Native Voices: A Matter of Visibility

  • 2
  • April 2, 2020

The literary canon hasn’t changed all that much, is what I hear from several teachers. They say it with a dismissive tone and an impatience for contemporary work. The fact that there are instructors and professors who teach with this mindset is a sad reality, especially when their occupation bears the responsibility of introducing literary texts to students who will grow intellectually, yet remain blind to writers outside of the traditional white male elite. There are also teachers who adore classic literature, but deny the emergence of upcoming writers and the artistic contributions by people of color, which is an even deeper conundrum, and a very real and sad reality. When I was three years old, my parents fled Iran on the brink of the Iranian Revolution. I was transplanted into England, and my first experience with the English alphabet felt like I had been ripped from my home and force fed a new way to speak from people I really did not have anything in common with. I hated kindergarten and the cold discipline administered by teachers felt like I was under surveillance by humans with ice blue eyes. I was not fond of learning English at all. It wasn’t until the eighth grade that I fell in love with literature. I had been writing poems since the sixth grade, but now I wanted to be a poet. Even now in my continuous process of writing, I wonder about aesthetic and my relationship to poetry. Derrek Walcott said, “The English language is nobody’s special property. It is the property of the imagination.” And most of the time, my homeland is my imagination, when it is not my mother’s voice. I know part of my writing is a search. Maybe art is, like Joseph Brodsky says, “a spirit seeking flesh but finding words,” or maybe poetry is what Hari Alluri writes, “a dance wandering in search of bodies.”

All my life I’ve done my best to stay away from force fed language and poetry shot callers, but when it comes to language, I often ask myself, what bodies are fortunate enough to be consumed by poetry? Who gets to decide visibility? Who gets to say we will study this certain mode of craft but ignore others? Maybe aesthetic is a distraction to numb the haunting histories of colonization. While many questions continue to trouble us today, Native Voices, the new anthology edited by CMarie Fuhrman & Dean Rader, offers a body of work punctured with poems and discussions of craft from Indigenous writers, a body of work the dominant power structures have tried to suppress. This anthology is most definitely a ghost who found its body. 

Native Voices comprises a total of 44 indigenous voices, whose discussions intertwine theme and poetic craft. While there are 44 poets selected for conversation, there are many more inimitable poets discussed by the writers in this anthology. Some of the voices in this anthology are the most electric scholars and poets to date: Carter Revard, Joy Harjo, Sherwin Bitsui, LeAnne Howe, Layli Long Soldier, M.L. Smoker, Luci Tapahonso, Simon J. Ortiz, and Michael Wasson, just to name a few. The anthology begins chronologically with the elders and continues to contemporary Indigenous poets, with a detailed introduction and specified tribe. The poetics discussed in Native Voices is unlike the usual discussion of craft; it’s integrated as a way of being, and it translates as theme and personal essays with momentary glimpses of writing throughout each narrative. Sometimes the poets discuss the way they write a poem, and sometimes there are moments that reveal or summon memories about their personal lives and families, which essentially implicates us about the way we live. A particular comparison that strikes me is from the opening poet, Carter Revard. He challenges the Modernist giant, Wallace Stevens, who happens to be one of America’s beloved poets, and without question, an automatic inclusion into the literary canon. Revard’s opening 29 pages sets the tone for the entire anthology. There is no better way to start a discussion about visibility than to question one of its juggernauts. Revard delineates the difference between two poems that, among many things, speak on family values and what he calls “versions of America itself.” 

Anecdote of the Jar

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill,
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.
The wilderness rose up to it,
and sprawled around no longer
      wild.
The jar was round upon the
      ground.
And tall that of a port in air.
It took dominion everywhere.
The jar was gray and bare
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

Speaking
I take him outside
under the trees,
have him stand on the ground.
We listen to the crickets,
Cicadas, million years old sound.
Ants come by us.
I tell them,
“This is he, my son.
This boy is looking at you.
I am speaking for him.

The crickets, cicadas,
the ants, the millions of years
are watching us.
My son murmurs infant words,
speaking, small laughter
bubbles from him.
Tree leaves tremble.
They listen to this boy
speaking for me.

I am not sure how many poets or teachers interrogate the works of Wallace Stevens. All I have read in my lifetime is praise for this poet, and I have heard nothing but admiration from some of the most amazing professors I know. Here’s a tribute to Wallace Stevens from the The New Yorker. A perfect example of visibility. However, Revard goes in on Stevens right from the get-go. He asserts that “Anecdote of the Jar” is a “bonzai version of how art conquers and indeed enslaves Nature.” Lines like “The wilderness rose up to it / and sprawled around no longer wild” sounds a lot like the jar tamed the wilderness. Revard explains that “The poem speaks in a Conqueror’s voice, saying just what many American historians have said (with no irony intended) about ‘civilizing’ the ‘American’ wilderness.” On the other hand, “Speaking” allows the “crickets, cicadas, and ants” its “million years of sound.” Visibility then is not just being seen, but how we are perceived. Visibility also affords us agency, not just agency alone, but how the agency of nature is perceived in both poems. When these poems are put next to each other, Revard allows us a window to see a clear difference in agency. Hence, Revard juxtaposes these poems to reveal a difference in agency that we may never have noticed, or if we have noticed, never have been offered a side-by-side verisimilitude of our American values. This riveting instruction is just one of many discoveries available in this anthology, a kind of anthology that creates what Chris Abani would call a “death rattle,” or a moment so unshakeable we cannot help but perceive it and wish to turn away from what it means at the same time. We need Native Voices. 

One of the many critical lessons present in this anthology is how it can teach us about survival. In my discussion with the CMarie Fuhrman about Native Voices, she said, “the one thing I noticed that was a theme or thread running through the craft essays was agency, empowerment, and healing.” We can see these as tools to help us persist in our being. A matter of preserving language to preserve the self. What happens to us when our language dissipates, but our bodies learn a new way to communicate life into our realities? Perhaps one of the most alarming excerpts that speaks on survival is in Joy Harjo’s craft essay, “Adapted from ‘One Song,’”  I have never met Joy, but if I ever have the chance, I will ask her about her writing process, and I bet she will be fiercely honest about it. Her craft essay is practically like meeting her for the first time, every time. Here’s an excerpt of what to expect from our wonderful poet laureate from the Muscogee (Creek) Nation:  “As native people, we basically had been disappeared by America and the American story, and we were writing ourselves back in, in the ‘enemy’s language.’” This can be perceived as a disheartening loss of language due to colonization and invasion, or it can be a message of hope and perseverance that says, “Dear invader, you can try to erase our stories and our language, but we will write ourselves back into existence using yours.” 

Sherwin Bitsui was one of my poetry professors at San Diego State University. I had the opportunity to work with him for one semester. It was a Theories of Poetry course. I got to know him, and one of the most important things he taught me was about what kind of a poet did I want to be, and more importantly, who was I becoming? We read amazing books, studied a series of Native poets, and got to Skype with some of them. It was an illuminating semester. We discussed craft, watched videos about native life, and the unfortunate massacres administered by the confederate army, and we discussed how that relates to today by discussing current social, political, and cultural circumstances, and we talked about our process of writing. We discussed Walt Whitman and his privilege. I remember when Bitsui asked me about my homeland, and I wasn’t sure what to say. I realized how I have always felt on edge about where I’m from and where I am going. My mother has always been my core. When she needed to protect me from the bombs outside our window, she told me “the parade is coming.” The land was never a safe place for me, but my mother’s voice seemed to carry me through, and eventually she and my father brought me to the United States. I say this with awareness of my roots as a poet because that is what Bitsui has given me in my brief encounter with him. Bitsui’s poetry is pure song to me, riddled with music and imagery, and we can find some of his electrifying work in Native Voices. In “Drought,” we find how “A gathering of birds decides paths and rearranges footsteps, forming the scribble of branches / and electric wires emerging from a cloud of red dust.” The cloud of red dust is a devastating description that leaves the reader with a possibility of responses. Maybe we are all a “gathering of birds’ trying to avoid “a cloud of red dust.” This is the kind of poetry that is, and should continue to be, taught in classrooms from high school to colleges. In my discussions with Dean Rader, he said, “the classroom is not one and not even two but often five or six or ten contact zones” and a crucial component of Native Voices is how it can “reorient the lens through which we look at exemplars of craft.” Whether we are educators, poets, or avid readers, Native Voices offers us a fresh approach to an outdated canon, which happens to be changing, but still upholds the traditional values of who and what gets to be perceived with aesthetic. In closing, Fuhrman said, “My final thought then is about gatekeeping, is about who gets to be heard and read and what non-Native publishers, interviewers, media sources, reviewers, and subsequently purchasers of the book can do[…] We want this book to not only open doors, but keep them propped open.”


Native Voices: Indigenous American Poetry, Craft and Conversation can be purchased from Tupelo Press

For more on this anthology and the editors behind it, see “Interview with CMarie Furhman and Dean Rader: Gatekeeping: Who Gets to be Heard & Read?” by Arthur Kayzakian.