In the book New Poets of Native Nations, Heid Erdrich brings together twenty-one poets of different styles and backgrounds that were published after the year 2000. One of those incredible poets is Janet McAdams, who is of Creek (Muscogee), Scottish, and Irish heritage.
The Poetry Foundation notes that "Janet McAdams is the author of The Island of Lost Luggage (University of Arizona Press, 2000), which won the Diane Decorah First Book Award from the Native Writers Circle of the Americas and an American Book Award in poetry. She is the author of a second collection, Feral (Salt Publishing, 2007), and a novel, Red Weather (University of Arizona Press, 2012)." Five of McAdams' poems are featured on this site.
McAdams earned her MFA in poetry from the University of Alabama, and her PhD in Comparative Literature from Emory University. She currently teaches at Kenyon College as the Robert P. Hubbard Professor of Poetry and is an editor-at-large for Kenyon Review. Her poems have been widely published in such magazines as Poetry, the North American Review, the Kenyon Review, the Women’s Review of Books, and TriQuarterly. In 2005, she founded the award-winning Earthworks Poetry Series for Salt Publishing in the UK. Earthworks is especially known for its publication of Native American authors who might otherwise have been overlooked by the publishing industry.
Her scholarship includes The People Who Stayed Behind: Southeastern Indian Writing After the Removal, an edited volume of literature highlighting Southeaster tribal writing.
Although McAdams seems more likely to be the interviewer rather than the interviewee, in a recent interview with Shenandoah, she spoke to Professor and poet Lesley Wheeler about her new endeavors in translation.
Here, McAdams speaks with Anishinaabe poet Kimberly Blaeser about picto-poems, watery places, and Native writing in the twenty-first century.
The poem that I will focus on here is “Tiger on the Shoulder.” The poem opens with a mother driving with a “tiger panting” in the backseat (McAdams, 264). McAdams then describes the tiger coming to life and taking over the car by being “behind the wheel.” Already at the beginning of the poem we can see an interaction between a human and the environment and more specifically a human and nonhuman (tiger). McAdams teaches at Kenyon college and her specialties include examining the relationship between humans and the environment, humans and nonhumans, and gender and nature. We can see gender and nature play out as the poem progresses because the main character, the mother, is victim to the tiger and the tiger seems to take on a more masculine role or presence. It seems as though the possible male figure dominates the unwelcome relationship. We can see all three themes present in this poem, as well as the other poems included in the collection such as “Hunters, gatherers” and “Earthling.” If you would like to learn more on the topics that McAdams is an expert on here is a link to a list of classes and topics that she teaches in more depth.
As the reader gets further into the poem, it becomes clearer that the tiger could be representative of the disease like Alzheimer’s. Alzheimer’s may be a topic that is of interest to McAdams because she has worked as an exercise instructor for people with mental disabilities, which may lend itself to some knowledge about the brain and different developmental differences or disease. It seems as though the mother has Alzheimer’s and is trying to remember her past, as when McAdams writes “my mother was driving back to her childhood.” This shows the mother is trying to remember her past childhood memories. Once the tiger takes hold of the car, the tiger -- or Alzheimer’s -- is in control and causes her memory, or the car, to spin “further and further away from us.” It is also important to note that when the mother is driving we assume she is driving a car, specifically her car. But when the tiger takes over it is described as a “yellow-striped taxi.” A taxi is a mode of transportation a person takes when they do not have a way of getting to where they need to go. Even though they can tell the driver where to go, the driver is in charge of the route and the way they drive. This also relates to the fact that the Alzheimer’s has control of a person’s mind, and even though they may try to remember a fact or can barely grasp it, the disease has more and more control.
The mother described here has “a ring of keys” and “a compass,” but has forgotten how to work the compass. The compass is representative of a tool to help guide her through space, but the woman can’t read the compass; she is lost. Alzheimer’s is usually described as a person who loses track of time and dates. The “ring for the keys,” also symbolic of the set of keys to retrieving her memory is “broken” and the keys themselves have been melted down. The word choice of “melted down” also seems to relate to Alzheimer’s because it is similar to the mind melting all of a person’s memories together, so they cannot distinguish them separately.
We further know the tiger might be Alzheimer’s because it “snacks on the summer of 1970” and “the entire works of Iris Murdoch,” which means it eats away from her memory, so that the woman can no longer remember the book she read or past summer memories. Iris Murdoch is a novelist who wrote about themes such as morality, sexual relationships, and good versus evil. She may have inspired McAdams and similarly focused on topics that were much more difficult that had multiple layers to them. The significance behind the summer of 1970 could be that it was right in the middle of the American Indian Movement (AIM), which began in the summer of 1968 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In 1970, a legal rights center was created in order to assist Native People with legal issues. This center then went on to help over 19,000 clients. McAdams may have chosen to mention this summer because she was trying to emphasize the importance of the event, even though it was very specific to the mother in the poem, and how significant it was to lose such a memory.
The tiger also has “recipes” “caught in his teeth,” which also implies that the mother cannot remember the recipe to her “chocolate mousse.” The way it is worded makes it seem as though it is merely “caught” and could be picked out easily with a toothpick, and is just barely out of reach to the mother. The problem is that they are not just any teeth, but the tiger’s teeth; therefore it is too dangerous to take those items away from. It seems as though the tiger is teasing the mother, further perpetuating the power dynamic. In an interview with McAdams, she discusses writing about middle age and how it is “space between one life and another" and that “there’s a lateness to middle age” (Wheeler).A person is also likely to develop Alzheimer’s later in life and worry about it closer to middle age.This theme connects to the poem because in “Tiger on the Shoulder” it feels as though it may seem “too late” for the woman; even though “she has money” and “she can pay someone to drive her home,” there is no one around to do it.
Towards the end of the poem, the tiger’s acting again resembles Alzheimer’s when he “started snoring.” Alzheimer’s patients have times of clarity mixed with times of confusion and loss. When the tiger goes to sleep, the mother might be able to recall some of her memories.
The entire poem has a dreamlike feel to it, which may be related to the tiger as a symbol for Alzheimer’s. The main character of the poem asks for the “dream to be over” and says she wants to “sleep in her own bed” which also implies she may have been sleeping somewhere else such as a hospital. Because the poem seems to bring up random topics, it could be that the mother is in a delusional dream, or even nightmare. Another possible reason it could be a dream is that it seems as though the mother has no control, which is similar in that most people don’t have control over what they dream about.
Another wildly different interpretation of the symbol of the tiger could be that the tiger was a representation of the Muskogee Creek Chief George Tiger. George Tiger was the chief in 2015 and was asked to resign because he signed a contract that allowed the Kialegee Tribe to build a casino in Creek territory (Maune). This would have made him part owner of the casino which would compete with the Creek nation casino and showed he did not have the Creek People’s best interests at stake. Because the Creek people had so much opposition to him, it is possible that George Tiger represents the “hungry tiger” hungry for money. The Chief, or the tiger is able to “snore away” without any consequences or cares. The unequal power dynamic between the chief and his people is represented as well, because the tiger has taken control of the taxi.
A characteristic specific to McAdam's writing is that she pays a great amount of attention to detail. It is evident by her writing that she has a high level of knowledge and experience. Not only is McAdams an accomplished writer with an MFA from the University of Alabama and PhD in comparative literacy from Emory University, she was also awarded the Diane Decorah First Book Award from the Native Writers Circle of the Americas and the American Book Award in poetry. Besides being the founder of the Earthworks Poetry Series for Salt Publishing in the United Kingdom, she could also be considered a “renaissance woman” because she has had an array of jobs including being a cartographer, camp counselor, maid, cook, and telephone operator.
The detail can be seen in the meticulous word choices that she makes. For example, she uses a double meaning with the word “shoulder.” The title of the poem “Tiger on the Shoulder” first makes the reader believe that the tiger is on a person’s physical shoulder making them think that it is chasing the character in the poem, which is partially true. But it is also true that the tiger parks the “yellow-striped taxi on the highway’s rough shoulder.” Her double use of the meaning of shoulder, is a skill of an advanced writer, that is not only present in this poem but in her poem “Ghazal of Body” which is another poem in the series included in New Poets of Native Nations. In this poem she writes “Only memory, running like a current of blood, through the creek of my body.” McAdams uses a double meaning of the word creek in this instance. She uses the word creek to refer to the flow of her blood resembling a creek running with water. She uses words such as “current” and “running” to create these images in the reader's head. The second meaning is that McAdams is of Muskogee Creek descent and this ancestry runs through her “blood.” These small nuances portray the level of expertise that McAdams writing style captures and her established presence as a poet.
In the “Tiger on the Shoulder” poem she chooses to use a more classic and traditional format of three lines of poem grouped into stanzas. Almost all the other poems in the series also follow a similar pattern of having the stanzas similar in size within a poem.
There is also presence of repetition of certain words, only twice, to emphasize the point that McAdams is trying to make. The words the author repeats, besides “tiger,” are “circle,” “further,” “time,” keys,” “someone,” and “wheel.” By also italicizing “call someone,” it seems as though McAdams is trying to give the reader advice and point out that it is both okay to reach out for help and time to do it. In many cases people with Alzheimer’s wait to receive treatment both because they deny it, and because there are little treatment options.
McAdams also proves to be a more refined poet through her choice in topics. In her novel Red Weather, McAdams writes about a woman’s journey to find herself while also looking for her missing parents, who had fled a 1970s nonviolent protest in order to escape arrest (Rodriguez). As Linda Rodriguez, a book reviewer, writes “McAdams weaves a spell of loss, forgiveness, and redemption.” This relates to “Tiger on the Shoulder” because the author chooses to write about difficult topics that include loss of loved ones, both physically and mentally.
One of the best parts of the entire book New Poets of Native Nations is that the book gives space for the poems to “create a place, somewhere” the writers could go, even though “it is made from many nations.” I think that McAdams would agree that the book helps propel progress forward by creating space for “wild and rich flourishing” poetry (Wheeler).