Mohawk Poet Alex Jacobs Discusses 'Got Your Back'

ICTMN Staff
2/20/12

On Got Your Back, a dazzling collection of spoken-word performances, Mohawk poets Janet Rogers and Alex Jacobs ponder the meaning of Indian life in the 21st century, reflect on the road traveled, and rejoice in the possibilities of love. It's everything you would want in a collection of contemporary poetry, a balance of the political and the personal, with most of the material sitting at the fulcrum. In these poems, as in life, just being an Indian is a political act, staying true to that identity while making one's way—simply living one's life—in a hostile or dismissive culture. Yet this is no downer; Got Your Back is a celebration of strength, with touches of humor, delivered with the help of some seriously cool beats and soundscapes.

Got Your Back (available for purchase at Core Learning Resources) is divvied up equally between Santa Fe-based Jacobs, who is also a visual artist (the album cover is an Alex Jacobs painting), and Rogers, current Poet Laureate of Victoria, British Columbia. Jacobs discussed their history as a creative team and the process of making this album with Indian Country Today Media Network.

This isn't your first poetry CD—what's different this time around?

It's a collaboration, Janet Rogers and I are tag-teaming, taking turns, building intensity and connecting themes, like telling different parts of the same story. My son Duran Flint gave us three great tracks for "Discoveries," "Same Kind" and "Trudell." I chose some good oral/aural poems, no music, narrative NDN stories. Janet had new poems and new DJ tracks, it's her third CD. It's all current political work from both of us. Then there's a live set, pre-recorded music from our DJs as we do our closing set, as we say—leave 'em with love, love poems, more sweet than profane erotic poems. We recorded this live event at MoCNA museum of contemporary native arts Santa Fe in May 2011. Janet came back for Indian Market and performed again in August. Proud to say: Recorded and Produced in Santa Fe at end of a two-week poetry crime spree, very NDN, very Mohawk.

Can you give us some background on your previous releases?

2005 Dr. X—The Mohawk Poet of Tribal Dada was 22 tracks, half with music by John Williams of Native Roots and my Santa Fe band Tribal Dada, and half my best performance poems from the late '90s. Duran offered to produce my next CD, so he updated the Tribal Dada words with samples & beats, I added some slam and skin and narrative poems, it became the 2006 release Power To The Peephole. These political pieces work together even though they come from different eras, again it's the same old story, resource war to oil war to big brother war. On Wolves & Lambs from 2007, we decided to go another way, that's where the love and erotic poems come from. I asked Duran for esoteric, atmospheric beats and we matched them to the love poems. It was fun. In 2011 we re-mixed our current CD as a "Best of"—the best in political, love, radio and narrative sets, also called Power To The Peephole. "The NDN List" from that CD was selected for the Indian Rezervation Blues anthology by Dixie Frog Music.

How did your collaboration with Janet Rogers come about?

We met on the radio, "Native America Calling," KUNM Albuquerque in April 2010, National Poetry Month. She was promoting her Firewater CD. In one year, she got a Canada Council For the Arts grant and in May 2011 we did the 2 week poetry crime spree in Santa Fe and 'Burque, set up my friends studios, mixed a master in a few days, Janet went to Vancouver and pressed it and by August, we launched and she was back and we read again in Santa Fe at Market.

Do you feel a connection to Indian or Mohawk storytelling traditions when creating a work like this?

It's the tradition of oral history, oratory, oral/aural poems meant to be read aloud with power, felt, absorbed, and later people can recall the words, the story, the energy of the pieces—like pulling a stone or a seed or a feather from a pouch. We should all carry songs, poems, stories in our personal medicine bags. We will all be called upon one day to bring them out.

The album opens with "Johnny Dollar," a portrait of an Indian who's seen a thing or two—where did this character come from?

Johnny Dollar was a conceptual piece, characters built on ourselves and our actions in the '70-'80-'90s across Indian Country, just as we all did, on the Pow Wow Highway, riding our war ponies, gathering stories for Akwesasne Notes, selling the Notes across the country, pow wows, socials, ceremonies, conferences, protesting, blockading, visiting shrines, battlefields, graveyards.

"Indian With a Watch" is an interesting riff on a particular character—where does the Indian with a watch come from?

Life as an NDN artist, survival mode, recycling, re(d)cycle—as Janet says, urban harvesting, modern hunting and gathering, black bagging poems to readings, slams, concerts, events, art openings, gatherings, happenings, and actually seeing people say crazy things and do crazy things, being ignorant on that American way. It was wonderful to watch, you had to react or write it down. As for me, it's like being a Native MC hosting, toasting, roasting, crashing benefits and clubs and stages, getting five minutes and doing ten, being on the road, reading poems for Deutsche Marks in bars, read to a handful or to hundreds, and I was in Germany forcing my friends to translate my poems, so many open mics. Institutions and authorities are afraid of open live microphones. There's a tradition of American poets riding buses and trains across the country, city to city, reading to reading, slam to slam, NDN radio to NDN radio—like my friends Peter Blue Cloud, Barney Bush, Lance Henson.

This album is a team effort, alternating poets—what can you tell us about Janet, your dance partner of sorts?

She's a force of nature. She took this old dog by the scruff and shook the dust from me, now I'm performing my old tricks at the top of my voice as she's surfing the waves fast. She brings this tag-team intensity and energy, as we build and create and burn this thing up, slow it down, do just about anything. Somehow our words match and energy flows from poem to poem, as we tag-team on the listener and audience.

Do you have a favorite among her tracks, and what do you like about it?

"When We Were Stars" is very Iroquoian, cosmological and contemporary, as we Iroquois are in this diaspora from east to west, she in the northwest and me in the southwest. All the Iroquois walked across the continent. We have peoples dispersed all over the place. Now we are this mixed up energy, ancient narratives, cultural imperatives. She channels it all. Shes a strong Native woman and it shows in her politics, her choices, her voice. I love the immediacy and historic nature of "Razor Wire 1990". Not many have captured that. There's too much ego and neuroses in modern poetry, I don't think she does any of that. She's done several video poems and radio documentaries. She understands her voice and how to listen.
She says she doesn't like to do love poems, but she does a good job on "Touch", "Grizzly Bear Man" and "Chocolate" (not on this CD).

You collaborated with several musicians on this disc—often with your son, DJ Duran Flint, but also with others. When matching spoken word with music, what's your creative process?

Janet says I'm lucky to have Duran do my music. She works with native DJs from Vancouver, the Northwest, Ottawa, Toronto and Six Nations. My political work existed in the Tribal Dada skin-punk-funk songs, so Duran sampled and created beats to that hard energy, mixing my old words into brand new songs. To NDNs the story remains the same, 20 years later, it's generational. Names of tribes change, but the sad story's the same. For the love poems, I asked Duran for mood, space, breath, mystical, ethereal, he gave several tracks and we made the best matches. Some poems can best be performed alone, oral/aural poems. I've been accompanied by house bands, random musicans, live DJs; with Janet we have her DJ tracks on disc, and Duran provides me whole instrumental sets. Janet and I also do just voice alone, bookstore mode. We tag team poem to poem or set to set.

Do you see any common stylistic thread in your visual art and your spoken word pieces? Or perhaps to put it a simpler way, how is what you paint like what you write?

The collage concept, bits and pieces of narrative, history, media, glued together with voice and energy, love and passion. Humor and compassion are hard to teach but you can perform to it, carry it forward. We've seen it all over these years, travels, venues, but we're different as male/female, rez/urban, story teller/wampum carrier, runner/messenger. In collage, you use found objects, repurposed, re-utilized, reappropriated, retooled, recycled, re(d)cycled. Sometimes it's more important to carry other peoples, disappeared peoples, submerged peoples, voices and messages, their urgency, their deepness. These old songs and dances can still be felt in today's histories, events, media. It's quilting, honoring with quilted stories, warming and comforting, with patches from all our lives, all our relations. Just like old songs and dances, we take turns to keep it going forward and around and back to the beginning for someone else to start up and carry you.

For more on Alex Jacobs and Janet Rogers, visit myspace.com/alexmohawkpoet and janetmarierogers.com.

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