Esther Belin and Tacey M. Atsitty on Monsters

December 27, 2022

The Poetry Magazine Podcast: Esther Belin and Tacey M. Atsitty on Monsters

(If you notice a mistake in the transcript, please let us know by emailing [email protected])


Tacey M. Atsitty:

(READS EXCERPT FROM “Things to Do with a Monster”)

You have to be a monster, first of all,
or pretend.

Esther Belin: Welcome to the Poetry Magazine Podcast. I’m Esther Belin. Today I’m thrilled to speak with the Diné poet Tacey M. Atsitty, who joins us from Tallahassee, Florida. Tacey’s debut collection Rain Scald was published in 2018. Arthur Sze described a book as filled with a “poetry where rain, expected to be nourishing, is also a torrent, burning with sensation.” Today we’ll hear two new poems by Tacey from the December issue of Poetry. Tacey, welcome to the podcast.

Tacey M. Atsitty: Thank you, Esther, I’m excited to be here with you.

Esther Belin: One of the special things about this podcast is I’ve known Tacey since the late ’90s. I happen to be a poetry coach for the Navajo Prep poetry team. And the team traveled—was it a national poetry slam?

Tacey M. Atsitty: Yeah, there was a national competition.

Esther Belin: We traveled from Farmington, New Mexico, where Navajo Prep high school is located, to San Francisco.

Tacey M. Atsitty: Yes, I, I have very fond memories of our trip together to San Francisco. And Esther’s just been a really wonderful mentor ever since then.

Esther Belin: Seeing Tacey’s work develop over the years has been a really special process for me. And I’m curious, just looking back from those early years of writing, and maybe wondering if you would have seen poetry as a career, writing in your career. Tell me a little bit about that reflective process from your early years of writing.

Tacey M. Atsitty: Yeah, I was always very supported by my father to write in my journal, to keep a journal, and my mother kept a journal for us before she passed away. And she wrote about our daily happenings. And when we were old enough to hold a pen, you know, we were there scribbling on our, you know, our daily entries. My father continued that after she passed away. And in writing with me specifically, and then also my grandmother, it was really cute, she sent my little stories that I wrote out to magazines that I’d never heard of, (LAUGHS) you know, I was like, 12 years old, and my dad bought me a typewriter. So I feel like I had a lot of support writing at a young age. But I thought once I got to college, you know, that I would have to do something kind of more serious. And so I declared my major as computer science, because that was the big thing then, right? I think I, I knew within my first semester, that I was like, no, this is not quite for me. And so I just embraced English and poetry.

Esther Belin: Wow, I wonder about all those journals that your mother kept. Is that an upcoming project, or what do you have plans for those?

Tacey M. Atsitty: Yeah, I want to say those are probably some years off. Maybe when I become a mother, right? I, I kind of still have my, you know, abandonment issues and things that I need to work through and, and process, because she was so young. And then I had a lot of responsibility. And I mean, it was no fault of her own. You know, she was killed in a car accident with my sister and a cousin and my aunt, her sister. And so, I am dabbling with the idea though, of mother-child relationships in some of the new work that I’m writing. And those are with the monster poems. And so one of the poems that we have for the December issue is “Things to Do with a Monster.” And I also have some other poems that are the epistles between the Navajo mother and her child who is a monster, and the monster that she abandoned.


(READS EXCERPT FROM “Things To Do with a Monster”)

Things To Do with a Monster

After Gary Snyder’s “things to do” poems

You have to be a monster, first of all,
or pretend

Walk like them, shift your weight and grunt like them,
put on a mask

Keep your hair just the way it is, greasy,

Hunch your back only slightly, just enough,
like you’re a witch

Climb atop mesas for the view and pools,
blow on rain

Watch the white-tailed antelope spring about,
with crusty butts

Play house in arroyos, carve out a life:

Make mud pies on the road after rainfall,
tap them jiggle

Esther Belin: Wow. So it sounds like your work is really digging into a lot of Navajo poetics. So what in the study that you’re doing now really inspired that work?

Tacey M. Atsitty: Yeah, I think, so I was taking an ecocriticism class a couple of years ago and came across Henry Peacham’s Minerva Britanna. It’s a bestiary from, you know, hundreds of years ago in the Western culture. It really kind of sparked this interest for me in like, putting together a bestiary of Diné monsters. And so I think a lot about their origin. And as people as Diné, or even as people in general, and how we create monsters, how we abandon them, how we run from them, how we are killed by them, how we some were kept alive, right, in our creation stories so that we could learn from them. Like poverty and hunger and lice.

Esther Belin: Mm. (LAUGHS LIGHTLY)

Tacey M. Atsitty: (LAUGHS LIGHTLY) My favorite monster, I mean, my favorite monster that was left alive I think is funny as diarrhea.

Esther Belin: (LAUGHS)

Tacey M. Atsitty: It’s just funny because it keeps us humble, right? Like it, you know, those, those are some of the purposes that the monsters who had been being hunted by Naayééʼ Neizghání and Tóbájíshchíní monster slayer and his twin brother, Child Born of Water, they were kept alive for certain purposes. And so I think about their origin, but I also think about their lives, and I think about their loneliness, and I meditate on, you know, their abandonment issues, because those are real, you know. And I also think about the new monsters, you know, in this past couple years, we’ve had the COVID-19. And we’ve had our Navajo Nation President talk about how, you know, COVID-19 is the newest monster that has come in, you know, plaguing our people.

Esther Belin: Yeah. I really love how you’re turning back to our stories to revitalize not only your process and development as a writer, but also, at the same time, it’s also strengthening our culture, right, and our memory. The Navajo creation story is very long and complex. You know, so I do appreciate you focusing on a specific, I think, if somebody was to write on it, I mean, you could write at least a few 100 books, just on the different elements in this story. So, with your new project that focuses on monsters, what are you really learning about yourself as a writer? How are those, bringing those monsters to life, if you will, challenging you?

Tacey M. Atsitty: Yeah, it’s definitely showing me more how I am a monster, when I become a monster. But it’s also, for me, it instills a sense of responsibility. I think sometimes, you know, we wake up and we say, “Hey, there’s these monsters knocking at our door,” and, you know, but really, we’ve created them, right? We’re the ones who created them, by our choices, by the choices of Altsé hastiin and Altsé asdzáá, First Man and First Woman. And the people who followed them. And so I think that there’s like a great sense of responsibility that I think that as, as a society, as a nation, that we need to take that accountability, in terms of the monsters that we create and the monsters that we live with.


(READS EXCERPT FROM “Things To Do with a Monster”)

Play house in arroyos, carve out a life:

Make mud pies on the road after rainfall,
tap them jiggle

Dig wild onions in the north hills of Daghaałgaii
for bone broth

Shoot the breeze on the back of Monster Bird,
extra legroom

Tie sage bundles and hang them out to dry
like jerky

Follow slow moving stinkbugs and smear them
for the smell

Go to a sleepover at “Kicks’s” place, sleep
one eye open

Run alongside them as they hunt their prey,
pray for them

Peel off the skin of wild potatoes,
mash with flesh

Cup your hands at the side of Cove Mountains,
push into her

Chase whirlwinds until they carry us up,
death ascending

Use dried corn husk as tinder for a fire,
monster breaths

Strike the crevice of a rock with a stick,
watch water rise

See your reflection in the stream, his face
rippling into yours

Esther Belin: You know, this is the season right now for storytelling for the Navajo people. And for our listeners, when I was the guest editor for the Poetry magazine, Tacey had submitted these poems, and we had delayed the publication because they are storytelling poems. And we wanted seasonally for them to be published during the storytelling season in the winter. And Tacey, would you talk a little bit about that, and our practice of storytelling within the Navajo?

Tacey M. Atsitty: Yes, of course. So, our storytelling, certain stories, specifically, our creation stories are held for wintertime. And that begins with the first killing frost. So when the first frost comes and kills the plants, then that’s when we can start telling our creation stories. And it lasts for the duration of the months until we have our first thunderstorm. And so that begins springtime. And that’s the end of our storytelling of the creation stories. And it’s during this time that, you know, our, our history is told and retold. And you know, certain games and certain songs also are played during this time. It’s a time to, you know, remember who we are and where we’ve come from, and our origin stories and things like that. And so, one of the things that as I’ve been working on this bestiary is I’ve been thinking about those, those Diné limitations, the limitations of the seasons. And so whenever I write or read or, you know, I, when I reach out to the editors, and I say, “Can this be published during winter,” you know, when I revise, everything that I do with this project is between the time of the winter. And so that’s kind of, you know, lights a fire under me to like, hurry and get going on the project, (LAUGHS) because I only have one season to work on it every year, so.

Esther Belin: Yeah, I really like that process, because I feel like it, it helps us as writers get into a natural rhythm for writing. I know at times we can be stuck in certain projects. But I love how the Navajo season and philosophy, right, really instills sort of a natural change or a natural progression. How has that, I guess, philosophy really been incorporated into your writing?

Tacey M. Atsitty: Yeah, I feel like, you know, this, this one I’ve been very strict with. And I haven’t rewritten many creation stories before. I am a storyteller, though, I have been telling stories for 20, almost 25 years. You know, those are the same things that I go by with, when I, you know, share my oral storytelling. And when I teach, you know, if I’m talking about any of the creation stories, or alluding to them outside of, you know, the correct season, then I’ll say, you know, “Out of respect for my ancestors and out of respect for the way that we’ve been living our lives for all these generations, you know, there are creation stories that talk about certain things, but I won’t talk about them now.” And I always tell people, you know, when they hear these monster stories, when I get to read them in public, or, you know, like, “You’re lucky,” (LAUGHS) “You’re lucky it’s winter right now.” And, and so I also try to take advantage of the wintertime and I often read the monster poems that I have written in the past and during this time.

Esther Belin: So let’s move on to Gary Snyder’s poem, “things to do” poem. Can you give a little background on Snyder?

Tacey M. Atsitty: Yeah, so the genesis of this poem and the other poem, “Lady Birds’ Evening Meetings,” after Sylvia Plath’s bee poems, came from a class that I took this past spring. It was a letters class. And so we read like 20 poets, I think, and all of their letters and journals that they had. Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsberg have, you know, these letters that they had written to each other throughout their lives. And what’s in his poems, the “to do” poems are very, I think, different than what we find in the letters, which are really interesting. And I loved just kind of seeing that interchange between the two poets. But yeah, Gary Snyder was a beat poet, you know, him and Allen Ginsberg and many others, you know, wrote some wonderful poems that were very present and, you know, in a way, you know, sort of simple and kind of taking tabs of like, the daily life, right. So, let’s see, let me pull up a poem. So, for example, Gary Snyder’s “Things to Do Around a Lookout,” he says, “Wrap up in a blanket in cold weather and just read./Practice writing Chinese characters with a brush/Paint pictures of the mountains/Put out salt for deer.” And then a couple of last lines, “The Rock book, strata dip and strike/Get ready for the snow, get ready/To go down.” So I feel like, you know, with a lot of his “to do” poems, you know, it’s, it’s seemingly the simple things that he’s observing, right, or that he’s saying, these are things to do. But then at the same time, he’s also making this statement, right, this is in preparation for and, and I’m sort of mimicking this and saying, you know, well, you could go and, you know, look at the little pools on the mesa that the rain has brought, and go chase after rabbits or, you know, cook a stew. But really, right, the final and ultimate lines are, “See your reflection in the stream, his face / rippling into yours.” Right? So there’s this moment where, when you spend time with monsters, that’s going to ripple into who you are. Right? That’s, that’s who your reflection is.


Esther Belin: I really appreciate these poems. You’ve created a really unique intimacy with, I don’t know if it’s the dark side, but it’s definitely more of a shadowed glimpse of who we are as a society and a people. Bringing it forward with this indigenous lens, there’s something very chilling about that. And it’s almost a little haunting. Right? And so, I think, when you talk about the monster poems with people, how do you distinguish? Because a lot of times, you know, winter times, people want to hear the horror and the fear rattled inside of them. But I think your poems are really balancing a fine edge and asking something different of the readers.

Tacey M. Atsitty: Yeah, I remember when I was young, hearing the monster stories, you know, from my father and, and it was almost kind of like a nonchalant, matter of fact, like, “Oh, yeah,” you know, we’re out driving in the canyons out in Cove and “Oh, yeah, this is where, you know, the monster went and rolled rocks around killing people.” “Oh, yeah, that’s the cave where, you know, if you go inside the walls will cave in.” “And over, there’s where—” (LAUGHS) and it’s just this very, and I’m like, (GASPS) Right?

Esther Belin: (LAUGHS)

Tacey M. Atsitty: You know, and I believe my father, of course, because he’s my father. But they were also very real to him. And I don’t—I think that like, my, my interest and my experience with monsters was more of like wanting to know their narrative and wanting to know their humanistic qualities, because their mothers are Diné. Their mothers are human, right, and their fathers are nonhuman. And so I, I was always so perplexed with their humaneness. And I think that with the poems that I’ve created, and I am creating, it’s not so much of like, I’m trying to scare people, right? Because that’s, that’s what most people think of monsters, but there’s also the monstrosity of them and our own monstrosity that we have, you know, and I kind of alluded to that earlier. But, you know, I, like, that’s, that’s kind of where I’m really trying to find a balance is, where and how do we become monsters? You know, one of my favorite books is Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. And in 1816, there was this huge volcano. And it had a very global effect. It happened in the West Indies, and it affected Europe, as well as a lot of other places. But the ash cloud ruined the agriculture in many areas. And so, that made it so that there was no food. Mary Shelley, of course, ran in circles where, you know, they were affluent, and so, they had enough. But she saw people sort of turn into monsters. I think that that, a lot of that went into the genesis of when, you know, her and her husband, Percy, and Polidori, and Lord Byron, were having their writing competition in Switzerland. And so for me, that story, and, you know, the story of them coming together, and the story of Frankenstein and the things that we create has always been, it has always impressed upon me, the amount of responsibility that we have as people and the things that we create.


Esther Belin: Let’s dive into a little bit of background around how the Navajo storytelling tradition uses monsters, and, you know, the creation of them. I think we as Navajo people grow up hearing these stories. And as you said earlier, they are just taken as truth. And I love your statement where you were saying, you know, as you’re driving, you know, someone points out, “Oh, yeah, that’s where this happened. Oh yeah, that’s where this is going on.” And that’s one of my favorite things about driving through the reservation, especially with a group of people, because you will hear all the rich stories in the land. And if you don’t know, you know, if you don’t have someone who’s able to open up those stories about the land, you just, you miss so much. You miss such a deep connection. So would you share a little bit about your connection with those stories for our listeners?

Tacey M. Atsitty: Yes, I, you know, I, I love that idea too, that the land holds our stories, the land holds our ancestors, the land holds these memories. And so today, for a long time we’ve had we’ve been having the oral literatures, right, we’ve had literatures that are passed down orally, and visually, and now we have the written language. And so one of the things that we do as poets and as writers is sharing those stories in this new genre, the written language. And so, as we write these stories and thinking about the oral stories that have been taught about the monsters and how their genesis came from, First Man and First Woman after having had a really heated argument that they could not get over, and they ended up separating and taking the men left, and they went to the other side of a great big river. And they lived there for years and the women lived and, and for a little while, they both thrived, and then eventually, the women were starting to die off. And, and then through self-abuse on both sides, where the men and the women were living, that’s essentially where the monsters came. So the women were impregnated after self-abuse through whatever means that they decided to enact that self-abuse, and then they were ashamed of their, the babies that they bore, and so they would abandon them. And so that’s a lot of the responsibility and accountability that I’m talking about, metaphorically, but also, realistically and literally in today’s culture.


Esther Belin: These new poems are really drawing from multiple sources and recontextualizing these stories. The other poem in the issue is after Sylvia Plath’s bee poems and Plath is really known as a confessional poet. So tell us a little bit about how that poem came about.

Tacey M. Atsitty: Yeah, this was, this was a confession. (LAUGHS) It really was. Yeah, this specific poem was after her “The Bee Meeting.” And “The Bee Meeting” really resonated with me. It reminded me of when I was young. I grew up in Kirtland, New Mexico, a town, which, you know, I’m really grateful for, a community. It is a border town to the Navajo Nation. And so, there is racism, both ways, from Navajo to non-Navajo and non-Navajo to Navajo. But I remembered, you know, being in church and having these experiences where I was the only Diné, was the only Navajo person there, and the tensions that came with, you know, race and ethnicity inside of a church where I was the only one. And so that’s kind of really where this stems from. And, you know, the first lines of “The Bee Meeting” is, you know, “Who are these people at the bridge to meet me?” And I kind of felt like, you know, she, you know, she later, you know, says, you know, “Why did nobody tell me to wear a dress,” or, maybe, that was my own line. (LAUGHS) But, so, but it was just this very same sentiment, where I felt like, “What am I doing here” Like, you know, and it was this very seemingly superficial feeling, but at the same time, like, there were moments where I didn’t feel accepted, there were moments where I didn’t feel a part of the group. And so that’s, that’s kind of really how this poem wanders. And I can read it for you now.

Esther Belin: Great, let’s hear “Lady Birds’ Evening Meetings.”

Tacey M. Atsitty:


“Lady Birds’ Evening Meetings”
After Sylvia Plath’s bee poems

Why am I here again with all of them flittering about? Just to be alone—
It’s what I tell myself, that I too bear black spots on red skin,
It’s how we scamper about before flowing off with our chiffon wings ready to take flight
At a moment’s notice, I am against the wall once again, wainscotting.
The girl on my soccer team leans over to me as I ready to take the seat next to her.

I don’t want no dirty Navajo sitting next to me, she says with her foreleg atop the cold metal chair.
So I take a seat in the row behind before leaving to find an empty room upstairs.
That day the leaders made us binders, wrapped in cotton filling, fabric, and lace.
I got the last pick; well, it wasn’t a pick at all. It was an ugly bright yellow calico print with thick white cotton lace. No one wanted it.
Why did no one tell me to wear a dress?

It’s my first time to this edifice, and I come without—
The girl down the street, the nice one, offers to buy me a white dress with pink florals from Kmart with her credit card. I accept.
This is an emergency, she declares with her card held high in the air.
I am 13 and she 17. Her parents say she can only use it in the event of—
The fabric hugs my ladybug rolls snugly as I step my way to the temple door.

It’s where we learn to really spread our wings in worship, tune our antennae like aluminum to the heavens.
Earlier I said, I could marry anywhere—that it didn’t matter none to me.
I didn’t know it yet, but I was a bug amid blossoms and their vines, winding through unnoticed and unaware
Until a knock came to my door: a plate of homemade chocolate chip cookies sits on the welcome mat,
The girls giggling behind the trees, and there in the starlit night, we became a bloom.


Esther Belin: How hard was this poem to write? It’s very vulnerable.

Tacey M. Atsitty: (LAUGHS) Extremely, right? And that’s, that is Sylvia Plath, right? (LAUGHS) I’m just laying it out there, right? And it’s just, it’s a confession, right, of the, the rejection that I felt and, you know, all that hurt and, you know, feeling like I get last pick, from feeling like—but at the end, you know, I realize at least, you know, that there are people, right? It’s not everybody who makes you feel that way. But there are people who are willing to help, there are people who, who do love you and there are people who are there to lift you up. And even all of the, you know, ladybirds come with a plate of cookies in an act of contrition, right, or, you know, apology. And yeah, I mean, it was a hard time, it was, it was a hard experience, you know, but ultimately, I think that this is where our, you know, Sylvia Plath’s “The Bee Meeting” and my poem, this is kind of where they part ways, right? Because she, she doesn’t kind of get that at the end. But, but for me, in this poem, I did.

Esther Belin: You mentioned that these poems came out of a class that you were taking. So, is the work that you’re writing now very different?

Tacey M. Atsitty: Yes! It is. I was actually talking with one of my professors, Barbara Hamby, who taught the letters class, but we had lunch the other day, and I was telling her that, you know, a lot of these poems that I’m writing now that are free verse, I feel like are, quote-unquote, “too easy.” Right? Because they’re not—they don’t have the formal restrictions, but they’ve kind of just been like flowing out of me. And I’m usually very, like, highly suspect of like, I don’t know if these are any good. (LAUGHS) I really do feel like that when they come too easy. But my professor, Barbara Hamby, she reminded me, she was like, “Well, you have to understand, you know, like, you’re in, in a season of your life where you’re reading and reading and reading,” right, and so there’s a lot, a lot of this that subconsciously, I am processing. And so, in that way, I’m able to generate or create a little bit easier or in ways that I’m not used to.

Esther Belin: Mm-hmm. Wow, I’m excited about hearing more work. I’m excited about all the work that you’re going to be generating over the next few years, because of the program and your commitment to Navajo writing and poetics. And I really want to thank you for this time to share with us about your process and be vulnerable. And really, to give us, give us these great ideas about what a monster is, and that reflective process of having that lens a little over our society. I appreciate that.


Tacey M. Atsitty: Thank you. It’s been my pleasure.

Esther Belin: Yay!

Tacey M. Atsitty: Yay!

(EXCERPT OF READING FROM “Things to Do with a Monster” REPLAYS)

You have to be a monster, first of all,
or pretend

Walk like them, shift your weight and grunt like them,
put on a mask

Keep your hair just the way it is, greasy,

Hunch your back only slightly, just enough,
like you’re a witch

Climb atop mesas for the view and pools,
blow on rain



Esther Belin: A big thanks to Tacey M. Atsitty. Atsitty is a Diné poet and a PhD student at Florida State University. Her latest book is Rain Scald, out from the University of New Mexico press in 2018. You can read two of Atsitty’s poems in the December 2022 issue of Poetry, in print and online. If you’re not a subscriber to Poetry magazine, consider it a gift that keeps on giving. For a limited time, you can buy one and gift one for free, all for just $35. That’s 11-book length issues for you and a friend, all for $35. Visit to subscribe. This show is produced by Rachel James. The music in this episode came from Resavoir, Alabaster DePlume, John McCowen, Rob Mazurek, and Irreversible Entanglements. Okay, that’s it. Until next time, be well, stay safe, and thank you for listening.


This week, Esther Belin speaks with Diné poet Tacey M. Atsitty. Atsitty’s debut full-length collection, Rain Scald, was published in 2018, and Arthur Sze described the book as filled with a poetry “where rain, expected to be nourishing, is also a torrent, burning with sensation.” Today, we’ll hear two new poems by Atsitty, “Things to Do with a Monster” and “Lady Birds’ Evening Meetings” from the December issue of Poetry. Atsitty’s new poems come out of her desire to create a bestiary of Diné monsters. The poems explore how and why we create and abandon monsters, what we learn from them, how monsters humble us, and more.

Appeared in Poetry Magazine This Appears In
More Episodes from The Poetry Magazine Podcast
Showing 1 to 20 of 353 Podcasts
  1. Wednesday, November 16, 2022
  2. Wednesday, November 2, 2022
  3. Tuesday, September 20, 2022
  4. Tuesday, September 6, 2022
  5. Tuesday, August 23, 2022

    Esther Belin in Conversation with Beth Piatote

  6. Tuesday, August 9, 2022
  7. Wednesday, July 27, 2022
  8. Friday, July 15, 2022

    Esther Belin in Conversation with Manny Loley

  9. Friday, June 24, 2022
    1. 1
    2. 2
    3. 3
    4. 4
    5. 5
    6. 6
  1. Next Page