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The City and the Writer: In Taos with Melissa Studdard

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Can you describe the mood of Taos as you feel/see it?

Taos is not a place. It’s the river talking to the sky, the scent of piñon on a desert wind, coyotes spinning around and around and howling to each other across the night. There, you can speak to the universe, and the stars will answer. You can learn the dialect of sage bushes and dusty mountains and cottonwood trees. You are part and whole, mutable and timeless, sublime.

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

The Taos Hum, which only about two percent of people can hear, is a persistent, low-frequency buzzing or droning sound, and despite a great deal of research, no one has been able to figure out the source.

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

In 1917, Mabel Gansen Evans Dodge Sterne (soon to be Luhan), a wealthy arts patron and wonderful writer, packed up her suitcase and a small trunk, gathered together several letters of introduction, and made the trek from New York to Taos. There she began to advocate a new kind of literature that would, as John Collier, Jr. puts it, “take up an ‘original’ relationship with the universe.” Luhan hosted great artists, thinkers, and writers, like D.H. Lawrence, Carl Jung, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Willa Cather. The house she lived in is now an inn and conference center, and anyone who goes to Taos should not just visit it, but should lodge there. It’s a gorgeous adobe structure, with kiva fireplaces, carved pillars, and windows painted by D. H. Lawrence. The staff and environment encourage reflective, communal solitude, and the cooks have developed a style that, contradictory as it sounds, perfectly fuses comfort food with the exotic.

What writer from here should we read?

D.H. Lawrence is probably the most famous writer to have lived in Taos, and there are traces of him everywhere—from the painted windows I just mentioned, to the D.H. Lawrence Ranch, to the Hotel La Fonda “D. H. Lawrence Forbidden Art Collection,” to the Lawrence Tree (an enormous ponderosa pine under which he liked to write and which Georgia O'Keeffe painted). It’s also said that Lawrence had his ashes mixed with the cement in the shrine that was built in his honor at the ranch.

Is there a place here you return to often?

I always go to Kit Carson Park to place gifts—usually feathers, leaves, and rocks—on Mabel Dodge Luhan’s grave.

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

Not hidden but mysterious nonetheless is the Pueblo, a nation within a city, with a history well over a thousand years old. Visitors are permitted at certain times and for special events, like the summer Powwow, but these small, hand-fed bits of Pueblo life seem to intensify, not quell, curiosity. The Taos Indians’ sacred Blue Lake and its surrounding mountains and land are forbidden territory for outsiders, their oral history is off limits, and the Pueblo closes periodically for tribal rituals. Poised between the desert and the edge of town, inhabiting both the native world and the new, the Pueblo sometimes seems a mirage, sometimes the truest thing in Taos.

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

I was at a silent writing retreat led by Natalie Goldberg, and about midway through the week, just as I was starting to sink into the immense power of the silence, I got a message from my mother. My father had suffered an aortic aneurysm and was about to have surgery. They were so far away—in Houston. By the time I got there, it would be done. Suddenly, solitude felt like isolation, and the call of my family in crisis reminded me just how quickly everything can change.

Where does passion live here?

Beneath the feet and as far as the eye can see, there is land—tan and red and full of passion—inviting you back to intimacy with creation and creativity and endlessly revealing the connection between the two.

What is the title of one of your works about Taos and what inspired it exactly?

Inspired by my mediations on the petroglyph at the Mabel Dodge Luhan House, in Six Weeks to Yehidah, the ten-year-old protagonist visits an unnamed pueblo, where a petroglyph opens a portal through which she journeys to other worlds.

Inspired by Levi, “Outside Taos does an outside exist?”

As with any love from which you’re separated, you must carry it with you when you’re away. In the seconds just before the meditation bell ceases its hum, in the lucidity between sleep and stirring, in the transition between one yoga pose and the next, or in the flicker between darkness and light—no matter where you are—if you listen, you can hear Taos, telling you the most ancient story of yourself.


Melissa Studdard is the author of the bestselling novel Six Weeks to Yehidah and other books. Her works have received numerous awards, including the Forward National Literature Award and the International Book AwardHer first poetry collection, I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast was released in September 2014. She currently serves as a reviewer-at-large for the National Poetry Reviewan interviewer for American Microreviews and Interviewsa professor for Lone Star College System, a teaching artist for The Rooster Moans Poetry Cooperative, an editorial adviser for the Criterion and host of Tiferet Talk

Published Oct 22, 2014   Copyright 2014 Nathalie Handal

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