June 21, 2019KR Reviews

Writing into the Future: The Work of Anthologies

New Poets of Native Nations. Heid E. Erdrich, Editor. Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press, 2018. 204 pages. $18.00

Go Home!. Rowan Hisayo Buchanan, Editor. New York, NY: Feminist Press, 2018. 320 pages. $18.95.

Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics. TC Tolbert and Trace Peterson, Editors. Brooklyn, NY: Nightboat Books, 2013. 544 pages. $27.95.

In March, the words “There are black people in the future” appeared on a billboard in Pittsburgh’s East Liberty neighborhood. It was part of artist and curator Jon Rubin’s The Last Billboard project in which he invited various artists to contribute text to the space. Since 2012, people strolled by phrases like, “You are so ugly you should be in a museum of modern art,” and “Tragically the oldest person in the world keeps dying,” with little more than a bemused chuckle or knitted brow.

But it was Alisha Wormsley’s contribution—a simple, factual statement—that garnered such vociferous reactions that the entire project was brought to an end. According to a statement by the owners of the building which hosted the billboard, the phrase was so “offensive and divisive” it had to be removed. They followed-up in an email to Rubin clarifying that, “People in the community felt the sign was racist and were offended by it.” Scroll through the comments on the local newspaper’s story about the controversy and you will find variations on the “All Lives Matter” sentiment: “There are people of all color in the future” and “What if this sign said, ‘White people are the future’”?

In truth, a lot of signs say “White people are the future,” though in more subtle and insidious ways. In her artist statement, Wormsley explained that the billboard is a “black nerd sci-fi joke” about the lack of characters of color in sci-fi films set in the future—just look at Spike Jonze’s vision of the future in his 2013 film Her and you’ll see unsettlingly white crowds in Los Angeles, a city that is on track to become majority Latino in the next ten years. But Wormsley’s contribution did more than call attention to a lack of representation; she linked representation to the possession of a future. When you don’t see yourself represented in cultural products—movies, literature, magazines, etc.—it’s difficult to imagine you own anything past the present. In Wormsley’s case, concerns over the divisiveness of identity politics eclipsed concerns over erasure and marginalization.

After the election of President Donald Trump, the national press did a lot of hand-wringing about “tribalism” and people retreating into their identity-based enclaves. Identity politics were decried from both the right and the left as distractions from economic issues. Yet artists and writers still maintain there is power in gathering around certain identities and asserting their particular lived experience, not just for now, but also in order to assert the persistence of these identities and share that vision with readers of all backgrounds.

Since the early 1900s, anthologies that group writers based on identity categories including race, gender, and sexuality have sought to define new areas of study and diversify the literary landscape. They have faced criticism about isolating and dividing writers since their inception. Elizabeth Bishop said anthologies of women writers “ghettoized” them. But even she couldn’t escape being perceived as a woman writer—when Robert Lowell blurbed her book he made sure to qualify his praise by saying she wrote some of the best poems “by a woman.” To this day identity-based anthologies remain persistently relevant in a literary landscape that privileges the voices of white, cis-gendered writers. (See the most recent VIDA count and the Diversity Baseline Survey for publishing for exact statistics on publishing’s diversity problem.) They are meant to call attention to gaps in the publishing landscape, create community among marginalized writers, encourage readers to diversify their reading, and define new avenues for critical inquiry.

Cover image of Troubling the LineThe need for visibility drives many anthology projects. In her introduction to Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics, published in 2013 and co-edited with TC Tolbert, Trace Peterson argues that grouping genderqueer and trans writers attested to their very existence. In her introduction, she writes, “I wanted potential readers of this anthology to see not just that we are writing ourselves into existence but that we are genuinely and undeniably here, right in front of you, and in front of each other.”

Two recent anthologies, New Poets of Native Nations edited by Heid E. Erdrich, and Go Home! edited by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan, bring together writers who share racial and national identities in order to address gaps in the literary landscape and create a more complex and pluralistic literary future. New Poets of Native Nations was inspired by a social media post by a prominent critic asking for suggestions of Native American poets to read. Erdrich was surprised by responses naming nineteenth-century orators or, worse yet, racial frauds. “This is what people think that Native poetry is and wouldn’t they love to see that it’s not,” Erdrich says. “It’s so much better!”

Cover image of New Poets of Native NationsPublished in July 2018 by Graywolf Press, New Poets of Native Nations brings together twenty-one Native American poets—all of whom published a book after the year 2000. “There has been a change and a resurgence of Native American poetry since 2000,” she says. “Yet if you wanted a quick overview of what Native American poetry is right now, it would be hard to find.” Even though Native American poets are winning major awards—the poets in this anthology have received Whiting Awards, American Book Awards, and fellowships from the Lannan Literary foundation and National Endowment for the Arts—people still think of Chief Seattle and white people writing about smoke signals when asked to name Native American poets. In an interview, Erdrich explained she wanted “[t]o compose our successes. To have them in a place for people to view them. To showcase the recent shifts and developments in Native poetry.”

Erdrich organized the collection in reverse chronological order based on when the poets published their first book. It starts with Tacey M. Atsitty, whose Rain Scald was published in February of this year, and moves into more established poets like Karenne Wood, Eric Gansworth, and Janet McAdams. Erdrich uses the organization to emphasize the freshness of Native American poetry, rather than organize it by theme.

Cover image of Go Home!While Erdrich choose to eschew themes, Buchanan focused her anthology around the theme of home. In Go Home!, published in February of this year, thirty-one poets, fiction writers, and essayists who identify as members of the Asian diaspora mused on what home means to them. The writers include Alexander Chee, Kimiko Hahn, and Marilyn Chin. “We wanted to show that a short story about Korean adoptees summoning a demon can sit in the same book as an essay about being bitten by a dog, or one about drug addiction, and a poem about working at a make-up counter,” Buchanan says via email. She adds that she wanted to “expand the possibility of what can be considered home.” In doing so, Buchanan opened up the possibility of creating community. “As we took the anthology on tour, one of the great pleasures lay in meeting young Asian American writers who were hungry for these stories,” she said in an email interview. “Helping them gain confidence and feel less alone is also one of the goals of the anthology.”

While each of these anthologies advocate for greater plurality in the literary world, they rely on categories that are potentially exclusive. “Anthologies are inherently, undeniably always problematic. Even when necessary, they cannot be inclusive,” writes editor E. Tracy Grinnell in Aufgabe. Questions arise about who “counts” as Asian American, Native American, or genderqueer. Erdrich is unapologetic about the fact that she set a specific criteria. She only solicited work from poets who she knows to be Native American and who have a particular connection to a native nation, even if that nation isn’t recognized by the US government. “It isn’t about blood quantum or enrollment or anything like that,” she says. “It’s about having some kind of relational connection to the people and the place that you claim.” She recognizes there might be pushback against her decision to limit along those lines: “It’s a political move on my part. There is an issue of those who try to make some sort of career out of an identity they have no lived experience of.” Two recent examples include Michael Derrick Hudson, a white poet using a Chinese pseudonym who was included in the 2015 Best American Poetry anthology, and John Smelcer, whose 2017 PEN Literary Award nomination was revoked after his claims to be Native American were questioned.

While she chose only to include writers with specific ties to Native nations, Erdrich doesn’t see this as a move to limit diversity. “There are over 570 native nations recognized by the government and then there are even more that aren’t,” Erdrich says. “It’s such a diverse group, it doesn’t lend itself to that insular retrenchment that people call ‘tribalism’ in today’s political speak.”

All of the writers in New Poets of Native Nations cite intersecting and intersectional identities in their authors’ notes. Buchanan also recognizes that anthologies can’t be totally inclusive, but hopes that the omissions in hers can be productive. “This book is intended to be a door,” she says. “If you are a writer and you don’t recognize your version of home, please read it as an invitation to write.” Because the editors of Troubling the Line didn’t want to be “the gender police,” they sent out an open call for any writers who self-identify as transgender and gender queer without specifying what “counts” as genderqueer or trans. They were flooded with around 300 submissions. “There had been very few trans poets widely visible as such prior to 2011, the year we sent out the call for the anthology,” Peterson reflects. “It was a revelation for readers who didn’t know this was happening, and for the authors involved in the anthology, many of whom learned about one another’s work and connected for the first time through the publication of the anthology. The newness and freshness of the category is what made it memorable and what continues to make it endure as a relevant literary intervention.”

The first print run of Troubling the Line sold out in a year and half. It was republished in 2015, giving contributors an opportunity to change their bylines to reflect transitions they experienced in the meantime. Since the publication, trans poetry has become more visible with more creative writing courses focusing on the work of trans writers. In addition, the Lambda Literary Awards have added a category specifically for trans poetry. However, categories are often insufficient to contain the complexity and nuance of identity. This year, the poet Joshua Whitehead turned down his nomination for the Lambda Literary Award in the Trans Poetry category—without rancor—because the category of trans did not resonate with his Two-Spirit identity. In a post on “The Insurgent Architects’ House for Creative Writing” blog, Whitehead explained, “My gender, sexuality, and my identities supersede Western categorizations of LGBTQ+ because Two-Spirit is a home-calling, it is a home-coming.” He added that he didn’t want to accept an award that was making space for trans women, particular trans women of color. (Incidentally, Whitehead received the 2019 Lambda Award for Gay Fiction.)

Every anthology project has limitations either because they are transparently defined by theme, time period, or identity group or the editor uses unstated criteria of what they considered the “best.” Some categories tend to raise more ire, while others are able to remain invisible—Helen Vendler famously fretted that Rita Dove’s selections for the Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry traded “artistically ambitious meditations” for “multicultural inclusiveness.”

According to Buchanan, anthologies like hers can push back against tribalism—a project all the more urgent in our current political landscape. “I hope during a political reign that aims to exclude, this book can help argue for inclusion,” she writes. “The homes we have known will continue to shape the world. Removing or challenging the right to a home carries the potential for damage that spans decades.” For Erdrich, her anthology has also taken on a greater urgency since the election. “It’s even more important to stress we are native nations,” she says. “I believe firmly that we will have a challenge to our national sovereignty—sooner rather than later—in the next two years if not the next two months.” Challenging that sovereignty is a way to take land and resources from Native nations and to cripple them economically. In other words, to deny them a future.

Identity-based anthologies remain relevant because identity remains relevant. Calling attention to ways that people have been excluded and erased isn’t a move toward divisiveness; it’s a necessary act for survival—both in the present and for the future.

Elizabeth Hoover is a poet, critic, and essayist based in Milwaukee. Her poetry has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Epoch, and Crab Orchard Review, among others. She received the 2017 Boulevard emerging poetry contest, the 2015 Difficult Fruit Poetry Prize from IthacaLit, and the 2014 StoryQuarterly essay prize. Her book reviews and author interviews have appeared in American Poetry Review, Minneapolis Star Tribune, the Dallas Morning News, and Iowa Review. She has contributed art reportage and pop culture criticism to Paper and the Washington Post. You can see more of her work at www.ehooverink.com.