Beyond the Obvious: How Does Poetry Create Conditions for Radical Belonging?



How does poetry create conditions for radical belonging?

Written for the Institute for Inquiry and Poetics, University of Arizona Poetry Center

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What if we listened to each other in the language of poetry? Poetry is a language of deep listening.

Listening to each other in this way would be a listening that does not demand an answer, a translation, or defense; it would be a listening that acknowledges not knowing, that does not preclude the possibility of new perspectives.

What is a poem but a reorganization of the perception of the known and imaginary? Poetry dynamizes our codes of cognition, expanding our field of vision and insight. Poetry challenges what is deemed legible by dominant language and society; in this way, it also expands the possibilities of legibility, which is, ultimately, about belonging.

If we listened to each other as if we were a poem—if we listened to our Nation as if it were a poem—we would hear no singular story, but a multitude.

We would hear what we hear in this anthology, When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through.

There is no singular story in these poems, just as the poets—the peoples—of Native Nations are not a singular people. Not that poetry does not carry story or that there is no shared story of who we are as people, as a nation of many nations, but that poetry allows a different kind of storytelling, one that embraces various, even oppositional, ways of making meaning.

Like a prism, refracting different frequencies of light, the language of the poem is multi-dimensional, dynamic. Because poetry is dynamic, it poses a challenge to closed, dominant narratives. This anthology poses a challenge to the prevailing American canon because it is a dynamic gathering of poets, past and present, whose unique voices cannot be enclosed by America’s notion of “Native American” poetry.

The conception, in American literature, of Native American literacy, literature, aesthetics, and imagination, has been circumscribed, generally, to two spheres: 1) Native American literature as a post-1960 phenomenon, which reinforces the notion that Native peoples had no literature or literacy prior to the second half of the 20th century; 2) Conceptions of the “native” as an imaginative figure in American literature. Literature by non-Native writers exploring their sense of Americanness in relation to the stereotypical “Indian Other” has too often been misconstrued, by readers, as actually comprising a body of “Native American Literature.”

When one can trace the literacy of native peoples on this continent (including both alphabetic literacy and oral literature) to long before Columbus, and when there exists actually a great deal of written literature authored by Native peoples before the mid-20th century, why is this literature so excluded from American Literature? Why, when people study Native American literature, do we focus on post 1968 literature as the exclusive time period for this ethnically bounded field? Beyond the fact of general exclusion of all ethnic, non-Anglo literatures from the cannon before the advent of multiculturalism in U.S. academia; beyond the fact that people assume Native people before the mid-20th Century could not read or write; and beyond the fact that many people assume Native people did indeed “vanish” from the American social, economic, political, and physical landscape after the massive effort by the United States to exterminate the “inconvenient problem” of the millions of people inhabiting what was promulgated as an empty space open for civilization and inhabitance—beyond all of these conditions was the social reality that until Momaday won the Pulitzer, Native American writers had limited access to publication or publicity that would generate an audience of readers. This does not, however, mean that poetry written by Native Americans did not exist. It just wasn’t listened to.

I think the work of poetry is about opening a space—or creating the conditions—for listening, a space for people to be listened to, a space where people do not need to translate their insights into a language that flattens or dismisses those insights. The knowledge, experience, and reality of our Native communities, past and present, has been consistently dismissed, if not translated for other people’s benefits at the expense of the communities and cultures being translated.

We live in a country that is intent on erasing our origins, any evidence of our existence current and prior to the American story of itself. This story is persistent in its singularity, its linear cognition of itself as a progress narrative. This narrative was designed by the erasure and manipulation of the peoples, the knowledge, the stories that lit the world before the narrative. This narrative has also too long determined what is real and what is not, what is right and what is wrong, who belongs and who does not.

But we can see how this national story must consistently defend itself against the plurality of voices it was designed to preclude. This defense is amplified today because our voices are breaking through, because our voices are resisting translation into singularity, resisting being translated out of ourselves. Poetry is not only a language of resistance; because it is dynamic, it is a language of change.

Each one of us, I believe, has a distinctive, internal language that doesn’t translate into the language of the larger society, which is trained to reject anything aberrant of its standard. Poetry is a space where we don’t have to normalize or “make sense” or have the answer, where yes is also no and truth is also a question.

Poetry does not hold one meaning exclusively, authoritatively. It does not shut out the possibilities of different meanings, different interpretations, different cultures or identities. Poetry is not a language of rejection; it is the language of imagination. It is a mode of activism and liberation in a world of language that is too often numbing, confining, and limiting of the imagination.

I believe that the invigoration of poetic imagination in our modes of perception and communication can parallel the growth of peace, equity, and compassion. Why? Because poetry is the condition where radical belonging occurs: it is a condition requiring plurality, reflection, motility, and transformation.

Listening through the language of poetry would be a way to extend to each other, and to ourselves, a radical belonging. Imagine how many more voices we have yet to hear when we begin to listen.

—Jennifer Elise Foerster (Mvskoke), October 3, 2020