The Poetry of Linguistic Resistance

An astute student once asked me, “What’s the best way to learn the rules of poetry?” At the time, I was helping to facilitate a workshop for the Oneida Nation Arts Program with the singular goal of encouraging would-be writers to put words to paper. My fellow instructors looked to me to address this inquiry, preferring to limit their input to encouraging creativity rather than pontificating upon structure. While my English degree coursework has provided me with a readily recallable answer on the nuances of poetic feet and fixed rhyme scheme, the truth is that by conjuring this knowledge I could be putting barriers between aspiring poets and their artwork. To be clear, I fully encourage all creative writing majors to study the finer points of form and meter, but for anyone not preparing for graduate exams, there’s no better teacher of contemporary craft than reading modern poetry collections themselves.

Contrary to abiding by rules, Osage scholar Robert Allen Warrior noted that Indigenous poetry is in fact, “a form of resistance against other European forms and systems.” He continued, “Poetry has provided [Native people with] a vehicle for such resistance because of the way it can unsettle prevailing ideologies and give voice to what is not being spoken.” Warrior’s words are affirmed in last year’s landmark Native American poetry collection When the Light of the World was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through, a compilation of more than a century’s worth of work, edited by Joy Harjo (Muscogee), LeAnne Howe (Choctaw), and Jennifer Elise Foerster (Muscogee). While I can’t recommend enough the anthology, this column is for those who want to explore other recent Native poetry texts that resist forms and labels en route to inspiring us all.

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The Death of Sitting Bear: New and Selected Poems by N. Scott Momaday (Kiowa), is the single best collection of works from a master of Native letters. Taking its title from a poetic honor song for Momaday’s tribal kinsmen, the work within these pages speaks to the joy and possibilities that come from the author’s connection to spaces and the memories they keep. Noting the preface’s declaration that “a poem is a moral statement concerning the human condition, composed in verse,” one would be wise to savor the beauty within Momaday’s lyrics. His words are ones that scholars and lovers of language return to, gleaning greater wisdom and understanding from having spent time in their company.

Apple: Skin to the Core by Eric Gansworth (Onondaga), is a poetic memoir that speaks directly to anyone thinking about the intersections of Native cultural reclamation in our world of pop culture heroes. While intended for middle school audiences, and rightfully longlisted for the 2020 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, Gansworth’s recollections may best be enjoyed by fans of the Beatles and Batman who get the nuances of his evocations. Still, everyone can appreciate the details of how Gansworth and his siblings coped with manifestations of generational trauma from his grandparents’ boarding school days. The book’s title is a reductive slur that references Gansworth being labeled “red on the outside, white on the inside,” letting readers in on the truth that even insults can be repurposed into art.

Little Big Bully by Heid E. Erdrich (Turtle Mountain Ojibwe) is a poetry collection that speaks to the power of using words to reframe experiences. Within its pages, Erdrich lays bare the wrongs of oppressors, both personal and those that have reached international proportions. A master of using spacing and indentations to convey power that punctuation alone can’t express, readers will marvel at her lines critiquing William Carlos Williams or mislabeled treaty maps. The poems in this collection are both cathartic and provocative, proving that reading Erdrich’s words is time well-spent.

Postcolonial Love Poems by Natalie Diaz (Mojave), connects phrases to ideas that conversely propel readers forward and compel them to linger. Her poems capture both immediacy and timelessness, evoking connections amongst collective Indigenous history and her personal journey with familial and romantic love. A finalist for the 2020 National Book Award for poetry, this collection offers fruitful observations on the world we share with every meticulously chosen word.

Power of the Storm: Indigenous Voices, Visions, and Determination edited by Marijo Moore and dedicated to the late artist and activist John Trudell (Santee Dakota), is a worthy tribute to a generational figure. Trudell is perhaps best known as the voice of Radio Free Alcatraz, broadcasting from the Rock during the famed occupation over 50 years ago. But his passion for Indigenous causes throughout his life echoes in the poems collected in these pages. A mixture of homage, recollections, and calls to action, the work Moore assembled resists fixed form in favor of extemporaneous passion. It’s impossible to read the works in this collection and not be inspired to become a part of the storm of voices dreaming of a better tomorrow.

The phrase “rules are meant to be broken” is a truism that’s also a call to action. This is perhaps never more accurate than when considering the seemingly rigorous fixed landscape of poetry. Don’t take my word for it—buy these books, and in so doing take theirs.

Ryan Winn teaches in the Liberal Studies Department at College of Menominee Nation. 

References

Diaz, N. (2020). Postcolonial Love Poems. Minneapolis: Greywolf Press.

Erdrich, H.E. (2020). Little Big Bully. New York: Penguin.

Gansworth, E. (2020). Apple: Skin to Core. New York: Levine Querido.

Momaday, N.S. (2020). The Death of Sitting Bear: New and Selected Poetry. New York: Harper.

Moore, M. (Ed.). (2020). Power of the Storm: Indigenous Voices, Visions, and Determination. Asheville, NC: Renegade Planets Publishing.

Warrior, R.A. (1994). Tribal Secrets: Recovering American Indian Intellectual Traditions. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in the Writer’s Corner or any other opinion columns published by the Tribal College Journal (TCJ) do not necessarily reflect the opinions of TCJ or the American Indian Higher Education Consortium.

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