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In Profile: Sherwin Bitsui
Indian Country profiles Navajo poet, Sherwin Bitsui, with a particular interest in the creation of his book Flood Song, published by Copper Canyon Press in 2009. If you don’t know Bitsui already, this interview is one great way to get to know him.
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.
Read more at Indian Country.