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UC Riverside poet featured on PBS NewsHour

UC Riverside sing you back

Credit: iStock/deimagine

PBS NewsHour is featuring Allison Hedge Coke, distinguished professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside, and her poem “America, I Sing You Back” on its website.

Allison Hedge Coke
Credit: UC Riverside

Hedge Coke told PBS NewsHour that the poem, published in her book “Streaming” in 2014, is an extension of two famous poems about the identity of America — Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing” and Langston Hughes’ “I, Too.”

“Those poems were written by men — one white and one black — and I wanted to represent the voice of a woman, and an indigenous person,” she said. “We all see our country from different perspectives culturally.”

Hedge Coke said that “America, I Sing You Back” was born out of concern for what she saw happening in the United States 12 years ago, namely, the greediness of politicians to take natural resources from the land. “It was as if the government was acting like a child: ‘I want, I want, I want.’ And the indigenous people were just watching like worried parents without having any control over them,” she told PBS NewHour.

Andrew Winer, chair of the Department of Creative Writing, said the recognition by PBS NewsHour is “a fitting and beautiful tribute to our new hire and her important work, and a testament to the success of UC Riverside and its cluster hire initiatives, the Department of Creative Writing and the Indigenous Studies Program. It makes me proud to be part of this campus, and to call Allison a colleague.”

Hedge Coke is the 2016 Library of Congress Witter Bynner Fellow and the author of numerous books, many of which have won top literary awards. Among them are: “Streaming,” which won the Pen Southwest Book Award in Poetry, Wordcrafter of the Year Award, Lifetime Achievement Award Native Writers’ Circle of the Americas, and IPPY Medal; “Off-Season City Pipe,” Wordcraft Writer of the Year in Poetry; “Dog Road Woman,” American Book Award; “Blood Run,” a free verse play she wrote while lobbying to protect the Indigenous mound site in Iowa and South Dakota (resulting in a new state park, Good Earth) and a best seller in the U.S. and the U.K.; “Rock, Ghost, Willow, Deer,” an AIROS Book of the Month Selection; and a chapbook, “The Year of the Rat,” a dramatic long poem-libretto. She is the editor of “Sing: Poetry from the Indigenous Americas” and the “Effigies” series of collections of poetry by Native poets.

America, I Sing You Back

              for Phil Young and my father Robert Hedge Coke;
              for Whitman and Hughes

America, I sing back. Sing back what sung you in.
Sing back the moment you cherished breath.
Sing you home into yourself and back to reason.

Before America began to sing, I sung her to sleep,
held her cradleboard, wept her into day.
My song gave her creation, prepared her delivery,
held her severed cord beautifully beaded.

My song helped her stand, held her hand for first steps,
nourished her very being, fed her, placed her three sisters strong.
My song comforted her as she battled my reason
broke my long-held footing sure, as any child might do.

As she pushed herself away, forced me to remove myself,
as I cried this country, my song grew roses in each tear’s fall.

My blood-veined rivers, painted pipestone quarries
circled canyons, while she made herself maiden fine.

But here I am, here I am, here I remain high on each and every peak,
carefully rumbling her great underbelly, prepared to pour forth singing—

and sing again I will, as I have always done.
Never silenced unless in the company of strangers, singing
the stoic face, polite repose, polite while dancing deep inside, polite
Mother of her world. Sister of myself.

When my song sings aloud again. When I call her back to cradle.
Call her to peer into waters, to behold herself in dark and light,
day and night, call her to sing along, call her to mature, to envision—
then, she will quake herself over. My song will make it so.

When she grows far past her self-considered purpose,
I will sing her back, sing her back. I will sing. Oh I will—I do.
America, I sing back. Sing back what sung you in.