Prose from Poetry Magazine

Introduction: June 2018

There is no such thing as Native American poetry.

An egg shape, blue but heavily waxed over in a dense translucence like an iced cake. Sometimes writing starts with a shape and then we fill it. These words had to collect over time, filling an egg with indigo until it felt exactly the right shape and heft. My introduction has a duty to the Native poets you will read in this issue and to those not included here. It feels heavy and impossible to balance, like an egg. There’s a proportion to this writing I imagined: “three to one with a belt and button,” which made no sense at first. Still, I knew that I would begin by telling you all something important, said by others before me: There is no such thing as Native American poetry. We are poets who belong to Native Nations. There are more than 573 Native Nations. Their relationship with the US federal government is as nation to nation. We also know who we are and we determine our own membership and citizenship. We write into, out of, even despite this fact.

The poets gathered in this issue are related to dozens of Native Nations, but that is just biography and blood. Our poetry is an area of American poetry written for the most part in American English, influenced by American poets of all backgrounds. We are among the smallest “ethnic” category in the poetry world, yet we are among the most notable American poets publishing today.

Also in this issue are poets whose work appears in New Poets of Native Nations from Graywolf Press, an anthology I recently edited that gathers poets whose first books were published in the twenty-first 
century. The anthology starts with Tacey M. Atsitty, whose exquisitely deft selections from “Lacing,” a redoubled sonnet sequence, appear in this issue. Almost all of the anthology contributors are new to publication in Poetry, including Trevino L. Brings Plenty, Julian Talamantez Brolaski, Jennifer Elise Foerster, Gordon Henry  Jr., Sy Hoahwah, dg nanouk okpik, Cedar Sigo, and Eric Gansworth, who also contributes a series of poetic paintings to these pages. Of course, several new collections came to my attention after I completed the Graywolf anthology. I’m gratified that this issue debuts new poets with recent first books: Crisosto Apache, Aja Couchois Duncan, Ishmael Anagaluuk Hope, Michael Wasson, and Tanaya Winder.

When non-Native readers see our poetry gathered together, they might think there’s no common style or subject. You might not see what we see. I say this not to be mysterious, but to stress that we have close connections and shared understandings that we do not always want to explain. Few non-Natives have reason to understand the complexity that we live as people of Native Nations. We have hundreds of different languages, laws, governance, and diverse cultures. We live on reservations, in cities and suburbs (most of us), and in rural areas. Our diverse lives under the umbrellas of “Native” and “American” fuel our poetry, but do not define limits to our work. And though we are very different from one another, still we share deep connections to one another and to place.

If you are not Native American, you could visit the National Congress of American Indians website as an introduction to the realities that our many nations live in common. Some of what you might read there informs our poetry, but again, there’s so much more. And here’s where I see the belt, this shorter paragraph, with a button you could press, this link: www.ncai.org/about-tribes, as unpoetic as can be. Let me insert some lyric detail: we have just begun to touch / the dazzling whirlwind of our anger    ...

The above is a quote from the Joy Harjo poem “For Anna Mae Pictou Aquash, Whose Spirit Is Present Here and in the Dappled Stars (for we remember the story and must tell it again so we may all live),” which I memorized long ago. It has guided me and allowed me to reach for what is inside me, a fierceness that comes closest to what others may see as anger. In Harjo’s poem, we are touching our own anger, which whirls and dazzles us. It is not a call to turn it outward, but to tap it as a source. In three decades of introducing students to Native American poetry, I have often encountered a fear of anger in what we have to say. We might write about the land we love and steward, the hardships we face, the injustices we demand be addressed. Why shouldn’t we? Many of the poems contained here were written in the year following the non-violent actions at Standing Rock, on Lakota unceded lands. Several of the poets in this issue were in those camps, surrounded by guns, dogs, water cannons, helicopters, sound cannons, and tanks. They resisted a military force with songs and poems.

A lesson new readers learn is that Native American poetry can be fierce and political. Although often expected to be, it is not exclusively about spirituality or nature, a difficult expectation, as Brings Plenty’s “Unpack Poetic” suggests. Although creatures and transformation, myth and story figure in Janet McAdams’s and other poets’ work here, poetry by Native writers is not all tales of magic animal woo-woo that some non-Natives have come to expect. Poetry by Native people is not always political either.

The Native American poets here write about biology, linguistics, horticulture, poetics, place, disease, trauma, creation, climate change, our own roles as both tribal people and humans-at-large, and the universal themes of  longing, love, the body, and death. We write to one another, to Native youth coming up, to our teachers and colleagues (Native and not), and to you. But we do so without a need to inform or to act as anthropologists. As a result, our poetry is sometimes deeply layered, sometimes playful, sometimes simple and accessible, and sometimes dense and complex.

This complexity might be why editors and readers seem to prefer poetry written about Native Americans to poems by us. Most of the poets in this issue have just begun to have their work selected by editors. Meanwhile, poets who present themselves as Native (who are not) continue to publish work that is often what one would expect: so-called shamans “translated” into rhyme, hawks soaring, Creator talking, animals talking, and so on. Such poems present no challenge to a reader; nothing there is unexpected or related to the contemporary life we all share or the resistance in which we all must now engage.

The poems in this issue do challenge the reader in pleasurable ways. They ask the reader to imagine new landscapes and relationships to them, to imagine no relationship to the spiritual at all, to desire no body other than the ones we are born to, even though that puts us at risk. Dozens of subjects in several distinct poetics comprise the works I’ve chosen here. This gathering may seem eclectic, but not so to me. As a reader, I am open to a diversity of styles, poetics, stances, and modes. I am mindful that we come from many different experiences and no one style or service to trending poetics can represent us all. Brolaski’s playfulness with centuries of English language pushes hard against something about human transformation, identity, and trust. Winder’s poems to the youth she visits on dozens of reservations and in other Native communities are essential work. Her constant performances make her one of the poets most visible to other Natives nationally. Hers is poetry IRL and something I deeply respect. Other contributors hold a more familiar poet-scholar role. Henry  Jr.’s piece is contracted critical theory. Hoahwah’s “Typhoni” required me to go to the dictionary, where the title’s meaning made the poem more layered and profound: the word refers to a cyclone, a whirlwind, a many-headed monster, and a missile meant to carry a nuclear warhead.

Here the egg shape and the ratio I imagined come into play. I cannot 
mention every poem in these pages. I cannot include all of the Native poets whose work I know and admire. I’d guess I managed to consider one in three of Native poets who are publishing new books today. 
I could not publish all the wonderful poets I was aware of in New Poets of Native Nations, due to very strict criteria of publication date of first books and representation from various parts of the mid-continent, islands, Alaska, and so on. I tried to balance gender and other human factors as well. The fact is, there are a small enough number of us that when I decided who was in and who was not, it was the worst thing I ever did. It felt disappointing and exclusive, unlike how I want to work with Native poets. Who am I to choose? I am not the one with the best articulated critical stance and by far not the most accomplished poet. Just someone who could make the time, who wanted an excuse to read every Native poet she could, who is totally smitten by the range and richness of poetry out there. But there are so few of us, compared to other groups within American poetry, that my inclusion of a poet in a publication literally means leaving out some of my dearest kin. Then, too, there are poets who do not want their work selected in an identity-based issue or who would rather not be selected by me. We are a very, very small community and closely connected, for better or worse. Still, I’d assert that closeness is mostly positive, especially when challenged, as in recent revelations in the literary #MeToo movement challenged us all. We are close in terms of editing, publishing, and critiquing one another as well. We are not yet an organized movement. We are simply too diverse, too diffuse — 
likely to resist joining anything. And yet, I sense we are something — 
something changing and utterly our own.

In editing this identity-based issue, I am encouraging more than a “one-and-done” approach. I hope you will look at this presentation as an invitation to readers, editors, and publishers to learn what Native poets write today, to look for these poets, to invite and 
expand American poetry with regular reading, reviewing, and inclusion of poets of Native Nations.

It is a serious responsibility to edit this issue. It is an enormous pleasure, a decadence almost, to see a poet’s excitement at getting work accepted by Poetry. It has been a joy I’ll never forget and I hate to be done with this task. But I must end with noting that, along with poetry that speaks like beams through the known and unknown, this issue is anchored with prose: Dakota and Cherokee poet-scholar Gwen Nell Westerman on writing poetry in her indigenous language and Margaret Noodin’s astonishing translation of Sappho into Anishinaabemowin. Louise Erdrich has given us a tender essay on memory and poetry and our parents. While she was writing we talked about the essay and I was reminded of how I memorized 
those Harjo lines, as well as lines from Kimberly Blaeser, Roberta Hill, and other Native poets. Years ago, I read somewhere that Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha was the most-memorized poem in the English language. Think about that, a poem entirely taken from Anishinaabe literature, provided by Anishinaabe poet Jane Johnston Schoolcraft and her family, then poured into a form from Europe with a misnamed hero — a Native-inspired poem eventually memorialized by millions as the American poem. So very close to Native poetry, but no.

No. Longfellow is long gone and new poets from Native Nations arise each day. I don’t know if any of them hope to have their poems memorized across the globe and recited for a century, but I do know they wanted to speak through these pages today, and I am so glad they trusted me to bring you their words.

Originally Published: June 1st, 2018

Poet Heid E. Erdrich, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe, was born in Breckenridge, Minnesota, and raised in nearby Wahpeton, North Dakota, where her Ojibwe mother and German American father taught at the Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding school. She earned a BA from Dartmouth College and...

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