In anticipation of Tupelo Press’s forthcoming anthology project, Native Voices, I’m pleased to continue a series of posts honoring Indigenous poetry from North America.
But first, I’d like to say a few words about this exciting and necessary anthology. Tupelo Press is eager to celebrate a more complete version of the story we tell—about ourselves, our past, and what is possible in language. In this book, the first of its kind, every poet will present new poems, as well as an original essay, and a selection of resonant work chosen from previous generations of Native artists. Our anthology is intended to embody the dynamic and ongoing conversations that take place in Indigenous poetry through writerly craft across generational, geographic, and stylistic divides.
I recently had a chance to interview one of our contributors, Ishmael Angaluuk Hope, about his poem, "Canoe Launching into the Gaslit Sea," featured in a previous Best American Poetry post, and forthcoming in the anthology. Ishmael Angaluuk Hope is a Tlingit and Inupiaq storyteller, poet and scholar who lives in Juneau, Alaska. Notable projects includes serving as the lead writer for Kisima Ingitchuna: Never Alone for E-Line Media and the Cook Inlet Tribal Council; and publishing two poetry books under the Ishmael Reed Publishing Company, Courtesans of Flounder Hill and Rock Piles Along the Eddy. He is raising a family of five children with his wife, Lily Hope, a Tlingit weaver.
A Conversation With Ishmael Angaluuk Hope
KMD: Tell us about your first encounter with poetry.
IAH: Both of my parents, the late Elizabeth “Sister” Goodwin Hope, Taliiraq, an Iñupiaq who grew up in Kotzebue, Alaska, and Andrew Hope III, Xhaastánch, a Tlingit born and raised in Sitka, Alaska, were poets. Boy, do I sure miss them. My mother’s book of poems, A Lagoon Is In My Backyard, was, as far as her and her publisher–Ishmael Reed Publishing Company–knew, the first published book of poems by an Inuit, in 1984. Now there are incredible Iñupiaq poets like Joan Kane and dg okpik, among many, to which I have joined ranks with my two books, Courtesans of Flounder Hill and Rock Piles Along the Eddy, by the same publisher of my mother’s book. Ishmael Reed and his wife Carla Blank have been family friends for many decades, and tremendous supporters of my parents’ and my work, along with countless others. So I grew up around it. It was weird growing up in a community where anti-Nativeness was very strong, yet my parents were these respected poets and cultural leaders. I think more than anything the resonance of humanity my parents brought to me, the warmth and love, and joy of creation, led me to poetry.
KMD: Your poem, “Canoe Launching into the Gaslit Sea” reads as a gorgeously rendered imperative, a call to action. In what ways is the practice of poetry political for you as a writer?
IAH: Thanks much for your kind comment. I think we need a very expansive idea of what poetry is, and to be very careful about teaching it in a non-prescriptive, non-proscriptive way. The way I experience poetry is through resonances, vibrations the words carry, which could reflect–yet is not summed up in totality–sound, image, breath, motion, body, atmosphere, and even direct ideas. Though the term I feel is at risk of being overused or misused, I believe very much in bearing witness. So my poems can be quite political in that sense, though I try to stay out of the dichotomous political spectrum that dominates political discourse. I do believe–and more importantly, I have observed–that old Indigenous lifeways can be tremendously healing and can teach people how to truly live in this land. My writing sometimes reflects that insight, but I don’t try to overthink it when I write.
KMD: Your poem also explores - with wit, lyricism and grace - the complexities and contradictions inherent in the idea of community. “We need to band together…” the speaker tells us, “scatter as one.” In what ways does the practice of poetry cultivate a more mindful community?
IAH: Robert Bringhurst had a fine rendering of insight in the spirit of the monk poet Han Shan. At the poem’s end, entitled “Han Shan”, Bringhurst writes,
I am leaving now. Please,
no applause. Those who know how to live
will leave with me
in different directions.
I think I was influenced by that poem with “scatter as one”, though I made it my own. What I try to do is locate meanings, which I feel in my body, and then to write when I feel it resonating. In this case, the community has its own rich spectrum of needs, griefs and joys, and I was meditating on it when writing. I first wrote it to be read aloud at the Indigenous Comic Con in Albuquerque in 2016, run by Lee Francis and his wonderful colleagues. It was a great time, a time for me to support the likes of brilliant Native game developers Elizabeth LaPensée, Allen Turner and Renee Nejo. It was awkward to read it at the panel, to be totally honest, because non-poetry panels are not really set up for that, but they were who I wrote it for and so I am grateful the audience allowed for it.
Poetry, in the broadest sense possible, which to me is something like deep and intense thought, and thought which extends beyond the human world, can remind us of the invisible yet tangible tapestry that connects us. Regarding my sense of poetry, I trace my lineage to the likes of Robert Bringhurst, who wrote that “Poetry, like science, is a way of finding out–by stating perceptively and clearly–what exists and what is going on”; and the great Yup’ik scholar Angayuqaq Oscar Kawagley, who offered profound insights on Native ways of knowing. Nature makes the most enduring poetry, I feel, because it’s ever-renewing and luminous if left to its own devices. So I think there is something to connecting with the resonances of poetry, which can connect us to other resonances, such as the living human community, to ancestors, to descendants and to the whole world.
KMD: What poets inspire you? Who are you currently reading?
IAH: Robert Bringhurst, the late Nora Dauenhuaer and the late Richard Dauenahuer are some of my most important mentors. They’ve been tremendously supportive, and their insights and writings are urgent and nourishing to me. I think Federico García Lorca is maybe the greatest poet who ever lived, which of course is uncouth to say with such direct valuation! I read whatever Pablo Neruda I can get my hands on, and I think people can spend years seriously studying his work, rather than being relegated to a sort of high school crush for poets! Joy Harjo is a profound supporter of Native writers, and I deeply admire her work as well. I frequently turn to Avdo Međedović’s The Wedding of Smailagić Meho, one of the world’s great epic poems. Though they are not comfortably recognized as poets, I always go back to the great Native American storytellers: Robert Nasruk Cleveland, Catherine Attla, Paul John, Willie Marks and Robert Zuboff, among many others, and even living Elders such as Sequoyah Guess and George Davis, Kaaxwaan Éesh. Out of some of the ones recently published, I enjoy the work of Joan Kane, Ken White, Sherwin Bitsui, Tiffany Midge and Heid Erdrich.
KMD: Your work calls our attention the beauty inherent in the quotidian, “the garlic cloves” and “crumbs” of everyday life. In the poem featured here, you provocatively blur the boundaries between high and low. With that in mind, what nonliterary texts have been influential for your poetics?
IAH: I grew up with comic books. I’ve also recently gotten more into games. I was a narrative designer and script writer for Kisima Ingitchuna: Never Alone, a game co-produced by E-Line Media and Cook Inlet Tribal Council. There’s a tremendous amount of great work being generated by Native comic creators, like Jay Odjick and Arigon Starr, and Native game developers as I mentioned. I also have been getting into standup comedy. Maria Bamford and Todd Barry are golden geniuses. I absolutely love the interplay they do with internal monologue being spoken aloud–linguistically-intact, if that makes sense–with colloquial dialogue and comedic timing.
KMD: What are you currently working on? What can readers look forward to?
IAH: My book, Rock Piles Along the Eddy, was just published in March. Also, I’m doing a wild and crazy long poem right now, under the guidance of Ken White, who has been an astute and helpful mentor, at the Institute of American Indian Arts Low Residency Creative Writing MFA program. This may sound weird for some, but I believe that humans have some sense of sonar intelligence, and it’s important with how we interact with the land, though it’s not like we’re dolphins. It is basic and not really mystical to me, our sense of atmosphere and how we orient ourselves in spaces. I think words carry resonances, and I’m listening for the resonances in the land and waterways, along with my deeply-internal psyche, and seeing what I find. The tentative title is Love Letter to the Future: A Book of the Land in Four Acts. I’m not sure when it would be published, because it has just begun, but it feels incredibly freeing and joyful to write, which I think is a good sign.
For more information about the anthology, our mission, and how you can help bring this project to life, please visit our Kickstarter page.