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Poet Ortiz, defender of history's victims

The New Mexican poet Simon Ortiz was here in New York recently to recite from his work at an antinuclear poetry reading. After 13 of his colleagues had read their poems, Ortiz ended the evening movingly with, not a poem, but a chant. Those familiar with Ortiz and his work were hardly surprised by that departure from convention. Ortiz considers himself a poet ''in the oral tradition.'' It is a tradition he inherited from his late father, a renowned storyteller and songwriter among the Acoma Indians of New Mexico, and from his childhood milieu at the Acoma Pueblo near Albuquerque.

''The tradition by which I grew has more to do with speaking and singing and performing than with writing,'' Ortiz said in an interview in the Upper West Side apartment of his publisher, Thunder's Mouth Press. ''And the major medium is still the spoken word.''

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Nonetheless, Ortiz has seen eight collections of his poems published. Most recently, he won a prestigious National Endowment for the Arts award, which he says will allow him to work exclusively on a play and yet another book at his Albuquerque home. (The poet has held a series of academic posts at Western colleges; he was last a visiting lecturer at the University of New Mexico.)

Ortiz has been committing words to paper since his youth. In 1968, he attended the Writers Workshop at Iowa University. Many years of writing passed before his first book, ''Going for the Rain,'' was published in 1976.

Ortiz's most recent book, ''From Sand Creek'' (Thunder's Mouth Press, 1981), is a stylistic departure from his earlier work. It is a long poem, counterpointed on each page by a prose passage. But the inspiration for the work is based on the native American experience, and that is in keeping with nearly all of Ortiz's previous writing. In ''From Sand Creek,'' Ortiz examines a government-sanctioned massacre of 133 Cheyenne and Arapahoe women and children at Sand Creek, Colo., in 1864. It's a missing chapter in most American history books, Ortiz says, but it was part of the cultural heritage passed on by people like Ortiz's father to their children. Although Ortiz has now memorialized the incident in his work, he is unsure of its impact.

''You can bring knowledge to people, but you can't force them to believe it, '' Ortiz says. ''We don't really acknowledge genocide, yet we know it exists.''

Ortiz is a darkly handsome man who speaks slowly and deliberately, as if weighing every possible nuance of his words before uttering them. An interviewer may have the sense of tiptoeing through a minefield in conversation with him. Though his poems tend to be evocative of his Acoma Pueblo childhood and his experience as a native American traveling through the American West and the history and folklore of his race, he dislikes attempts to categorize him as a spokesman for other native Americans.

''I remember that in the Introduction to my first book, the writer said that 'the drums were muted' in my poetry,'' Ortiz says. ''He was saying I didn't dance like an Indian was supposed to dance. But, as an ethnic minority poet, I don't have to dance just because I happen to be one.''

Ortiz is also suspicious of attempts to link his poetry with what one reviewer has called ''a modern Indian sensibility.'' ''What's that?'' Ortiz asks , amused by the phrase. ''Something you buy at the drugstore?''

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In fact, one constant among reviewers' perceptions of Ortiz is his ability to lend a sense of universality to the American Indian experience and to avoid any bitter overtones.

Still, Ortiz's attitude toward his subject matter is never in question. He is a harsh critic of American history and a defender of its victims. He recalls the words of a Vietnamese patriot quoted several years ago in the New York Times: ''He said the only way you can ever love your nation is to criticize it, and I go along with that,'' Ortiz says.

Like many of his peers, Ortiz has found American small press publishers to be the most fertile ground to plant his poetry. These presses often devote more time and care to their authors' work than can the major publishing houses.

Ortiz, whose books always do well, according to his publisher, says he cares little for fame. Being published, for him, ''matters for one reason -- being able to survive and tell about it.''

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