New Poets of Native Nations
Ed. Heid E. Erdrich
What is the purpose of a poetry anthology? Merriam-Webster defines “anthology” as merely “a collection of selected literary pieces or passages or works of art or music.” Truly, the compiling and editing of an anthology goes much deeper than this—the text must offer something new, important and vital to culture.
In the introduction to “New Poets of Native Nations,” editor Heid E. Erdrich points out that it has been decades since an anthology of exclusively Native poetry has been published. Consequently, readers dismiss Native poets or believe that Native poetry is a small, insignificant part of American culture. Erdrich writes, “More than 566 Native nations exist in the U.S. and yet “Native American poetry” does not really exist.”
“New Poets of Native Nations” is bound to bring Native poetry into the realm of American attention. Comprised of twenty-one poets publishing in the twenty-first century, the anthology not only curates a survey of contemporary Native voices but also poses the question of how all these voices interact; Erdrich notes that one of the themes she noticed in the undertaking of this project is how each poet finds inspiration, influence and mentorship in other Native poets, making the book itself a profound and interconnected thing.
Attempting to survey the themes present in this poetry would be a crime, a gross oversimplification of the depth and complexity of Native writing. The poems are all at once joyful, angry, pensive, experimental, funny and heartbreaking, and are not by any means limited by the stereotypes imposed upon Native peoples. Patterns that emerge across selections include the use of indigenous languages parallel to or independent of Standard English, and the hybridization of, and experimentation with, poetic style and form.
Jennifer Elise Foerster, a member of the Muscogee nation, is one of my personal favorites from the book. Foerster mixes a deep sense of the personal finding its place within a greater, often disillusioning context, with an understated but resonating voice. In “Chimera” she writes, “In the stars, America, your highway / vanishes. Black moths are captured / in headlights and swallowed.”
Another notable poet from the collection is Craig Santos Perez, known for his series “from unincorporated territory,” an exploration of the familial and cultural events and legacies of his homeland of Guåhan (Guam). His poetry is a moving amalgamation of Chamorro language, political documents, history and individual voices, making Perez something of a cultural curator.
Finally, I would be remiss if I did not point out the presence of Mojave poet Natalie Diaz in this anthology. Diaz was one of the first poets I truly loved, her book “When My Brother Was an Aztec” (2012) still occupying a beloved space on my shelf. One of the most the most notable entities in the whole anthology is her pages-long poem “The First Water Is the Body,” a metaphor that transcends itself because it is not, in fact, a metaphor: “When a Mojave says, Inyech ‘Aha Makavch ithuum, we are saying our name. We are telling a story of our existence. The river runs through the middle of my body.”
Truly, this is a successful anthology, effective in its cultural and artistic diversity, at once a landmark release and a great read. Now for the next question readers must consider: what does this mean for Native poetry, for poetry as a whole? What comes next—what big and beautiful thing will follow this?
As far as characterizing the project, Erdrich says it best: “Here is a poetry of a new time—an era of witness, of coming into voice, an era of change and of political and cultural resurgence—a time shared within this anthology in poetry forceful and subtle, hysterical and lyrical, ironic and earnest, sorrowful and joyful, and presented in ways harder to define, but made of the recent now, the lived realities that poets of Native nations write.”
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