Sherwin Bitsui is originally from White Cone, Arizona, on the Navajo Reservation. Currently, he lives in Tucson, Arizona. He is Dine of the Todich’ii’nii (Bitter Water Clan), born for the Tl’izilani (Many Goats Clan).
He holds a BFA from University of Arizona and an AFA from the Institute of American Indian Arts Creative Writing Program. He is the author of Shapeshift (University of Arizona Press, 2003) and Flood Song (Copper Canyon Press 2009), which won the 2010 American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation.
I corresponded with Sherwin via email, and though both our hectic summers meant some lag time, our conversation was worthwhile.
So, my first question, which I hope opens up several more, is about your linguistic heritage. You grew up on a Navajo Reservation—do you speak Navajo?
There are so many questions about the politics of choosing to write or not write in minority languages, but I’m more interested in the personal decisions involved. Obviously you write in English. Why?
English is my language just as much as Navajo is. Navajo thought resonates through my poems written in English. There is a freedom that I have in composing poems in English because I am not bound to it completely. It’s much easier to break rules in English. I can’t break rules similarly in Navajo because I’m not as competent in writing it as I’d like to be. Navajo is not as noun driven as English nor does it segment reality as easily. Certain words are actually phrases defining a set of actions that relate to the thing or activity that is being referenced. I see English, or language in general, as a medium, much like a painter would view paint or a sculptor would view marble. Politically, English is the language of my tribal nation’s oppressor, but we certainly have to use it come into a new kind of knowing that will help us translate this outer culture into our own and vice versa. Flood Song feels like it’s trying to braid these diverging worldviews together in order to create a middle area that is accessible to both perspectives. On a less political note, I suppose I just enjoy seeing language suffocate as much I enjoy seeing it flower. There is much possibility in there for poetry. Navajo is very beautiful to me. I’m saddened that it has recently become an endangered language. We still have a large number of speakers in our communities. I’m hopeful that we teach the children to be fluid in both cultures, to sense the world as a whole rather than something binary and balkanized. I’m being rather hopeful here aren’t I? Currently, my understanding of Navajo hasn’t allowed me to see Navajo text as malleable as I’d like it to. It is a poetic language that brings out the sacred in all things. I suppose you can say that about poetry in general. I feel there are levels of speaking that I haven’t mastered. I still have to call my parents from time to time to ask them how one says certain phrases or words. The language is also very complex and dense. It’s a great language to experience the world with.
One of the things I admire is the way you’re able to incorporate “an indigenous eccentricity” without romanticizing the culture, while being totally engaged in contemporary American life, too. Is that a particular challenge you consider when writing?
Not so much. I have no other “place” to look back to but what is underneath my feet and the moment in time that I have been born into. My roots reach beyond the subsequent layers of imagined origins that history writers have given to the Americas. I have a deep connection to Dinétah (Navajoland) and the American Southwest, the landscape is ever present in my imagination, it is my place spiritually, culturally and politically.
I wouldn’t begin to know how to romanticize my culture. I see it from within and never had to “go back” to find it. I spring forth from that life and don’t look at it as “other” or “exotic” the way most people might view it. It’s simply just an aspect of who I am. I do appreciate the beauty of my land and culture. I long for home all the time.
You write, “I map a shrinking map,” which I think is true, perhaps the most succinct possible description of Flood Song. But there’s something about the mapping, I think, that at least slows the shrinking of the map, right?
I can’t help but notice, because of all the facets of new media, how small the world suddenly feels. I grew up in a community that seemed very far from the world literally and historically. My perception of the old and the new all changed quite fast as I traversed these two aspects of time and the languages that are seeded within them. I’m still writing through this map, finding that it is a web that is host to my poems more so than a literal map. I feel the vibration underneath my feet, follow it to its source and capture what poem lay there struggling to be voiced before the dark decides to take it back toward silence.
You started your relationship with the arts as a painter—and you even painted the cover of Flood Song. I was recently talking with Douglas Kearney, who says he tried to employ hip hop mixing techniques into his new book, especially stuff by J Dilla and other producers’ producers. There’s a huge tradition—and I think this is even more true in the UK, where you have poets like George Szirtes and Pascale Petit, who were very successful visual artists before they turned to poetry—of visual arts and poetry interacting. How do painting techniques translate into your own poems? Or do they?
I feel like any creative project I attempt resonates with all essences of what is unspoken within me. I don’t necessarily separate the two spaces, though I do wish I had more skill and time as a visual artist to say what I want to say with more clearly. I believe that my poetry attempts, through the oral recitation of the poem, to fill a space much like a film or installation piece would. It’s still poetry, but I want a poem to be a lived experience when the audience leaves afterward.
Images from early drafts of Flood Song used by Reona Brass, a Peepeekisis First Nation artist from Regina, Canada during a performance of hers in Alberta, Canada, home of the Tar Sands, to question the spirit of colonial legislation and language. She also drew from images in Shapeshift in a performance she gave in Bogota, Colombia, to question the freedom of thought in a military state. Reona interpreted the poems through her performances and thus created entirely new pieces out of them. We eventually collaborated in Santa Fe, New Mexico at the Institute of American Indian Arts in 2005, and created an all day performance/installation piece we called “Dear Reservation.” The installation piece was based on the premise of speaking to our nations’ political realities and boundaried existences. I wrote with graphite on the floor around a pile of rocks for most of the day, while Reona strung barbed wire along the outer walls, nailing them flat in areas, while pushing with her fingers and body: curled wires into two corners of the gallery. We were both bound together by rubber surgical tubing and could not move without somehow affecting the gestures and actions of the other. I wrote story after story, poem after poem on the floor until the words became a dense opaque shape surrounding the pile of rocks. Eventually, at the end of our performance, I moved the rocks to form a crescent shape out of the negative space of the floor and read a section from Flood Song. Reona wrapped a plastic Target bag around her face and placed a fist-sized rock on her neck. She let the weight of rock pull her down and as she gasped for air inside the plastic bag during the duration of my reading. It was a very quiet piece, unsettling perhaps, but it was moment where I felt that poetry and art were entangled and actualized in a new way for me. Reona’s been doing this kind of work for a long time, I was very privileged to have worked with her because I hold her vision and work in such high regard. She taught me a lot about seeing the present in a more poetic way.
Have you ever been interviewed without someone asking something about Sherman Alexie? How are you pigeonholed as an indigenous writer?
If I am pigeonholed, I haven’t felt it yet. I suppose I just don’t give much time to entertaining to the ideas of the reasons behind my work. Shapeshift was published in 2003 to some mixed but mostly positive reactions. Ultimately the book stayed around and eventually garnered national attention. I just wrote without really reaching for anything other than to be in the moment of the poem and to stand out in the open to wait for it arrive. In retrospect, my books have everything you’d expect from and indigenous poet writing in today’s changing landscape. This shouldn’t be surprising, after all, they were written by a poet from an indigenous community.
Not many Native Writers, especially those from my generation, get through an interview or a question and answer session without being asked about Sherman Alexie or his work. I have a lot of respect for him and enjoy reading his books from time to time. He is unmatched in his ability to break through all sorts of barriers and has been a major influence on my journey as a writer. As a role model for younger Native writers, he’s shown that one can do anything and there are no excuses when it comes to writing. I saw him read at the Taos Poetry Bout in 1998, and I was floored by his energy and ability to transform poetry into something other than what I’d known poetry to be at the time. I don’t think we’ll have anybody quite like him for a very long time, if ever again.