New Poets of Native Nations is seriously captivating.
Graywolf Press’ collection of Native Nations writers isn’t comprehensive—and it doesn’t intend to be. Editor Heid E. Erdrich has collected poems by 21 writers, all of whom began publishing in the 21st century and many of whom are in the “emerging voice” realm of poets who’ve yet to publish a second book. Within those criteria, there’s a great diversity of ages, affiliations, schools and styles. I didn’t fall in love with every poem or every poet represented, and I don’t think anyone should ever expect to with an anthology. But this book is a wonderful, needed, vital breath of air.
Making the (presumably daunting) choice to focus on so few authors and such a confined time period accomplishes two extremely fabulous things. One, it highlights the dialogues and the debates in a group of writers who come from a plethora of backgrounds and tribes and perspectives, many of whom have been highly relevant to the formation of one another’s voices (read the acknowledgments at the end and you’ll see the majority of these writers cite at least one or two of the others as mentors and influences). A quest to include as many different writers as possible (Erdrich notes in her introduction that there are over 566 Native Nations in existence) would have diluted the collection’s impact; it’s an impossible task to collect every practitioner of every kind of poetry across a demographic that is emphatically not a single demographic. These poets are multiracial, multilingual and geographically diverse. And two, by focusing on writers who are relatively early in their careers, it wisely throws a gauntlet at this country’s tendency to consider Native American cultures “of the past,” as if they no longer exist. Native literature is clearly shown by this collection to be diverse, multivalent, and extremely alive.
This anthology is an essential resource for anyone who wants to discover new, contemporary American voices. It encompasses writers of diverse ages, language influences and stylistic preoccupations, celebrants and mourners, historians and dreamers, taxonomists and mystics. Some of these poets were already familiar to me; several were not. Some thrilled me (Janet McAdams and Layli Long Soldier in particular); some I won’t be in a hurry to seek out. With such a mosaic of styles and themes and voices, that will probably be the case for most readers. Personal taste is…well, personal. But the pure craft and diligence that went into developing this anthology are beyond debate.
New Poets of Native Nations is a wonderfully conceived collection, full of exciting juxtapositions, rich language and a fine equipoise between generosity and restraint. It’s safe to say New Poets of Native Nations is an essential read.
Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.