Juneau-based poet Emily Wall has been working on a book of birth poems for six years. She collected birth stories from as many different people as she could, asking participants to recall specific details, and then she shaped the intimate moments into a poem. The stories were diverse, from a woman whose child died during birth, to a lesbian couple, to a doula who had many babies herself, and even the “birth” of a foster child into a family.
“Each of these stories is actually so different, and that’s one thing I love. Birth is one of the universal human experiences and one of our most intense moments, and each story tells so much about the way we create new life, and who we are,” Wall said.
There was a perspective missing: that of a father’s.
Wall, who is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Alaska Southeast where she teaches creative writing, reached out to faculty member, poet, and friend X‘unei Lance Twitchell, who is the Assistant Professor of Alaska Native Languages. He agreed to participate, and a few weeks later he emailed Wall not a birth story but a birth speech in Tlingit and English about the arrival of his and his wife Káalaa Miriah Twitchell’s second child Shaawatk’é (Shaawatk’é is a Tlingit and Dakl’aweidí name given to her by Chookansháa elder Jessie Johnnie, which translates to “good woman”).
Twitchell said he and Miriah had committed to having a “one parent, one language” household, meaning one parent would speak to the children only in Tlingit while the other speaks in English. He recalled speaking with Gwich’in elder Randall Tetlichi about the birth of his children and how he had asked everyone present to be silent so the first language they would hear after being born would be their indigenous language. Twitchell said while he had always spoken to his oldest in Tlingit, for the birth of Shaawatk’é, it “was a more deliberate ceremonial process at birth.”
“I thought a lot about what I might say to her, but once I caught her and pulled her out of the water and towards my mouth the words came from a different place. It was emotional. It was connection. I thought about it for days and days after, and then decided to write them down before I forgot exactly what I had said to her. It was less premeditated and more about an instant connection with our child and our growing family,” he said.
“I have to confess I cried when I read it — it was so powerful and beautiful and complex. … I didn’t want to change or adapt it at all,” Wall said. As someone who loves braided narratives, poems that weave multiple voices into them, she thought this would be a good piece to co-write with Twitchell. He agreed and gave her more of the story so she could weave lines around his narrative, which would be the core of the poem. The two of them went through multiple revisions so that the images would accurately capture X‘unei and Miriah’s experience, with a focus on where English and Tlingit intersected, Twitchell said.
“It was really important to both of us to weave Tlingit into the poem,” Wall said. “This birth poem’s metaphor is about not only the literal birth of his child, but about the rebirth of this language and how vital it is to this child’s identity to be born into this language.”
A year and a half ago, when the poets were invited to a local reading at the Juneau Arts & Culture Center, Twitchell’s mentor and Wall’s literary hero (and one of the reasons she moved to Juneau 22 years ago) was in the audience: the former Alaska State Writer Laureate and late Tlingit culture bearer Nora Marks Dauenhauer.
“When our turn came, X‘unei and I stood on stage and we read the poem … all the while keeping our eyes on Nora and her reaction,” Wall said. “I felt like it was a huge moment in my literary career — hoping Nora would approve. When she clapped it was one of the best moments of my life.”
Wall and Twitchell submitted the poem to the Alaska Quarterly Review, where it was accepted for publication. The editor, Ron Spatz, was enthusiastic about the inclusion of Tlingit in the poem, and worked with the poets on how to include a translation.
To celebrate the literary journal’s 35th anniversary, Spatz commissioned a film for “Shaawatk’é’s Birth,” and went through local Juneau filmmaker Ryan Cortes who has made spoken word artist Christy NaMee Eriksen’s poetry videos, like “How to say Goodbye,” featured in the Capital City Weekly’s Jan. 10 issue.
“It was fun to read the poetry to an empty theatre, and to keep reading it over and over,” Twitchell said. “Ryan did a great job experimenting with poetry captured on film, where sometimes we read only our sections, and other times we went back and forth in the same way the poem is structured. Creating the film was a great experience, and it is wonderful to relive that day and the emotions that came with it.”
“I’d never done anything like this before, and I was pretty nervous! X‘unei of course was totally relaxed and you can see the power of his presence in the film. I learned a lot while filming with both of them,” Wall said. “It gave me a huge appreciation for slam poets and performance poets and those who act…trying to hold the words, and think about the larger emotional core behind them at the same time, all with a very bright light in in our faces! But as an intellectual exercise it was interesting; it made me realize that when I read, I react so much to the audience in front of me, and this time that wasn’t possible.”
Wall said she is excited to see the poem video reach people who might not be exposed to the poem through Alaska Quarterly Review’s journal. The video will be included in the Anchorage School District’s training for teachers. Wall hopes that she and Twitchell will be able to bring it to Juneau schools in some form as well, and work with Juneau students on their poetry within the classroom. The poem can be seen at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wHVrEBcEXFg.
Wall’s book of birth poetry is expected to be released in the spring of 2022 through Boreal Books, an imprint of Red Hen Press.
“Many of the poems have very intimate and even very painful moments and images in them, and yet everyone I talked with was so generous in sharing,” Wall said. “Working with X‘unei was such a gift to me. His story reaches so far beyond the act of birth itself, and speaks so powerfully about identity, family, and language. One thing I tried to capture in many of the poems is that single moment of first life, and how powerful that is. It was a struggle for me to write in a way that took the reader into the intensity of that moment. Reading X‘unei’s birth speech really helped me with the entire book, as he captured that moment perfectly.”
• Clara Miller is the staff writer for the Capital City Weekly.