We are where we are, much more than we are when we are. There is no when without a where. There is no we without a here.
NER staff reader Simone Kraus talks to Lucien Darjeun Meadows—author of the essay “Circling Eloh: A Meditation“—about his love of running, the meaning of the Cherokee word “eloh,” his identity as a writer-translator, and the linguistic kaleidoscope in his life. Lucien’s essay appeared in NER 41.4.
Simone Kraus: You are a long-distance trail runner. How does running inform your thinking, how does it affect your writing?
Lucien Darjeun Meadows: Strangely, it wasn’t until after running the Never Summer 100K in 2019 that I began to write—in poetry and prose—about running. That said, the rhythms of running feel essential to my thinking and writing, with different sequences mirroring the sprint up a hill, or a long rolling stretch, the pause between breaths or strides that feels like an endless suspension, or the breathless careening toward the finish. I spend a lot of time on my feet as a long-distance runner, and with the reservoir and associated trails minutes from home, I often run the same segments numerous times per week. Sounds like a metaphor for thinking! I appreciate runners like Haruki Murakami who describe how they “don’t think” during running—and I’d agree. Rarely do I follow a languagable train of thought on the trail or road. But it is while running that many of my insights happen—sudden “aha!” moments while picking a line through rocks, or while watching a cloud system slowly changing—and it was on a run that I came to the concept of my essay, with other runs showing me how to move through a number of the essay’s moments.
SK: When or why did you decide to write about the Colorado-Big Thompson Project (C‑BT)—one of the largest water diversion projects initiated in the 1930s and supervised by the US Bureau of Reclamation?
LDM: Curiosity! I am a relative newcomer to Northern Colorado (moved here in 2015), still learning how to be with this land, these ecological inhabitants, and these historical legacies. From my first days here, my eyes kept being pulled to the Dixon Canyon Dam outside my window. To the skeleton at the museum. To a sign at the reservoir’s south end—Stout, pop. 47 1/2—as well as, perhaps one mile later, the overlook sign I mention in the essay—Horsetooth Reservoir constructed in 1949 by the Bureau of Reclamation. As an Indigenous person, I found the concept of a “Bureau of Reclamation” intriguing, to say the least. As a Cherokee person, I was curious about this spectral history of exile, trauma, and “reclamation.” This essay was an opportunity to learn more—and the reverberations into my personal and ancestral history, into Appalachia, were surprising and also evidence of this eloh, this interconnectedness.
SK: In your essay, you combine your love of running and your family history with painful chapters linked to the C‑BT Project. Your piece is framed by images of you running; at the same time, I think, running is a synonym for writing. With every step you take, with every mile you run, you tell a story. There is one passage that I find particularly powerful and personal. You write “Running toward Dixon Canyon Dam and the trails into the foothills on either side of the dam, I sometimes have to stop and look at the grasses, the bark of a tree, and breathe. I cannot stop seeing the breaking. The flood’s coming now what do you do? my family game. The flood’s coming now what do you do? my dreaming now. I need a name for this. I need beyond name.”
LDM: Thank you, Simone! That passage is meaningful to me, too. Working on this essay, surfacing these legacies of environmental trauma and survival, was challenging. Going to Monster Mountain, again and again, for hill repeats or longer-run segments, knowing this road and the Dixon Dam that the hill rises from were created to flood a town—to bring water—to submerge ancestral land—to benefit Fort Collins—and more, generated a sense of complicity that, even as I was writing to make visible, to invoke lost ecological and human voices, left me breathless. What is our responsibility to our subject? What if the subject does not “speak back” in ways the majority might recognize? How can we honor and center when the literal center is a drowning? And how is this complicated by being raised, as I was, with the constant awareness of the potential for sudden flood? Toward the end of the writing process, looking for a way to turn toward closure, I went running and this moment happened, just as described in the passage you quoted. And I realized, This is it. This is how we end without ending.
SK: You are of English, German, and Cherokee descent—another aspect that you address in your essay. You explore it against the background of the C‑BT Project. At one point, you mention the year 1893, and you describe it as the year “two of my great-great-great-grandparents forget their first names, become Margaret Victoria and Granville Taylor, and marry in what has become Virginia, like good Baptists.” And later, you explain how your family is “emerging, choosing names.”
LDM: Naming, and re-naming, fascinates me. Both in my own history—as with these two ancestors—and also in shared community history. How I now live in what is now called Colorado, in what is now called the United States, adjacent to the Horsetooth Reservoir who was once a town called Stout who was once a town called Petra who was once ancestral land known by names more resonant than any of these. (And these towns are more “who” to me, entities with autonomy and identity and existence, instead of “which,” entities existing as non-sentient beings or objects.) How my Cherokee ancestors were taken from homelands that were themselves taken and re-named as part of that quite literal taking. And we can often use assigned names without thinking, even as many of those assigned names carry legacies of erasure, particularly the erasure of BIPOC communities and histories.
SK: The title of your essay automatically leads to the question “What is eloh?” The reader learns that “eloh” is the Cherokee word for land, religion, law, history, and culture. At the same time, the word “land” is the origin, the starting point. You rephrase it beautifully by saying “We are where we are, much more than we are when we are. There is no when without a where. There is no we without a here.” When your essay begins, you ask “How can we reclaim when name and place are lost?”
LDM: Eloh (pronounced “e-lo” with “e” like “echo,” “lo” like “hello“) is a central, vital concept and means of being with the world. Cherokee scholar Rose Gubele has written that “eloh is arguably the most important word in the Cherokee lexicon.” I agree. Eloh is just one syllable away from elohi, the Cherokee word for earth; yet, eloh is the land, the histories, and the sacred through and with which earth emerges. There is no we without a here, just as there is no here without a we. I don’t see the separation—so apparent in the English language—between “land” and “history,” or “land” and “religion,” for example. I appreciate efforts to re-integrate these cleft disciplines, particularly by Indigenous scholars like Robin Wall Kimmerer. To reclaim would be to return to eloh, to a more integrated existence where we see how our relationship to the land—and land as an active co-creator and co-existent—is simultaneously charged with sacred, political, historical, and cultural reverberation.
SK: The word “eloh” is about memory and identity. When I read the paragraph that begins with “Ancestral memory of flood. Generational memory,” it reminds me of another concept of memory, i.e., the Hebrew word “zakhar.” Elaine M. Kauvar, an American-Jewish scholar, once wrote: “The enduring importance of memory originates in the Hebrew Bible, where remembrance is pivotal, where the command to remember is absolute, and where various declensions of the verb zakhar (“to remember”) appear at least one hundred and sixty-nine times.” Do you see parallels between this approach and the concept of memory in “eloh”?
LDM: Absolutely. To observe eloh is to remember, to sidestep the Euro-western hegemony of linear time, and to be in a place that is a sacred, ceremonial, regenerative space. How do we remember? We remember in place. There is no when without a where. How do we remember? We remember through story. And stories rekindle, and also make, shared memories of both when and where. I can’t often tell you when I learned something, but I almost always can say where I was. To quote Rose Gubele again, she writes, “The connection to land is linked to memory,” and, “The land may not be referred to directly, but it is always present, because the memories of the Nation are connected to the land.”
SK: We have realized that we both attended the Bread Loaf Conferences in 2017. Our paths must have crossed, at some point, that week! Now, we get the chance to talk. Your first visit to the Bread Loaf campus was in 2017 for the Environmental Writers’ Conference, and you returned for the Translators’ Conference in 2019. I did it the other way round. I attended the Translators’ Conference twice before I returned to the Writers’ Conference in 2017. Having participated in both conferences, I realize how intriguing the overlapping of the two identities is: translator-writer/writer-translator. How did you experience the Bread Loaf campus? What was your writing project? What did you translate? What brought you to translation?
LDM: I wonder if we shared a meal together—I often ate with the translators! I’m so glad we have this chance now to connect. Both Bread Loaf experiences were more transformative than I ever could have imagined. In 2017, at the Environmental Writers’ Conference, my workshop leader Camille Dungy inspired me to honor my environmental and emerging dual-language poetry, and to consider a PhD—which I had not imagined as an option, being a first-generation college graduate. Now, I’m three years into my PhD journey at the University of Denver! As my Cherokee-English poems, and my Dutch-English translations, moved forward, I began serving as Translations Editor for Denver Quarterly. At the 2019 Translators’ Conference, I was grateful to focus on my work on the first-known Dutch-to-English translation of a 1919 poetry collection published under a pseudonym due to its queer content, and to dialogue with BIPOC scholars about dual-language writing. Bread Loaf’s concurrent environmental and translation conferences deeply resonate with and inspire my writing. I’m currently completing a poetry manuscript engaging place, community, and identity through my running of that Never Summer 100K. I’m using the linear mile-marker-based progression of the 64-mile race to open a nonlinear exploration of being Cherokee and queer in such a white-heterosexual-male sport often focused on dominance and individual glory. These poems work across both the Cherokee and English languages, and I’m grateful for models like Eduardo C. Corral’s Slow Lightning and Joan Naviyuk Kane’s Hyperboreal, and to the Bread Loaf community of environmental writers and translators, for a supportive space for this work to begin to emerge.
SK: Another thing we share is our interest in the significance of language. I would like to specify this. Because of my family background and profession, there are different systems of communication in my life, i.e., mother tongue, native language, first foreign language, second foreign language. I live with and in German, Czech, English, and French. As for English, it is not my mother tongue, not my native language, but it is a language that gives me a sense of belonging. What about the different languages in your life and your family history? What does the term “mother tongue” mean to you?
LDM: I love all the languages we bring to this conversation, Simone! This reminds me of my workshop at the Translators’ Conference, where there were ten students representing at least seven languages at the table. Several generations back, my ancestors communicated in Cherokee, German, and English, with German openly spoken by some great grandparents, and English as the dominant language for my grandparents, parents, and siblings. I am working with elders and mentors to connect with proficiency in Cherokee, and I have been studying Dutch for some time. Cherokee differs from other (Euro-western) languages I have spent time with in many ways (e.g., there are at least six ways of expressing “we”). Even though it is my slowest learning process, it is the most rewarding and exciting. I am grateful to bring this language more fully back into my immediate family. Because of this distance between this ancestral mother tongue and my own upbringing, complicated by issues of passing, in some ways, no language feels like “mother tongue” or “native language.” Or, perhaps this tongue, this language is more to be found, for me, in ceremony, in sensory and somatic communion with the land.
SK: You say “no language feels like mother tongue or native language.” Your words feel so resonant. And it reminds me of something Jhumpa Lahiri describes in In Other Words—a book she wrote in Italian. “I’m a writer who doesn’t belong completely to any language.” I like this observation very much. I think, for Lahiri—or you or me—it feels natural and, I’d say, good to live in a kind of linguistic exile. No, “linguistic exile” is not the expression I’m looking for. Shall I say “linguistic kaleidoscope”?
LDM: I might always opt for kaleidoscope over exile! Linguistic kaleidoscope feels fitting, to me. Writing and thinking in several languages, I realize how each defamiliarizes the other. While some languages feel more resonant than others, I can gain a distance from all and see how these words, any words, are not the things, the beings. Cherokee scholar Ellen Cushman writes about the importance of “language perseverance,” rather than “preservation,” in translation, and the importance of seeing language and texts as processes that continue to emerge even when printed. Linearity is such a construct. Acknowledging the continual unfolding of language, and identity, time, and place, feels very kaleidoscopic—again, a circle and spiral.
SK: Lucien, earlier you explained that, for you, remembering and learning is linked to place or to being in a particular place. My impression is this is also linked to the image of languages as places. With each language in my life, I enter a different room with corridors leading to different people, memories, and hopes. And, to a certain extent, to a different “I.” When I participated in Idra Novey’s translation workshop at Bread Loaf in 2017, everyone in the group—representing German, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Russian, and Japanese—was asked to read the piece they had translated for the workshop in the original language first. It was an amazing experience, because every participant turned into a different person with a different voice. The body language changed. I saw the deeply human component of translation.
LDM: Absolutely. I’m grateful for the work of Indigenous translators, of queer translators, of translators working in languages beyond western Europe, of translators working with silenced or marginalized texts and authors, of translators opening doors through their methods and choices toward showing the real bodies, individual humans, behind and through the work. Vincente Rafael wrote that the “American notion of translation” is “assimilation,” and this practice is directly connected to what he calls “America’s imperial presence in the world.” While not quite translation, I think of a dear friend in graduate school, who, like me, had consciously erased her Southern accent for academia. But, unlike me, when she read her poetry, she would return to her home voice, and her entire demeanor straightened, grew, glowed. Language is physical. When I read one of my Cherokee-English poems at Bread Loaf in 2019, I felt—similar to how, when entering a new space, I like to introduce myself in Cherokee—like in this kaleidoscopic space-between, here was a way to welcome and make visible both places, both fields of rooms.
SK: With this interview, we realized that we are writing about writing. Writing is hard. Writing about writing can be harder sometimes. But it can be a liberating experience. It helps me understand what kind of writer and translator I am.
LDM: It might be the hardest part, for me, of most applications, but I always appreciate the chance (the task!) to write a personal statement, especially with a strict length limit. What do we say about our creative identities and processes when we have just two pages? How about just one page? How about just fifty words? Sometimes, I am surprised, and always, it is a learning experience. Last week, I was helping a poet find examples of ars poetica poems—and we both realized that, perhaps, almost any poem could be called an ars poetica. Almost any process of making could be. We’re making a making, a poem of sorts, together in this dialogue, Simone!
SK: We are doing this interview in a time of crisis, turmoil, and chaos. We witnessed historic events last year. With the beginning of the new year, this hasn’t changed. Lucien, I cannot let you go without addressing the coronavirus pandemic and the latest developments in the US. What has given you comfort over the last months? What has made you happy? What are your hopes for the future?
LDM: As we’re talking, Simone, more than 26 million coronavirus cases have been recorded in the United States, and over 439,000 have died. COVID-19 infection and death rates among Indigenous people in the US are disproportionately much higher, as they are for other Black and Brown peoples, exacerbated by entrenched systems of injustice and erasure. Last year was frightening. But also hopeful. I’m grateful for the large-scale support of Black Lives Matter over the summer and hope to see continued national advocacy as this important justice work continues. I’m grateful for the nomination of Rep. Deb Haaland of the Laguna Pueblo to the position of US Secretary of the Interior. I’m grateful for the journals and presses who are working to recognize and dismantle their systems of oppression, and to genuinely welcome BIPOC writers and readers. I’m grateful for the inauguration in January 2021 and look forward to national leadership that works toward greater equality and inclusion even while acknowledging there is still so, so far still to go.
SK: Thank you, Lucien.
LDM: Thank you so much, Simone!
Lucien Darjeun Meadows is a writer of English, German, and Cherokee ancestry, born and raised in the Appalachian Mountains. An AWP Intro Journals Project winner, he has received fellowships and awards from the Academy of American Poets, American Alliance of Museums, Colorado Creative Industries, National Association for Interpretation, and University of Denver, where he is working toward his PhD.
Simone Kraus, a NER nonfiction reader, is an experienced translator living in Germany and the Czech Republic. In 2016, she received a Katharine Bakeless Nason grant for emerging writers from the Bread Loaf Translators’ Conference. She holds a doctoral degree in American Studies from the Translation School of Mainz University, Germany, where she taught courses in the translation studies program for nine years. She is the author of Prag in der amerikanischen Literatur: Cynthia Ozick und Philip Roth (Peter Lang, 2016), a book focusing on the literary representation of Prague in the works of Cynthia Ozick and Philip Roth.