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Responses to American Poetry

The aim of this online space is to host the research work of university students or young scholars as this emerges from larger projects focusing on the American poetry scene. The objective of this initiative is to bring this kind of research activity to the attention of the general public in an attempt to further promote the exchange of ideas with regard to the process of reading, understanding and appreciating poetry writing.


Tatiani Rapatzikou 
(Associate Professor, School of English, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece; Advisor and initiative co-ordinator



Shilo Previti                                                       Grant McMillan


Reflecting on “Become a Voice:” The Tallgrass in 5 Sapphic Photo-Poems

The goal of this project was to generate a joint collection of photography and poetry drawing inspiration from the land now known as the Great Plains region of North America, local indigenous teachings on topics related to nature and the queer body, and the sapphic tradition. 

Each stage of our process constitutes a layer of fragmentation. We began with a set of photos, taken by Grant, focusing on the same subject matter that sapphic writing is inspired by: landscape and the human body. To create these photos, Grant sought to explore the living landscape by traveling within these natural scenes and photographing his observations. As with all photographs, these images consist not only of their own explicit focal subject, but also the implicit remainder of the scene that is cut away every time a camera's shutter snaps shut. In this act, the scene’s light hangs suspended and the land's movement is stilled—our first layer of fragmentation. He then trimmed the several hundred photos from these outings into a collection of thirty images and edited this set to black and white, 1:1 aspect ratio squares, fragmenting them further by stripping away their color and compressing them into a set shape. From this edited collection of thirty images, Shilo chose thirteen images to write in conversation with. Five of those have been selected to appear here. Some details of our methods of fragmentation are included in Appendices A and B. 

Shilo wrote poems inspired by their experience of the same landscape, foregrounding images teased out of black and white copies of Grant’s photography work—another fragmentation. (The poems weave together “Sapphic” writers with indigenous voices from the region, reproducing, with credit, indigenous knowledge keepers rather than speaking on their behalf.) However, we wanted to simulate the disappearance of the Great Plains due to the long-term effects of colonization and the ecological and cultural devastation it brings. We decided that Shilo would black-out the text of the poems so Grant could delete words from them without any idea of what they contained—fragmenting them as time and censors have fragmented Sappho's work. In this fragmentation came new meaning: each “erased” poem was rearranged by Shilo, as translators have done with Sappho’s work, and presented alongside the original photo. The interplay of absence and meaning is a primary focus in these pieces. The project as you see it today features a sample of works that come out of this effort, with commentary on the fragments’ relationship to their subject matter: the North American Great Plains. 

The workshop this project was originally inspired by dealt directly with fragmentation and erasure, but because we wanted to think about what Sappho means to us, who have recently moved to the tallgrass prairie, we felt it was important to research indigenous perspectives native to the region we investigated. As such, this collection includes fragmented and “erased” words, ideas, language not only of ourselves but also of indigenous thinkers and knowledge keepers native to the lands it discusses. We point to that research in the footnotes throughout this reflective essay. Originally, our goal in displaying a fragmentation process was to reimagine how we understand what happened to Sappho’s lyrics and to think about the absences in the landscape of the Great Plains. However, we realized during the process that this method also reenacted the erasure, fragmentation, and cultural genocide of the people who lived on this land and their cultures. In acknowledgment of that colonial history of erasure and fragmentation, we have included in Appendices C-G the full text of all these lines, with appropriate credit and citation, with the goal of presenting the effects of such fragmentation and erasure while resisting enacting it. 

As H.D. brought the spirit of Sapphic poetry across the ocean to the landscapes of her childhood in Upper Darby, we sought to carry Sappho with us to what remains of North America’s steadily disappearing Great Plains as we consider what it is that Sappho means to us, here and now. Our effort culminated in a collection of 13 lyric photo-poems, which we separated into two major sections: in the first, we explore environmental themes by putting Sappho’s landscape (plants and non-human animals) in conversation with our own, while in the second, we explore the act of writing itself, sex/love, and the queer human body, by entering ourselves directly into conversation with Sappho as we “read” her today. For Poeticanet, we have selected five poems from throughout those 13 drafts. Throughout, we have relied heavily on our own experiences of the landscape here, as well as ecological research and the teachings of indigenous elders and knowledge keepers to ensure a representation of this land which displays in praxis the work of decolonizing how we see and engage with it. It is our hope that this process of translation—the recursive interplay of fragmentation and generation in our poesis—will haunt the reader with a celebration of both what has been lost and what persists. Below, we shall comment on the themes in each photo-poem that appears here, with the note that in cutting the collection from 13 to 5 we have once more fragmented our representation of the landscape. 

Alluding to the sapphic stanza in form, “Braided Grass” introduces Robin Wall Kimmerer’s (Potawatomi Nation) theory of “species loneliness” as the fundamental problem humans, separated as we have made ourselves from the rest of Creation, experience. From it, Kimmerer argues, all our other problems arise. Her book Braiding Sweetgrass describes the unique relationships plants have to their ecosystems and provides teachings on what our human society can learn from plants about how to make spiritual medicine and heal our communities. Sweetgrass, which represents the northern part of the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ medicine wheel, grows native in our region, and ceremonial practice calls for meaningful harvest, drying, braiding, gifting, burning, smudging and prayer of and over the sweetgrass. When it burns, it produces a sweet, cleansing scent believed to attract good energies. We offer this sweetgrass as a call for making foundational to our healing praxis the concept of respect as medicine and as an opening statement of intent that sets the tone for the rest of the works. The poem concludes with the remnants of a call to action by N Scott Momaday (Kiowa): “It is incumbent on every human to invest himself in his landscape.” The photo depicts the poet's hands as they braid a single stalk of grass. The image's shallow depth of field positions the braid itself as the centerpiece—the hands that weave become secondary. In this way, the image places the human form at the edges of the scene, suggesting Kimmerer's “species loneliness.” And yet without the hands which operate from the shadows, there is no braid, thus subverting the apparent hierarchy and denoting a relationship that, like the healing praxis of braided grass itself, is woven together—human and landscape. 

Joy Harjo (Muscogee) writes of the revolutionary writer N. Scott Momaday (Kiowa) that “the spirit lives in the voice.” The photo-poems in this collection seek to represent (through voice), and interrogate other representations (voices) of, what is now known as the Great Plains region of North America. Although “Paper Birch” questions how Sappho would read this landscape, the emphasis here is entirely on the absolute exuberant wondrousness of nestling in grass, soft and warm while lying in the snowy tallgrass prairie, sheltered from the wind. The photo half and poem half of this piece work as ocular inversions of each other to again suggest the fragmentation that occurs through the documentation process. Although the image shows what the poet sees when looking up, the poem brings focus back to the place from which their gaze points upward as they nestle within the grass.

Ultimately, these photo-poems celebrate the land and those open to experiencing it. But that celebration must be reconciled with its context. “American Bison” deals with the ongoing genocide of the bison and the bands of indigenous peoples who live in this region, called unci maka (Grandmother Earth) in Lakota. This meditation on who speaks for the land questions what the name of the land should be, as Robin Wall Kimmerer (Potawatomi Nation) puts it, in “its [own] language.” There was no homogenous name for all of the areas now known as the United States of America before European colonization—just as there is no “one indian.” On the issue of naming, Vine Deloria Jr. (Standing Rock Sioux) when asked by an anthropologist what an indigenous person would have called the land before colonization, once responded “ours.” The perceived voicelessness of plants and animals is wrestled with throughout the first several photo-poems in the larger collection. Nonetheless, the images central to the lyrics in these photo-poems are those of beauty of the prairie and connectedness even as these pieces are tempered by the poesis fragmentation. The image we leave with the reader in “American Bison” is that of a single bison, separate from his herd, and yet still brimming with spirit. This idea that the fragmented subjects still carry with them the fullness of life is especially relevant in the context of a sapphic understanding of beauty as wisdom, as there is much we can learn from our environment. Though we cut much from our original 13 drafts, which could even together have still failed to do the whole environment justice, we could not cut this. 

Other photo-poems in this collection confront humanism and queers identity-making, relying heavily on selections from Sappho’s own writing as translated by Anne Carson as well as the critical notes about Sapphic scholarship through time. Seeking to respond to the gay and lesbian interpretations of LGBTQIA2S+ references in Sappho’s work, “Shilo” investigates the possibility of reading for themes of trans non-binary and genderqueer characters., The image shown alongside this poem is a profile view of the poet's head. And yet, the camera's position leaves the majority of the body out of the shot, eliminating the possibility of any gender coding based on external traits. In a collection as much about erasure and fragmentation as discovery, we felt important to preserve elements of creation inherent in the poesis of these translations and transformations. Even though this poem was heavily fragmented in our blind redaction process, it still does the work of weaving together social justice movements, queer identity, and Sappho’s fragments as translated by Carson. These fragments have presented loss, but also gain. The poet gains freedom to make new identities in the wake of death. 

As with “Braided Grass,” “Four Horsemen of the Prairie” emulates the sapphic stanza form as it invokes the Lakota wind-spirit tȟaté singing on the grass. It is the Lakota teaching that the hair of unci maka, Grandmother Earth, is made up of sweetgrass and other tall grasses and from the hair of the land grows medicine. Among other things, we can learn from these plants a way to move beyond mere coexistence or tolerance with our environment and toward deep mutual engagement with it—if we can understand medicine not in the Western sense of something we take in response to disease, but in the Indigenous framework of something without which we cannot live freely in the first place. This collection is our offering of medicine, an attempt to reconcile our desire to commemorate the undeniable beauty of the region now known as the Great Plains of North America with the necessity of describing the history of systematic destruction and exploitation scored into its absences. This absence can be seen in the land itself as the region's tallgrass prairie has been reduced to an estimated one percent of its original coverage. Fragments of these once expansive grasslands, composed of Little Bluestem, Big Bluestem, Indiangrass, and Switchgrass which are known collectively as the “Four Horsemen” of the prairie, now exist primarily within the protective boundaries of state parks. In order to heal the self-wrought “species loneliness” of settler-colonialism, we must engage in a praxis of restorative ecological justice. According to Robin Wall Kimmerer (Potawatomi Nation), we must begin this process by reckoning with our own roles as settler-people in this landscape before we can dream of becoming naturalized to where we are not indigenous. For us, the co-authors of this collection, this means thinking critically about what our relationship, as white settlers living on occupied Anishinabewaki & Očeti Šakówiŋ lands, is to our subject matter. 

We cannot justly engage as artists or academics with the issues of European colonization of Indigenous North-South American people and land without acknowledging our own roles in that narrative as beneficiaries of the same system that has caused egregious damage to others. It is not our intent to perform "white guilt" for its own sake; rather, our hope is to challenge readers who engage with this collection to consider their own placement in the settler-colonial framework. Further, to remember that this land was not “new” or “discovered” with the arrival of our ancestors. The first word in “American Bison” is the scare quoted “conservation”—a white-settler term for “good” stewardship of the land. It is our intent that this collection pushes readers to confront and complicate how they think about “just” stewardship of land. This photo-poem collection is simultaneously a celebration of all this landscape has offered us and a confrontation with the complex history of the lands we inhabit and our roles within them. This collection is a motion toward a praxis that braids both celebration and confrontation together into a creative rehearsal that considers what decolonized stewardship, informed by the plant medicine of respect, might look like. 

In the conclusion piece of this collection, we celebrate the unique relationships the plants in this environment share with each other and consider their relationship to us, to Sappho, and to this poetry workshop. Throughout, there are references to the greensea of Greece in the mountainous Epirus region near Zagoria and the Vikos–Aoös national park, which would have been our landscape if Covid-19 had not forced us to move the workshops online. The poem considers that mountainous landscape with this other, flatter landscape: the prairie grasslands of North America, which is also sometimes called the green sea because of its enchanting movement in the wind. In its black and white fragmentation, the image “Four Horsemen of the Prairie” could nearly be mistaken for undulating seagrass, the likes of which might be present in a poem within H.D.’s Sea Garden or one of Sappho’s own lyrics. The haunting movement of these landscapes calls back to the continuous movement inherent in transitioning and transforming, aspects both of translation-literature and of queer affirmation. 

When we began this project, we wanted the process of fragmentation and translation to cultivate greater meaning rather than diminish meaning. Though this photo-poem has been fragmented through our blind redaction process, in which even the names of the four grasses have been erased, the words left behind still speak volumes. Anne Carson writes in the introduction to If Not, Winter that she can feel a “spark” when she engages with certain fragments of Sappho. Although Sappho is just one of many woman-poets whom we are only able to read through the distortion of fragmentation, the “spark” of power we feel in their lyric storytelling haunts us. 

There is a special joy in lying down on the earth, wherever one is, meeting the landscape that is there and all the members of its community—plants, humans, and other animals alike. When we do this, when we engage with the land “in its own language,” we work to move beyond acknowledgement and toward restoration. This joy is like medicine, and this poesis seeks to engage with the spirit of that communion. Finally, as the last photo-poem in our collection reaches its end, it leaves the reader with one final question, a question that speaks to the deep soul-ache of the land in all its fragmented beauty: 

“O’ do you hear the 
prairie grass sing”



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