Matwaala’s latest Poets of Colour series brings together four poets and one artist whose work explores the lands, rivers, culture and histories belonging to and inherited by contemporary Native Americans.
NATIVE AMERICAN POETS
March 3, 2022
No time when my poetry end and my storytelling begins
Introduction by Usha Akella & Pramila Venkateswaran
Usha’s opening remarks: Good evening. We acknowledge that, in Austin, Texas, we are on the occupied ancestral territory of the Tonkawa Lipan-Apache, Karankawa, Comanche, and Coahuiltecan people.
I open this evening’s event on a note of gratitude for the land we live on, to Poets and Writers, the Academy of American poets, to Pramila who has worked very hard to make this event happen, to Anannya Akella and Francisca Li our young graphic designers – and our guests of honour this evening, the invited artist, scholar and poets. We thank our audience for thinking it important to be here.
It seems that poetry must find its roots in repeated bruises of unlearned lessons. It is unfortunate yet uncanny that today’s reading is unfolding in a political event again of invasion, occupation and terror. I’d like to ask for a few seconds of silence from all of us in acknowledgment of the war on Ukraine.
Matwaala will continue to strive to open corridors of dialogue, and extend a hand of solidarity through our initiatives like these poets of colour series – a series that began in empathy and ended in tremendous enrichment and education of our own minds. I welcome all of you to our third reading in the series.
Pramila’s introduction: Welcome to Matwaala’s Native American poetry event. We had to postpone this program which was set for December, on account of my mum’s passing. I wish to thank Bonnie Marcus of Poets and Writers who so graciously renewed our grant funding so we could hold the program today.
I begin with my acknowledgement that I am hosting this program on Paumanok, as Long Island was originally called. This is the territory of 13 indigenous tribes. I live in the indigenous land of the Setalkott, who were part of the underground railroad. The island stretches all the way east to the Shinnecock Nation and the Montaukets.
On the program flier we have used the terminology “Native American” as one that is easily recognized by people. As poet Joy Harjo says in her intro to When the Light of the world was subdued, our songs came through, the term Native American coined in the 1990s, and other nomenclatures used earlier, do not capture the thousands of nations in the US, Hawaii, American Samoa and the multitudes of languages, as the word “indigenous” does.
The reading today is one that Usha and I feel is central to our mission at Matwaala, which is to build solidarity among South Asian poets and the different cultures around us. Since the past two years we have expanded our focus to building solidarity with Black, Indigenous and Poets of Color. We feel that poetry can build community and friendship, since poetry is evocative and reaches people’s hearts; it is beyond sloganeering. To quote Joy Harjo, we believe in the “power of language to create, to transform, and establish change.” Poetry brings harmony and respects difference; it is the quiet pulse that beats in the midst of cacophony and dissonance.
As part of my solidarity work, I write about indigenous poets in South Asia as well as those in the US. The latest issue of Anangu, the Tamil literary magazine, carries a section of translated works of indigenous poets, among whom are our three poets from today, that I had put together.
I teach indigenous poets in my classes, so students become aware of the layered history of this country that is imbricated into the poems we read. Teaching marginalized writers is part of the solidarity work that I do. It is a continual learning process.
For our programs, Usha and I scour mags for BIPOC poets, watch videos of readings, attend conferences in our effort to invite poets to Matwaala. We invite our audience to do the same after they attend our programs.
Kamala Platt’s Introduction to Native American poetry: I am speaking on zoom today from San Antonio, TX, a city that has been a gathering place for traveling peoples such as the Payayas and other Coahuiltecan communities for millennia. Their names are from Spanish, revealing our gap in knowledge of and connection to those who peopled this land in the past. The ancestors of these peoples and those Native tribes who came later, deserve not only acknowledgement, but land, and all the rights of first citizenship on this continent. I also recognize that the very concept of land ownership runs counter to responsible, reciprocal relationships that many Indigenous peoples hold toward the lands where they live, and that the North American continent has always been a place of movement, and traveling across the continent is the rightful inheritance of all who are indigenous here.
As I thought about what to share as an introduction to Matwaala’s Native American poetry panel, I kept returning to Native connections and concepts that have been grounding for me, going back to my early childhood. My first such memory is of accompanying my parents to a meeting of a Kansas Native group who had invited them to speak: my parents had spent several years as part of an AFSC village project in then-Orissa, India, and the group was interested in learning more about the Indian people from South Asia that their people had once been mistaken for. The beaded pin they gave my mother is a keepsake she gave me. This gift has significance as an example of what I’d later learn about as “cultural poetics” – artistic expression, sometimes also addressing social and environmental justice concerns – often, but not necessarily, in words. In this case, it was a poetry of colored beads, a time of cultural exchange and reciprocity, and the memory seems right for telling, this evening.
Subsequent interweaving events come together for me, as Native American poetics-in-action, presenting historical/political concerns and land experience that reaches back over the decades and forward with wise words for our future: during high school, I spent much of a summer in Hammon, Oklahoma, a Cheyenne Arapaho community. Lawrence Hart and his family, hosted a community voluntary service camp for young people. As a Cheyenne Peace Chief and a Mennonite pastor he enjoined traditions of peace in his life and teachings – helping with summer school there was my first formal teaching experience. The name of my 2010 chapbook Weedslovers comes from the translation of the name in Cheyenne my friends gave me when they saw me exclaim over the roadside wildflowers when we went walking.
In 1978, one branch of The Longest Walk came through my hometown of Newton, Kansas, and I joined a group of local supporters who shared a potluck meal and fellowship with the walkers. Thirty years later, one group of walkers with The Longest Walk 2 would stop at the Meadowlark Center for a night’s rest. These walkers precede the Water Protectors currently standing against Line 3 and other fossil fuel pipelines, and Climate Justice walkers, often led by Indigenous people, worldwide.
I was in a small group led by Joy Harjo, now our National Poet Laureate at one of the first conferences I attended: her mentorship and her reading were the memorable element of that conference – later, as a colleague of Pramila’s, at Nassau Community College, I was teaching from Joy Harjo’s book The Spiral of Memory when I learned she was going to be playing and reading with her band in Manhattan – a few creative writing students accompanied me to the poetry concert and the inspiration and mentorship I’d felt spiraled out to my students.
Some of the first written Native poetry I read was in the pages of Akwesasne Notes, published by the Mohawk Nation. I first read Chicano/a poetry that I now teach and study and love, in that publication also. Later, I worked with Raúl R. Salinas, at Resistencia Bookstore, as a graduate student, in Austin, Texas. Raúl, who got his start as a poet in prison had been able to leave prison on the stipulation he could not go back to Texas for some time, and he found both a welcoming and solidarity work with Indian communities in Washington State. His work with Native brothers and sisters, and his Indigenous heritage, led him to identify as XicanIndio poet and in his book, Indio Trails: A Chicano Odyssey Through Indian Country, his poetry shows us, “the true nature of solidarity as a communion of mind, body and spirit in concordance with something larger than our individual selves”(Louis Mendoza in the Introduction).
When I reflect on what brings these and other experiences together for me, as, in a broad sense, poetry, I discern the wide parameters of poetry and its connections to lived experience and politics and cultural expression. In these instances, there is the common presence of what I would call “lyric testimonio” – a community story told through someone that has lived the experience in full. Reading about the work of the poets we are about to hear, I felt the same excitement that came with the connections I’ve related. I am excited by the network of connections these poets bring. This is fitting, given the multiple tongues/ languages that make up the antecedents to Native American poetry. Their numbers were made real to me when I decided to make a placard for a protest march against a push for “English Only” in Texas. I decided on the phrase “Aztlan preceded America,” drawing on the name of the northern homeland of those who settled in now Mexico City. To get my point across, I would darken the letters with names of languages from Indian Nations here. I nearly missed the march and never finished the lettering – there were so many languages, I could not fit them all in. This is what I’d like to leave you with; this reality of the many, many languages in which poetry has been spoken, written, beaded, marched, walked, danced, and read on this continent for millennia.
YouTube Video of Event Featuring artwork by Jeremy Dennis
Poems and Exchanges
Content Warning: Please note that some of the poems below use derogatory terms when depicting colonial oppression and racial prejudice.
by Lucille Lang Day
Welcome home to Mashpee
where snapping turtles and painted turtles bask
on logs in the marsh amid water willows,
ferns, and pickerel weed with purple flowers
reaching up from the shallows.
Welcome home to the place
where your great-grandfather whispered
to trout he caught at Santuit Pond,
then sat in a circle
and offered his pipe to Earth, Sky
and the Four Directions.
Welcome home to the coast
where your ancestors built wetuash
and gathered cranberries,
to the woods where they hunted
turkey, deer and bear,
and to the clearings clad
in goldenrods and asters
where they danced for 10,000 years.
The elders have been waiting for you.
Listen to their drums, the beat
of your own heart.
Take this wampum necklace
made from the sacred shell
of the quahog clam.
When you wear it, walk through
redroot and wild lupine, hear
the quickening rhythm
of the field sparrow’s song.
From Becoming an Ancestor (Červená Barva Press, 2015).
First published in The Tower Journal.
Names of the States
By Lucille Lang Day
Alabama, for the Alibamu tribe, forced from Alabama to Texas
when white people claimed their land in 1805
Alaska, for the Aleut word alyeska, meaning mainland, the place
toward which the sea flows
Arizona, the word for “small spring” in the O’odham language
of a Southwest desert people who couldn’t vote until 1948
Arkansas, another name for the Quapaws, the Downsteam People,
who were removed to Oklahoma from their ancestral lands
Connecticut, from the Algonquian word for “long river place”
Delaware, from Baron De La Warr, Virginia’s first governor,
whose name rechristened the local Lenni Lenape, the first tribe
to sign a treaty with the US
Hawaii, for “Hawai’iloa,” discoverer of the islands
in Polynesian myth
Idaho, maybe Shoshone for “the sun comes down the mountain,”
or the Apache name for the Comanches, who drove them
from the southern Plains
Illinois, a French transliteration of ilinwe, the Ojibwe word
for the Inoka, whose thirteen tribes were reduced to five
by European disease
Indiana, Land of the Indians—the Delaware, Piankashaw,
Kickapoo, Wea, Shawnee, Miami, and Potawatomi—who were
mostly removed by 1846
Iowa, from the Dakota name for the Ioway tribe, meaning
Kansas, the Dakota word for the South Wind People, whose last
fluent speaker of the Kansa language died in 1983
Kentucky, derived from the Iroquoian word for “on the meadow”
Massachusetts, People of the Great Hills—that is, the Blue Hills
south of Boston Harbor—who were decimated by smallpox in 1633
Michigan, from mishigamaa, “great water,” in the language
of the Ojibwe, who like so many others, didn’t understand
the treaties ceding their land
Minnesota, from mni sota, the name the Dakotas gave
the Minnesota River, whose clear blue water reflected clouds
Mississippi, from misi-zibi, Ojibwe for the “great river,” along
which more than twenty tribes lived and fished
Missouri, for the Missouria tribe that lived on the Missouri River,
a Siouan people whose name means “town of the big canoes”
Nebraska, from nebrathka, the Omaha word for “broad water,”
a description of the Platte River, by which the tribe lived
New Mexico, named for the Mexicas, a Nahuatl-speaking people
who ruled the Aztec Empire until the Spanish conquered them in 1519
North and South Dakota, named for a Sioux tribe whose men
were sentenced in 1862 to the largest mass execution in US history,
though Dakota means “friend”
Ohio, from ohi:yo’, “continuously giving river” in the language
of the Senecas, whose land was flooded in 1965, following
construction of Kinzua Dam
Oklahoma, from okla humma, Choctaw for “red people,”
a name proposed by the chief of the Choctaw Nation
during treaty negotiations in 1866
Oregon, maybe from wauregan, an Algonquian word
for “beautiful river,” but so many Native words and languages
have been lost that it’s hard to say
Tennessee, for the Cherokee town Tenasi, a village
on the Little Tennessee River until the Cherokees were marched
to Oklahoma along the Trail of Tears
Texas, meaning “friends” or “allies” in the language of the Caddos,
who were removed to Oklahoma in 1859
Utah, from yuttahih, an Apache word meaning “people
of the mountains”
Wisconsin, from meskonsing, the name for the Wisconsin River
in the Miami language: “river running through a red place”
Wyoming, a contraction of mecheweamiing, a Delaware word
first used for a valley in Pennsylvania, meaning “at the big plains”
And yes, every part of this land is Indian country, from forest
to desert, mountain to prairie, Manhattan to Yosemite,
Tallahassee to Seattle—all the fields, rivers, hills and canyons
between the two shining seas
From Birds of San Pancho and Other Poems of Place (Blue Light Press, 2020), by Lucille Lang Day.
First published in Yellow Medicine Review.
Exchange between Usha Akella and Lucille Lang Day
Usha: Thank you, Lucille. You have a line in ‘Tooth painter’ that says ‘A gallery opens when I smile.’ I’d like to play on that and say a gallery of nature opens its art in your poems. You have welcomed us to reimagine land as the space of one’s heart, in the boundaries of memory and history; your poetry of lush images are odes to nature, place and land; they are songs of dignity, but are also simultaneously gritty and celebratory, and rooted in contemporary life. Indeed, the body of your poetry is a golden chalice filled with guts.
When I say gritty, I am thinking of poems like ‘reject jello, applying for AFDC. I am thinking of lines of celebration from poems like, ‘In aubade in red’:
Each morning let us applaud
the brightness that unfolds
to show the abundance
of all things red
And in ‘Winter Nap’:
Love, I wanted a tropical country,
a lush jungle, a profusion
of ginger and jasmine, nothing harsher
than the macaw’s shrill call.
Where is the power of summer?
My question to you is about the anthem of celebration in your poems: the grit to celebrate life, not to let that right be taken away—how do you do that with poetry while keeping it experiential?
Lucille: I find it restorative to spend time in nature. Being outdoors brings inner peace and renewal. Here in Northern California, I am close to the ocean, the Sierra Nevada, and the redwood forests, all of which give me joy. Also, I can enter a meditative state and find hope through reading and writing poetry. Despite the wars and the terrible things that people do to each other, I believe that most people have an innate goodness, and that we can tap into that goodness and work together to create a better world.
God is the Water
By Lyla June
When I close my eyes at night
I can feel the rock being cut open
I hear a grandfather song
and it sounds like
the river bottom.
In this song they talk about how even
the mighty canyon walls are formed
by meandering streams.
Beneath the gentle waters there are people.
Not people like you and I.
When I close my eyes at night
I am one of them
and God is the water.
She runs over me
until I am polished
She teaches me
about patience and commitment.
She teaches me
How to be gentle yet persistent,
When I close my eyes
she speaks to me
in a language of
trickles and bubbles.
But try to remember
who you are
along the way.
I have nothing for you
but these words.
Take them with you
and I will see you again
when you arrive
at the ocean’s throne
as one million kernels of
hums in my blood
quiet as a stream in the night
and it is a song about how
we are all
The eagles dip their talons into Her soft body
and pull from it
for their children.
They sing this grandfather song with her
and it sounds like feathers
cutting into the sky.
In this song they talk about how
even hatred surrenders to wonder!
She is breaking my heart apart like
a stubborn, granite puzzle of problems.
Even the hardest
doubts and sorrows
give way to
Her infinite grace.
And who knew that sometimes
grace can come from
standing in the raging river
until everything we think we own
is ripped away from us
and replaced with a weightlessness
so profound that
we can’t not cry
tears of absolute praise
and run all around the
river banks shouting
to the cattails
and the minnows
and the willows
about the truth of beauty!?
About the truth of a God that breathes
through the trees;
The truth of a God that weaves
winter from water and night;
The truth of a God that weaves
bodies from dust and light;
and carries us down the river of life
over and over
and over again
until we finally understand
In the language of the stones
there is no word for regret.
Only the complete understanding of what it
means to be a beloved son
We are the rock
and God, She is the water.
Exchange between Pramila Venkateswaran and Lyla June
Pramila: Nature animates your poetry. It is a steady presence offering answers to questions. When you are writing or singing your lyrics, do you seek nature images to help you get deeper into your ideas? Are the images particular to the places or myths that you know? What does nature mean to you and your poems?
Lyla: The most readily form of inspiration creator’s creation, a reflection of genius. How could you not be inspired. A big river, to dip your cup into. When I am in nature, it’s in your face. I like poems that are non-Nature base too, you have to find beauty in yourself, reach in there, the world has not made it easy to love ourselves, you find the beauty in your own people, in your own resilience…. The beauty of our human nature, it is harder to get to but both are important sources.
One Indian, Two Indian, Red Indian, Blue Indian
By Andrina Wekontash Smith
She thinks she’s Native. Or something
Because sometimes something is all you can muster to be
Some disproportioned mud blood anomaly
That is Indian by name and not face
I am a black native and isn’t that ironic
Who knew identity could be oxymoronic
Honey don’t try and pose as anything exotic
Cuz leaky old faucets drip one-drop rules that label your water
toxic And your Shinnecock blood is the crack of narcotics
A dirty wanna-be without the purity of its still cut up brethren
cocaine Because all native blood aint processed the same.
And all native blood aint taken the same
The first time she got called a n****r, it was by a native
Stoic eyes discriminate louder than any pro-Jim Crow picket signs
and fuckin a n****r is a punishable crime
because diluted blood makes it harder to place
when sovereign nations compete in a white mans foot race
Wampeshau slave trades implemented racist ideals
400 plus oppressed years were xenophobic attempts to conceal
the fact that we never had a segregated medicine wheel
When slavery went bankrupt the US never drew up a new deal,
to tell a country exactly how much blacks were worth
Reinforced stereotypes trickled down Indian country like honey
trickling down fry bread We swallowed amnesia alongside lies
that were spoon fed
Forgetting that in the beginning side by side stood black and red
So we continue to take smallpox blankets with us to bed
and wonder why we wake up feeling feverish.
I am tired.
Im tired of having to constantly defend
a culture thats a birthright and not a new age trend
Since apparently a dreamcatcher makes everyone indians
or a least have great great great grandmother who was a chiefs
My ancestors are weeping the salt tears only the “people of the
shore” could create. Shinnecock youth develop chips saltier than
Pringles could generate
And I’m feeling so salty let this be my probate
That boldly stands before you and chants not just states
I am not Indian for you.
I’m not your injun whom you give gifts and then take away I’m not
your succotash du jour that makes you feel hip today I’m not your
n****r lipped darkie that makes it easier to say Psssshhh, she
thinks she’s native.
Im Indian for the kids who know the smell of beer before they’re old
enough to spell it For the youth who see women they love beaten,
but know they can’t tell it
For Rez dirt that knows how to permeate down to your veins
For rawhide regalias, and long winded names
that define more than a person but an entire nation I am indian for
that seventh generation
Thats all I am and all Ill ever be
A disproportioned mud-blood anomaly
But thats okay, because they don’t determine what I do Nashota,
Go gi sgk, Issaiah, Nashay
I’m doin this babies for no one but you.
Pramila: The personal is political in your poems. History is your story; you show how Native Americans and African Americans live it daily. You are a beautiful storyteller, crafting and building your narrative with dynamic and sharp words, a language of resistance. What challenges do you face in telling your stories?
Andrina: Yes. It was hard to admit growing up I spent more time around white people. I went to a private school first; we were only 2-3 people of color. Then again, to a private school in East Hampton between 13-18, and then I went to a small liberal arts college, Emerson. There were 2 other natives in the whole school. Then, I lived in the Czech Republic. I was never not accepted in the communities I went into. But the things I had to swallow or bury as part of myself, to make other people comfortable – I was sacrificing of myself and my personal comfort did not come up. I am grateful that I now have the ability to make people comfortable in my space. It took a long time to be comfortable with myself. The constant anxiety of who I am supposed to be in a given space. I’ve been able to reclaim my energy.
Closing Remarks by Usha Akella and Pramila Venkateswaran
Usha: What a remarkable evening. When we began this series of readings, we had no idea what it was going to become. Each reading becomes a reaffirmation and re-imagining of names, history, and indeed of us as the human race. It is a time for recalibration, your poetry and art tell us. Thank you, Lyla, Lucille, Adrina, Jeremy and Kamala, for showing again our vulnerability and oneness. You have inspired us to keep at our work.
Pramila: I felt goosebumps all through the readings. Thank you, Lucille, Lyla and Andrina; your poems interweave joy and beauty, the wonder of the natural world that brings healing to all of us. Jeremy, thank you for sharing your artwork and showing us your creative restoration of a dilapidated house into an artist residency in the Shinnecock Nation. It is inspiring. Thank you, Kamala, for a beautiful narrative of your personal journey based on Native American and Chicana literature and activism. Usha and I are inspired to build solidarity with all of you.
About All Poets and Artists
About Kamala Platt
Kamala is an author, artist, independent scholar and contingent professor living in South Texas and at The Meadowlark Center, Kansas, where she currently teaches creative writing, Chicana Poetry, Environmental Justice Poetics and Pen Project Prison Teaching for the School of Humanities, Arts and Cultural Studies in Arizona State University’s Online Program. Her scholarship shares women’s environmental justice poetics creating a lens through which to understand visions of a “sustainable” future. She is preparing her manuscript Environmental Justice Poetics: Cultural Representations of Environmental Racism from Chicanas and Women in India for publication with De Gruyter in Berlin.
Her Westside Barrio, San Antonio home and nearby “Garden of Good Trouble” hosts native habitat, garden, and orchard, which offers seasonal produce (mones, loquats, nopalitos, tunas, figs, and pomegranates) to share when climate chaos does not prevail. Family roots in ecology and human rights and a cross-cultural childhood among Mennonites in Kansas, & family friends/coworkers in Orissa (Odisha), India, provides a foundation for her work. She currently works in solidarity with groups supporting immigrants and other marginalized and displaced communities. Her poetry books include Weedslovers: Ten Years in the Shadow of September, On the Line, and Gravity Prevails.
About Jeremy Dennis
Jeremy Dennis (b. 1990) holds an MFA from Penn State, he is a contemporary fine art photographer and lives and works on the Shinnecock SHI NA KAAK Indian Nation in Southampton, NY. In his work, he explores indigenous identity, culture, and assimilation. Dennis was one of 10 recipients of a 2016 Dreamstarter Grant from the national non-profit organization ‘Running Strong for American Indian Youth.’ He was awarded $10,000 to pursue his project, On This Site. Most recently, Dennis received the Creative Bursar Award from Getty Images in 2018 to continue his series Stories. He has participated in numerous residencies such as Yaddo and exhibited extensively as group and solo.
About Lucille Lang Day
Lucille is the author of four poetry chapbooks and seven full-length poetry collections, including Birds of San Pancho and Other Poems of Place and Becoming an Ancestor. She has also co-edited two anthologies, Fire and Rain: Ecopoetry of California and Red Indian Road West: Native American Poetry from California, and published two children’s books and a memoir, Married at Fourteen: A True Story. Her many honors include the Blue Light Poetry Prize, two PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Literary Awards, the Joseph Henry Jackson Award, and eleven Pushcart Prize nominations. The founder and publisher of a small press, Scarlet Tanager Books, she lives in Oakland, California. She is of Wam-pa-no-ag, British, and Swiss/German descent. For more information, see her website: https://lucillelangday.com
About Lyla June
Lyla is an Indigenous musician, scholar and community organizer of Diné (Navajo), Tsétsêhéstâhese (Cheyenne) and European lineages. Her dynamic, multi-genre presentation style has engaged audiences across the globe towards personal, collective and ecological healing. She blends studies in Human Ecology at Stanford, graduate work in Indigenous Pedagogy, and the traditional worldview she grew up with to inform her music, perspectives and solutions. Her recent performances include Indigenous Solutions Festival, Dream Warriors Heal it Tour at ASU, Arizona, Body and Earth Conference in Minneapolis; Parliament of World Religions in Canada, Unity Earth Lift Off Festival in New York City, Compassion Camp Festival in Seattle, Voices of Sacred Earth Festival in Auckland, New Zealand, California World Festival and Sister Space Festival in Maryland. Her university appearances have included University of Colorado, Denver, Seattle State University, Stanford University, Stony Brook University, and University of Oklahoma, among many others. She is currently pursuing her doctoral degree, focusing on Indigenous food systems revitalization.
About Andrina Smith
Adrina is a storyteller, poet, writer, director, and performer whose work frequently explores race and racism. She trained and performed at comedy theatres, such as the Upright Comedy Brigade and The PIT, to learn how to explore these themes in a funny way. As a Shinnecock Native and East End local, her work has been featured at Guild Hall, The Watermill Center, and in the National Organization for Women, Mid-Suffolk chapter. She was a 2019 Watermill Center Artist-in-Residence, 2021 Native American Writers Lab fellow, and a 2021 Guild Hall Community Artist-in-Residence. As a storyteller, her work spans multiple platforms. She is a Native American Media AllIiance writer fellow and a Native American Media Alliance grant accelerator recipient. Her works were featured in Edible East End and in Native Max Magazine.
About the Directors of Matwaala
Usha Akella is one of the Creative Writing editors (for Poetry) at Lucy Writers. She earned an MSt. in Creative Writing from Lucy Cavendish College, University of Cambridge, in 2018. She has authored four books of poetry, one chapbook and scripted/ produced one musical drama. Recent collections of poetry have been published by Sahitya Akademi, India’s highest literary authority, and Spinifex, for her work I Will Not Bare You Sons (2020). Usha’s work has been included in the Harper Collins Anthology of Indian English Poets; she was selected as a Cultural Ambassador for the City of Austin in 2015, and has read with a group of eminent South Asian Diaspora poets at the House of Lords in 2016. Usha’s work is published widely and she is often invited to international poetry festivals in Trois Riviere, Slovakia, Nicaragua, Macedonia, Colombia, Slovenia, India etc. She is the founder of ‘Matwaala’, the first South Asian Diaspora Poets Festival in the US. She has won literary prizes and enjoys writing quixotic prose articles and interviewing poets and artists. She is the founder of the Poetry Caravan in New York and Austin which has offered several hundreds of poetry readings to those in women’s shelters, senior homes and hospitals. In response the City of Austin proclaimed January 7th as Poetry Caravan Day. To contact Usha and find out about the Matwaala Festival, contact her via this address: email@example.com
Pramila Venkateswaran, poet laureate of Suffolk County, Long Island (2013-15) and co-director of Matwaala: South Asian Diaspora Poetry Festival, is the author of Thirtha (Yuganta Press, 2002) Behind Dark Waters (Plain View Press, 2008), Draw Me Inmost (Stockport Flats, 2009), Trace (Finishing Line Press, 2011), Thirteen Days to Let Go (Aldrich Press, 2015), Slow Ripening (Local Gems, 2016), and The Singer of Alleppey(Shanti Arts, 2018). She has performed her poetry internationally, including at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival and the Festival Internacional De Poesia De Granada. An award-winning poet, she teaches English and Women’s Studies at Nassau Community College, New York. Author of numerous essays on poetics as well as creative non-fiction, she is also the 2011 Walt Whitman Birthplace Association Long Island Poet of the Year.
The name Matwaala evokes bonding and bonhomie, fun and funk, creative adventure and freedom, artistic assertiveness and non-conformity. A Hindi/Urdu word, it was the name of a radical literary magazine edited by the poet Nirala from Kolkata a century ago. Matwaala is used for someone who is drunk, but the word is used more often in a transferred sense, for someone who is a free spirit.
Concerned about the visibility of South Asian poets in the American poetry scene, university reading series, and representation in anthologies and syllabi, we were inspired to initiate a collective. Though the core mission may be perceived as idealistic or even somber, Matwaala, materialized in a weirdly magical way in Austin. The idea of a poetry festival emerged after an editorial project we co-edited for www.museindia.com. The issue focused on a project involving Diaspora artists and poets that generated the idea for sustained collaboration and initiatives. A festival was its magnification, and appeared, erected on a shoestring budget propelled by enthusiasm and faith in 2015. The first festival/collective drew to its fold a group of poets, Saleem Peeradina, Pramila Venkateswaran, Ravi Shankar, Sasha Parmasad and Varshs Saraiya Shah. Joie de vivre, friendship and a sense of community have become the hallmark of the festival that seeks to establish a paradigm based not on hierarchies but on solidarity, offering readings by established and emerging poets, youth forums, papers and panel discussions.
In 2019 Matwaala launched its website, branding, and e-anthology, hosted readings in NYU, Hunter College and NCC. It received sponsorship from Poets & Writers and hosted South Asian diaspora poets from the UK.
Lucy Writers would like to express their heartfelt thanks to Usha Akella and Pramila Venkateswaran, and all at Matwaala for allowing us to all work in their Poets of Colour series; we would also like to extend our heartfelt thanks to all poets in this current edition, whose work is breathtakingly brilliant: Kamala Platt, Lucille Lang Day, Lyla June and Adrina Smith, thank you all immensely.
Feature image is a detail from the promotional poster by Anannya Akella