AK: New book of poetry explores indigenous thought

Ishmael Hope and his family (Photo by Levi Rinehart/Courtesy of Ishmael Hope)

“Khaagwáask’ yéi xhat duwasáakw. My Tlingit name is Khaagwáask’. My Inupiaq name: Uvanga atinga Angaluuk. My name Inupiaq name is Angaluuk. And I am a poet and performer-storyteller, and I’m grateful to be here.”

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Ishmael Hope sits on the back deck of a valley home on a chilly blue-sky morning. It’s a quiet place in house full of kids. His graying black hair is pulled into a ponytail, and small, reddish rectangular glasses frame his eyes above a full beard. To exemplify his work, Hope chooses a piece called “Canoe Launching into the Gaslit Sea.”

Now, as much as ever, and as always,we need to band together, form
a lost tribe, scatter as one, burst
through rifle barrels guided
by the spider’s crosshairs. We need
to knit wool sweaters for our brother
sleeping under the freeway,
hand him our wallets and bathe
his feet in holy water.

Free time to speak with a reporter does not come easily to Hope. At 35 he’s the father of four, with—news flash—a fifth on the way with his wife, Tlingit weaver Lily Hope. Lily is watching the children inside, but they’ll need to switch soon so she can weave—the deadline for her museum-commissioned Chilkat robe looms.

“It doesn’t get any better than this with, you know, raising a family and being supported by our artistic community and having our dreams come true,” Lily said. “It’s pretty unreal.”

But Lily said it’s not all joy and happiness.

“The financial stress of being two fulltime artists is the hardest part,” Lily said. “We understand each other from an artistic point of like, go after what it is you want to go after, but then we’re always thinking who’s going to make the money this month, or who’s paying these bills, or how do we negotiate that when both of us kind of want to jump.”

Ishmael is also working on a master of fine arts degree in creative writing from the Institute of American Indian Arts, is co-directing a documentary on Tlingit art here at KTOO, and is working on curriculum for Goldbelt Heritage on Tlingit language learning.

“What does it mean to be indigenous?” Ishmael said. “What does indigenous thinking and being and feeling—how does that translate into the world? How do we express that? How do we emit that? How do we let that, I think, waft, in the work, in the language?”

“A lot of what I was trying to do with this collection, ‘Rock Piles Along the Eddy,’ was explore indigenous thought,” Hope said.

“Rock Piles Along the Eddy,” which is a reference to a Tlingit tradition of creating salmon-friendly eddies with rock piles, is 70-pages long with 44 poems.

We need
to find our lost sister, last seen
hitchhiking Highway 16
or panhandling on the streets of Anchorage,
couchsurfing with relatives in Victoria,
or kicking out her boyfriend
after a week of partying
in a trailer park in Salem, Oregon.

As inspiration, Hope mentioned poets like Federico García Lorca and Pablo Neruda, and masters of oral tradition.

“What I happen to be doing is a lot of writing in English, but I want that life breath, that thing I feel in my body, when I hear a story from George Davis, or Paul Marks, or Marie Olson,” Hope said.

Hope said there can be a divide between how the two art forms are discussed, poetry and oral tradition, and he’s trying to lessen it. It is important to Hope to recognize that Native literature began long before Native people started writing it down. Poetry and oral tradition are not the same, he says, but both should be in dialogue when discussing Native literature.

“And so part of my work, what I am trying to do here is actually let those spaces bleed into each other, just a little bit,” Hope said. “And that, I feel, makes my writing all the richer for it.”

Now, as much as ever, and as always,
we need to register together,
lock arms at the front lines, brand
ourselves with mutant DNA strands,
atomic whirls and serial numbers
adding ourselves to the blacklist.

“This is really not fashionable writing. It’s not the thing that’s going to get awards and be prestigious, and I don’t care. I really don’t. You know, I’m trying to write the work that connects to people, connects to the community whether they’re poetry fans or whether they’ve never picked up a poetry book.”

We need to speak in code, languages
the enemy can’t break,
We need to speak in code, languages
the enemy can’t break, slingshot
garlic cloves and tortilla crumbs,
wear armor of lily pads and sandstone
carved into the stately faces of bears
and the faraway look of whitetail deer.
We need to run uphill with rickshaws,
play frisbee with trash lids, hold up
portraits of soldiers who never
made it home, organize a peace-in
on the walls of the Grand Canyon.
We need to stage earnest satirical plays,
hold debate contests with farm animals
at midnight, fall asleep on hammocks
hanging from busy traffic lights.
Now, as much as ever, and as always,
we need to prank call our senators,
take selfies with the authorities
at fundraisers we weren’t invited to,
kneel in prayer at burial grounds
crumbling under dynamite.
We need to rub salve on the belly
of our hearts, meditate on fault lines
as the earth quakes, dance in robes
with fringe that spits medicine, make
love on the eve of the disaster.