Poetry News

'I’m in the reservation of my mind': Sherman Alexie’s Early Inspiration

By Harriet Staff


Turns out, Sherman Alexie wasn't always a committed poet and writer. In fact, his early aspirations were to teach high school and coach basketball. We're all very glad that he encountered the poetry of Adrian C. Louis, which set him on track to write all the great poems and fiction he's written over the years. The Atlantic digs in to Alexie's proto-poet days:

In 1993, when Publishers Weekly previewed Sherman Alexie’s short story collection The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, the author was “primarily known as a poet.” Things change in 20 years. Today, Alexie is celebrated for his acclaimed novels, stories, and collections of both poetry and fiction, screenplays and film work, and a National Book Award-winning young-adult novel. He helms a killer Twitter feed. He’s an indispensable and versatile American voice

But in an interview for this series, Alexie confessed that his writing career very nearly never happened. For Alexie, a Spokane/Coeur d'Alene Indian who grew up destitute, literary dreams were more than beyond reach—it never occurred to him that a reservation Indian could speak out and be heard. A chance encounter with a poem by Adrian C. Louis gave Alexie the life-altering license to sit down, put pen to paper, and write out all he knew.

Alexie goes on to talk about how he was inspired to become a writer early on in his college career:

In 1987, I dropped out of Gonzaga and followed a high school girlfriend to Washington State University (it's called Wazoo). And by complete chance, I enrolled in a poetry workshop that changed my life. On the first day, the teacher, Alex Kuo, gave me an anthology of contemporary Native poetry called Songs from this Earth on Turtle’s Back. There were poems by Adrian C. Louis, a Paiute Indian, and one in particular called “Elegy for the Forgotten Oldsmobile.” If I hadn’t found this poem, I don’t think I ever would have found my way as a writer. I would have been a high school English teacher who coached basketball. My life would have taken a completely different path.

This was the first line of the poem:

Oh, Uncle Adrian, I’m in the reservation of my mind.

I’d thought about medicine. I’d thought about law. I’d thought about business. But that line made me want to drop everything and be a poet. It was that earth-shaking. I was a reservation Indian. I had no options. Being a writer wasn’t anywhere near the menu. So, it wasn’t a lightning bolt—it was an atomic bomb. I read it and thought, “This is what I want to do.”

There's much much more to the story. Head over to the Atlantic and read the rest.

Originally Published: October 17th, 2013