In 2003, Diné poet Sherwin Bitsui’s collection of poetry Shapeshift was published. Only two years later, Assiniboine/Sioux poet M.L. Smoker’s Another Attempt at Rescue was released. These two voices were the beginning of what could be called a Fourth Wave in Native American poetry: a group of voices speaking from a wide range of aesthetic, tribal, and experiential perspectives. After Smoker’s book, mine, Indian Trains, was published, then Cherokee poet Marianne Broyles’ The Red Window came out, followed by Cherokee poet Santee Frazier’s Dark Thirty, Lakota poet Layli Long Soldier’s Chromosomory, Comanche/Southern Arapaho poet Sy Hoahwah’s Velroy and the Madischie Mafia, Diné poet Orlando White’s Bone Light, and Creek poet Jennifer Foerster’s Leaving Tulsa. Many seem set to follow — and fast.
I don’t think that Native American writing has been talked about much in terms of “waves” — the only term that I can find is the one coined by Kenneth Lincoln, the “Native American Renaissance,” in his book of the same name published in 1983. We are now many, many writers past that movement. Through my investigation in the newest wave, and in looking at the previous Native writers (and more specifically, poets) that have come before my generation, what emerged were fairly distinct waves of Native American poetry, dating far before the Native American Renaissance. In order to fully contextualize what I was seeing in the newest wave, I wanted to go back and define the First, Second, and Third Waves. What I found in looking at these waves was that there was indeed something unique about the Fourth.
The First Wave would be anything written by a Native person after 1492 and prior to the Native American Renaissance. In searching for single-author Native American poetry written in this time, what we mainly see are writers of prose emerging, writers like Zitkala-Ša — whose fiction has been diligently unearthed and is now being taught by scholars of Native American Literature across the country. The issues that the poets and writers of the Native American Renaissance approached are also the primary issues for those in the First Wave. Identity, nature vs. modernity, authenticity, reservation vs. non-reservation culture, sovereignty/land issues, racism/internalized racism, cultural/tradition recovery, history, and language are core issues. The difference is in audience. The majority of poetry — unlike prose, and unlike much of the post-First-Wave work — was published almost exclusively in Native American school newspapers and magazines, making their audience an almost exclusively Indian audience. The recently published Changing Is Not Vanishing, edited by Robert Dale Parker, is the most comprehensive anthology on First Wave Native American poetry, and it makes three imperative issues clear. The first is that, as stated, the primary audience for First Wave writers was Native American. Unlike First Wave prose, and unlike any kind of writing in the Second and Third Waves, the writers of poetry in the First Wave were under no pressure to write for a Non-Native American audience. The second issue is that “American Indians have written poetry in English or Latin for about as long as Euro-Americans” (Parker 4). The general perception of single-author Native American writing is that it is fairly recent. The fact that it has been a long-standing American tradition changes the relationship of Native American writing to American writing significantly. The third issue is that
[w]hile early Indian poetry … received little attention, a great deal of writing from before 1930 has been published and discussed as Indian poetry, even though — strangely — it is not poetry or was not written by Indians. The oral portions of many Indian rituals or songs were transcribed and translated (not always well transcribed or translated) for anthropological purposes. Later a bevy of white poets retranslated these texts without knowing the original languages, arranging them in “lines” and often rewriting them extensively. (Parker 8)
Native American poets have been writing for almost as long as Non-Native American writers, and what most anthologies have come to see as Native American writing, isn’t. Additionally, there are poets from the First Wave writing in a “variety of styles, forms, ideas, regions, cultures and purposes,” which makes them the most prolific poets until those of the Fourth Wave (Parker 3). There are poets, like Lynn Riggs, born in 1899 in Indian territory, who might rival any contemporary American poet. In “A Letter,” we can see a strong use of language, and perfect control of the line via enjambment and end-stop:
In my neighbor’s garden chickens, like snow,
Drift in the alfalfa. Bees are humming;
A pink dress, a blue wagon play in the road;
Guitars are strumming.
Guitars are saying the same things
They said last night — in a different key.
What they have said I know — so their strumming
Means nothing to me.
Nothing to me is the pale pride of Lucinda
Washing her hair — nothing to anyone:
Here in a black bowl are calendulas,
In my neighbor’s garden, sun. (qtd. in Parker 346)
The Second Wave writers, many of whom are in the Harper’s Anthology of 20th Century Native American Poetry, are what would be called the writers of the Native American Renaissance: writers like Simon Ortiz, Joy Harjo, and Louise Erdrich (though many voices emerged at this time), heralded by the appearance of N. Scott Momaday’s novel House Made of Dawn. This is undeniably the most important wave, as they are the Native poets that are the most well known for their work to this day. The issues at hand were also multiple, but were primarily about being heard. This is when the Pan-Indian issues listed in the first part of this essay become the main issues for Native American writers and critics (and are the issues that Native American writing becomes known for). When looking at poets like Ortiz, Harjo, and Erdrich, these issues predominate conceptually in their work.
In Ortiz’s “Spreading Wings on a Wind,” phrases and words like “Eagle,” “Mountain,” “… and the Earth’s People — all of it, / the Feather in a prayer,” “East, West, North, and South,” “cornfood,” “Sometime before there were billboards,” proliferate, ending with: “What the hell are you doing to this land? My grandfather hunted here, prayed ….” (141). Tradition in relationship to nature, and in relationship to recovery vs. modernity, is abundant. History as a theme pervades Harjo’s “I give you back,” where the third stanza relates: “I give you back to the white soldiers / who burned down my home, beheaded my children, / raped and sodomized my brothers and sisters. / I give you back to those who stole the / food from our plates when we were starving” (283). In “Family Reunion,” Erdrich writes of “… one mysterious brother / who stayed on the land when Ray left for the cities,” beginning an investigation of reservation vs. non-reservation identity. She also uses a mix of English and Anishinaabe — an attempt to illustrate a recovery and use of traditional languages — with the word “Metagoshe” (337-338). Although all of these poets work within the Second Wave tradition differently, there is an overall sense of Indian identity being formed. An identity that does reside, if uneasily, in the 20th Century. This is fundamental because the concept of Native Americans for the larger culture was, and is still in many ways, formulated by Non-Natives in such a way as to deny even the very existence of Native Americans in the 20th Century. For many folks, the very word(s) “Indian” or “Native American” conjures up images of a Pan-Indian past. What the poets of the Second Wave accomplished was a sense of being alive, existing — and existing artistically, as any poet does — in the 20th Century.
The Third Wave is made up of Native writers previous to the new millennium and after the Renaissance, such as Sherman Alexie, Tiffany Midge, and Eric Gansworth. In many ways, the issues that were raised in the Second Wave were still the big issues. The difference is in the greater desire to specifically locate the work in terms of individual tribal identity and politics (although this certainly exists to a degree in the Second Wave). Additionally, there is a kind of gritty, detailed realism in much of the work, and an increased interest in contemporary Native culture and life. Issues of history, language, and identity are used more in terms of backdrop. Irony, humor, and sarcasm enter the picture and are used in an almost postmodern / self-aware way. For example, in Midge’s “Highway Robbery, #5,” in her collection of poetry Outlaws Renegades and Saints: Diary of a Mixed-Up Halfbreed, she speaks sarcastically of “Self-proclaimed shamans, plastic medicine men, Indian spirituality processed in Kmart variety packs” (67). In “Weeds,” Midge locates her work in a tribally specific manner, while also illustrating the gritty, detailed, and very contemporary aspect of Native life: “Our grandfather fed us a rich diet of leather-bounded / bible stories, displayed toothless grins at his own jokes, / his tonic of reservation humor, / recited prayers in Sioux when we were sick” (26-28). This tradition continues in Gansworth’s collection Nickel Eclipse/Iroquois Moon. In his “My Hair Was Shorter Then,” he says, with postmodern self-awareness and sarcasm: “… having never learned / to braid my hair, looking more / like Jerry Garcia than Geronimo … a blonde haired young man in the front / row look[s] around the room quickly and seeing no / evidence, informed me it had to be one / of those crazy ass drunk Indians from down the road” (67). Gansworth is also tribally specific, with titles like “Iroquois Backboard Rebound Song (III): The Art of Guarding,” and the labeling of Skywoman as specifically Onondaga in “Song for a Snapping Turtle Rattle” (62, 83). In Alexie’s “Dead Letter Office,” in his collection The Business of Fancydancing, he says, “I get a letter written in my Native Tongue, but I don’t understand it, so I spend the night searching for a translator, until I find Big Mom in the Bar. She speaks the language, but I have to fancydance for her, in blue parka and tennis shoes ... all the other Skins ... calling me by a name I recognize but cannot be sure is my own ...” (36).
The Fourth Wave begins with the release of Sherwin Bitsui’s book, Shapeshift. It marks a large departure, based on the intense interest in contemporary poetic aesthetic that has arisen from this wave. Many of the writers of the Fourth Wave sought degrees at the Institute of American Indian Arts, where so many Native artists have come from (we can see this departure in even younger writers earning their degrees; those who have not put books out yet).
When I was a visiting writer at the Institute of American Indian Arts — from which several of the poets mentioned above graduated, a few years before I spent my year there — there was one thing that I heard over and over, which was the aching desire to be allowed to write without the traditional burdens of Native American literary politics. The young writers there were utterly exhausted with the issues that a great majority of writers and critics had brought to the table, and simply wanted to do what every young writer wants to do: pour themselves out on the page. Issues the First, Second, and Third Wave of Native American writers were so invested in only brought tired sighs. When pressed, a great majority of my students would say that our predecessors had covered these things, and that it was our great privilege to have inherited the lack of these burdens.
I understood. I was and still am a fairly young writer myself, and I had gone through years of attempting to figure out exactly where I stood. I’d read every poet from T.S. Eliot to Sherman Alexie and had eventually decided that their jobs were the same: to poetically render what they knew. After reading Langston Hughes’s “The Negro and the Racial Mountain,” first published in The Nation in 1926, I felt that I had found what it was I had been trying to voice for years:
We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too. The tom-tom cries and the tom-tom laughs. If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn’t matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves.
To translate this to the Native American writing experience, the feeling was that if the art came from a Native person, it was by default Native American art, and that to worry conceptually about identity issues and politics was to distract ourselves from becoming better artists. At the Institute of American Indian Arts, I cited the Hughes essay a lot. And I often talked about poetic form. Metaphor, sound, image. These were words I used over and over, so that students had the tools to choose whatever way they wanted to render their lives, their thoughts, their words. For years Arthur Sze, a deep image poet, and his colleague Jon Davis, had taught at the Institute and allowed students to simply fall in love with the word. I also introduced poets like M.L. Smoker, who, much like myself, wrote lyric and prose poems. We talked about poets like Sherwin Bitsui, a more experimental / deep image / epic poet, and argued that his work was Diné in form, not just content / concept.
In his poem “The Northern Sun,” in his collection Shapeshift, Bitsui writes, “Find me on the hood of a car racing through stars, on the velvet nose of a horse seeking its dead master waiting with saddle and bridle” (16). In this poem, the images melt quickly into one another. Certainly, this is the way in which poetry works through metaphor. However, much like many Native languages, Diné is a highly verbed language, unlike English, a language where nouns dominate. In Diné living things are imbued with a kind of dynamism, so that one thing turns easily into another. In the poem “The Sun Rises and I Think of your Bruised Larynx,” Bitusui writes:
I think of your cupped hands tucked into the petals of a mud-caked sun.
The raven browned by winter moon’s breath
releases its wings,
stretches its neck,
resembles for a second
the silhouette of a horse’s head
carved from the nugget of coal
found in your grandmother’s clenched fist. (26-27)
In this way, I showed students how Native identity did not necessarily have to be overtly stated in terms of content / concept, over and over on the page, and that if one trusted one’s audience, it was possible to look back at the images, sounds, languages, and locations of their communities, and to poetically render what they knew.
Two of the writers coming out of the Fourth Wave, Marianne Aweagon Broyles and Santee Frazier, often write what could be described as narrative poetry: poems that move forward in terms of progression in time throughout the poem (although I would say that Frazier also writes almost equally in prose form). Tragically, narrative has ended up with a bad rap in contemporary poetry circles, perhaps due to the seeming ease of the form. Poet Dana Levin notes in her article “The Heroics of Style: A Study in Three Parts”:
Open many of the books published by younger poets since the late nineties and you will find much to delight the eye and tease the palate ... [but w]hat I can (and often do) admire about such poems — lingual beauty — doesn’t linger long after turning the page. I’ve been wondering for a while how much of the poetry of my generation got into such a state of affairs. (1)
Both Frazier and Broyles’ work absolutely lingers long after turning the page. But as narrative poets, their work is not work that merely topically dazzles, as Levin notes about so many contemporary poets above; it’s work that quickly draws you into a story. Narrative is a form that’s one of the most misunderstood, difficult, and beautiful forms of poetry because of its seeming ease. Both Broyles and Frazier paint excruciatingly lovely portraits of people from their lives within this form, and I don’t believe the poems could have been written effectively in any other. Take, for example Broyles’ poem, “Mohawk Horse Breaker,” about a man dying in a hospital at the end of his life:
Then his eyes darken over —
stars covered by a bank of storm clouds —
as Philip leaves the moment
and returns where he lies now. He releases a sigh,
the same kind of sigh
exhausted Pintos must have
let go under his craggy weight.
Now, I smile at his leather boots,
sticking out of crumpled hospital bedding,
indicative of his unbroken will.
I sure do love them horses, he declares,
and closes his eyes so he can
rejoin the world he knew before. (9)
In this piece, Broyles progresses forward in time, while telling a story — which is the definition of narrative. However there are images, sounds, and a lack of autobiographical fetishization of the narrator of the piece, or as Levin would put it:
… the decadence of the Confessionalist movement, which has informed much of contemporary poetry for the last fifty years [immediately prior to the poets Levin described above] …. Lowell’s revolutionary decision to “tell what happened” had splintered into little camps of disclosure. What the poems of these camps — poems of identity-politics, politics of familial violation and abuse … had stylistically in common was a narrative autobiographical approach where exposition of subject matter often took precedence of over imaginative shaping of language and form. (2, italics mine)
The poets of the Native American Renaissance fit into the framework and definition of the American Confessionalist movement. Although there is the argument by many Native writers and scholars that content-driven Native work is Native in origin, it is in many ways Anglo American in origin, depending on how one utilizes a poetic form. Take, for example, Frazier’s “Mama’s Work,” from Dark Thirty:
Mama tucked the coffee can between her wrist and hip
and walked down Dry Creek Road. Her eyes lined-up,
blush and lipstick, her Levi’s shorts cut above the thigh.
And what it was to see those farmers cutting down wheat,
side-glancing mama, barefoot and brown. Sometimes it’s flour,
sometimes money when she empties the can. Her work
in the quiet corners of barns on the hay, on hot days
when locusts launch themselves out of thickets.
I stare down Dry Creek Road looking for her wrist and hip,
her splayed hair and small toes walking out of a pone-colored dust. (7)
As is the case with Broyles, this is a poem that does not fetishize the autobiography of the narrator, nor ignore the beauty of the potential of poetic form, specifically the narrative. In both poems there is a phenomenally orchestrated progression of events, united through poetic language, including intensely beautiful and unique images, culminating in powerful endings, and resulting in pieces that are wonderfully tender portraits of lives. I can’t imagine them in any other form. They’re fresh, lovely, and unexpected.
As a poet in academia, I’ve thought a lot about why it is that narrative has garnered less respect in poetry circles in recent years. A great majority of young Native and Latino writers have become increasingly invested in experimental poetry, though they often seem loathe to label their work in any way. While I was at the Institute, there was a lot of conversation about the influence of Sze. There seemed to be an emotional consensus that experimental poetry allowed a disruption of all of the politics of the past. If there was an exclusive investment in language, poets could run from the dirty, dogmatic, content-over-form work that they found themselves so tired of. The form of narrative poetry had become equated with the fetishized confessional poem, wherein the author didn’t poetically render a series of events, culminating in a moment or portrait of a person, as is the case with Broyles or Frazier, but instead dogmatically pursued an historical or personal concept, primarily for — though seemingly opposed to — a white audience. This is what I had been interested in as a graduate student: the idea that Native writers in the past had been burdened with the task of explaining all Indians to all whites, resulting in a schizophrenic feeling of never allowing the poetic self to turn inward, or to imagine what one’s own family, or community, would think about one’s work.
Many of the Native writers, filmmakers, and artists of different kinds that I encountered over the years would say, “Look. I know where I come from.” Which is to say, I don’t need to do a lot of identity exploration, or historic digging, I am what I am, and I’m from where I’m from, whether that means that self is a full-blooded reservation Navajo, or a mixed-blood, multi-tribal Urban Indian. There was a genuine disinterest in proving “authenticity” of the Indian self to a white audience and an investment in the increasingly diverse, fascinating conversation that was happening in the Native art world, as well as a strong investment in the different kinds of aesthetics they could explore in doing so. At times, this reaction felt extreme, as there are many Native American writers from the First, Second, and Third Waves who not only transcend any kind of label, but are lovely, phenomenal artists in their own right. Artists I’d taken great inspiration from, who were in many ways the reason why I’d felt that what I had to say — and how I said it — was valid. In addition, it’s clear that labeling is something that happens to every writer, no matter how hard one struggles against it. Our jobs are to accept it and move on in a way that doesn’t compromise the artistic vision that is uniquely ours. If one is to produce art in any public sense, one will never escape this dynamic, especially if one is part of a minority group in any way, because the industry of art is one that is, in the majority, white, male, and straight. More specifically to art that is Native American, if one is darker skinned and/or from a reservation, that artist will be asked to represent a kind of strange, “Pan-Indian” anti-individual aesthetic; and if that artist is lighter skinned and/or not from a reservation, one would always be labeled as “not looking Indian / not being Indian enough,” whether Natives write about identity issues in the most blatant sense or if we choose to write pretty, light verse about flowers.
In Orlando White’s Bone Light, we see a voice that could be described as language-driven, or experimental, as there is a lot of use of space on the page; short, enjambed lines; and a move away from heavy-handed, content-driven work. Throughout, there is a deceptively playful use of punctuation, wherein the letter “i” becomes personified as a man, and “j” a woman. In “Analogy,” White writes, “See them on the bed of a page, how they hyphenate, how they will create language together” (47). This is funny, sexy, and ultimately fun. It goes right back to what William Carlos Williams said of poetry, that there should be pleasure there.
For years, I’d taught classes where the students came in the first day looking like I was going to electrocute them, especially after using the dreaded word “poetry.” But when I began teaching books that were smart, but also fun, and didn’t ask them only to talk about content and analysis, they opened up and laughed and spoke about what they liked or did not like about the books — something it seemed they had never been allowed to do before, which saddened me greatly. Specifically, when it came to the students I had taught at the Institute of American Indian Arts, I thought about how much they wanted to have fun. To play. To write and fall in love with that act. And I thought, it’s OK to have fun. We’re learning to have fun. This is not to say that the Fourth Wave isn’t very much engaged in language, or issues of land, and the many issues that spring from these things, in our work. In fact, as to White’s work, his desire to look at the basics of the English alphabet began in a very personal place, as exemplified in his narrative at the beginning of his book, “To See Letters.” He says, “Everything I write requires this: Alphabet … I always called my step-dad, David … He tried to teach me how to spell … He shouted out, ‘Spell them out you little fucker! I am going to hit you if you don’t’ … When David hit me in the head, I saw stars in the shape of the Alphabet. Years later, my fascination for letters resulted in poems” (13-14). So, the issues, the same issues, remain.
In this sense I could understand why experimental — or, in the world of fiction, postmodern — aesthetics have become so appealing to young Native American artists. Even though it is yet another form arising from White Academia (and one has only to go to the Poetry Foundation website to see that this discussion is going on in the larger art world), it is one that buries the identity markers as deeply as it can, so that those who would tear our work apart so as to make cohesive, solipsistic, academic, reductive, content-driven arguments will find themselves without the traditional markers that academia has become so comfortable with when it comes to writing by Native Americans. Even so, as we can see by White’s narrative in the beginning of his collection, even when we aesthetically move, in terms of form, if the reality of our lives remains a certain way, it will slip through our subconscious cracks — whether narrative, lyric, experimental, prose, or whatever stylistic form we chose.
So, where are we to take this? Do we live under the radar, in a sense, with experimental/language poetry, or do we make it loud and proud with content-driven confessional poetry? All of these forms, it could be argued, do not come from us. However … if you look at the poets coming out of this newest wave, you can see that they are beginning to use poetic form accurately, and not as a crutch: narrative poems are not just confessional blathering — they are image-driven. Language poems are not just clever ways of playing with words on a page — they are carefully wrought sentences, which add up to a bigger, beautiful sensory experience. There are still hogans, and sweetgrass, and rez cars — but, they are there not to just showcase the authenticity of the poet, but there when they actually add to the beauty of the poem. Take, for example, M.L. Smoker’s “From a Tin Box”:
In my uncle’s old army chest the teeth of an elk rattle — a full-grown elk who gave up his life one November. The chest is standard issue, safe at the side of my uncle’s bed. Every morning his toes touch down, four inches from the metal, from the strong ivory-tinted teeth that listen for this awakening. He smiles at this. He calls the teeth a shelter, a low ridge sprouting new grasses. My uncle opens the chest and gathers them into the shadow of his thick, cupped palms. He confides in them a dream from the night before, ever careful to listen for its meaning as the teeth click quietly together and sing. (39)
There is no sweetgrass, no mention of the word “rez,” no historical reconstruction, no fetishization of the narrator of the poem, no discussion of racism/internalized racism, issues of blood quantum/enrollment; this is prose and narrative, and in that way, might even be viewed as experimental. But I will say that despite the lack of all of these things, because she wrote it about someone she knows, and let the little, tender parts of this tiny bit of his life come into the poem naturally, the thing that should be in every poem — the bits and pieces that escape even the best critics, the tiny, in-between-the-lines stuff, the beautiful, intangible mysterious thing — is there … and that adds up, in her case, to a portrait of a Native man where she comes from. The way she sounds, the images, it comes from her — she is not trying to push an agenda, she is, cliché as this sounds, just writing about what she knows. That’s it. And it’s all that’s needed, just like Hughes said, nearly eighty-three years ago.
There are also poets from the Fourth Wave who carry much of the interests of the Second and Third Waves, in terms of more conceptual and content-driven poetics. For example, poet Sy Hoahwah, whose poetic form seems only to fit under the rubric of free verse, uses terms like “powwow,” “drum,” “Indian,” and “coyote” freely, much as poets of the Second Wave had; and it is tribally specific, like poets of the Third. In “Madischie Mafia,” he says, “Dee is Cheyenne, / Arapahoe, Comanche, Kiowa and Fort Sill Apache. / He couldn’t enroll into any tribe / but he can grass dance, bump and grind ... Stoney has four wives, Indian way. / He has ghost medicine .... He sells peyote and coke to the white boys” (2). The enjambments and end-stops seem subservient to the overall political point. There is nothing in terms of form that seems to dominate throughout this poem or the collection. Though there is some kind of postmodern self-awareness, as there is in the Third Wave, and a definite investment in history, language, and identity, as with the Second Wave.
In stark contrast to Hoahwah is Foerster. Her work, although also not easily fitting within distinct contemporary forms, is definitely of the Fourth Wave, leaning towards deep image. Her poems are crisp and lovely and full of descriptions of the landscape of Oklahoma, and of the desert Southwest. They are free verse, but sing with the dramatic tension of images caught in sharp, directed lines and stanzas. There is distinct structure, and occasional attention to sound through end- and internal-rhyme schemes. Though there are a number of words that an outside audience might recognize as Native American, there is a gentle resistance to anything that said audience could easily recognize as such. Take, for example “Pottery Lessons I.”:
Hokte hokte hmvnwv*
with the clay she says
under her breath a handful of earth
from silt-bottomed streams
loosens between fingers water
echoes in an empty bowl hokte
hoktet hecet os*
I was birthed of mud blood
And bone hokte
Hoktet hecet os. (13)
It begins in Creek / Muskogee, which is something that might potentially alienate an audience who is only looking for a simple connection to something Native American. Words like “powwow” or “corn” easily conjure up what people think of in this country as Indian. But if one is to begin a poem with a language that isn’t English, then that poem is telling you that its ideal audience is an insider. Then there are the lovely line breaks, which make every stanza short and tense. Additionally, the images are spare and yet rich, and the whole piece adds up to a collage, which gives us a sort of impressionistic feeling that what is being talked about in the poem is a memory, one that can only be expressed through flashes of image. In this way, the content of the poem is subservient to the overall feeling of the poem, and the images are what we take away with us rather than a statement on Native Americans in general.
The last poet of the Fourth Wave I’d like to discuss is Layli Long Soldier. She was a student of mine at the Institute of American Indian Arts (though I often felt as if I were hers) and her work is not only beautiful and affecting in terms of language, but truly innovative in terms of form. In Long Soldier’s chapbook, Chromosomory, it’s clear that her work sits at the crossroads of fiction and poetry. Often, as in her poem “Timing,” she utilizes the prose poem at its purest: a block of text, led by language, images fracturing into one another, adding up to a kind of portrait of a feeling or moment, rather than a linear telling of a story. Long Soldier says, “They talk about death. One with red blotches about her wide face, lead grey bowls cut below the eyes. The other with a bird-like pallor, the morning in her lashes” (10). In “Waves Between,” Long Soldier has a series of block prose pieces, all image- and language-driven, adding up to a kind of almost-linear story by the end of the piece. It starts, “Should I slide under the sheets quietly, put my body close, say, Are you awake? There’s a small wire between us, on low ebb, my mother in the next room, baby on alert to knock or footstep” (5).
What strikes me about the Fourth Wave — and why I think that it has gone a step further than the previous waves — is that it has found its freedom, its fun, its big, beautiful poetic license. There is little interest in authenticity, or concept — that will come naturally. And this certainly invites an Indian audience, and audiences of all kinds. Because of the diverse and skilled aesthetics of the Fourth Wave, there is a wonderful grace, which speaks full-circle to the way in which the First Wave was able to ignore the demands of a larger audience and simply write for the skill and joy in that skill. The majority of the Fourth Wave poets I’ve spoken about in this essay are doing things with form that I haven’t seen before; they have indeed inherited something very good. They are invested in the way that experimentation in form can simultaneously express individual poetic interest, and look to expressing the sounds and images that they as Native American poets are uniquely able to render in poetry. Something is happening, something big, or as M.L. Smoker puts it in her poem in the epistolary form, one that is written to Richard Hugo: “There’s just something about the remissible wave of a cast which feels like the biggest commitment of all” (64).
Alexie, Sherman. The Business of Fancydancing. Brooklyn: Hanging Loose Press, 1992. Print.
Bitsui, Sherwin. Shapeshift. Tucson: U of Arizona P, 2003. Print.
Broyles, Marianne Aweagon. The Red Window. Albuquerque: West End Press, 2008. Print.
Foerster, Jennifer Elise. Leaving Tulsa. Tucson: U of Arizona P, 2013. Print.
Frazier, Santee. Dark Thirty. Tucson: U of Arizona P, 2009. Print.
Gansworth, Eric. Nickel Eclipse/Iroquois Moon. East Lansing: Michigan State UP, 2000. Print.
Hoahwah, Sy. Velroy and the Madischie Mafia. Albuquerque: West End Press, 2009. Print.
Hughes, Langston. “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.” The Nation 122 (1926): 692-694. Rpt. in Modern American Poetry. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, n.d. Web. 6 Mar. 2015.
Levin, Dana. “The Heroics of Style: A Study in Three Parts.” The American Poetry Review 35:2 (2006). Web. 6 Mar. 2015.
Lincoln, Kenneth. Native American Renaissance. Berkeley and Los Angeles: U of California P, 1983. Print.