Sherwin Bitsui

Stories Create Community, A Conversation with Sherwin Bitsui

Jason Asenap

As the author of the poetry collections Shapeshift (2003) and Flood Song (2009), Navajo (Dine’) Poet Sherwin Bitsui has received a Whiting Writers’ award, a grant from the Witter Bynner Foundation for Poetry, a Truman Capote Creative Writing Fellowship and a Lannan Literary Fellowship.

Bitsui, who says he is fairly fluent in the Navajo language and grew up on the reservation with a traditional life in White Cone Arizona, has a quiet intensity in person, at least when discussing his art. He pauses often, leaving giant spaces between his responses. In this way, the conversation sounded very much like the poetry he writes.

After a live reading of his poetry in Santa Fe, NM , ICTMN spoke with Bitsui to discuss writing and teaching at the Institute of American Indian Arts.

When you're on stage, it looks like it's almost trance-like for you...

The poem is, to me is always there and I just step into and give it voice. So in the public reading of the poem, I become the poem in a way.

You become the poem?

That's awful to say. I climb into the poem, metaphorically, and then in that moment I allow the poem to take shape and form...

How do you come across the ideas in your poetry?

My relationship with poetry is one of mystery, and unfolding. I don't necessarily seek out a poem. I wait for it and when it appears and when it makes itself known, then I try to express it. So it's rather abstracted and rather personal and idiosyncratic, but that's the way I decide to work.

Who and what are your influences?

I think I've had different influences, anywhere from traditional Navajo songs, to artists like Cy Twombly, to my father telling me a story over breakfast, to the shape of a rock, or the sound of water dripping in a sink late at night.

Who are some of your favorite writers?

God, that's a huge question. I think rather than [suggesting] what books people should read, I maybe think they should go to a library and pick out a book, read it and begin their own self-discovery. There's real joy to to experiencing someone else's imagination and storytelling. It's crucial that we read and we tell our stories and share our experiences, if not for the broader world, but for ourselves because stories create community. What better way to create community? That's essentially an important thing to do.

Books that I like change daily and hourly. There's Santee Frazier, Orlando White, Natalie Diaz, Joan Kane, and there's also Layli Long Soldier, Laura Da just released her book she read here a couple nights ago, and not to be exclusive but I would like younger readers to get to know all the literary masters like, N. Scott Momaday, Joy Harjo, Simon Ortiz, Luci Tapahonso you learn the gambit of Native American literature and poetry. Poetry has always had a visible presence in native history.

Can you talk a little bit about how you incorporate the Navajo language into your poetry?

I'm definitely an English language poet as far as the books are concerned. But I'm able to move between both languages and I think the movement between both linguistic orientations helps shape my work. I feel like as a speaker of both languages, English and Navajo,it just gives me a broader perspective.  

What are you working on now?

I'm finishing up my third manuscript of poetry and I'm excited to see what happens with the work. But also I'm interested in what I will be writing after this manuscript is complete. I'm really interested in writing more short stories and working on a film project I have that's long overdue.


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