Although Leslie Marmon Silko is best known as a novelist, her fiction brings together poetry and prose to form a rich, evocative literary voice. As James wright observes, poems "rise out of the text" of her first novel, Ceremony (1977): "[I]t is astonishing," goes a Wright letter to Silko, "to see your mastery of the novel combined with a power of poetry within it" (Silko and Wright, 5). While Laguna Woman (1974) is Silko's only published collection of poetry (other publications include poetry, but are mixed genre), poems do indeed rise out of all her texts—whether they are short stories, novels, essays, letters, or screenplays. In the canon of American poetry, Silko—with her emphasis on such subjects as exile, community, interconnections, the land—stands with Joy harjo, Wendy Rose, Simon ortiz, Wright, Gary snyder, Louise Erdrich, and N. Scott Momaday, among other contemporary writers.
Silko was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and raised on the Laguna Pueblo reservation. She has won many literary awards, including a MacArthur Foundation Award (1981), a Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Foundation Writer's Award (1991), a Native Writers' Circle of the Americas Lifetime Achievement Award (1994), and a Lannan Foundation Award (2000).
Usually categorized with other contemporary American Indian writers, Silko suggests that while her contemporaries "are 'rescuing' songs and stories from old Bureau of American Ethnology Reports," she is "working from a more vital source"—that is, directly from oral tradition (191). This "vital source" is grounded in the land and the earth, as well as in stories, legends, myths, and songs that were passed down to her. Dominant themes include the interrelationship between people and the earth, the need to restore balance and harmony, and the circularity of time and space.
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The structure of Silko's poetry is perhaps best called organic: "I read [poems] the way I write them: by feeling my way to them" (Silko 23-24). Silko's poems move back and forth across the page, just as the ceremonial dancers sway in "Coyotes and the Stro'ro'ka Dancers," as the storm winds blow in "In Cold Storm Light," as the light on the canyon walls shifts in "Cot-tonwood Part One," or as the "cold water river" runs in "Indian Song: Survival," all poems from her 1981 volume Storyteller.
While Silko's fiction has been criticized as overly political and didactic, her poems have retained a purity and leanness, like a "lean gray deer / running on the edge of the rainbow" ("Indian Song: Survival" ).
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