Diane Burns in 1993 at a benefit for A Gathering of the Tribes gallery
Diane Burns, Native American Lower East Side poet
By Sarah Ferguson
Slowly people drifted into the parish room at St. Marks Church on Jan. 27 to celebrate the life of Native American poet and longtime Lower East Side resident Diane Burns. They were reluctant, it seemed, to remember the light that burned inside Burns was gone, and that she drank herself to death at age 50, leaving behind a beautiful 15-year-old daughter with shy almond eyes and a scattering of poems so fierce they continue to churn up in literary anthologies two decades later.
Maybe the light inside Burns burned too brightly?
Consider the opening lines of her first and only book of poetry, Riding the One-Eyed Ford, published in 1981:
slit open the badger
to see the tomorrows
in its blood.
look at me
and see what our
Illustrated with her own fine pen-and-ink drawings, that slim collection established Burns as a formidable presence in the New York poetry scene and beyond. Though she didnt publish much more than that, her witty, sardonic takes on Native stereotypes are still cutting enough to be taught alongside more famous contemporaries like Sherman Alexie:
I am Tequila Mockingbird. Yes, I am related to Isaiah Mockingbird, and yes, I am that face in the moon on the cover of the Carsons record album. And the Marshmallow beer girl, and thats me on every stick of Land OLakes butter
I can trace my lineage back to the beginning of time when the world was nothing but a scrap of mud on the tip of a loons nose.
(from her 1993 essay
Born in 1956 in Lawrence, Kan., to a Chemehuevi father and an Anishinabe mother, Burns was raised with her two brothers in Riverside, Cal., where her parents got work teaching at a Native American boarding school. When she was about 10 years old, the family moved to the Lac Corte Oreilles reservation in Hayward, Wis., then on to Wahpeton, N.D., when her parents began teaching at another boarding school there.
Even in grade school, she was always writing and drawing, recalls Dianes mother, Rose Burns. In third grade she won the first-place prize for her poem, A Pencil Can Travel.
Evidently, Diane discovered early on that writing could be a ticket to elsewhere. She spent her senior year of high school at the American Indian Art Institute in Santa Fe, N.M., then got a scholarship from Barnard College, with the aim of becoming a lawyer.
She dropped out of Barnard her senior year no one remembers why. Perhaps the life of a poet seemed more enthralling. In a videotaped interview with Emilio Murillo for his Manhattan cable show, Earth Bird, Burns described how she came into her profession somewhat by accident, when the American Indian Community House called up looking to book a Native American poet for an event they were hosting.
I didnt have anything, so I stayed up all night scribbling and ended up onstage with Audre Lorde, Burns recalled. I actually got paid $50. Im the only poet I know who got into the field for money, she joked.
Burns moved to the East Village in the late 70s and quickly became enmeshed in the Downtown arts scene.
I used to run into Diane all the time on Avenue B back in the day when I could see, and she was a very attractive lady, recalls Steve Cannon, the now-blind publisher of A Gathering of the Tribes magazine.
Beyond her striking features, which got Burns work as a model, people were immediately impressed by the force of her words.
She was like a fresh wind, the clarity of her work was so beautiful, says Josh Gosciak, founder of the multicultural poetry journal Contact, who was one of the first to publish Burnss work. A lot of young Native Americans were coming on the scene in New York and also breaking into film and publishing. It was an exciting period. We havent seen anything like it since.
It was a total explosion, says Bowery Poetry Club founder Bob Holman, remembering the first time he heard Burns read in 1980. All of us down here thought our scene had everything in the world we needed. But Diane literally blew the lid off our little place and set it up as a whole new encampment.
In those days, many poets in the hood were earning salaries with benefits under the federal CETA (Comprehensive Employment and Training Act) program, which President Reagan immediately canned when he came into office. Former Cover magazine publisher Jeff Wright remembers traveling around with Burns as part of a state-funded CETA spinoff called POET (Poets Overland Expeditionary Troupe), staging readings at schools and community centers across New York.
Im American royalty
Walking around with a hole in my knee
Im a hopeful aborigine
Trying to find a place to be
Oh East Village, ai yi yi yi yi yi yi.
(from Alphabet City Serenade)
She was like an Indian princess living on the Lower East Side, says Wright. She was like the best bad girl that ever lived, and when she walked around she made everyone else wild. I fell in love with her immediately, like everyone else. But I was always afraid to get too close, because of the dark side.
Besides a thirst for liquor, Burns landed a dope habit early on, and never really shook it. She didnt seem to wrestle with her demons so much as accommodate them, though her 1981 poem Booze N Loozing Blues hints at the pain she felt inside:
No one can tell you
To sweat & shake
& cold turkey
and be Afraid
to not do
Of course back then it seemed like everyone was high on one thing or another, and for many years, Burns was the life of the party.
In 1988, she was among a rather illustrious group of writers including Allen Ginsberg, Joy Harjo and Pedro Pietri invited to Nicaragua to take part in the Ruben Dario Poetry Festival, sponsored by the Sandinista government. (Poet Tom Savage remembers Burns pulling out an enormous gun on the plane. It was just amazing to me; it was so bizarre.)
The Sandinistas revered poetry and welcomed the group like foreign dignitaries, especially Burns, who Holman recalls was sort of the star of our little troupe down there.
Little did they know what trouble they were getting into, Holman laughs. Apparently Burns and Pietri got so soused at the presidential palace that Pietri interrupted a meeting between the Sandinista government and the Soviet ambassador to look for his shoes.
They then convinced Minister of Culture Ernesto Cardenal to marry them and took off honeymooning, much to the dismay of Pietris wife back in New York and members of the American Indian Movement, who called up Holman worried Burns had been kidnapped.
I dont care if youre married I still love you
I dont care if youre married
After the partys over
I will take you home in my One-Eyed Ford
Way yah hi yo, Way yah hi yo!
(from Big Fun, 1981)
For many years, Burns carried on giving readings at the Nuyorican Poets Café and hanging out at local bars.
She was one of the smartest people I ever knew. We met at the Village Idiot, says Steve Ruona, who lived with Burns from 1991 to 2002 and fathered their daughter, Britta.
Steve Cannon credits her with helping him launch Tribes magazine and gallery from his ramshackle brownstone on E. Third St.
When my house burned down in 1990, I was half-blind and didnt have the money to fix the damn thing up, so Diane got her husband Steve to put this house back in order, says Cannon. She would come over here through thick and thin, scrambling for money, calling people, helping me set things up. Thats what kept this place going all those years. The only reason A Gathering of the Tribes exists 15 years later is because of Diane Burns.
Cannon also kept Burns going, paying her to keep the books even when others considered her a lost cause. In her latter years as her drinking worsened and she lost custody of Britta, Diane drifted from couch to couch, even berthing for a while with the Hare Krishnas on First Ave.
Theyve taken me on as a project, she joked to friends.
Burns kept her sense of humor and her pride through it all, and unlike most folks with bad habits, she never stole.
Kind, loving, modest, warm but not effusive, private, funny, not one to be captured these were some of the words people offered up at the memorial as folks struggled to reconcile Dianes startling talent and her steadfast presence on the scene with the sorry place she ended up.
Though shed complained of excess fluids in recent weeks, friends say her collapse on Nov. 29 was unexpected. She was taken to Beth Israel Hospital, where she fell into a coma and died of kidney and liver failure on Dec. 22.
If her daughter Britta is any measure, her life was far from hopeless. Britta is now studying acting and has a job performing skits as a teen advocate for Planned Parenthood three days a week.
Cannon says hes hoping to collect Burnss unpublished writings into a book she was supposedly working on a satirical novel about a Native American beauty queen. Some of her film and poetry reviews can be found on the Tribes Web site, www.tribes.org.
After she died, her family held a three-day funeral on the reservation in Wisconsin, with a feast and prayers sung in her tribal tongue.
You have to stay with the body for the whole time, so on the last night I played poker with her brothers till 5 a.m., laughs Ruona. I lost $100, but I know Diane would have been happy to know we were playing poker.
She always wanted people to have a good time.
The Bowery Poetry Club, at 308 Bowery at Bleecker St., is hosting a Praise Day for Diane Burns on Feb. 21 at 6 p.m., with readings by Joy Harjo and many others.