at the Gathering of Nations in Albuquerque, New Mexico
SmokeShop Poetry: Economic Development & the Second Native American Literary Renaissance
Much has been made of the first Native American Literary Renaissance of the 1960s and 70s during which N. Scott Momaday, Leslie Marmon Silko, Simon Ortiz, James Welch, and others invigorated Native literature while making significant contributions to the mainstream. Justly celebrated for their literary accomplishments, the so-called renaissance writers’ success lacked one important ingredient. While the renaissance benefited individual authors, the waters that lifted them failed to lift the canoes of the tribal members living on the reservations. Now, some forty-odd years later, a new group of poets has arrived to stalk the mainstream’s shores. But this time, these politically and economically savvy poets, who grew up among casinos and smoke shops, tourist dances, craft fairs, and the obligatory photo permit, who are plugged into web culture with its pop-ups and “click heres,” are determined to avoid the previous generation’s error. This new generation of writers, who have dubbed themselves “The SmokeShop Poets,” are linking their web logs to smoke shop and casino ads, performing at flea markets, casinos, and all-you-can-eat restaurants, and packing their poems with images of smokers and smoking. Unlike their predecessors, these brash young poets have found a way to link poetry and tribal economic development.
In the Buffalo Lounge at The Smokeywoods Casino, in upstate New York, performance poet Joe “Fancydance” Frasier (Cherokee®), dressed in his pow wow regalia, is reciting his already famous “Scream.” “I have seen the best skins of my generation,” he shouts, stalking the makeshift stage, “dancing, hysterically smoking!” He follows this long poem with “How to Write a SmokeShop Poem.” Frasier, a bongo-slapping performance poet who sometimes calls himself a “Smokenik,” lays out the SmokeShop rules:
To write a SmokeShop poem,
one must possess a cigarette
one must light up must
To write a SmokeShop poem
one must tilt one’s head
& exhale slowly or
puff rings into the cold air
To write a SmokeShop poem
one must smile and watch the smoke
hear the songs of the ancestors
hear drumming, dancing, singing
To write a SmokeShop poem
one must mention the highway
the milepost, the tax free status
the tax free status
D. Blackhorse (Dine®), the next poet to take the stage, speaks slowly, reciting “smoke,” a concrete poem, accompanied by hand gestures that suggest the look of the poem on the page:
Critic Marjorie Falls Off (Cree®), a supporter of Blackhorse’s work, notes that Blackhorse “reinscribes the word smoke onto air, that most fallible of materials, thereby mimicking both the materiality and the immateriality of his chosen ‘marker,’ smoke. His disinclination to ‘fix’ either the meaning or the very presence of ‘smoke’ as concept reifies the ideation while simultaneously disenfranchising, placing under erasure, sous rature, the English language in which he accomplishes his deconstruction.” Critical scaffolding aside, the audience is held rapt by Blackhorse’s chiseled good looks and the grace with which he flings the broken words into the sky.
Given all this stylistic diversity, how does one know when one is in the presence of a true SmokeShop poem? Poet/critic Professor Charles Boudinot (Ojibwa®), himself a formal SmokeShop poet best known for his “Smoke Shop Sonnets,” provides a list of qualities in his recent manifesto, “Smokistics & the New Native Poetry”:
1. The poem must have been “audience tested” to assure the content is favorable to smokers, cigarettes, and the business climate in general.
2. The poem must mention smoking, smokers, cigarettes, or smoke, and any depicted smoking event must be associated with upbeat and life-affirming imagery.
3. The poem must be politically neutral, unless, of course, the political message concerns the promotion of smoking.
4. Should the smoking-related images be sparse, the poem must compensate with favorable references to gambling, crafts, and/or recent and upcoming activities at the local visitors center.
5. If the poem is to be performed, the performance will involve one or more of the following: regalia, drums, flutes, fancydancing, or chanting.
6. The poem may be licensed to appear on a casino van, T-shirt, or poster.
7. The poem may be performed at casinos, smoke shops, or visitor centers, or posted on web sites associated with such enterprises.
8. The poem must not be longer than a smoke break.
These “rules” for SmokeShop Poetry are clear and forthright, but the application of them has already stirred controversy. A young gay poet from Oklahoma, Smokey Guthrie (Choctaw/Chickasaw®), whose stage presence is riveting and whose poetry is carefully crafted, has raised questions about both poetry and marketing. A dedicated smoker himself, he contends that gays, lesbians, and even trans-gendered smokers will be drawn to tribal smoke shops by his poems. Tribal officials are not so sure. “Dem gays and lesbians is okay smokers,” says Iroquois tribal official Gus Jones. “But dey might scare off dem reg’lars wid der fancy ways.” Guthrie responds by reading a recent poem, “Return to Marlboro Mountain (Love and Smokes),” that demonstrates, he claims, “an unexplored link between homoeroticism and smoking that has enormous market potential”:
Standing over a piled-up fire, puffing
a full flavor 100, he stirs beans in a black
pot—he and his partner both hungry from a long
day of wrestling with sheep and each other.
Under that George Strait curved hat, he stares
into the distance, at the other ranch hand who
is bathing on the river bank, naked, but for his hat.
As he takes a pull on the smoke and the beans boil,
he realizes how a man’s back hair and sheep’s
wool feel like velvet between his fingers,
then he crushes the Marlboro under his boot
and ladles the beans from the pot.
It remains to be seen how the controversy over Smokey Guthrie’s poetry will be resolved. While critics argue the poetic merits, tribal officials have commissioned a market study. Ultimately, Guthrie’s fate will be decided not by critics like Marjorie Falls Off, but by the ring and beep of “good swipes” and cash registers. And whatever happens, the SmokeShop Renaissance will continue to gather momentum.
While the SmokeShop generation is respectful of the first Native American Renaissance and those elders who made their own work possible, they’re quick to note that it’s a new world. Protected by two security guards who keep screaming groupies at bay, Fancydance Frasier takes a smoke break backstage at the Buffalo Lounge. “Those old folks back in the 60s,” he shouts. “They may have paved the way, but we’re up on the highway now, and we’ve got the pedal to the metal. And we’re not gonna stop—unless, of course, there’s a smoke shop ahead!”