(North Adams, MA: Tupelo Press, 2019)
Native Voices: Indigenous American Poetry, Craft and Conversations should be on your shelf, your reading list, or your syllabus — or even all three. Edited by poet-scholars CMarie Fuhrman and Dean Rader and published by Tupelo Press, this hybrid anthology aims to, as Fuhrman puts it, “teach in a Native way of knowing. From Native to Native, from Native to non-Native.” It also aims, in her words, to honor and give “space for poets to talk about their creative processes and inspirations” and “to show how Native voices have been fighting to be heard for hundreds of years — and (are) fighting now.” The book is not only a collection of “(f)orty-two voices that would not be buried” spanning several tribal nations and three generations of artists — from established luminaries like Acoma Pueblo Simon Ortiz and Tlingit Ernestine Hayes to emerging disruptors of contemporary poetry like Chamoru Craig Santos Perez and Oglala Lakota Layli Long Soldier — it’s also an act of resistance to the unbenign force of the non-Native gaze on the study and appreciation of Native poetics.
Raising Native Voices in the lingering silence of “American” history and the history of “American” literary art is a knowing act of resistance to the belittling and patronizing label “ethnic” that’s so often slapped benignantly on all things deemed not White enough to pass — whether as “classic”, as worthy, or even as real. And in raising their Native Voices against this backdrop of culturally-sensitive, salutary racism, the editors perform an artful act of supremely “engaged resistance” — to borrow a phrase from the title of one of Rader’s scholarly monographs — by not only deploying the work of “one of the great elder statesmen of Indigenous literary studies” Carter Revard first, but also by including his stunning essay “Herbs of Healing: American Values in American Indian Literature” as “a form of keynote address for the anthology,” which asks the simple question: “Don’t we want an All-American literature?”
The shameful answer seems to be: clearly, we don’t — or else Fuhrman and Rader wouldn’t have found the gaping chasm in “American” arts and letters that Native Voices is meant to start bridging — and, perhaps, to eventually fill. But lest this volume seem only an angry screed in poetic form or a predictable diatribe against the entrenched and intractable powers that be, the editors instead offer these true and inviting words of introduction: “In the beginning was the story, and within the story was voice, and within voice was hope. Within this book, and these voices, and these poems is hope. There are other things too — anger, despair, interrogation, remembering, healing — but there is a lot of hope, a lot of generosity, and a lot of gratitude. There is also a great deal of artistry.”
That artistry is evident not only in the individual poems and essays — in the choices made by individual poets in crafting their words and stories — but also in the collection as a whole in the overarching vision and careful curation provided by the anthology’s attentive and painstaking editors. For Fuhrman, the mere fact of the anthology’s creation is “one way of making amends” for “what never seemed fair” to her: namely, the “homage paid to white history” no matter the American context — whether in poetics, or politics, or, euphemistically, land management — while “the people who knew this land, who lived with it for thousands of years (are) forgotten, along with their stories, their voices, their songs.” For Rader, it’s also a “kind of honor. A prayer.”
And so they offer Revard’s poem “Indians Demand Equal Time with God” as an opening prayer to the entire collection, in which the poet invokes the voice of “Angry Demonstrators at Funeral” to begin, as Fuhrman might have it, to “teach in a Native way of knowing, (f)rom Native to Native, from Native to non-Native” with these thought-provoking lines:
Hey wait a minute—
you guys that climbed God like
a ladder up to Rome, Zion,
then Paris, London, Moscow
and Washington, D.C.—
you’re trying to tell us Osages that
he died in Nietzsche’s lap, is embalmed
in Lenin’s tomb, got shrunk on Sigmund’s couch,
that all his priest turned
poets then defected to
Mad Avenue and worship
the brazen-faced Ms. Liberty?
Listen, you dirty
our ladder away
now you’ve got up, you ought to
be advised that even old
Coyote comes back to life no matter what
direction or how far your ladder falls.
You think because
he sees right through you that he
just isn’t looking?
Well, the poets in these pages are looking — and seeing — and allowing Native and non-Native readers alike to see through their lenses — to look for a moment with different eyes so as to possibly shift our perspectives — even if just a little bit — for good. However, as a further act of resistance within the scope and mission of this anthology, the editors make another subtly damning observation and then aim to defy it: “Too often, critics and teachers look at Indigenous poetry through the lens of culture. Or meaning. Or theme. They look to literature to reinforce assumptions about race, gender, history, nature. They come to this poetry for its aboutness. One of the main goals of Native Voices is to reframe how Indigenous poetry is seen. We want to highlight craft, foreground form, underscore art.”
Make no mistake: Native Voices highlights craft, foregrounds form, and underscores art — not only through the conversation it creates between poetry and essays on process and inspiration written by the same author within each of their individual sections, but also through the conversation it stimulates in the minds of readers about how we even approach poetry — especially “ethnic” poetry — in the first place. Do we come to certain poetries for their aboutness? To reinforce our ideas about what it’s like to be other than ourselves? Or do we come to various poetic traditions with the same open mind no matter their sources? To experience each poem as something that might, if we’re lucky, make us “feel physically as if the top of our heads were taken off” (to paraphrase Emily Dickinson) or, else, after judging the work on its merits, leave a bad taste in our mouths, whether it be our cerebral or visceral reactions to the poet’s individual choices that have caused a bitterness only art can engender?
Native Voices is a book that asks its readers — perhaps, dares them — to come to the poetry collected within it as is. To explore Indigenous Poetics as is. To meet (or become reacquainted with) Indigenous poets as they are. To not only read the anthologized works for what they’re about, but for what they are: poems by poets who honor poetry — by thinking about it; practicing it; and writing essays to explicate it, complicate it, or both. In the end, Native Voices is a book that asks its readers to come with an open mind — and then aims to make them “feel physically as if the top of their heads were taken off” with exciting poetry and insightful prose on page after page after page.
And lest you still doubt the quality of the range of material included in this brilliant and necessary anthology — for reasons that may be personal, professional, poetical, or all three — let Perez’s poem “Interwoven”, a Native voice from within its pages, have the final word in praise of Native Voices as a whole: “I come from an island / and you come from a continent, / yet we are both made of stories / that teach us to remember.”
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P Joshua Laskey currently lives and writes in Sacramento, California, but has also done so in Los Angeles, Vienna, London, Granada, Road Town, Paris, and New York City. He is founding co-publisher of Indomita Press as well as co-founding Artistic Director of Theater Galatea and Associate World Literature Editor for The Literary Review. His published work includes original, adapted, and translated plays as well as original and self-translated short stories and poetry. For his efforts, he has received the Toyon Literary Magazine Multilingual Award in Translation, Multilingual, or Spanish-Language Writing, which was awarded for a self-translation of one of his short stories.