Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Review of Winter 2010 issue of The Kenyon Review

This is an old review but it bears repeating, DONCHATHINK? Is it "bears" repeating, or "bares" repeating? When I use the word "bear" the pain etc... I can't help but giggle -- English is SO silly, I swear! The cover art for this issue of Kenyon Review is by Luminary Extraordinaire Leslie Marmon Silko. I heard that at last year's Denver AWP someone swiped a whole big box of them. Isn't that whack?! But enough of my rambling, here's the review, written by some white guy with a funny name, who should be thanked. Someone give Nate a salmon, eh?

The Kenyon Review

Winter 2010


Review by Nate Whipple, Utah State University

This issue is dedicated to work by North American indigenous authors. With work from emerging voices like Sara Marie Ortiz, Eddie Chuculate, and Eric Gansworth as well as the acclaimed writers like Leslie Marmon Silko, LeAnne Howe, and Joy Harjo, the writing in this issue is as vibrant and dynamic as the indigenous literary tradition it represents. Compiled here is a stimulating survey of indigenous poetry, fiction, and nonfiction.

Indigenous life and culture awareness is greatest at the intersections of “land, culture, and community” (a phrase repeated five times over the course of the interview with Simon Ortiz that opens the collection). These intersections inform the work of each of the indigenous writers represented here and help unify their perspectives as each attempts to understand nature of individual identity in contemporary culture, indigenous or otherwise.

In the remarkable assortment of indigenous poetry collected here, a noteworthy gem is “A Blur of Echoes.” This deceptively simple poem by Marc Turcotte speaks with clarity and grace to the blurred boundaries that exist at the intersection of self, other, and community. The poem’s form (three blocks of text that read more like paragraphs than stanzas) indicates that identities aren’t the only things being blurred in indigenous literature and its opening provides what could be an instructive line for reading the entire collection: “Let’s forget everything we know to be true about you and me.” Turcotte’s evocative poetry is one of many works in the issue that illustrates the profound possibilities for understanding interconnectedness that unity among individuals and cultures can offer.

LeAnne Howe’s short story, “Due Diligence, or How I Lost Ten Pounds,” illustrates how interconnectedness can also mean misconceptions, miscommunications, and miscomprehensions. Told with a sardonic humor characteristic of much indigenous fiction, this clever story about a Choctaw author explores the complications of unity without understanding and the importance of language to individual and cultural identity.

Each of the thoughtful poems, stories, and essays in this issue demonstrates a profound respect for the reciprocal relationship between language and self and the role of literature in the formation of identity, individual or otherwise. But as Simon Ortiz, who serves as special guest editor for this special issue, points out in a moving interview with critic Janet McAdams, indigenous literature has been met with neglect. The cause of this neglect, says Ortiz, is a lack of critical attention, a “marginalization resulting from discrimination by mainstream academia and critics.” This is probably why this issue of The Kenyon Review contains perhaps more critical writing than any other. A critical essay by Angelica Lawson charts the role of language in the bi-lingual poetry of Ofelia Zepeda. Language, she notes, is essential to cultural resistance and resilience in the face of change, loss, and amalgamation.

Ortiz’s goal for this issue, he explains, was to contextualize indigenous literature in order to promote indigenous language, increase cultural awareness, promote and to give the literature and culture of indigenous people the attention they deserve. If there’s anything we need more of, it’s cultural awareness. If there’s one thing this issue of the The Kenyon Review demands, it’s more of our attention.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Best American Poetry Guest Blogger Dean Rader

Four Contemporary American Indian Poets You May Not Know But Should [by Dean Rader]

The work being done by a new generation of Native American poets is among the most exciting in American poetry.

National+monuments_web One of my favorite recent collections is Heid Erdrich's National Monuments. Her poem "The Theft Outright" is a fantastic response to Robert Frost's famous inaugural poem, "The Gift Outright," read at John F. Kennedy's inauguration. As I suggest in a post at The Weekly Rader, Frost's poem is a swan song for the chauvinism and ethnocentrism of Manifest Destiny. Suffice it to say that when in the first line the speaker says, "The land was ours before we were the land's," he was not channeling Chief Seattle, Wovoka, or any person of color. Frost, frosty as they come, embodied whiteness.

Erdrich (Ojibwe) plays with Frost's line and its sentiment, inverting the poem's claim to land by invoking the transgressive history of land reclamation, removal, and theft. Here are the first few lines of this gripping poem:

We were the land's before we were.

Or the land was ours before you were a land.

Or this land was our land, it was not your land.

We were the land before we were people,

loamy roamers rising, so the stories go,

or formed of clay, spit into with breath reeking soul—

What's America, but the legend of Rock 'n' Roll?

Red rocks, blood clots bearing boys, blood sands

swimming being from women's hands, we originate,

originally, spontaneous as hemorrhage.

Two other poets you should know are Navajo writers Sherwin Bitsui and Orlando White. Bitsui’s Shapeshift Shapeshift (2003) and White’s Bone Light (2009) are laced with a skepticism toward and an embrace of language. Both poets eschew an expository poets of theme and opt instead for an elliptical lyricism characterized by brevity, elision, and interiority. In Bitsui’s “Apparition,” for example, blanks and clipped lines send the message that the world is, among other things, fragmented, indeterminate, absent:

I haven’t ________

since smoke dried to salt in the lakebed,

since crude oil dripped from his parting slogan,

the milk’s sky behind it,

birds chirping from its wig.

Many of Bitsui’s poems explore how different values, concepts, and ideas are when experienced in Navajo as opposed to English. In fact, at times, English (and its poetic tradition) feel more like an enemy than a mode of connection: “Read this, / understand their language, / or sleep in a bottle of broken nails for the rest of your life.

978-1-59709-135-0-frontcover White, on the other hand, sees language as a means to an end—if not also an end in itself. For him, letters are works of art, little people, signs and symbols of liberation and confinement. In the opening piece, “To See Letters,” White makes an emotional connection with the alphabet as a means of populating his poetic landscape:

Everything I write requires this: Alphabet.

It was a notion I did not know when I was six years old. In kindergarten I was more interested in the image of a letter on a flash card. I noticed its shape distinguishing itself from its background. Then, with my eyes I tore the O in half. In that moment I felt language separate from its form.

The rest of the book explores the ways in which letters become larger than what they embody while at the same time Reimagining letters completely stripped of their associations, enjoyed merely for their graphical beauty. The best of these is a series of poems on the letters “i” and “j,” which bring notions of "language poetry to new levels."

Speaking of new levels, I've never read a book like James Thomas Stevens' A Bridge Dead in the Water.

And, I mean that as a compliment.

Stevens is Mohawk and his book takes on a number of pseudo-sacred ideas such as the Bering Strait theory, the ease of Eastern/Western relations, and the notion that learning English is both ethical and value-free. From a poetic perspective, though, the most interesting segment of the book is the crazy cool "Alphabet of Letters." In a gesture that both waves at and gives the bird to such methods of Western knowledge and classification, “Alphabet of Letters” converts the traditional American school book into a veritable collage of signifiers. Subtitled “A New Primer for the Use of Native or Confused Americans,” this 20+ page “poem” collates phonics, classical rhetoric, a 1766 inventory list, false and real headlines, instructions on diphthongs, snatches of correspondence, a short Mohawk/English dictionary, and even heroic couplets as an alphabet lesson (K When KING Phillip, dead did lay, / the Puritans did Make their Way."

To give you an example of how the poems look on the page, I scanned the following:


“Alphabet of Letters” divests the Western project of “Letters” of its privilege of seeing Indians as its subjects. The forms of teaching and learning, the forms of identity arrangement, the forms of blood catalog—these are the forms that poetic genres, though their ontology of exclusion, Stevens contravenes. It's angry. It's funny. It's inventive. And, oh yes, it's funny. Unlike, I realize, this blog post.

But, read these poets anyway.

My selection for No Tell Motel's Best of 2010

Best Poetry Books of 2010 - Tiffany Midge

Tiffany Midge's selections:

Museum of False Starts by Chip Livingston (Gival Press)

Fried Fish and Flour Biscuits by Molly McGlennen (Salt Publishing)

Drangonfly Dance by Denise Lajimodiere (Birchbark Books)

What Lasts by Jennifer Greene (Foothills Publishing)

Horse Tracks by Henry Real Bird (Lost Horse Press)

Car Stealer by Susan Deer Cloud (Foothills Publishing)

Beautiful in the Mouth by Keetje Kuipers (BOA Editions)

Beautiful Country by Robert Wrigley (Red Room)


New Poets of the American West edited by Lowell Jaeger

* * *

Tiffany Midge's book, Outlaws, Renegades and Saints: Diary of a Mixed-up Halfbreed won the Diane Decorah Memorial Poetry Prize, and her chapbook Guiding the Stars to Their Campfire, Driving the Salmon to Their Beds was published by Gazoobi Tales. She is a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and grew up in the Pacific Northwest. Tiffany holds an MFA from the University of Idaho. She keeps the online blog UGH featuring Indigenous literature reviews and announcements.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Fresh! From Salt's Earthworks Series

(From Amazon)

Calling upon the personal memories and ancestral antecedents of her Anishinaabe family heritage, Molly McGlennen writes poems for Fried Fish and Flour Biscuits that render the continuance and celebration of the complex realities of Native American life in the 21st century. The collection of finely rendered lyrical and narrative pieces recounts the story of physical and spiritual nourishment, as the poet begins by telling her readers that her poems, like family recipes, are best served aloud, shared as gifts, and regarded as pieces of gratitude to be given away. Telling us how “memories flesh her fully,” McGlennen paints an intricate but compassionate picture of growing up “away from the lakes that have always fed her family,” and of urban life where she and the neighbor kids shoot hoops in alleyways and “fall asleep in the backs of old cars.” Operating as a sort of give-away, McGlennen’s collection weaves childhood memories, family histories, and present-day memorials as a means to forge paths of continuance of Indigenous culture. Narratives range from the connective trails of blueberry picking and walleye fishing, to the tragic freeways of protesting an execution at San Quentin, to the regenerative passageways of falling in love and giving birth. Finally, through the gesture of feeding “those networks of connection,” each poem invigorates the life-ways inherent in sustaining cultural relationships even when one finds herself a great distance from her home.


My body remembers
the time we rolled out dough
for two days.
Flour hands
salted heat
a kitchen like fire.
Careful not to pat it
too thin,
biscuits should fill
empty stomachs
you tell me.
No more school
after fourth grade—
what’s a little girl to do
but listen
and follow the mark
of a hand,
hear a history
punctuated by story,
when your mother
would whisper hers
in between scaling
and gutting
the walleye,
ashamed to admit
how lakes
had always fed her family
how she had married
a pale Frenchman
moved away from the water.
So you
a daughter once removed
now stands next to me—
says history doesn’t have to mean
coming over in a boat,
says this is how
you feed a family:
until your hands and arms ache
until your body remembers
the blood in its lines
like fried fish
and flour biscuits.

(Book excerpt) Molly McGlennen

Thursday, December 02, 2010


"The People Who Stayed: Southeastern Indian Writing After Removal" edited by Geary Hobson, Janet McAdams and Kathryn Walkiewicz. The following is from University of Oklahoma Press website:

Writing by Indians of the American Southeast who were not removed

The two-hundred-year-old myth of the “vanishing” American Indian still holds some credence in the American Southeast, the region from which tens of thousands of Indians were relocated after passage of the Indian Removal Act in 1830. Yet, as the editors of this volume amply demonstrate, a significant Indian population remained behind after those massive relocations.

The first anthology to focus on the literary work of Native Americans who trace their ancestry to “people who stayed” in southeastern states after 1830, this volume represents every state and every genre, including short stories, excerpts from novels, poetry, essays, plays, and even Web postings. Although most works are contemporary, the collection covers the entire post-Removal era. Some of the contributors are well known, while others have only recently emerged as important literary voices.

The Dance Boots: Stories by Linda LeGarde Grove

In this stirring collection of linked stories, Linda LeGarde Grover portrays an Ojibwe community struggling to follow traditional ways of life in the face of a relentlessly changing world.

In the title story an aunt recounts the harsh legacy of Indian boarding schools that tried to break the indigenous culture. In doing so she passes on to her niece the Ojibwe tradition of honoring elders through their stories. In “Refugees Living and Dying in the West End of Duluth,” this same niece comes of age in the 1970s against the backdrop of her forcibly dispersed family. A cycle of boarding schools, alcoholism, and violence haunts these stories even as the characters find beauty and solace in their large extended families. (The University of Georgia Press)

Muscogee Daughter: My Sojourn to the Miss America Pageant by Susan Supernaw, foreword by Geary Hobson

How American is Miss America? For Susan Supernaw, a Muscogee-Creek and Munsee Native American, the question wasn't just academic. Throughout a childhood clouded by poverty, alcoholism, and abuse, Supernaw sought escape in school and dance and the Native American Church. She became a presidential scholar, won a scholarship to college, and was crowned Miss Oklahoma in 1971. Supernaw might not have won the Miss America pageant that year, but she did call attention to the Native peoples living largely invisible lives throughout their own American land. And she did at long last earn her Native American name. (University of Nebraska Press)

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Flood Song by Sherwin Bitsui

Sherwin Bitsui isn’t exactly a Pacific Northwest poet, but he read with Sherman Alexie at Elliott Bay Books in August. He also has a connection with James Bertolino. As a judge for the American Book Award this year, Jim chose Flood Song, which is Sherwin Bitsui’s second book and comes from Copper Canyon Press of Port Townsend. So he does have ties to the northwest.

Sherwin Bitsui

American Book Award winner

Here’s what Jim says about Sherwin Bitsui’s work:

Sherwin Bitsui’s book Flood Song can be experienced as a constantly shifting single poem, or as a rich gathering of individual poems. There are no set borders between the physical details of his world and his capacious imagination, just as his language both deeply honors and leaps beyond his Native American culture. Bitsui’s vision encompasses many versions of beauty. I’m grateful this book exists, and that’s why I chose it for a 2010 American Book Award.
—James Bertolino

I enjoyed reading Flood Song last week. Bitsui’s poems contain what many might consider traditional imagery, color and spirituality. But his poems go further, taking the traditional out of its comfortable contexts, and dropping it into a disconcerting contemporary environment. There is a matter-of-fact, beautifully rendered rage in the poems that transfers to you, the “innocent” reader, until you become, at the very least, a little alarmed. Jim is right when he mentions the constant shifts of the poems. First, you’re given a solid footing, but then “There is no sign of the trail leading out.” Every poem, and almost every line, uses specific, clear language from our natural and contemporary worlds, which is then mixed with varying degrees of violence. For instance, one poem’s first line begins: “It is here that they scoop gr…,” but the poem isn’t talking about grain; that line ends with “[gr]anite stones from your chest.” Ouch. Here’s another more subtle example that comes from about the middle of one of the groups of untitled poems in the book:

Scraping rough with smooth,
the mind pillboxes the scent of cactus wren
and wraps it with strands of neon vapor.

Dinetah*—scratched out
from the eye with juniper bark—
hunches with engine sweat
curling out of its collar,
its owner—a leash without a hand—
bleeds gasoline
when lathered with a blur of red bricks.

When you’re through reading this poem, you get it, even though you may not understand all the details. Take another look, and it’s possible to understand the details, too. If you read one of Bitsui’s poems as if it were arithmetic, you might come away breathless. By the time you get to the end of a poem, the accumulation of cultural references, nuance and plain speaking, have the effect of leaving one out of breath, or with that strange feeling of semi-asphyxiation. And what about that verb “pillboxes?” What happens in these poems is the same thing that happens when a fist-sized snowball rolls to the bottom of a hill… there is an increase in mass that is wonderful to watch, yet has terrible uncontrollable thrust. The cultural references are sometime obvious, sometimes not, but Bitsui often refers to both the contemporary and the historical at the same time, which is something that can make a lot of sense in poetry. A great novel creates a suspenseful experience, where the reader just can’t wait to get at the next chapter. In Bitsui’s poems, this exhilarating suspense is so condensed, it happens between words. The enjoyment of reading Bitsui’s Flood Song, isn’t just between the lines.

For more information about Sherwin Bitsui, go to his website:

* Din├ętah is the homeland of the Navajo.