Remembering Poet Diane Burns, 1956-2006 - by Sarah Ferguson

jkr_diane_burns.jpg Diane Burns, 1993

Photo courtesy of John Ranard

Slowly people drifted in to the parish room at St. Marks Church on January 27 to celebrate the life of Native American poet, mother, and longtime Lower East Side resident Diane Burns. Reluctant it seems to remember the light that burned inside Diane was gone, and that she'd drank herself 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 Diane burned too brightly?

Consider the opening lines of her first and only book of poetry, Riding the One-Eyed Ford, published in 1981:

Our people

slit open the badger

to see the tomorrows

in its blood.


look at me

and see what our

tomorrows hold

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 didn't 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 Carson's record album. And the Marshmallow beer girl, and that's me on every stick of Land O'Lakes 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 loon's nose.

--from her 1993 essay, "Tequila Mockingbird"

Born in 1956 in Lawrence, Kansas to a Chemehuevi father and an Anishinabe mom, Burns was raised with her two brothers in Riverside, California, 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, Wisconsin, then on to Wahpeton, North Dakota when her parents began teaching at another boarding school there.

"Even in grade school, she was always writing and drawing," recalls Diane's mother, Rose Burns. "In 3rd grade she won the first place prize for her poem, 'A Pencil Can Travel.'"

Evidently, Diane discovered early on that writing can be a ticket to elsewhere. She spent her senior year of high school at the American Indian Art Indian Art Institute in Santa Fe, New Mexico, 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 an 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 poet for an event they were hosting.

"I didn't have anything, so I stayed up all night scribbling and ended up onstage with Audre Lorde," Burns recalled. "I actually got paid $50. I'm 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 \work{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, \work{Contact}, who was one of the first to publish Burns' 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 haven't 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 we had everything in the world we needed to know in our scene. 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 Reagan immediately canned when he came into office. Former \work{Cover} magazine publisher Jeff Wright remembers traveling around with Burns as part of a state-funded CETA spin-off called POET (Poets' Overland Expeditionary Troupe), staging readings at schools and community centers across New York.

I'm American royalty

Walking around with a hole in my knee

I'm 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 didn't 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


of time


It's like

To sweat & shake

& cold turkey

and be


to stay awake







to not do


'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 Pietri's wife back in New York and members of the American Indian Movement, who called up Holman worried Diane had been kidnapped.

I don't care if you're married I still love you

I don't care if you're married

After the party's over

I will take you home in my One-Eyed Ford

Way yah hi yo, Way yah hi yo!

--from "Big Fun," 1981


Diane's daughter Britta with her father, Steve Ruona, at Diane's memorial at St. Marks Church

For many years, Burns carried on giving readings at the Nuyorican Poets Café and other venues 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 her 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 East 3rd Street.

"When my house burned down in 1990, I was half-blind and didn't 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. That's what kept this place going all those years. The only reason \work{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 Avenue. "They've 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 Diane's startling talent and her steadfast presence on the scene with the sorry place she ended up.

Though she'd complaining of excess fluids in recent weeks, friends say her collapse on November 29 was unexpected. She was taken to Bellvue Hospital, where she fell into a coma and died of kidney and liver failure on December 22.


Britta with Steve Cannon (left) and Bob Holman, at Diane's memorial

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 he's hoping to collect Burns' unpublished writings into a book -- she was supposedly working on a satirical novel about a Native American beauty queen. You can find some of her film and poetry reviews on the Tribes website.

After she died, her family held a three-day funeral in a big log cabin on the res 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 Steve Ruona, her longtime companion. "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."

Maybe too good a time. In some ways, Burns chronicled her own demise in poems about broken rodeo girls in bars and crazy Indian drunks on the Bowery, howling at passersby in their torn up "ribbon shirts." She didn't pity or romance these misfits, she understood them:

I see those greasy ol' ribbon shirts

& I get a lump

swelling in my throat

I know

there's a wolf, a lugarou

inside me too.

There's a voice

that scorches stars

and withers starlings on the wing

A voice that

sings '49s on rooftops

and drives back demons and talks with spirits

One that blows like plutonium dust

over the rez.

If these poems are any indication, Diane's spirit is still roaring around the universe, too.


The Bowery Poetry Club is hosting a "Praise Day" for Diane Burns on February 21 at 6 pm, with readings by Joy Harjo and many others.

c. Sarah Ferguson, 2007