Summer 2016: North Country Notes

A native voice and mentor to other writers is sadly lost

Like every region, the north country has produced its share of mold-breakers. Some, like F.W. Woolworth and Melvil Dewey in retailing and library classification, respectively, achieved wide renown. Others passed their time on this Earth in relative anonymity outside of small circles of the like-minded.
One of the latter was Maurice Kenny. He did not, like Woolworth, invent a new way of selling household goods, or, like Dewey, a new way of organizing libraries. Nor, like the Dulles brothers, was he a headline-maker as a diplomat. His name does not grace storefronts or office buildings, or any landmark at all. Maurice Kenny operated in a world little-known and lightly regarded by most of us, a world in which this 5-foot-6-inch pony-tailed Mohawk was a giant.

Maurice Kenny made his name as a poet.

He was born in 1929 in Watertown, to an Irish-Mohawk father who owned a gas station, and a part-Seneca mother; he was proud to claim descent from the great Seneca chief Cornplanter, warrior but also a peacemaker between native peoples and European settlers. “I’m half Irish, half Mohawk and half Seneca,” he would say, “and that half is why I’m so feisty.” Which of those three halves he had in mind he never said, but “feisty” describes him well.

It was not easy growing up in Watertown in the Depression. Slight in stature, he was bullied as a half-breed and was unsure of his sexual orientation (it was the 1970s before he publicly acknowledged his homosexuality). He most enjoyed visiting his First Nation relatives in Canada, for among them he found acceptance. He also found refuge in the written word.

There was discord at home as well. Eventually, his parents split, and while still a teenager Maurice fled to New York City to become a famous actor, he said, until he realized there weren’t many parts for small Indians with big noses. Except for a brief return to study with the novelist Douglas Angus at St. Lawrence University’s Watertown Extension unit, he never lived in Watertown again. He pursued a nomadic life, living off and on in Mexico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Chicago (where he wrote newspaper obituaries) and Brooklyn until the late 1980s. Then, what he termed “the call of my natal waters” brought him to Saranac Lake, his base until his death last April 16, on the cusp of his favorite season. He produced more than 30 volumes of poetry, prose, fiction and drama, and had several more in various stages of production at the time of his passing.

Maurice self-identified as Mohawk, although, sadly, many Mohawks did not accept him any more than “Anglos” did, because he was not pure-blooded. Nevertheless, his mature writings reflected his deepening connection to his native roots and outrage at the treatment Native Americans were receiving. It was this impulse that inspired the works that resulted in an American Book Award and two nominations for the Pulitzer Prize. Such accolades render him arguably the most prestigious writer the North Country has ever produced.

I said he was a poet, primarily, but he was much more than that. He was endlessly generous with his time for younger writers, and not just as a teacher at colleges and universities ranging from the University of Oklahoma to SUNY Potsdam and, briefly, St. Lawrence. As a publisher and editor, he encouraged dozens, particularly Native Americans, to persevere. In ways too numerous to list, he mentored countless other writers. I was one of them. “Be imaginative!” he would exclaim. “Don’t write the first thing that comes into your head.” He disdained cliches, abhorred lack of originality.

For many years, I watched him doing what he loved at St. Lawrence’s Canaras Conference Center. I co-directed a three-day conference there for aspiring Adirondack and north country high school writers, and he was always one of our workshop leaders (we affectionately called him the dean of the faculty in recognition of his “senior” status). He was marvelous with the kids — patient, encouraging, gently critical, interested in their lives. But he was equally attentive to the English teachers who attended as chaperones, leading workshops for them and constantly engaging in spontaneous conversations that helped them become better teachers of writing. And to the other professional writers there as his fellow faculty, he was also a magnet. I would often see him in the center of a circle of them, holding forth on some arcane facet of writing that only a fellow writer would understand. They were riveted, and he was beaming.

The point is that he was comfortable in each of those worlds, with all who loved writing as he did, whether they were neophytes or masters of the craft — the outgrowth of years of learning to fit into more than one world in his personal life. And when any of those worlds involved writing, he was in his element, never happier than when he could perform his craft and share it with others.

Bears, drums and strawberries figure prominently in Maurice Kenny’s poetry: bears because his Mohawk heritage descended through the Bear clan; drums because their music is rhythmical, and rhythm was to him the most compelling literary device, whether in poetry or in prose; strawberries because, by virtue of their growing season and their heart shape, they symbolize rebirth in Mohawk mythology. These were what was most important to him.

Let us close with his voice, with words that reveal his affection for place in his native north country. In his poem “Kaherawaks’ Birthday,” composed at Akwesasne in 1983, he wrote:

“This is your birthday gift… / The old stories of the sky, waters, the earth / and winds. One day when old you, too, / will tell them on into time within the sounds / of the drum, the quiet of the mountain, / the silent flow of the river. Yes, good dreams, / good journey, many moons, / and sweet winds for your pillow.”

Yes, Maurice, good dreams, sweet winds for your pillow.

Neal Burdick lives in Canton. Retired as senior writer/editor at St. Lawrence University, he continues to teach a writing course there, and is a freelance writer, editor and anthologist with a special interest in his native north country. His column appears in every issue of NNY Living. He and Maurice Kenny were co-editors of the anthology set Adirondack Reflections/North Country Reflections (The History Press, 2013). “Kaherawaks’ Birthday” appears in Is Summer This Bear (Saranac Lake: The Chauncy Press, 1985).