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Sherwin Bitsui: Sounds Like Water

June 21, 2013

Tomas Hachard talks with the award-winning poet about 'border poetry,' cultural access, and the politics of writing about nature.

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Image from Flickr via 'LadyDragonflyCC'

Sherwin Bitsui’s 2009 book of poetry, Flood Song, begins with the Navajo word for water: . It gets repeated five times, each instance set equal spaces apart vertically all the way down the length of the page. “The word actually sounds like water,” Bitsui explained over the phone. When read out loud by a Navajo speaker, the poem audibly evokes the drips of a faucet, or perhaps the first sounds of a rainstorm, as you make your way through it.

In its use of natural imagery and its explicit dialogue with Bitsui’s Native American heritage, that poem is certainly indicative of Bitsui’s work, but only partially so. The rest of Flood Song does not always stay on such a quiet, meditative plain. Bitsui’s words often contain a striking, propulsive energy; they can be charged with anger as often as they are softer in tone.

Bitsui was raised on a Navajo reservation in White Cone, Arizona. He is Dine of the Todich’ii’nii (Bitter Water Clan), born for the Tl’izilani (Many Goats Clan). The winner of a 2010 PEN Open Book Award, an American Book Award, and a Whiting Writers Award, he is the author of two books of poetry—Shapeshift (Sun Tracks) and Flood Song—and currently lives in Tucson, Arizona.

Over phone and email, Bitsui and I talked about poetry, heritage, and the politics of writing about nature.

—Tomas Hachard for Guernica

Guernica:One thing that struck me about some of your poems is the juxtaposition of natural and modern imagery. In your first book you have a poem that reads, in part, “A raven’s rib ripped from the electric socket / heats the palm.” Can you speak more about how that juxtaposition gets worked out in your poetry?

Sherwin Bitsui: I’m not necessarily aiming to juxtapose the natural and the unnatural. They’re just both in my field of vision. A lot of the images of nature come from the space that I originated from. My childhood was largely in a natural world. I lived with modern amenities but I did spend a lot of my youth in a non-urban place.

But also, as a native writer, there’s the politics of having to represent nature as somehow idealized and somehow still existing in its pure state. And I think that the world that I am aware of, that I am bringing into the poems, has elements of technology mixing with natural elements.

Often the encounters between such forces might seem violent and intrusive. In my experience, my work has always been about collisions. I come from a traditional family and I was taught to view the world metaphorically from a young age. Our physical world had to be attended to ceremoniously and often such ritual devices involved the act of ‘speaking’ a world into a balance. Words have power to transform or create a situation. It may seem superstitious to outsiders, but such respect and affection for language gave me an entrance into poetic understanding of the world and its consequences. Published poets out-number prose writers in my culture’s literary output. We seem to gravitate toward this form of translation and sharing of experience.

Guernica: So the mix of imagery perhaps is a way of translating between Native and non-Native cultures?
I feel like I’m a border poet in some ways. I definitely experience several worlds as one. It’s always been hard to be binary in my expression, though often I am read and perceived by readers as ‘juxtaposing’ images in order to show the contrast between Navajo and American Culture. Growing up in a rural environment informs my poems just as much as Navajo language does. The intersection between worlds is a great area for creative possibility.

Guernica: How were the arts a part of your experience growing up in your Navajo reservation?

Sherwin Bitsui: It’s hard to say. There is an indigenous arts culture, a Navajo arts culture, where art is firmly in place. But I had a very rural experience growing up so I didn’t have a culture where I could go to the nearest library and check out a Norton Anthology of Poetry. I didn’t have that kind of access.

Poetry found me later on in life but as I grew up it was all just the tradition of storytellers and people in my community who spoke very poetically and were able to tell stories that we’ve carried on from generation to generation. That was sort of the way I came to the spoken word.

[Writing poetry] is an act of surviving—not survival but surviving—and of sharing and continuing traditions that started way before.

Guernica: When did you find poetry or when did poetry find you?

Sherwin Bitsui: Much later in life. I was probably 19 or so, maybe 20. I was attending community college. I suppose I always gravitated toward stories. I loved to be able to tell stories. I loved to read. When I read my first piece of poetry it just spoke to me. Poetry, structurally, felt similar to the way I thought and the way I perceived the world as a Navajo person. It spoke to me on a very human level where walls cleared away to shared breath and sky.

Unfortunately, such insight also illuminated the hard fact that my culture was excluded from certain ideas that America had built itself upon. Suddenly, the reservation and the fences that were raised to separate us from the larger world seemed that much more impenetrable and difficult to cross. Poetry for whatever reason, allowed me to speak and think freely from behind such internal and physical boundaries.

Guernica: Do you find you share a purview with other Native poets or is the category of “Native American poetry” just an easy way to group together artists who are doing vastly different things?

Sherwin Bitsui: We certainly have a perspective that probably makes it a little difficult not to group us together because we are speaking from a perspective that is indigenous to the Americas in a way. Some of us speak our languages and some of us are writing from very distinct perspectives. But I think it’s just interesting that we’re writing today because so much has been taken from us. It’s an act of surviving—not survival but surviving—and of sharing and continuing traditions that started way before.

Tomas Hachard is a film critic for Slant and The L Magazine and an editorial assistant for Guernica Daily. Follow him on Twitter @thachard.

Sherwin Bitsui has published his poems in Narrative, Black Renaissance Noir, American Poet, The Iowa Review, LIT, and elsewhere. Recent honors include a 2011 Lannan Foundation Literary Fellowship and a 2011 Native Arts & Culture Foundation Arts Fellowship. He is also the recipient of 2010 PEN Open Book Award, an American Book Award and a Whiting Writers Award.

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