Review: ‘New Poets of Native Nations,’ edited by Heid E. Erdrich
It’s been 30 years since the publication of a comprehensive anthology of American Indian poetry. In 1988 Duane Naitum edited “Harper’s Anthology of 20th Century Native American Poetry,” which clustered poems into categories such as “Voices of the Past: Oral Tradition” and “Reverencing Tradition: Ancestors and Myth.” Celebrated poet Heid E. Erdrich addresses the need for an updated anthology with “New Poets of Native Nations.”
This collection is distinctly contemporary in its urgency, diversity and vibrancy. In it, she eschews categories in order to resist “stereotypical notions of Native American history and culture in the past tense”
“New Poets of Native Nations” features 21 poets, all whom published their first book after 2000. This includes established poets such as Gordon Henry Jr. and Janet McAdams, as well as names that may be unfamiliar to readers such as Tacey M. Atsitty and dg nanouk okpik. By including a half-dozen or so poems by each contributor along with a bio and author’s note, Erdrich allows readers to get a sense of each poet’s breadth, influences and concerns.
Many of the poets included write in indigenous languages and translate their work into English or combine various languages, while others mourn the loss of vanished or vanishing tongues. In her poem “Casualties,” M.L. Smoker equates language and the self: “Hold me accountable/because I have not done my part/to stay alive.”
By not limiting her selections to fit themes, Erdrich welcomes a diversity of voices and concerns. Layli Long Soldier examines the history of treaties; Karenne Wood takes on the epidemic of violence against women; and Craig Santos Perez writes of environmental destruction: “i wish my daughter was made/of plastic so that she will survive [our] wasteful /hands.”
There is also considerable diversity in terms of form, reflecting contemporary poetry’s investment in hybrid forms and experimentation. Gwen Nell Westerman’s lyrics make arcs on the page; LeAnne Howe’s intriguing poetic plays feature Mary Todd Lincoln and the “savage Indian” she claimed tormented her while she was institutionalized; and Natalie Diaz includes prose poems bordering on lyric essays.
Poets in this collection inhabit and write from intersecting identities and overlapping cultures. A Kumeyaay Nation poet living in New York City, Tommy Pico writes, “In-between/ Kumeyaay and Brooklyn —/that it has a word,/even if the word is lost.” Julian Talamantez Brolaski celebrates intersectionality while using language that historically denigrated mixed-race peoples: “I want to say mongrel, mestiza, mixedbreed/melissima most honeyed most songful.”
The diversity of forms and subjects included in this volume speaks to the complexity and richness of Native writing.
In bringing together contemporary, intersectional and diverse voices and refusing to corral them into thematic categories attached to stereotyped notions of indigenous poetry, Erdrich does more than capture the present moment of Native writing. She also advocates for its future: “These poems create a place, somewhere we could go.”
Elizabeth Hoover is a poet and a writer in Milwaukee.