Form follows function

Layli Long Soldier at the 68th National Book Awards in New York City, photo Gary Gershoff

On April 30, 2009, the United States government formally apologized to Native peoples for the country’s “long history of official depredations and ill-conceived policies … regarding Indian tribes.” Issued during the Obama administration, the apology came and went without fanfare, even for many of those to whom it was directed. And it contained no mention of genocide.

When Layli Long Soldier (Oglala Lakota) first read the text of the apology in 2010, she was struck by how carefully phrased it was.

“I mean, my goodness, these guys are poets,” she told host Krista Tippett of the On Being podcast in 2018. Long Soldier’s response to the apology is the title poem in her first full-length collection, Whereas (2017), which won the National Books Critics Circle Award and was a finalist for the National Book Award. Long Soldier, who could not be reached for comment, uses the language and structure of official proclamations to introduce each section of the poem, which begins with a potentially confrontational moment in a bar.

WHEREAS a string-bean blue-eyed man leans back into a swig of beer work-weary lips at the dark bottle keeping cool in short sleeves and khakis he enters the discussion;

Whereas his wrist loose at the bottleneck to come across as candid “Well at least there was an Apology that’s all I can say” he offers to the circle each of them scholarly

The poem is deliberately anchored in the present. “I did not want to jump back 100 years,” Long Soldier said to Tippett. “I think, so often, that’s really a temptation to do when it comes to anything that has to do with Native issues, Native rights, or history.”

Long Soldier reads from her work in the online presentation “516 WORDS: Layli Long Soldier, Luci Tapahonso, Edie Tsong,” as part of the Albuquerque organization’s current visual art exhibition, Feminisms, which explores multiple perspectives in women’s art and activism.

Tapahonso was the inaugural poet laureate of the Navajo Nation from 2013-2015, and she is professor emerita at the University of New Mexico. In her most recent book, A Radiant Curve (2008), she explores Navajo culture and traditions in verse and prose that demand that readers consider silence as an integral component of speech. Tsong (Taiwanese American) merges form, language, and identity in interdisciplinary projects that combine poetry, visual art, and public practice. The reading begins at 6 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 6. Admission is free, but advance registration is required. 516arts.org 

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