Memory, Land, and Love: An interview with poet and author Amber McCrary

Amber McCrary is writing what she yearned for when she was young in the small town of Flagstaff, Arizona. “I always felt kind of like an outcast and a weirdo growing up. I never really felt like there was anything that was Native and odd out there.” Amber gravitated toward angsty art, foreign movies, zines, and classic punk music. “Anything that would be considered weird or a sub-culture which were and still are, predominantly white.”

Electric Deserts! is desert-gothic, soul-baring, sensual, reveling in the red dirt beneath fingernails, claiming self and culture. Electric Deserts! is Amber’sfirst poetry chapbook, which  comes out in May from Tolsun Books (pre-order it here). Amber’s hope is that her chapbook will speak to young indigenous folks who may feel lost between cultures. “I feel like it’s easier to say, okay, this person is a Navajo poet, and they write like this. It’s so much more, too, about how they grew up or where they grew up. Not all Navajos grew up the same. Everyone has different experiences, but they also have a lot of similarities due to sharing a culture.”

We talked about TRR’s editor-in-chief Rosemarie Dombrowski’s prompt to the editors: What is the meaning of hope, justice, and/or activism in 2020? In a sentence, Amber’s optimism is in listening to other voices. “When I see other expressions of art, I feel like that helps me realize that I’m not so alone with everything that’s going on. My reaction’s not a singular reaction. Other people are feeling the same thing, too.”

One might even say that to hope and love in 2020 is punk. Expressions of love are pulsing throughout Electric Deserts!, never more apparent than when Amber is writing about her partner.

My hunger pangs
Want to bestow you
But all week I have only
Seen the worry and strain
In your eyes
Gasping for ease
Like a tumbleweed between your ears
As strands of hair,
Indigenous as mesquite
Fall onto your caramel forehead

I avert, sit in your classroom, cross my legs
& let you be

All week I think about
A moment where your eyes lower
Turn to hazel
Then you remember
Who I am

~ from “Blue Corn Cupcake Eater (Native Girls Need Love Too!)”

In the tenderest moments of the poems, Ofelia Zepeda’s influence can be heard. Amber has a special connection to Ofelia — “I’m in a relationship with a person who comes from the same origin as Ofelia, and he’s awesome. He’s the one who introduced me to Ofelia’s poetry and work with the O’odham language. Through that, I felt like I was learning so much new stuff about the desert, and it became like this muse, and then also he’s my muse.”

The Electric Deserts! playlist is bold and smooth, angry and loving, questioning and decisive. It features The Cramps, X, Descendants, The Damned, Ramones, The Replacements, Hope Sandoval and the Warm Inventions, Solange, The Isley Brothers, Smokey Robinson, Beach House, and Animal Collective. This wide array of feelings and sentiments also co-exist in Amber’s writing.

In “A Letter to the Land,” Amber is introspective: “How do I apologize to the land and my body in Navajo/When there is no such word in my mother tongue?”

In “Desert Derrière,” she’s irreverent: “Do not mistake my diligence for/
Unfulfilled lust/But filled wildness/Filled savagery like a twinkie/Sticky, sweet and unapologetic

In “A Mixtape for a 30-Something-Year-Old Punk Girl,” she’s confident:

Unafraid of the skinny white boy
Testing my 1970s record collection
The slits were more punk
Than the sex pistols
Founded by a now-ridiculous Johnny Rotten
And racist ass, Sid vicious

The words Amber chooses are as active, lyrical, and precise, as the themes of the chapbook are varied. “Lilac Portals” begins:

Worlds within me jump into the sky
I hear the pulsating glitter spinning in me
Origins of energy tinkering in my spine

Electric Deserts! is the culmination (to date) of Amber’s quest to know herself, her history, and her future. “As I’ve grown older, I’ve connected a lot more with my culture, and I’m proud of who I am and where I come from. I also try not to forget that part of me that’s connected to the DIY/zine scene, that’s still part of my identity.”

Follow Amber on Instagram

Interview/Review by Devin Kate Pope