A Conversation With Navajo Poet Sherwin Bitsui
Editor’s Note: During National Poetry Month in April we profiled Sherwin Bistui, Diné (Navajo) of the Todich’ii’nii (Bitter Water Clan), born for the Tl’izilani (Many Goats Clan). Growing up on the Navajo reservation, he now lives and writes poetry in Tucson. This interview takes us a bit more deeply into his work, especially the creation of his collection Flood Song (Copper Canyon Press, 2009). (Related: Navajo Poet Sherwin Bitsui, Seer of 'Violent Beauty in the American Landscape')
What is it like to devote oneself solely to writing poetry?
It’s an artist’s lifestyle, basically. It’s a tough art to pursue. A poet can probably never attempt to imagine themselves living off of their work. You do it because you have to or because you want to. One does not seek a career in poetry. Very few make their living off their work. Most people teach.
What makes a person go into poetry, then?
It certainly is a calling. It’s a gift and it’s also rather difficult. To me it’s still very difficult, a very difficult art form. And to be successful at it requires a lot of time and patience and knowledge of the art form.
How difficult is the creation of poetry?
Flood Song was a very difficult book to put together because I didn’t look at any other poems that would suggest a direction. It sort of happened organically, and I had to step out of time to make it happen. In retrospect it was the way that it should have been done. The only way that it could be written was to just trust it.
What drew you to poetry?
I suppose it’s just my past. Early on there was really no question that it would be the expression that I would choose or that chose me. It was very natural in a way to speak poetically, to think poetically about the world around me. And maybe that has something to do with the way I was taught to see the world by my family members and my grandparents in a way. They had such a respect for language that I also saw language as having power at a young age.
I grew up in a traditional family, and I always knew that language is powerful, that it can enact things and change things and transform them.
But when I saw contemporary forms of poetry, in books, anthologies, the way poets [expressed themselves] was very familiar. And the metaphors and the structures of their poems resonated with me on a basic human level. So it was a natural gravitational pull to this thing that we call poetry.
When did you realize you were going to be a poet?
I came to it quite late, at age 19 or 20. I guess I didn’t really respond to it until I got to college, and that was when I started discovering other poets. Before that it was all rock lyrics. And I think most reservation kids listen to a lot of rock music—that’s their introduction to something that looks like poetry. Nowadays it’s probably hip-hop.
Did you consider other artistic endeavors?
I actually wanted to be a painter. I was interested in visual arts but I didn’t have the confidence. So I took a creative writing course by accident.
But when I went to the Institute of American Indian Arts, I found all these native poets who were interested in poetry from all over the U.S. and Canada and Alaska.
There was something very beautiful about that moment when I first walked into the classroom and there were all tribal members sitting there with their pens and pencils and poems out, and we all shared poetry. It was cathartic, I think.
I don’t know why and how or what would compel somebody to do that—attempt to write their world—but it was very natural to do that.
And I still want to be a painter. The cover of Flood Song is my painting.
They both come from the same source, and they both speak to you. They’re both the same thing to me. They both provide the same expression.
What does poetry express for Native communities, how is it a vehicle for Native expression?
Certainly in our cultural climate we’re witnessing—we’re present in the era where a lot of our languages are going, are disappearing. And I think poetry is one way that we could find a moment where some of those languages surface and regenerate a poem in English. Or maybe confront the English language.
Certainly there are those possibilities. And there’s an important one. Certainly in my work I embed Navajo words, and in the opening poem in Flood Song is the Navajo word for water, and it’s repeated seven times.
And the Navajo would understand it. But also the sound of it, the sound of water. [The word] makes the sound of dripping water splashing. The audience member who might not understand it literally can appreciate the sound of another language, and maybe it will help illuminate the language that they have never actually heard with the complexity that it is.
Does contemporary Native poetry have a message for indigenous youth?
I teach … high school kids. A lot of times it’s just giving permission to these kids, to these youths, these students, to use their language in the poem, on the page. It gives relevance to the language that is not necessarily included in their educational structures. So that way poetry can benefit Native people on a very personal level.
And also I think poetry is a witness that is able to reflect the community that we’re in, and I think just even having a poem read by a poet who is sensitive to an experience, perhaps an urban experience, can share something that touches someone from the community. Our story is a shared story.
How does this compare to European poetry?
Flood Song is all in motion, and Navajo language is always in motion.
A shift happens, and it’s not a shift out and away from Navajo language. It’s actually pulling the colonizer’s language into our own ways of knowing. So there’s a way of transforming English also, and that ability is empowering us to bring it into our field of understanding and expression.
What do you see in Native poetry today?
There’s been a real explosion of native poetry writing. That should be highlighted. Everyone’s doing incredible stuff. I’m just excited to see new forms. There’s just a lot of energy right now, a lot of change, and the poets seem to be leading the way in a way. That probably hasn’t been seen for a while.
There are many different voices, and they’re publishing outside of—they’re mainstreamed in a way that I think I haven’t witnessed before—getting national recognition on a different scale.
How is Native poetry informed by oral tradition?
How certain speakers in my family would use language and would tell stories. There you see dynamic language is really impressive, and so I just thought there was something really beautiful about it—that reverence we have for our language that inspired me to pursue this direction.
What’s next for you?
I’m writing a couple of new manuscripts—both books of poems—and also a screenplay. My work is shifting and turning toward memory, whatever that means. It’s turning toward experience in a way that I haven’t accessed, in a way. And I’m excited about that. More narratives.
The one after this one—not the next one but the one after—will be about going home.
More on Sherwin Bitsui and Native poetry