- Associated Press - Saturday, December 20, 2014

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) - Ishmael Hope spent six years putting together his first collection of poetry, “Courtesans of Flounder Hill,” a period of time in which the manuscript went through many changes - as did Hope himself. Among them: He became a father to four children with his wife, Lily Hudson Hope; he lost his own father, Andy Hope III, quite quickly to cancer; and he re-connected himself with his indigenous heritage (Tlingit on his father’s side and Iñupiaq on his mother’s) after a period of detachment, making the study of traditional knowledge a central part of his life.

The impact of those personal experiences on his poetry can be glimpsed from the title page alone: “To Our Daughter Taliiraq And Our Baby On The Way,” ”In Memory of Andrew Hope III,” ”Let the Clan Houses Stand Once More” and “Bothering the Dauenhauers,” to name just a few. Hope said arriving at the final poems in the book was in many ways a long process of discovering his heart.

“I’d say an essential discovery that I’ve made in writing this first book is finding my heart,” he said. “And … when you find that center, it gives you much greater ability to create.”

But although many of Hope’s poems are personal in theme or inspiration, he said to him they don’t gain their own life and resonance until they reach beyond the personal to connect with something bigger, something beyond his control.

“If it’s only in the realm of lyric poetry, which is about human-to-human psychology, personal relationships, and the self’s relationship to the self, it starts to collapse in on itself,” he said. “And so even if the content can have that personal theme, it’s dead in the water unless there is something in it that drives it that’s outside of what I can control. If it has — intuitively to me — a sense of life, then I feel like it’s whole, it’s something I feel solid about that can go out into the world.”

Hope’s 43 poems officially went out into the world last weekend.

Hope said the hard-to-define quality he refers to as a “sense of life” can be found in the work of poets he admires, such as 8th century Chinese poets Du Fu and Li Bai, Pablo Neruda and Federico García Lorca, though each of them approaches it in a different way.

“Two of my biggest influences in poetry are Du Fu and Li Bai,” Hope said. “I feel like they illuminate everyday life with some sort of awareness of what Robert Bringhurst would call ‘what is,’ of being and even nothingness, just the raw experience of being alive, which Bringhurst also called ‘the shock of the real.’”

Hope said he’s learned a great deal from Bringhurst, a writer whose in-depth study of Haida stories and culture deeply informed his own life and work. Bringhurst’s approach is constantly reinforced in Hope’s own experiences with Tlingit and Iñupiaq culture, which have in recent years included transcribing traditional stories told by Tlingit elders for Sealaska Heritage Institute. Since 2008, Hope has also been learning to speak Tlingit himself.

“I try to study my culture, study Tlingit language, spend time with elders, and learn mythology. Learn Tlingit history, Tlingit stories, Iñupiaq stories — that is the most direct connection, especially when it’s in the language, to ancestors and to land. To meet that element that Bringhurst talks about … that’s where I go, to the ancestors; to the land.”

In his poem “Tides,” Hope writes:

This world is alive, made of song,

made of singing, made as it goes,

made of fern fronds, lily bulbs,

bullkelp and lichen,

made of thing

we could barely hear.

Hope said for him, good poetry is a form of “call and response,” whether that response is to the natural world, a person or another poem.

“Sometimes what will inspire a poem is reading a great poem, and then I just need to respond by writing a poem,” he said, “not something that’s derivative necessarily, but the energy that springs up from the poem, I’ll need to respond to it.”

Hope has been surrounded by poetry his whole life. Both his parents were poets; his mother, Elizabeth Freda “Sister” Goodwin, wrote what is believed to be the first book of poetry published by an Inuit writer, “A Lagoon in My Backyard,” which was released through Ishmael Reed Publishing Company in 1984.

His father, Andy Hope III, left behind a collection of poems when he died in 2008 that Ishmael Hope is now working to publish through Reed Publishing, which will be releasing his own collection as well.

Ishmael Reed, a prominent black writer and literature professor from the Bay Area, was a friend of Hope’s parents, and the man for whom he was named. Reed, whose book of poetry “Conjure” was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, is also the founder of the Before Columbus Foundation, which promotes multicultural American writing.

In addition to introducing him to poetry, Hope’s parents also laid the foundation for his identity as Alaska Native, though it took him some time to fully embrace it.

“My mom gave me so much of my internalized experience of being Iñupiaq, being indigenous … and directly taught me of her culture,” he said. “And my dad exposed me to Tlingit elders, and what it’s like to be inside the Alaska Native Brotherhood Hall, when the elders are together intentionally creating an environment of being Tlingit,” he said. “That kind of embedded cultural knowledge was there with me since I was a baby. But I shied away from it for most of my teen years. Finally after I graduated from high school, I committed to learning, to really learning. What was neat was there was a lot of internalized knowledge that was there, and this was about eliciting it, bringing it out and being Tlingit, being Iñupiaq.”

Hope has since had an opportunity to pass Native knowledge and traditions on to his own children, who get to hear stories as much as their patience allows, he said. In addition to welcoming a baby this year, Hope and his wife Lily, a Chilkat weaver, also brought his niece’s daughter, Mary, into their home, joining daughter Elizabeth and son Louis to bring their family unit to a very busy six.

Though family remains top priority, Hope is involved in many different projects in addition to his poetry and work at Sealaska Heritage Institute. Recent projects include “Never Alone,” a video game based on traditional knowledge, for which Hope was a lead writer, and “The Reincarnation of Stories,” a play he wrote and performed in 2011 for Perseverance Theater, with whom he has a long history. He is also an established storyteller who has traveled all around the country. (For more, see alaskanativestoryteller.com/)

Currently Hope is working on a play about Tlingit civil rights hero William Paul, and is part of a team working on a book of Raven stories gathered and transcribed by Richard and Nora Dauenhauer. The book is due to be released next year by SHI and the University of Washington Press.

The Dauenhauers, widely regarded as preeminent scholars of Tlingit literature, have been very influential on Hope’s work, and both have inspired their own poems in his collection. Though Richard Dauenhauer died in August, he had a chance to review Hope’s new book, and his words are included on the back cover. A highly regarded poet himself, Dauenhauer wrote that Hope “explores and reminds us how each of us is central in a multigenerational relationship involving ancestry, self, and descendants; heritage, contemporary culture, and legacy; an unbroken chain of storytellers, daily life, and dreams, always negotiating, in the words of T. S. Eliot, between tradition and the individual talent.”


Information from: Juneau (Alaska) Empire, https://www.juneauempire.com

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