Last month, Vulture, the arts and entertainment site of New York magazine released “A Premature Attempt at the 21st Century Canon.” The subhead explained: “A panel of critics tells us what belongs on a list of the 100 most important books of the 2000s…so far.” As the article explained, “The purpose was not to build a fixed library but to take a blurry selfie of a cultural moment.” Explaining how the canon was compiled, the creators admitted that it was “less diverse than it should be but generally preoccupied with difference.” Poetry was included in the canon, of course, but no Indigenous poets were represented. In fact, only one book by an Indigenous writer made the list at all — Louise Erdrich’s novel The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse. None of this was surprising, given the fringe place Native American literature continues to occupy in the powerful canon of American (and even world) literature.
Shortly before this “blurry selfie,” New Poets of Native Nations, an anthology edited by Anishannabe poet Heid E. Erdrich was published. I would not be the first reviewer to point out that this expertly curated anthology highlights the quality, importance, and diversity of poetry by today’s Native poets, nor how important it is that the anthology exists. As Erdrich points out in her invigorating introduction, New Poets is the first comprehensive anthology of Native poetry to be released since 1988. The 21 poets were selected out of dozens of Native writers whose first books were published after the year 2000, and they span many nations, backgrounds, and styles.
I come to this anthology with three perspectives: First, I am a Mvskoke (Creek) reader. Next, I am a Native poet who lost her way somewhat in the existential maze that is academia. Finally, I am a former (and maybe future) professor of Native American Literature who spent several years longing for an anthology like this one.
The first noticeable thing about this anthology is its dearth of wolves imparting lost ancestral knowledge to Indigenous people torn between two worlds. The poems completely ignore the excellent advice presented in Gordon Henry Jr.’s “Simple Four Part Directions for Making Indian Lit,” which of course I didn’t laugh at because it was not at all funny, especially the part about which English prepositions can’t be used to create “Indian” names in literature. Meaningful wolves, gratuitous alcohol tragedy, self-conscious cussing, and wise old patient grandmas are all missing from this anthology. Several of the poems invite me to laugh with them — all the way through, with no devastating last line that makes me feel bad for laughing. It’s an outrage. I mean, if I’m going to laugh, I expect to laugh wistfully or bitterly because Native literature ought to be Dead Serious At All Times because we are a Vanishing People and that is a Terrible Tragedy.
We aren’t vanishing, of course, despite what feels like a constant stream of tragic reverberations of history. But these poems have real literary grandmas and grandpas. Like the poets who wrote them, these poems speak for, to, and with their ancestors. These poems dare to contemplate things besides whether or not they or their creators are Native enough to “count.” Some of the poems dare to speak without apology on the tragic and serious and some even dare to be funny. Several of the poems are in languages I don’t speak or read, and are without footnotes. As Erdrich notes in her introduction, Native literature is often treated as an artifact, replete with apparatus to explain its place in history. These poems are written by poets. They are literature. They are here to do what poems do, not to be dusted off by archaeologists and presented under glass cases with a little card explaining what purpose they served for the tribe that created them.
I’m just saying: Beware. You might find yourself enjoying the poems in this anthology instead of simply furrowing your brow as you parse the words and Gain Wisdom.
Have you ever been the only Indigenous person in your writing workshop? Have you ever been asked to write about “your culture”? Have you ever done that and then been asked, by non-Native people, for more “authenticity”? Friends, I have. The billion little annoyances almost add up to undoing. That’s why it’s a relief to read this anthology.
Many, though by no means all, of the poets in New Voices passed through university writing programs. How that changes Indigenous writing as a whole is another essay, but it could be one reason so many of these poems question with such specificity the many institutions that ask Indigenous people, constantly, to prove they aren’t “vanishing.” For one example, Trevino L. Brings Plenty’s “Red-ish Brown-ish” points out how institutions political, academic, and otherwise, “Design policy with intentional marketing titles / Assimilation; / Relocation; / Termination. / Enough to talk about a vanishing race / in front of you as theory and practice. / Enough to throw stats out / as a summation of cultural identity.” And that poem is followed a few pages later by Dg Nanouk Okpik’s poem “She/I,” whose narration reminds me of former writing instructors who said my work would be better in third-person, as an imagined character, because “I” is so self-indulgent. Indigenous people speaking as, for, and about themselves — while being well aware of their place in the wider world — is threatening, even now. That so many New Voices poets do speak as, for, and about themselves in this anthology makes it an important collection for poets finding or recovering their ability to speak truth.
I’m from Oklahoma, where many people are Native, but I taught introductory Native American literature in northern New York, between the Onondaga and Akwesasne Mohawk nations. I had very few Native students, but as in any Native American literature class, I had several students who claimed non-traceable “Cherokee blood” and/or an affinity for “Native American culture” of the dreamcatching shaman type. It was my job to teach them that Native people are alive right now, writing literature right now. I needed this anthology.
Every time I was assigned to teach that class, I searched for a new poetry anthology. My textbook reps offered me anthologies from the 90s, with their apologies. Everyone agreed we needed a new one, but nobody was putting one together.
Erdrich, as she explains in the introduction, had an impossible job: To choose poets from the vast contemporary Native (American) poetry world, then select poems to represent them, then put all of that in order. Inevitably, some poets are left out, though many who are not in the anthology are mentioned in the author’s notes at the end of the book. Overall the anthology includes a truly representative selection that would work so well in a college classroom. Not only do the selections show the diversity of Native experience and artistic expression, but they also connect with the history of Native writing.
These poets know their history as Indigenous writers — and they respect and acknowledge their literary elders as much as their own personal elders. They dedicate poems to poets from previous generations, and they refer to them within poems. For the author’s notes, Erdrich asked the poets who mentored them, and they responded with the names of some of Native literature’s most daring voices: Luci Tapahonso. Joy Harjo. Adrian C. Louis. Lance Henson. Deborah Miranda. More. So many more that you wonder anew why it’s taken so long for a modern anthology of Native Writers to be published. So many names that it causes you to go to your bookshelf and re-read your favorites. The questions she asked the poets for the author’s notes also highlight emerging poets like Kenzie Allen and poets who were not as well known in their lifetimes, like Diane Burns. I highly recommend that any professor who uses this as a textbook include the author’s notes in their reading assignments. They are illuminating and show how Indigenous poetry is a literary network with a history and, yes, a constantly emerging and shifting canon.
To use the worst advertising cliché, this anthology really does have something for everyone: For readers, for poets, for literature students and professors. For young and old. For those in mourning and those at the height of their strength. For Native people and for everyone else too.
Erdrich took on a much-needed, enormous, difficult, important job when she conceived of this anthology. Taking it on required genuine humility, a mind capable of seeing into the past, present, and future all at once, and valiant heart to do what should have been done long ago. Erdrich had all of that, and through her dedication, this anthology emerged into the world just as it needed to be, right when it was most needed. As a poet, a professor, a reader, and an Indigenous person, I am among the many who are truly thankful.
STACY PRATT is an enrolled citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. She earned a doctorate in creative writing from the University of Southern Mississippi. She is a contributing writer for Book Riot and First American Art Magazine, where she is also the online editor. She lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma.