Word power

“I think with my heart,” says Cherokee poet, journalist and publisher MariJo Moore. But she’s not churning out romance novels; she’s conjuring medicine from the tribal voices howling in the bones of her ancestral soul.

“American Indian teenagers have the highest suicide rate of all,” she says, “because of what they must endure because of who they are. It’s not easy being Indian. But there is a healing power of words.” Words help Moore to explain, express and process the pain, pride, beauty and fulfillment of being an American Indian woman who speaks out.

“I don’t think I’ve ever done a reading when someone in the audience did not shed tears,” she reveals. “But laughter is a must! I like to take the audience through the range of emotions; I learned that from Shakespeare.”

At the upcoming Asheville Poetry Show, the author will read from several of her books — including poems from her newest work, Confessions of a Madwoman. But it’s unlikely that she’ll suffer from stage fright or complain about chatty people in the back rows. Thanks to a lesson she received from her friend, the late Sam Ragan — a poet laureate of North Carolina — she’s beyond all that.

“I used to complain when I did outdoor readings and a plane would fly over and drown out my words,” she remembers. “Then [Sam] told me about a reading he did outside in Chapel Hill. A dog came up front. A dog in need, I might add. Soon there were two dogs in front of the podium, doing what dogs do naturally. Pretty soon, the audience was more enthralled with the dogs than with the poetry. After he shared that story, I stopped complaining about what happens at readings.”

Moore’s audiences aren’t griping, either. MariJo is one those rare, comfortably elegant poets who can combine wicked humor with intuitive phrasing, leaving listeners trapped in the sweet throes of their own internal irony. She has a knack for engaging audiences by providing an emotional context of safe and humorous vulnerability. Within that tender space, she provokes poetic catharsis with relentless, unmeasured force.

Moore was recently named the North Carolina Distinguished Woman of the Year by the Council for Women in Raleigh. She was the first American Indian in the state to become a professional author, and her writings have appeared in such publications as National Geographic, Indian Artist and The New York Times Syndicated Press (she also writes a regular column for the Asheville Citizen-Times). In addition, Moore is the founding owner of the successful publishing company, Renegade Planets Publlshlng — a fiercely independent enterprise dedicated to giving voice to Southeastern American Indians.

Joking that her Indian name is “Buy My Books,” Moore explains that the biggest threat to independent publishers like herself is that people will simply stop buying their work. But some of her own titles have topped the bestseller lists of local bookstores month after month. “It’s a good thing some of them sell, because I have two dependents to support,” she notes. “I have two dogs who give a loving support that has never been equaled by humans. They keep me grounded.

“[Tell people to] buy my books, so that I can continue to support my dogs in the manner to which they have grown accustomed,” she continues with a laugh. (Moore is working on two new projects at the moment: a book of short stories and a book of poems.)

“For thousands of years, American Indians depended upon oral history,” she explains. “Stories were told and retold. Then white people came into power, and it became illegal to even speak the tribal language. But words function as part of the healing process, by transformation and restoration. The poetic language of chanting carries within itself a wonderful healing power. And I believe this healing power can be transferred through the written as well as the spoken word.”

But this potent and spiritually uplifting mind-and-heart medicine is threatened with extinction, she believes: “[I think] American Indian cultures are one generation away from death, and I am constantly seeking to blend the old with the present and the future, in order to maintain the history, traditions and memories of my people.” (To that end, Moore will teach two creative-writing workshops in August, which focus on the healing power of words).

For this artist, the greatest feeling in the world is knowing that she’s a vessel through which Spirit has chosen to share a poem with the world. And the Spirit muse visits her in dreams, she says. “I often dream the first line of a poem and then await the rest,” she explains, offering her “Story is a Woman” as an example:

Story is a woman.
Not long, not short.
A woman with body of carved petroglyph
tongue of red memories
eyes of dark insight
ears of drummed legends
hair of ageless ceremony
falling onto her skirt of woven history …

She’s convinced that our dreams give us clues to healing and transformation. “Intuitive words, phrases, poems and stories that come in flashes of thought proceeding from the heart — bypassing the rationalizing mode of the mind — are all instrumental medicine in healing ourselves as well as others,” she suggests.

Moore also believes that “one has to be willing to experience all of life’s teachings, and some are painful. I wrote Crow Quotes and Tree Quotes and intentionally left out numbered pages or a table of contents. These are books for one to keep near; when one feels the need for a spiritual uplifting, one can just open the little books and read what one needs.”

Moore is a controversial, charismatic personality. Her reputation as a spiritually powerful psychic precedes her. People she’s never met approach her on the street and beg to touch her hair, or have her cast spells for them. One middle-aged white man even offered to purchase a lock of her hair, after reading one of her poems. “But he could never afford it,” jokes Moore, who doesn’t take her celebrity-mystic status very seriously. “I’m just a woman who wants people to take me seriously as a writer,” she says simply. “I don’t want to be anyone’s guru.”

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