A Conversation with Sherwin Bitsui
Friday, March 29th, 2013
9th Annual Symposium on Wildness, Wilderness & the Environmental Imagination: The Future of Water
Sherwin Bitsui is from White Cone, Arizona, on the Navajo Reservation. He currently lives in New Mexico. He is Dine of the Todich’ii’nii (Bitter Water Clan), born from the Tl’izlani (Many Goats Clan). He holds a BA from the University of Arizona and an AFA in Creative Writing from the Institute of American Indian Arts. Recent honors include: 2011 Native Arts & Culture Foundation Arts Fellowship, 2011 Lannan Foundation Literary Fellowship, the 2010 PEN Open Book Award, an American Book Award, and a Whiting Award. He is the author of Shapeshift (University of Arizona Press, 2003) and Flood Song (Copper Canyon Press, 2009).
When Sherwin Bitsui came to Iowa State to speak at our Annual Wildness Symposium, Flyway‘s Managing Editor Michelle Donahue had the opportunity to talk with him about his poetry.
Flyway: There are so many things I find fascinating about both Shapeshift and Flood Song but I think what was most intriguing was its form and length. In Shapeshift you have these tiny, short poems,while Flood Song is a book-length poem. What made you want to write a book-length poem? What sorts of decisions were involved there? And how was it different writing a book-length poem as opposed to individual poems?
Bitsui: Well, Shapeshift was my first book, so I entered with short pieces and I entered poetry in that way. There is a longer poem in Shapeshift called “The Northern Sun,” which is rather expansive, but it sticks to a three-page, prose-poem format. But then I also realized that I was writing in sections. I was writing shorter poems, but in sections. For some reason that seemed a little more true to my experience. I looked at my poetry and realized that somehow the white space or the negative space also informed the poem. And there needed to be silence between the pieces, so in Shapeshift there was that tendency to number a section, but it was still somehow contained within the poem. With Flood Song it seemed like the poem wanted to be expansive and it wanted to flood the horizon or the valley in which it was written. So the shape of Flood Song is really the shape of the flood. And it’s not a linear shape, it does move in many directions but the gravitational pull of the earth definitely is a direction in which the flood moves towards. In Flood Song there is movement but it is created by the world around it. The world created the reality that I’m in. I just had to follow it.
Flyway: So that flooding motion, is that why you chose to format it the way you did? The book has slightly wider pages and you space the passages of the poem very sparsely on the page sometimes. Is that feeding into that flooding movement? What made you decide that that was the right form for the poem?
Bitsui: There were moments where there was compression in the work and this adds to the musicality of the work. Sometimes a poem is so loaded with images and it is so compressed that it somehow blurs in the mind. I was interested in this idea of blurring and smearing because I’m also a visual artist. So I enacted that as a part of my process. Could I create this poem where I loaded the images on top of each other and they are going to collapse and on the following page they are going to be expansive again. Those came intuitively. I don’t think I did it conceptually. I think it just formed in that matter and I just followed it.
Flyway: Speaking of you being a visual artist, I noticed that you were the artist behind the cover art of Flood Song, which is this beautiful abstract, colorful painting that you’ve named “Drought.” So how do you think that art, “Drought” interacts with this poem, Flood Song?
Bitsui: Well, maybe they both create the same effect or feeling within the body in a way. Because I’ve been through drought, I’ve noticed my incredible longing for water. Not just for myself, but for the animals that we tended to and for the land. I was really aware of it as a young child. So the painting itself read the way that I read my poem Flood Song. If you noticed the smearing on the edges and its leading to something on the top right corner. Certainly I imagined that was an image of the flood. But it’s called “Drought.” Maybe “Drought” is flooding and maybe that’s the real poem. The image resonated with the intensity of Flood Song.
Flyway: I wanted to talk a little about the Navajo language. I know you speak Navajo, but was it your first language? Or did you grow up speaking both Navajo and English?
Bitsui: It’s hard to say. I feel like Navajo is my first language. Diné Bizaad is my first language. But English was always spoken also. I think for up until I was five, Navajo was primarily spoken. Maybe I spoke a little bit of English. I don’t remember. But it wasn’t until I got to elementary school, middle school, and high school where my language really took a back seat to English; mainly when I went to school off the reservation in a public school in a border town. As a speaker of the Navajo language you didn’t speak it, because it wasn’t appreciated not just by other peers but also by the people in the education system.
Flyway: I read that you described the Navajo language as “complex and dense” and a language that brings out the sacredness in things, so how do you think growing up with this language influences the way you interact with English, primarily with your poetry?
Bitsui: I think speaking and being with another culture at a young age, I responded to a lot of our cultural perspectives regarding language. Navajo is very imagistic and descriptive and also very verb driven; everybody in my family spoke metaphorically about things and they spoke poetically about things. The notion of speaking and speaking well has an honorable place in the Navajo community. I saw this attention given to speakers at a very young age and I was made to speak publicly in family settings. So there was always this respect for language and craft and it fed into poetry naturally, it wasn’t ever outside of that.
Flyway: So with the title, Flood Song and many of the passages of it, the work reminded me of Whitman with all of his “Song of…” poems. Was that an influence you were aware of when you were writing? What poets do you think your works are influenced by? Were you actively in conversation with any poet(s)?
Bitsui: Not so much with Flood Song. In Shapeshift there is. There are some moments when Whitman is in conversation with me, or I’m in conversation with him. Not intentionally. I feel like I didn’t really have a floor. I couldn’t really hook it onto anything that was obvious to me. The only poet that I was in conversation with was probably my own traditional songs. Somehow I was trying to speak to the voices of before and the way they constructed their poems. It is a very voice-driven work and there is a visionary appeal to it, but there wasn’t really anyone that I could see. And I could see the long lines and the long breath reference that certain poets that have come before me use. I’m okay with that. I’m okay with those references, but the poem really grew out of this time and for whatever reason it did grow. And if there are influences, then I wasn’t trying to write “Song of Myself 2.0” or something. This poem was really born out of its time and for whatever reason, as poets we return to that form, whatever collisions occur, and then those poems emerge. I think Shermen Alexie, on the book jacket as a blurb, said he heard Whitman in these poems or he heard Ginsberg, so I won’t deny that aspect, but I don’t think I was reading them against each other when I was composing it, because the poems were written out of intuition and dreaming and trying to find a new way to speak to the present. But there still always is going to be an old way of speaking to any present. Anywhere.
Flyway: You mentioned earlier when you were writing Flood Song there was a sonic nature. Is that how you usually write poetry? How did you craft Flood Song—what steps did you go through to get it in its final state?
Bitsui: I wrote pieces of it and there was a balkanization of these pieces and they formed their own countenance and they broke up and they shifted with the time, whichever time I was in. Eventually I had a collection of work that didn’t belong within the short format poem structure. A lot of the reason why I built this long poem is simply because what had to be said, had to be said the way it’s going to be said. Also, even if I think about traditional Navajo songs or poems, poem-songs, they do operate in a very lengthy way. They are drawn out by the speaker who operates or recreates these poems from memory. So, the sonic quality is followed simply because it was comfortable for me to hear my poem spoken back to me. A lot of the process was giving the poems to anyone within an arms distance at some point and having them read my poem to myself. A section or maybe the whole poem. I composed it by ear. I also composed it in a way where, if the poem was in anybody’s voice, they would alter the poem with their own breath and I would listen for those nuances and I would listen for those line breaks that they were making. I would see if it worked or not. So the poem was really created by different people in a way. I wrote the words, but everybody altered the poem with their own voice at some point. Ultimately, I’m the one who created it, but I listened to how people responded to it. These were just people, not poets. Just anybody who would sit near me. I was this eccentric poet asking, “Hey, could you read this little piece for me?”
Flyway: There’s such a sense of celebration, but also of tragic loss in Flood Song. For instance, you have, “where whale ribs / clasp and fasten you to a language of shifting ice” (11), an idea of moving land and losing land. You have lines that directly speak to loss, but also deal a lot with loss of sight or obstruction of sight with lines like: “I cover my eyes with electrical wires” (12), and “I bite my eyes shut between these songs” (4). How do you think loss plays out in Flood Song? Is it ultimately a balance between drought and flood? How did you think of loss when you were writing this? Or was that even conscious?
Bitsui: Probably unconscious. I don’t think I set out to write a poem about loss, it just emerged within the writing of the work. And all of those things were revealed later on. Also, I think someone once said, “All nature poetry is now elegy.” That was a recent quotation I had read, and wasn’t something I heard before writing this, but I thought it was interesting that we’re looking at nature and we’re imposing something on it that is somehow finite. It discontinues. But really it will continue and move forward. So Flood Song, I think is not so much about loss, but is a poem that exists in its time. And loss happens in time. But time moves past and births arrive. So there is that aspect to it; it accepts those things in a way that I personally can’t as a human being because I’m connected to things that I am connected to in a very familial way. I think I’m in a place now that even my language feels that it’s not being replanted in the voices of children. There is a kind of loss there too. But people are trying to teach the language in immersion schools, so there is hope. These things occur simultaneously. So all of that is a part of it. We’re moving so fast in all directions. I come from such a place that has been the root of my being for a millennia. How can you just move into this new world so easily? I question all of the things that are being lost. So, it’s a transitory piece and it’s a migrating piece. It’s very difficult to have to keep your foot in both worlds at the same time because you’ll be weighed down by the responsibilities that incur.
Flyway: So when you wrote that wonderful line, “I map a shrinking map” is that a map of everything? Land, language, a way of life? Or did you have something more specific in your mind?
Bitsui: It’s probably a metaphorical map in a way. Or maybe it’s a psychic map. It’s definitely a map, maybe of language, which is shrinking. So many of our ideas are based on mapping and knowing and the taxonomy of knowing reality. Taxonomizing an experience. I really think one is shrinking and the need to map it also is the act of making it immortal and making it real for some other person to come to it and see the place that is imagined.