary TallMountain, Sherman Alexie and Gabriel Horn (White Deer of Autumn). My two most worn books are Harper's Anthology of 20th Century Native American Poetry and R.M.Rilke's The Book of Images.

How do you write? Do you have any particular method for writing-time of day?

I've a habit of daily writing, first thing in the morning, for a few hours. If I feel inspired I draft/journal with pen and paper. Otherwise, I open the ‘bones' file in my computer, sift through ideas/notes, choose something and start. What works best for me is drafting free-writes, leaving them sit and revising later. I have found what I consider a poem draft in perhaps a dozen words culled from thousands. When I want to write but the first word won't come, I go for a walk and do Natalie Goldberg's (from Wild Mind) 'Oral Timed Writings' exercise. In other words, I walk alone and talk to myself, use my mouth, articulate.

Why do you write poetry?

It's a habit I want to nurture. When I was a child terrified to express myself, I wrote poems to develop a private language. I crafted toward obscurity. When I discovered that individuals have distinct, unique voices that may be expressed in clear, tangible words, I fell in love with that goal/process. Writing obscure poems helped me protect myself until I was safe to hear my voice and practice using it.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Yes, please, and thank you for asking. I'm a happily reclusive person but have a passion to share myself beyond my habitual family/community, via my writing. I feel that my works contain bits of me, my essence, or presence. Folk may consider this an unusual way to make connections with human relatives. I think all our poems, songs and stories are like young plants whose hope for growth lies in shared soils, however we share.


A story poem that explores various aspects of my ongoing relationship with a relative, another 'social/cultural misfit;' culled from notes written in an outhouse during my first years in Alaska.

Reflections from an Outhouse
Unbinding in an outhouse:
a butt-comforting touch: talking
to cousin Laura in an LA prison
doors propped open
privy to our fears
all jammed up
not a metaphor for relief-
butts exposed, interruptions wiped
in ungraceful dependence on stored toilet paper forests
not a metaphor for checking out.
When she charged into me leaving LA
she pleaded, "Show me around." I said,
"You shouldn't be here, Laura
LA will eat you alive."
We migrated into a 'recovery center'
welcomed recycling material till
they met us in their dreams: their complaints
moved us to the street lit, ghetto porch
where we dreamed of moving North till
dawn; till we crawled off to sleep with pigeons
in an abandoned, leaky loft.
Afternoon, we dusted off feathers, coughed,
spit, called rain, danced 'round dumpsters
gathered sacred scraps: broken, brown bottles
pissed-on gutter woods, tree seed pods,
burlap fragments, clear, shattered glass.
Trembling fingers tendered candle wax,
winged together pieces, not a metaphor-
travelling medicine, to guide us home.
Now I'm unbinding in an outhouse:
a butt-comforting touch: talking
to cousin Laura in an LA cell
doors propped open
privy to our tears.
Not a metaphor-
LA is still eating her, alive.


Wallpapers asks questions about various 'glues' in particular 'close' human relationships; you know: the sticky parts.

What hangs, stuck so tight?
Does it matter if the wait
gets charged, overbearing?
Why inlay violent suspense?
Are we hooked on remodelled walls
mortared in fanciful fortresses
surrounded with embellished fears
attached to ceilings of guilt
suspended in swapped piety?
What happens if it all falls down?
Who's screaming to get out?
Whose stacked up high religious papers?
Whose suspicious shelves plastered
in articles of enhanced hatreds?
What report mysteriously misplaced?
Whose profound misgivings to each other
yet refuse one loud utter
when you've really had more than enough
of the nasty, unspeakable, noisy clutter?
When we redecorate, why with weight?
Why not label a few of our prided essays-
arrayed on our towers and tables: Without
memory of Original themes, Out of
Sequence, To Hell with Cycles, Fried truth
and fuck Consequence?
Don't humans control the seasons?
Then why all this dreadful hesitation?
What's under our wallpapered elaboration’s?

How, one day, feeling dis-Spirited, communing with certain other relatives helped me make clearer connection with my grandchildren.

How they recall her spirit
She recalls her name while her eyes scan
the room listing symbols of longings:
buffalo drums, feathered owl claws,
diamond willow talking sticks
baby raven flights over trails of tears
masks, dancing wolves, flying whales-
family portraits.
She recalls her name while she walks
round a room, watches her self appear
in thin, arctic air from behind bushes
where CD flutes and drums set her-
slightly, in a bamboo chair
by a picture window, watching
a moose munch autumn compost
knee deep in winter garden snow.
She recalls this mothers' calf chewed
painted daisies off her porch mural.
How, the mother moose recovered
from the car,
wretched, now three-legged.
How mother moose struggled through
thick underbrush to guide her child
to scary dog yard hay
'cause neither of them could reach
neighbourhood compost heaps.
How she recorded that calf eating paint.
How self-outrage stopped her
intent to send the film to a TV station-
with a furious plea.
How another mother moose killed a tourist.
How, now, she cracks open her doors-
gives calves cabbage.
How, now, she recalls Spirit-
beats a drum so deep they call her slow,
dances an opening dance
so you can call her mother
beats a sad beat, hearing sorrow.
How she's sad-glad to bother your spirit
to sit with her and cry,
rattle, say she misses your skin visions
say it's good to share water with kin
ask, How ya been?
How she recalls your smiled, Why, I'm still walking
The Red Road with you; how you been?
She was shocked when you first spoke-
broke out in hot, sweet sweat
held her breath
used the sights of napping dogs to prove
no spirit-moose loose in the room
lost track of time in a chaos
of attempts to reckon how to prove
she wasn't just a spirit, too.
How she wondered 'till she heard
"Oh dear. I see,"
and felt a husky pups' head on her lap
and his wag helped her settle down.
How she settled so almighty down
she pretended not to hear you
in the moose munching compost
knee deep in winter garden snow.
Settled in a bamboo chair.
Recalled how to get
under the grounds, how: now
she moves through generations of wait
recalls ancestors songs
sit's softly in arctic windows
phones her grandchildren and Oh!
how they always recall her spirit.

Underneath the surface story is a self-caricature expressing fears concerning self-expression.

Afraid To Soar
After her parents taught her
not to eat live prey
Fay, child of the family falconiforme
Old World ally of eagle and hawk,
soared from African nests
over wildebeest herds,
keen eyes set to scavenge.
Strong beaked,
she clawed apart a carcass,
filled, then sailed
into the starved mouth of a storm.
The tunnel swallowed
but threw her up over ground
held by American vultures.
She dipped,
swallowed tidbits missed
by voiceless heads in live-feeding frenzies,
then climbed
in cautious, expanding circles
in-and-out of a particular memory:
once, she was not afraid to soar.

This was originally drafted as a personal 'moving on' ritual - following an intrapersonal shift. I revised it as a more public song, bent toward honoring place.

Grandma's Glacial Rhyme
Old washing machine roared-
mean measured moans,
overloaded pauses. Grandma
sought redistribution.
Moved out of doors:
attended fears of retribution
sensed a flow containing oceans
let her cycles spin in winds
followed fire and ice
watched an African violet bloom
caught a breeze
blew by a windsock
flew 'round a lantern, past
chimes; sank into a melting
glacial rhyme: an ice-calf
awash in a volcanic sea.

Collision is the first poem I wrote after I started university, the first poem submitted for publication and the first poem published [UAF lit mag: IceBox, Fall Issue, '98]. It's tone was initially meant to reflect the culture shock I felt on campus; it's style to portray rush, it's voice sarcastic rage. Hopefully, 'rage about what' is obvious enuff?  Initial public response to this poem still encourages me.

According to your streams of unconscious babble
no one is responsible for this violent,
species extincting, population exploding
toxic life:
Shut up!
The eyes beneath our skins are opening:
we are the babies you threw out
with the bath water
we are alive
and our heads rotate
three hundred sixty degrees:
here is what we see
with the eyes beneath our skins:
what you ran from back there
you are running into
head on.

A two-part poetic answer to my version of the great 'what's life *really about?' question. Part one speaks in generalization, says, "I’ve a few things to say before I die." Part two gets as specific as what I currently swallow and spit.

Digestion Rooms
If this were my last hour I'd not write this note
as apology for past silence.
What happens to me in my world happens fast.
Some need expansive rooms for minuscule events.
I've written this note to say I suspect-
near this end, this life has been about digestion
of events I simply won't swallow.
I doubt you'd speak with your mouth so full.
Near one end
I use each moment for digestion; chew
past participles
salivate sorrow.
Who knows how much Time I'll need to swallow?
I know what happened to me needs a bath
more acidic than spit and
colder than this chilled finale: phew!
I am wide-mouthed-mother, ajar:
battered flask
fat jug
bitter decanter

thirsty canteen

shattered glass

carved carafe
empty cruet.

Akeewa, my native name, loosely translated, says "remember: we are all star stuff' Re: Calaya: my birth mother borrowed a word from Alaskan Native cousins meaning 'sweet little girl' and altered the spelling and sounds out of generations of indoctrinated shame of our Cherokee heritage. This work explores my relationships with my names.

Seed Stars
Some times we sing unfettered as flesh cello.
Some times we sound
like broken notes inhaling audiences
drinking sparks filtered through us
while Earth gives birth to us:
speed of Light seed stars sowed,
surfing imigiNation, growing visions
while our ancestors stand
DNA ready
breath and blood up, and sounds down
our spines, steady, soft-scratching breaths
across lung drums.
Some times we inhale applause, Ghost Dancers
raving; whatever it takes to spark.

A moving-on song, written for Kathleen O'Hara, a.k.a. "Crazy Grady, The Magic Lady." I trusted her while I learned to trust myself. We met in 1973 and are still best friends. Grady died Oct. 2000. [See ya, cousin]

Like Water
Once I was an iceberg.
Every time I fell
I fell from within,
fell into my own fires.
I wondered why I didn't vaporize
when I shed torrents
formed when I froze
after I'd dived into primal seas.
Why didn't Mother shake harder
while I fluctuated,
wild organic synthesis of origins
rising and falling
like water.
I wondered how my first friend
knew I wouldn't kill her
the first time she touched me.
I'd been certain that I would.
I remember standing
back against a wall
of a San Jose skid row
I didn't think I cared
who was there
as long as it wasn't me
watching her walk my way,
her hands! for Christ’s sake!
My hands deep in dark pockets.
I'd been certain no one would
touch me, here;
I didn't think I much cared
for being touched
with my back against a wall
in a San Jose skid row
nightmare, rising and falling
like water,
like the Pacific I remember
before I became an iceberg
before I started falling
within, and fell in my own fires.
Before I wondered why
I hadn't vaporized
when I shed torrents
formed when I froze
after I'd dived into primal seas.
I asked Mother why
she hadn't shaken harder
while I fluctuated
wild, organic synthesis of origins
rising and falling like all water.

I think I'm an especially slow learner when it comes to relationships with human beings. But I am blessed to have fantastic relationship teachers in loving friends and heart sisters and brothers. Ruth Lister is a heart sister; this one's a bit about how she's helping me learn to listen.

Learning to Listen
One day I thought, "Maybe I have
found my voice!"
I wanted to sing.
But not, "Oh, please
I can't take this again!"
or "I'm in Hell
getting ready to see you."
I sang, "These eggs are
the devil."
For the first time in years
I wanted to answer
the phone.
That day I said, "It *is getting easier
to sound it all out.
I wanted to shout!
But not to any gods "Please,
help us-
we're all bleeding."
I leaned into the kitchen counter.
I listened to my old cat
I listened until we purred,
until my breath caught
my spine,
until my ears thawed
piano scales on my skeleton.
Then I drank a few facts:
You'd called, said, "Come,
see me,
I'm startin' to *look like cancer.
Chemo; too
tired to drive.
Hair's falling out."
I said, "You bet, cousin.
Hey! Let's
shave our heads and paste on
fake tattoos.
Bet your grandkids
left a few?"
That was the day after
the day
I wanted to sing and shout.
Not the first day I knew
some Times
are for listening.