Over the course of four days at the end of March, the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) held its annual Conference and Bookfair at the Oregon Convention Center in Portland, Oregon. The conference hosted more than 700 on-site events with an additional 200 plus off-site events that addressed the craft of writing, literature, poetry, the publishing industry, and more. At any given time, up to 34 programs were being held concurrently. During one such program, 2018 NACF National Artist Fellow Heid E. Erdrich (Ojibwe) introduced New Poets of Native Nations, an anthology of Native poetry published by Graywolf Press. As moderator of the panel, and editor of New Poets of Native Nations, Erdrich explained that the anthology features twenty-one Native poets from the twenty first century who demonstrate the diversity of Native nations, backgrounds and styles of contemporary Native writers. Panelists included 2015 NACF National Artist Fellow Laura Da’ (Eastern Band Shawnee), Trevino L. Brings Plenty (Lakota), Gwen Nell Westerman (Dakota), and Tacey Atsitty (Diné). Each poet read selections of their work at a standing room only event filled with writers including Native students eager for advice.
Photo on left: Julian Talamantez Brolaski, Heid E. Erdrich, Laura Da’, Trevino L. Brings Plenty, Tacey M. Atsitty, Gwen Nell Westerman. Photo on right: Micheal Wasson, Byron Aspaas, Elissa Washuta.
In yet another panel featuring Native writers, 2018 NACF National Artist Fellow Michael Wasson (Nez Perce/Nimíipuu) read an essay from Native Voices published by Tupelo Press. Weaving fluently between English and his Native language, Wasson read an essay packed with prose that was composed as a line by line interaction of associative leaps with Eduardo C. Corral’s poem Our Completion: Oil on Wood: Tino Rodríguez: 1999. “[Corral’s poem] provides early instances of how I came to digest language, and refracted through a new light – a new blooming light – my own small indigenous existence in America,” Wasson explained.
The AWP conference aims to foster literary achievement, and advance the art of writing by cultivating writers through shared experiences. At a well-attended reading featuring NACF Founding Board Member and critically acclaimed poet Joy Harjo (Mvskoke Nation), the audience was held rapt as she read scenes from her one-woman show Wings of Night Sky, Wings of Morning Light. Her reading was a mixed performance that included music, a welcomed departure from the typical literary readings that dominated the conference schedule. Harjo’s play is the center piece of the book Wings of Night Sky, Wings of Morning Light: A Play and A Circle of Responses, providing context for her play through contributing essays and interviews that offer insights on the trajectory of Native American theater.
In addition to readings and panels featuring Indigenous writers, AWP also made space available for literary caucuses to meet the need of a diverse population of writers. The Indigenous Aborginal American Writers Caucus was held for Native writers to celebrate successes and address concerns as understood by Native writers from the Americas and surrounding island nations. Overall, the representation of Native writers at AWP shed an optimistic light on Indigenous voices for the future of literature. With continued support and interest from readers, publishers, literary journals, and arts organizations, indigenous writers are creating new narratives in the tradition of ancestral storytelling.
Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP)
The AWP Conference & Bookfair is an annual destination for writers, teachers, students, editors, and publishers. Each year more than 12,000 attendees convene for insightful dialogue, and networking at the largest literary conference in North America. The conference features over 2,000 presenters and 550 readings, panels, and craft lectures, plus over 700 exhibitors showcased at the bookfair. This year’s on and off-site conference events included an impressive list of over 45 Indigenous writers from North America including six Native Arts and Cultures (NACF) Fellows and one NACF Board Member;
Sherwin Bitsui– 2012 Artist Fellow
Laura Da’ – 2015 National Artist Fellow
Natalie Diaz – 2013 Artist Fellow
Heid E. Erdrich – 2018 National Artist Fellow
Joy Harjo – NACF Board Member
Joan Naviyuk Kane – 2013 Artist Fellow
Michael Wasson – 2018 National Artist Fellow