Sly Alley, the author of Strong Medicine, is happy for the chance to share his Potawatomi heritage and culture with his fans during poetry readings, putting an Indigenous spin and unique perspective on the artform.
“I tie in some history,” he said. “There’s a couple of poems related to myself or my grandparents. If you know your history, things that maybe didn’t necessarily happen to you but happened to someone else that ends up affecting you, that gives you a little bit more in the toolbox.”
Born in Oklahoma, Alley believes the events that shaped Native American history should be shared so that others can understand the Indigenous experience. Ancestors on both his mother’s and father’s sides survived forced removal from their traditional homelands. He is a descendant of the Melot and Laughlin families.
“Going through those changes in their lifetimes, how that affected them and how that leads us to here, is something that I think is worth noting — not just from me, but from anybody that’s willing to sit down and write something for other people to read,” he said.
Alley first developed an appreciation for the written word by visiting his local library with his mother.
“She encouraged me to read a lot,” he said. “If I had a question, I would go to the library and to see if I could find a book on it. As I got older, (I learned) I’m a lot better at expressing through writing than I am speaking. A lot of that comes from reading and seeing how different people throughout history expressed their thoughts.”
He enjoys the challenge of developing a poem on paper, from just an idea to working through sometimes multiple drafts, saving parts he likes and arriving at a finished product.
“Most of (Strong Medicine) was stuff that just survived getting crumpled up, thrown away. Just about every one of those poems was, if not a first draft, maybe a second or third. But I liked something that worked and had to change something or add something (to finish). But the inspirations come through stories I read,” Alley said.
Alley’s 2016 debut collection, Strong Medicine, won the 2017 Oklahoma Book Award for poetry. As he writes, he hopes his work will reach someone who holds an opposing viewpoint and help them consider another perspective.
“I don’t want to say I want to sway their thinking or convince them otherwise, but I want to give them an alternate viewpoint. My book was political and pretty blatantly states my feelings about Oklahoma government and national government for that time frame. (The book) gave a viewpoint that showed concern for where society and government were headed,” Alley said.
It was well-received by Goodreads, where it holds a 4.44 rating out of 5 stars, and many of the reviews mention Alley’s ability to bridge the gap between Native and non-Native readers.
“Funny, perceptive, deeply moving, insightful, his poetry takes us by surprise, stirs us in large and small ways, lays bare the hypocrisy of politicians and strips the power structure of its mealy-mouthed excuses for greed, bigotry and racism,” one review said.
Strong Medicine was published by Village Books Press, a small publisher in western Oklahoma. Currently difficult to find online, Alley recommends checking local libraries or online retailers like eBay or Amazon.
The offer for his first book came almost out of the blue. After a reading at an open mic, a book publisher approached him about working together. Alley only had enough finished poems for a portion of the planned book, and he almost immediately began writing.
“The first one was so unplanned. I was in college at the time, doing the creative writing thing and just going to open mics and stuff like that. I like being under pressure a little bit,” he said.
Alley has been featured in several anthologies. One book, Level Land, was published by Lamar University Press. It is available through major retailers like Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
“(Level Land) was about travel along the I-35 corridor and seeing different places, sitting down and talking to people. It was about going somewhere different instead of just seeing the sights and going back to your hotel,” he said.
Alley has also contributed to anthologies produced by the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival. His work also appears in the Creative Field Guide to Northeastern Oklahoma, which highlights the 90-plus species both native and non-native to Northeastern Oklahoma and biodiversity. The publication also features original artwork, creative writing pieces and visual art activities. Alley has also contributed to a similar field guide produced by the Oklahoma Visual Arts Coalition that helps children identify plants and animals they encounter in nature.
Alley is currently working on his second book. As he completes new poems, he attends open mic events and poetry readings. He usually attends the monthly poetry reading at the Lunch Box, 217 E. Main St., in Shawnee, Oklahoma. The reading takes place on the third Thursday of each month at 7 p.m.
Alley said people sometimes think of poetry as something from the past, but it has a modern side as well, often reflecting current society and events. From Oklahomans like U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo to young poets like Amanda Gorman, who was featured at the 2020 U.S. presidential inauguration, the artform is enjoying a higher profile.
“To see (poetry) finally play out on a on a bigger stage, it’s definitely helped raise the visibility. A lot of people will watch — people that probably normally wouldn’t expose themselves or be exposed to poetry. It’s definitely on the upswing. It’s a good time to be a poet,” Alley said.
He is also enthusiastic about readers discovering new poets. Most poetry taught in middle and high schools today only focuses on a small group of poets, and he encourages people to explore more “than just the T.S. Eliots.”
Alley admires and recommends several contemporary poets and collections to readers. One of his favorite works is This Earth on Turtle’s Back, which features 52 poets from more than 35 different tribal nations, including Elizabeth Woody, Joy Harjo and Peter Blue Cloud, just to name a few.
Alley also appreciates the work of Kiowa novelist M. Scott Momaday, who is best known for his 1969 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel House of Dawn. Momaday’s 2020 poetry collection, The Death of Sitting Bear, received critical acclaim after its release.
“There are a lot of people out there doing a lot of interesting things, especially on the page and the layout. Layli Long Soldier, an Oglala Lakota poet, in one of her books, she does some interesting things with the way the words are laid out on the page, the spacing and the scenery. And it gives you kind of a sense of rhythm if you’re just reading it without having a tempo or a time count,” Alley said.
The spotlight shining on contemporary Native American writers, such as Momaday and Joy Harjo, energizes him. He appreciates how television writers like Sterlin Harjo of Reservation Dogs are enjoying mainstream success for their work that highlights unseen parts of Native American life. Alley has often patiently answered countless questions about his culture, but that is happening less frequently, he said.
In the past, contemporary Native culture and humor were not part of the mainstream media story. If Native people were included, they were peripheral. Stereotypes, employed by non-Native creators, were frequently used. Now, Native humor and contemporary life, created by Native artists, are the focal points of the story.
“Now we don’t have to make stereotypes. We can talk about the way we grew up, and people are interested,” Alley said. “It really helps when Native people are involved in the production and creation of art.”