Modernism in Native American Heritage Month

Getting crafty with Langston Hughes, by Avery Younis–you can move the strips to recreate poems

Some terrific people at my university just organized our first ever Native American Heritage Month, involving two lectures, two documentaries, and a poetry reading with tastings of traditional foods. I made it to four out of five events, and every one was interesting, moving, and really fun–I’m so grateful to the organizers for their work.

The commemoration also made me return to a teaching/ research question that’s bothered me for a long time. My “modernist” poetry course hasn’t, in fact, carried that label for years, because I find it limited and misleading. Instead, I teach “U.S. Poetry from 1900-1950.” Alongside the modernist canon I was trained in, and the white women poets I added to my mental list of innovators during my PhD years, we read the formalisms of Frost, Millay, Cullen, Georgia Douglas Johnson, and others, and the poetic experiments of the New Negro Renaissance (these people and bodies of work overlap, of course). I’m currently teaching the most inclusive version of this course I’ve ever constructed. So where are the Native American poets?

There are a few modernist scholars out there doing great work to answer that question. I read a 2017 essay by Kirby Brown last week that I found really helpful: “American Indian modernities and new modernist studies’ ‘Indian Problem.'” He trains some light on Native prose writers–some of whom I knew, like Zitkála-Šá, and some novel writers of the 1930s I’d never heard of, especially John Joseph Mathews, D’Arcy McNickle, and Oskison. Of course, many scholars would say my periodization is wrong. I’m ending my course around 1950, and it’s easier to find work by marginalized writers in the modernist style, or bearing some relation to the style some call modernism, in the 50s and 60s. The prime example there is always Scott Momaday, whose hybrid novel (containing lots of poems) House Made of Dawn was published in 1969. Once you get into the 1970s and 80s, there’s a much richer array of Native writers publishing in every genre, and there’s no excuse for syllabi surveying those periods excluding them.

But what it I want to focus on the jostle of poetic styles and agendas in North American in the first half of the century–defining the class by decade instead of by style? I know Native America was visible and interesting to certain white writers, especially Marianne Moore (who taught business English in the Carlisle Indian School as a very young woman), H.D. (mostly in her novels), and William Carlos Williams. I have also observed that numerous biographies ascribe Native American heritage to poets of the New Negro Renaissance, although usually in a vague, distant way. Anne Spencer knew she had Seminole forebears and identified with that nation; biographers of Georgia Douglas Johnson and Langston Hughes, however, merely say they had “French, African, and Indian blood,” with no hint of how to find out more. I point out those intersections to my students, but it still doesn’t seem like enough.

Kirby Brown did give me one lead I’m excited to follow up: Lynn Riggs (Cherokee), most famous as a playwright (he wrote the play upon which the musical Oklahoma! is based), also published poetry. I’ve ordered the one collection he published in his lifetime, The Iron Dish (1930), and the posthumous collection, This Book, This Hill, This People (1982), but they’re out of print so might take a while to arrive. In the meantime, I showed my students a few poems published by Poetry and therefore easy to find online (bless the Poetry Foundation!): a sonnet about loss, “Dawn–Late Summer,” and an incantatory, mysterious poem in quatrains, “The Room” (1943). Maybe I can assign a more robust grouping, with more understanding of how to read them, next time. That’s always the hitch, and the intriguing puzzle, isn’t it? As the endlessly irritating and yet not wrong T. S. Eliot observed, each new writer makes you reconsider everything that has come before. I need to find ways to read Riggs, and doing so will put the whole canon in a different light, just as making a deep study of Millay, Hughes, and modernist poetry performance did.

In the meantime, my students have given me permission to share their visual readings of my favorite long poem, Montage of a Dream Deferred by Langston Hughes. They’re pretty great, including one reading typgraphy as musical notation, and another, by Garrett Clinton, clocking the poems’ hours. (See here or here for more on how I construct the assignment.) There’s just one more week of classes after the Thanksgiving break (on George Herriman’s Krazy Kat). As usual, I feel sad about that–and not a little grateful.

Uncanny paneling

When you write a poem that resembles a spell, prayer, charm, curse, or blessing, are you trying to make something happen, and if so, what or how?

That’s what we talked about on the Uncanny Activisms panel I organized for the C.D. Wright Women Writers Conference last weekend (the conference as a whole was wonderful, especially the keynote by Camille Dungy). “We” from left includes Hyejung Kook, Jane Satterfield, Anna Lena Phillips Bell, Anna Maria Hong, Ashley M. Jones, and yours truly, talking with her hands again. Some brilliant tidbits I scribbled down from this brilliant cohort: Ashley remarking that all poems are spells; Anna Lena responding that spell-poems are the poemiest kind of poem, and speaking about how poems help us focus attention; Jane musing about shape-shifting through reading and writing, and how poetry can be a means to power, sometimes as an alternative when legal recourse isn’t working; Hyejung talking about poetry as an act of transformation (and about Icelandic fart curses, which I have yet to look up). I LOVED this conversation and it seems as if others did, too, which made me happy, as if we might be a small band of spellcasters setting out to fix the world through verse. If you want to join the effort, check out the amazing prompts I gathered from these writers for a pretty handout (less prettily listed below). We will be soliciting uncanny activist work for a future issue of Shenandoah, but for the moment, note that poetry subs open today (11/15-12/15), and there’s a special prize for Virginia poets: $1000 for the Graybeal-Gowan award, no entry fee, judged by Beth and me. Everything submitted will be considered for general publication as well as the prize. I’m excited to start reading but also a little worried about managing the deluge. My novel galleys just came in, and my students need lots of conferences this time of year, and I’m trying to squeeze in time to apply for book promotion opportunities…oy.

In other news, my review of Franny Choi’s amazing collection Soft Science is up on Strange Horizons, and my poem “Spring Rage” has been posted by storySouth. Thanks to the kind and careful editors at both magazines.

I’ve been down despite all the good things happening, at least partly because I’m not finding enough time to rest and read and think and play. I didn’t bring my laptop to the conference and that gave me respite, but Monday morning I was neck-deep again as soon as I walked into the office. I’m trying to take better care of myself, and I’m wondering if I shouldn’t start with one of these prompts. Writing poetry tend to channel the simple magic, at least, of temporary self-transformation: I feel calmer when I’m immersed in the work, possibly BECAUSE there’s so little money or prestige involved. Hope you get some drafting time, too.

Counting-Out Rhyme, from Anna Lena Phillips Bell
a. Choose a category of being- or thing-in-the-world—plants local to or new to your region; particularities of the way your family or community speaks; geologic formations or soil types near you; songs from a specific tradition; birds or small mammals or insects. List as many beings or things in this category as you can think of.
b. Optionally, write a paragraph describing what you’ve chosen, as well as any threats to it that exist. Save this text as a plain-text file, and feed it into the n-gram generator available at, created by Brian Hayes. Copy the resulting text into another file, print out the pages, and mine the text for new words that speak to what you’re writing about. You may wish to search for rhyme-words within the text; or you may simply highlight words you like.
c. Write a counting-out rhyme using the words and phrases from your list. If you’ve used the n-gram generator to create new words, incorporate some of these as well. Write in lines of trochaic tetrameter (or choose another meter and stick to it); optionally, end each stanza with a line of trochaic dimeter. Where pronunciation of a neologism is unclear, use the meter to help guide readers toward how you hear it. Employ a rhyme scheme (aaa, bbb, ccc; abab cc, dede ff, ghgh ii; or similar), however slant your rhymes may be.
d. Your poem will evoke one layer of the landscape or community its elements are part of. For each being or thing you include, imagine how it helps make a portrait of that layer in the time during which you’ve experienced it. Read your completed poem to the beings or things it includes. Read it to other people. Revise based on these readings and imaginings.
e. Memorize your revised poem: make it part of your body and mind.
Ambitious poem, from Lesley Wheeler: Think about something you desperately want to achieve, an aspiration you may be embarrassed to admit. Imagine how you would achieve this goal and imagine taking those steps; consider who might have the power to help and imagine them giving that help. Write a fourteen-line poem in the future tense describing this process. The first word should be “let” and you should repeat the first line exactly, or almost exactly, at the poem’s close. Weave in references to: a so-called weed or wild plant you noticed recently; a scent that makes you feel good; and something other-than-human that produces a humming sound. (adapted from a prompt by Oliver de la Paz)

Self-invocation Poem, from Hyejung Kook: In this poem, we are going to name, invoke, and invent our most expansive self. Start by doing some research into your given name–how it was chosen, etymology, other people who share it, etc. If you prefer, do this work with a different name that calls to you. From your research, choose the three words that resonate most powerfully and incorporate these words, a color, an animal, and a scientific/historical fact that fascinates you. Use “In my wildest dreams, I” at least three times and allow yourself all the possibility the phrase grants you. Once your draft is complete, remove the phrase “In my wildest dreams,” from the poem.  

Another possibility is to turn the naming-invocation outward, using the phrase “In my wildest dreams, you” while writing.

Po Go, from Anna Maria Hong: This exercise can be harnessed to jumpstart a new project, clear the deck, meditate on a question, or find a new question to guide your writing now.
1.   Designate 15 minutes of your day to this exercise for 40 days. Ideally, do this exercise before you speak to or interact with another human being each day (dogs and cats, OK), but if this is not possible, allocate another time free of distractions.
2.   Ideally, also designate a place for this exercise.
3.   Begin each session with an invocation to the “gods” of poetry—whichever spirits might be enlisted to help you—household objects, ancient deities, your ancestors, etc.
4.   Begin writing this invocation as a list: “I call on the bedside lamp, Jupiter’s moons, and the turnips in the fridge to assist me in my writing today.”
5.   Then, free-write for the rest of the session and/or pick up threads from previous sessions (without looking at the previous entries).
6.   Stop writing after 15 minutes.
7.   Repeat for 40 days, and then and only then, review your writings.
from Ashley M. Jones: Think of an experience you’ve had that you wish others could experience to empathize with you—maybe it’s a struggle or a pain, or, maybe, even, more surprisingly, a joy that’s unique to your life. Try to think of something that, if experienced, would change the reader/spell recipient’s view or prejudice or oppressive mindset against you. Write a poem commanding them to feel that thing, focusing primarily on specific image. Take photographs with your words. Find the feeling, down to the hair. Your poem might be 10 lines, and it might include each sense (that is, The Five…or Six if you’d like). 
from Jane Satterfield: Select a natural organism that you’ve admired or overlooked. Learn more about its species and life cycle; appearance, texture, smell. What are its beneficial or dangerous properties? Associations and attributes? What role has it played in legend, lore, and in myth?  
Use tercets to weave your new knowledge of this organism into a poem that purges anger against someone or something that has hurt you, or that serves as a means of countering some injustice in your life or in the larger culture. Consider the way a curse can voice an appeal for restitution: a poem that begin as a curse can banish the harm you’ve experienced. Alternately, consider the way a curse can release the harm of the experience and turn the poem toward forgiveness and healing.