Written by Lucille Lang Day
I am both a co-editor and the publisher of the anthology Red Indian Road West: Native American Poetry from California. The project began with a dream in which I was reading with Lakota poet Kurt Schweigman from an anthology of Native American poetry called “The Road to California.” When I told Kurt, with whom I’d shared the stage at two real-life Native American poetry readings, about my dream, he said, “We should create this anthology, but we have to find a better title.”
With more than 720,000 Native Americans, California has by far the largest Native American population of any state and perhaps the most diverse. Shouldn’t there be a poetry anthology that captures the experience of both California tribes and the Native American diaspora in California?
Before launching into the project, Kurt and I researched to see if the anthology we envisioned already existed. It did not. We found two anthologies—one published in 1994, the other in 2002—that focused on poets from California tribes, as well as many anthologies that included California poets along with Native American poets from across North America. Sing: Poetry from the Indigenous Americas (The University of Arizona Press, 2011), edited by Allison Adelle Hedge Coke was both recent and notable. But there were no anthologies that brought the work of poets from California tribes together with that of poets from tribes nationwide now residing in the state. Our anthology search was enlightening and something I highly recommend doing prior to compiling an anthology in any genre.
Kurt and I solicited poems from all of the Native American poets we knew in California, and in the fall of 2014 we put together a proposal package for Heyday, a Berkeley publisher that specializes in California books and has a whole line of books related to California Indians.
In January 2015 Heyday responded that they loved our proposal but felt unable to market poetry. By this time, both Kurt and I felt invested in and committed to this project. We were going to publish this book no matter what! We considered sending our proposal to The University of Arizona Press or The University of New Mexico Press, both of which have excellent lines of Native American books, but we wanted the book to come out sooner rather than later, and there was another option: I had founded a literary press, Scarlet Tanager Books, in 1999 and had previously published a poetry anthology, Turning a Train of Thought Upside Down: An Anthology of Women’s Poetry, edited by Andrena Zawinski. I can do this, I thought. I can publish another anthology!
Heyday announced our call for submissions in their magazine, News from Native California. I also posted the call in The Review Review, on the Scarlet Tanager website, and on several creative writing listservs, and Kurt and I continued to reach out to poets we knew. In addition, we went through the bios in the Hedge Coke anthology, Sing, looking for Native poets with ties to California, and we invited all of them to submit. Finally, we contacted the publishers of previously published poems we wanted to include.
In all, we selected poems by 31 poets from 29 tribes. Their work not only tells about the struggles of Native Americans, but also celebrates humor, music, dance, art, family, and the beauty of the land. The poets give voice to culture and traditions that intertwine with contemporary life in California.
Payómkawichum writer and performance artist James Luna wrote the introduction, and Tsalagi poet and bead artist Kim Shuck beaded a gorgeous California green sturgeon for the cover. The book came out in January 2016, and on Amazon that month, it was the #1 bestseller in New Native American Poetry and #4 in all Native American poetry.
Heyday hosted our well-attended launch party at their offices in Berkeley. Seven contributors read, some of whom Kurt and I were meeting for the first time. My own Native American heritage is Wampanoag, from Massachusetts, and one of the attendees was from the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe on Cape Cod. At the start of the program, he welcomed the guests in the Wampanoag language, then proceeded to prepare a list of key phrases so that I could do this myself at future events!
Since then, we have had several successful readings throughout the Bay Area, and Red Indian Road West has been favorably reviewed in a number of journals. Additional readings are coming up at the Sacramento Poetry Center on August 8, 2016, and at Lit Crawl in San Francisco on October 15, 2016.
Yes, anthology publishing is something I can do!
WNBA-SF member Lucille Lang Day has published ten poetry collections and chapbooks, most recently Becoming an Ancestor and Dreaming of Sunflowers: Museum Poems, which won the 2014 Blue Light Poetry Prize. She is also the author of a children’s book, Chain Letter, and a memoir, Married at Fourteen: A True Story, which received a PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Literary Award and was a finalist for the Northern California Book Award in Creative Nonfiction. Her poems, stories, and essays have appeared widely in magazines and anthologies and have received nine Pushcart Prize nominations. The founder and publisher of Scarlet Tanager Books, she is of Wampanoag, British, and Swiss/German descent. Her website is lucillelangday.com