Ofelia Zepeda – Poet with a Purpose

As Director of the American Indian Language Development Institute (AILDI), Regents’ Professor of Tohono O’odham language and linguistics and former Head of American Indian Studies at the University of Arizona, Ofelia Zepeda is a language- arts professional of stature. She has worked as consultant in behalf of several Native American languages and is known for her work in helping to preserve the language of her ancestry. This acclaimed poet was responsible for creating the first textbook in her native tongue in order to teach her students essentials of the O’odham language.

Though small is the number that speak O’odham as their first language, estimates are that some 12,000 people are keeping the language alive through some degree of use. Ofelia Zepeda is out in front in accomplishing this important task.

Let’s learn more from Professor Zepeda herself.

Please tell us about your history in the language arts.

My early poetry was accomplished as a graduate student. The first poems were only in O’odham. This was largely due to the fact that I was writing for and with the language classes I was teaching at the time. I had writing assignments for the O’odham students to promote writing, reading and other elements of language. As they wrote things, so did I. We collected and shared our writings, many of which turned out to be what we (in the class) thought came closest to poetry.

I know too that I modeled my early writing after traditional O’odham song forms. O’odham songs are short and packed with creative use of language. I also gravitated to many of the themes that O’odham songs tend to emphasize. So, initially my writing was for a small audience, my students, and their friends.

Is there a distinct flavor to your writings in the style or content?

I mentioned that an early influence was traditional O’odham songs. These songs often revolve around themes of the natural elements including rain, wind, clouds, oceans, mountains, light, or air to mention a few. It is common

for the songs to involve a spiritual world and spiritual beings and their experience with these elements. I tend not to extend into the spiritual realm with my words. I stay with the human experience, therefore, my focus on other elements is more basic and not other-worldly. At times it is difficult not to extend to that other world and other beings.

In my first collections, Ocean Power: Poems from the Desert, I had a number of pieces based on topics of rain; rain in the desert, and all the things that come with that, including the formation of clouds, the smell of rain before and after, the feeling of wind before and after. From these pieces I came to the realization that this stemmed from my rural lifestyle growing up. My family was like this as well working outdoors in all the changing environments. And like my family I learned to appreciate the natural environment. I learned how to read it, how to appreciate it, how to fear it. These influences come into my work.

I write about the natural elements, about people, about my experiences in a range of subjects, experiences where the foundation is based on being O’odham. For instance, I think of a poem I wrote about dirt, a common element, but part of my personal experience from childhood. Also
how O’odham view and understand the nuances of dirt make their way into the poem. Some non-O’odham readers will identify with some of these elements too.

Some of my writing has also been viewed as “teaching poems” – poems that contain a lesson for the reader. And still some pieces are subliminally political. The political opinion is often imbedded in a story and can be missed.

Tell us please about the venues and distribution of your creations.

I read for small and large venues and have done numerous readings here in the Southwest and across the country over the years.

I have three books that are published by the University of Arizona Press and another by Kore Press in Tucson. A number of my pieces appear in collections and anthologies, many of which are themed around the Southwest, the desert, or women.

Knowing that poetry does not translate easily, how do you address the challenge of conveying O’odham thought to English speakers?

When writing in O’odham, I pay attention to the usage and organization of words and phrases. I am conscious of how someone reading these in O’odham might interpret them. Though I do have readers in O’odham, there are very few in number, but they are an important audience for me. Like any writer, I suppose, I try to be careful of word choices and spend a tremendous amount of time thinking about and editing pieces just as I would in English.

Once I make the decision that a piece will be written in O’odham I start there. Some pieces will replicate O’odham song form in their sentence pattern and in the use of metaphor and certain imagery, for instance. The sentence may lack certain grammatical conventions because of the song language form and a reader of O’odham will recognize this. Though I may use certain “poetic” conventions that work for the O’odham language the form in English may be challenging to achieve. For the most part I am not interested in a direct translation but instead I will write a poem in English that will be similar in theme and essence as the O’odham form and set them side by side. I consider them to simply be versions of one another.

In your career of using language arts to foster appreciation for their historic culture, while also helping people to bridge a gap between cultures, can you share a concluding take-away?

We understand that learning to speak another person’s language is an excellent way, if not the best way, to learn about the people whose language it is. The same is true of reading other people’s stories. This is an accessible window into the people and their views, their histories, their stories, their beliefs, the knowledge they always had, the beauty of their language. Having access to another culture through poetry is an important way for understanding and appreciating the diversity that exists in this world. I believe I allow the reader to know something about being O’odham through my writing.

Thank you, Ofelia Zepeda.

Ofelia Zepeda – Poet with a Purpose | ARTSource Volume 6

To learn more about Ofelia Zepeda and read more of her poetry visit The Poetry Foundation , The University of Arizona , and The Academy of American Poets.

Author: ARTSource

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