A regular feature of OmniVerse, Poets, Presses & Periodicals is a conversation with the publisher of a small press or periodical, a poet they have chosen to highlight, and one of our OmniVerse staff writers.
In this installment, we interview the co-editors of Native Voices, a new anthology honoring Indigenous poets of North America, forthcoming from Tupelo Press. Selections from the forthcoming anthology follow the interview.
Gillian Olivia Blythe Hamel, editor of OmniVerse: This is clearly a sociopolitical moment in which elevating the voices of historically marginalized communities is vitally important. But lest such a statement reduce this anthology to a flicker of the zeitgeist, a collection like this states a clear intention to address the silencing of this country’s Indigenous voices since its colonization by presenting work from a range of generations in Native American literature, as well as the contemporary. Can you describe the conversations that led each of you to work on this volume, and with this press?
CMarie Fuhrman, co-editor of Native Voices: I first started thinking about an anthology such as this while teaching Native American Literature to students at the University of Idaho. The class is offered for English credit as well as American Indian Studies credit. I had twenty-seven non-Native students and one Native. All the theory and supporting texts about the literature we were reading was written by non-Native people and though I would Skype Native writers and poets into our classroom, I felt that my Native presence wasn’t enough, there was a break in the chain, my Native student should be able to have a team of Native teachers. Also, I felt the non-Native students were never given the opportunity to hear about Native writing from Native writers. This got me thinking about craft and about the need for a book that at once honored elders and tradition, but also allowed the poets to talk about their craft, something they are rarely asked to do. I wanted to create a book that bridged the gap, many of the gaps, that was a place in where Native students and readers were surrounded by Native teachers and where non-Native students and readers could develop a fuller understanding of Native people and Native poetry.
When Jeffrey Levine approached me about editing such an anthology, the answer was easy. Tupelo is always looking for opportunities to publish diverse voices and was willing to provide the support while letting dean and I decide the direction of the anthology.
Dean Rader, co-editor of Native Voices: As someone who writes poetry and who writes about Indigenous aesthetics, I’ve been disappointed by the absence of a current anthology of Native poetry—both as a reader and a professor. Teaching often comes down to practicality, and it has been nearly impossible to teach many different Indigenous poets without making a lot of copies or scanning dozens of pages. It is really an imperfect and ethically suspect system.
Moreover, many students tend to gloss over issues of art or craft when reading Native poetry. Cindy, Jeffrey, Kristina, and I agree that we need an anthology that advances Indigenous aesthetics as much as Indigenous themes. Students are often interested in reading Native literatures because they think they are going to learn about Native cultures (which, sometimes, they do). But, what if they also (or even primarily) learn about poetics, poetic craft, and modes and means of Indigenous creation? That is exciting to me, and I’m glad Tupelo—which has a great reputation for publishing high quality work—is interested in this project.
GOBH: I’d love to hear from each of you about your approach to curating an anthology, and more particularly an anthology that is meant to start a conversation as much as constellate a history of literature—I understand this is the first anthology of Indigenous poetry published by a US poetry publisher. How do you navigate the balance of creating an anthology that’s meant to introduce the work of marginalized writers to mainstream publishing as well as honor what these authors and their work have done within their own community thus far?
CF: I think that the key word is conversation. This anthology will be the first of its kind, and by that I mean it is the first to include an ancestor or influential text, poems, and a craft essay. I have been very sensitive about borders lately, those that keep in and those that keep out. Native writing is very important to the community from which it is born, but if community ends at reservation or state or even imaginary borders then those voices within are never heard; the conversations never had. The truth is, Native voices are an integral part of the larger community of the US and now, perhaps more than ever, we need to turn to those writers and listen to their knowledge. Listen to how they acknowledge elder texts and their communities and make certain that in the years to come, the canon of American Literature is not separate from Native American Literature. It is important also, however, to acknowledge that trust needs to be built between mainstream publishing and Native writers, that begins with presses reaching out to Native writers for education and understanding.
DR: Duane Niatum put together an anthology of 20th century Native poetry back in 1988 (Harper’s Anthology of 20th Century Native American Poetry). It is a good book with a smart introduction; however, even the introduction is organized by way of thematics rather than poetics. The experiences, the realities, the challenges, of Native people and communities are an important facet of Native writing; our goal is to marry that component with formal concerns as well.
Things are always tough for poets. Marginalized prose writers are, increasingly, being introduced to mainstream readers. It is an uphill battle—for any poet—to break into what we might think of as “the mainstream.” Poets who are also people of color have traditionally had a harder time. Thankfully, things seem to be changing. This year, for example, many of the finalists for the National Book Awards were people of color. And, many of the new books of poetry getting the most attention are by writers from traditionally marginalized groups like Layli Long Soldier, Danez Smith, Chen Chen, Kaveh Akbar, Morgan Apple, Ada Limón, Mai Der Vang, Rosa Alcalá, Shane McCrae, Solmaz Sharif and others.
Our interest for this particular book are to show how Native poetry in the United States is, on one hand, an amazing (and amazingly diverse) array of voices, and on the other hand, a community of voices.
GOBH: Tupelo’s description of this anthology mentions its potential place in the classroom and in the canon of Western literary thought, given the relative absence of Indigenous literature in those spaces. While academic spaces are of course not the only channel through which poetry finds its audience, they are among the primary spaces in which readers might encounter a volume of this kind. What are your thoughts on this anthology as a pathway for Indigenous literature to permeate academics, and/or literary communities beyond that?
CF: Perhaps an example is best here. This fall a student of mine chose to drop an English class because looking through the syllabus she did not see any reading by Native people, “I am not represented in the literature,” she told me. When I reported this to the co-chair of the department, she realized that this was common throughout. Most instructors rely on the well-known often taught texts and do not seek out new work, or, simple just sideline Native writers because they don’t know how to have conversations about the work from anything other than a euro-centric view point.
This is less an anthology than a collection of conversations by poets, to readers, to other poets both Indigenous and not. It is our hope that this anthology then is seen as somewhat self-teaching through craft essays, but also that it allows older texts to introduce younger poets thus expanding the knowledge base of students and professors alike. I also like to think of the anthology as an inspirational text. I would hope that a student would pick it up and read a craft essay from Ray Young Bear and feel inspired to write their own poems. The multifaceted nature of the anthology is meant to serve many communities; students and everyday readers alike. The poems teach of place, of history, of community, of life. As I continue to work on it, I see more gaps within academia and more opportunity for texts like this to become those spaces for conversation.
DR: Everything CMarie just said.
CF: I chose this poem by Bojan Louis because of its immediacy and its pure attention to the ordinary and how that makes it extraordinary. “The Nature of Mortal Illness” reaches beyond the bounds of a poem and commentary on Native people, anddeeply interested in the health of the natural world and those living in it. I am drawn to what a wide range this poem has, how it touches everyone, and brings us all to that critical moment at the end, the “un-heart” that sometimes beats (un-beats) in us all. This is a poem both timely and timeless and a brilliant example of contemporary Native poetry.
The Nature of Mortal Illness
As a kid skeptical of pollen plumes making my skin ash, mind migraine heavy,
and nasal cavity a sanctuary for deformed crustaceans seeking terrible refuge
in a false moisture I wanted to believe this question:
are my brothers and sisters debris humming because they’re what’s left?
I’m no oceanic world, no fossilized imprint subject to excavation, but a man
sickness has left well enough. Common cold; chromosome infection; viral
ethnography; Southwestern desert lung fungus.
If there’s safety within the earth then I’ll go there. Otherwise, where do I find me?
Is it clear Gila Monsters border extinction? You endangered or enamored with this
Flint, the sacred bolt of thunder, the syringe end of lightening can turn body to ribbons,
quilt it mosaic again. Can burn a thirsty land. Can armor one against the ill world and
suffocate today’s protective notion of tomorrow.
In our history the Gila Monster might tell you, get your sickness away from me. But it’s
only to teach you to ask questions correctly, offer the necessary smoke, dispel phobia
and the impatience for curmudgeons with wandering syntax.
Lesson: if it kills you spit at it for sure, kick dirt its way. If it reminds you of your ways,
your doubts and regrets, and that shitty relative who molested you, curse it. Shake its hand,
which is the hue of your hand, with black magic
ground fine from a loved one’s bones. Remember? An agreement with death for Death?
New tract home subdivisions explode from an imploded aquifer crusted with alkaline
shaped like a brontosaurus. We’re headed there right? A studied, imagined subterranean
being/thing explicated, sited as superfund. That earth great once like a marauder/murderer
but more Billy Ray Cyrus than Prince.
When prospectors and pioneers sweated this tierra, this nahasdzáán they feared the toxic
breath and bites of damn near every living thing, see? See, this now. The earth and its things:
medicinal/panacea/antipsychotic whatever the fuck, labeled illegal unless pharmie.
As a kid, when I think of it now, I was stupid; Grunge trodden and late-blooming bony I wanted
to breathe the confidence to say nice things, to experience keggers. However, I was opposite the
decorated locker and shower room. If I possessed venom I was built over and unable to relocate.
But this isn’t about high school, which doesn’t matter.
It’s burial. In tradition and home.
Beyond the urban-heat of this concrete desert on land as barren and at times hot, piles of yellow
cake decorate Dinétah like the tempting skin of Dart Frogs. Nature’s governance: protection.
When we fail our hearts the blame is inverted like ice caps for summer
a crucifix for clean water and flowers. It can’t end this way: the wind, exterminator, a great prop
plane dusting the world. A heart so un-heart it forgets itself.
DR: I chose this early and little known poem by Elise Paschen for a number of reasons. First, I am attracted to its formal qualities. Every second and fourth line rhyme, and often the first and third create a subtle slant or off-rhyme. The lovely descriptions of the rural setting, the house (probably the poet’s grandparents’), and the flora and fauna evoke traditional pastorals. In these two ways, the poem lulls the reader into complacency. Until those final three words. At that point—and at that point only—the poem makes a sharp pivot—it sort of buries the volta—and becomes political but in a complicated way that links tokenism with colonialism and capitalism and even the ubiquity of the mascot issue.
That a certain kind of accepted “Indianness” is always both present and absent reminds me a great deal of Oklahoma—as does Paschen’s description. What I like about this poem is what I like about art in general: its ability to be both lovely and angry, nostalgic and critical, personal and political.
There was a wood-pile fence
that kept your garden from schoolyard,
leaving open to sight the larkspur
and lavender-stretched boulevard
which skirted your house and the lattice-
work swing-set. Running parallel
to the street (on its other side)
a field bloomed full of asphodel.
Your window looked over the meadow.
The wind through grass like a seesaw
seemed to sound out the field and you
would repeat back papaw, papaw,
hushed as an owl. At times you’d note
the changes of the hour: the catch
and call of quails beyond the trees,
the pond shaded at four, a patch
of bluestem grass where Father’s horses
grazed. From the outside of the house
it was your window upstairs where
white curtains, loose with air, would blouse
like sails. Evening was the time
when all the sounds had quieted.
Your father counted stars outside.
A coin would rise: an Indian head.