I place my bag on the chair beside me and the weight gives way, my books and notes spilling everywhere. I kick them aside; it is a minor distraction. The room I’m standing in is auspiciously staring back at me. There is an oblong conference table straddling what could only be described as the 40 yard line in this grand white space, a group of writers huddled in one end zone, absolutely nothing in the other. This is the room we will be interviewing the remarkable author of Flood Song.
“This isn’t going to work.” Someone interrupts.
I agree with a nod. Three other heads bob in unison.
To the east of the room, an AC unit heaves gusts of frozen air into a corner all together larger than my studio apartment. Thirty feet west another studio is framed by three concrete pillars, the center decorated with sofas and armchairs; there are three voice recorders on the coffee table.
“We might need to move some chairs…”
We all turn around and see Sherwin Bitsui surveying the other end of the room.
“Hi…” I shyly utter. The notes I had taken for this interview are at his feet, his most recent book of poetry, Flood Song is wedged between Zong by Nourbese Philip, another favorite of mine.
He smiles and puts his briefcase down. “A circle over there maybe?” He points to the Westside studio with its ivy red sofas. “Yes, that will work.” He begins moving chairs.
I put my book down and move to a sofa with another writer, an Italian-American grad student best known for his recent dystopian piece about a cyborg dog. “I think this needs to be moved… it’s in the way…” I see him pointing to a concrete pillar. Sherwin stops; he does not know my friend will be literal about this .. He wraps his hands around the pillar and heaves a deep, guttural “hmmfhh.” There is a pause; he puts his hands lower and tries again “hmmmfhh.” We all begin to laugh. “It won’t move?” Sherwin asks.
Once seated, a group of 30 or so writers waits for Sherwin Bitsui to begin. He is generous with his glances… quiet. The silence is restorative, his connection to everything around him evident as he stares meaningfully at the floor and then back at us. He begins.
“Yá’át’ééh shi Dine’é everyone.
“Shi’eiya Sherwin Bitsui yinishyé…But you already know that.” He laughs.
He spends a few moments explaining his sacred ancestry and then looks to the person nearest him. “I would like to hear your name… Where you are from … Something about yourself…” He spends the next thirty minutes asking each person in the room about their home and heritage, listening in quiet admiration.
Bitsui is both poet and translator of the ever-evolving discourse between land and spirit, a gift of his Navajo heritage. He is Diné of the Bitter Water Clan, born of the Many Goats People of a matrilineal society in the Navajo Reservation of White Cone, Arizona. The language of his ancestors is rooted within the landscape of the Four Sacred Mountains, a “directional floor to the sky and its constellations.” Sherwin is humble, yet brilliant: “Sǫ’ Ahóts’i’í”, I believe a Navajo would say… a man that mirrors many “stars linked together.”
In his most recent collection of poetry, Flood Song, he suspends astonishing surrealism and poetics into an image of “fossilized amber, dimming gas lights between rain and fall.”
Sherwin is the author of an additional collection of poetry, Shapeshift, and the recipient of the American Book Award. He is joined today by an audience of creative writers.
A writer from Ibadan, Nigeria, fluent in Yoruba, asks the first question, clapping his hands in front of his face with an affirming “wow.”
How does your native language inform the colonial language in which you write your poetry?
Navajo is thought in motion, a very verb driven language. Everything is tactile; everything is about moving within the world or having the world move within you. [The Navajo] also have this ability within the language, its philosophy and worldview, to make the metaphorical very real… to make it literal in a way. Perhaps because we live in a ritualized, ceremonial space, our culture exists in an inner relationship with all things. A lot of the houses face east, because the eastern doorway welcomes the rising sun. I think we live in a dimension of place and time that is also spiritually linked, a kind of mapping/topography that belongs to the people.
Sherwin points with his index finger to his eye, and moves this hand to his chest. He pauses and outstretches this palm to the air. We look and realize he is holding his words.
We have a word, Nizhóní, which describes something beautiful or balanced… the philosophy that everything must return to Nizhóní; everything must return to this balance.
Sherwin assures everyone this act of beauty is for everyone to claim. He repeats Nizhóní once… twice.
When you are out of balance, ceremony and ritual language balance the forces, harmonizing it. And that is the other kind of poetic I have access to, an ancient poetry that comes from the soil, comes from this land. This is brought to a kind of quality that resonates with language, somehow becoming the voice of the land. Language is another kind of landscape, an extension that goes away like the mist or the air that you breathe. Colonial language feels very segmenting, in a way, like it has a different function living within that function, an architecture of these places and these thoughts that enter organic, traditional spaces. For example, traditionally, [the Navajo] live in one space. There was never a sense of “do I need a room of my own, a segmented living space?” Once this thought [of segmentation] entered into our traditional tribal spaces, a kind of segmenting happened [and an evolution of relationship to space].
An author/curator based in Los Angeles leans into the circle, her hands adjusting her sea green scarf:
You have a wide arc of experience… what do you think about the lifetime commitment to the practice [of poetry]?
The Navajo word for “north” is náhookǫs. As a child we knew it as the Big Dipper, the North Star, Polaris, but when you read it three times, it enacts a motion… a turning of the skies, like a clock. That is what I want my poems to do. I want them to be engines that turn something.
Could you talk about moving in and out of narrativity in poems and whether or not you think of them as stories?
When I began writing Flood Song, I let myself accept the weird, in a very literal way. [In our culture] we have medicine people, people who are gifted, a space in our culture that accepts omens and songs. When I started writing Flood Song, I felt that song was coming to me, and I had to write it. I could’ve rationalized it… I could’ve ignored it, but I just said, “Ok, why not? Why not believe in something?”
Over the course of maybe 5 years, I started writing these fragments. I packed up all my fragments into a paper Trader Joe’s sack [and traveled with them]. I had just had a pile of pieces. One day, I laid out the poems on these long tables on the outside of my house [in Marfa, Texas}.
Sherwin inches out to the edge of his seat, tucks his feet at an angle from his knees, and begins positioning the work with his palms to the air.
I started taping [the fragments] to the walls [above]. I read through some of the fragments and [I began to realize] there’s a flood happening in this work! There are people escaping this flood… There is disaster.
A gust of wind from the lot behind the conference room rattles a window, the shade clanking to its tempo as Sherwin continues speaking.
There are moments where these figures in a feverish state have visions. There is a singer. There is a song…There is a narrative in there somewhere. But [there was no] linear beginning, middle, or end. [I just asked]: “how do I compose this? What is the form for this particular piece?” And somewhere in the midst of me trying to figure out what the form was, I said to myself, “I want to create a poem that floods,” to make something very literal, but, in terms of compressions, [something with] movement. “Where are the places where I want [the narrative] to move fast and [at what places] do I want people to slow down?”
The trees outside are shuddering in waves, leaves falling to the ground.
So the construction itself took a long time to realize. Also, there are two beginnings: you have the water dripping, and you have the actual song, and the sounds of the rattles and the sounds of the drumming, the rasping of a basket. The first poem is just a sound poem, so we begin the song. And the [structure of the poems] mimics the flooding when [pages are turned]. I was interested in that…. the words spilling out of the book.
A budding comic skit artist and travel memoirist, recently back from the Matisse Mountains of New Mexico, inquires about the cover of Flood Song.
How does your writing pair with your visual art?
I take photographs and I also paint. My paintings lead me to my poems. I’ve been trying to write new poems, and yesterday I was like, “I gotta get my paint out, because I’m writing crap.” In a way, it’s digging into another field, bringing the light out from another space, letting go, creating textures and gestures. That surprise is what I’m looking for. And then the poems disorient me, so I create language in surprising ways.
The cover art of Flood Song was a piece painted by Sherwin in the 90’s. It was entitled “Drought.”
When I’m traveling, I take photographs, try to see the light… I love painting but it drives me crazy. I’m kind of a madman when I’m painting. I’m someone you don’t want to be around—Jekyll and Hyde… but it’s because I’m so passionate about it. Painting is a language, but it’s also something I don’t know. So I get really frustrated, because a painting looks good but then, eh, it could be better. My father used to paint with sand. It’s a whole ritual. Those paintings are destroyed after the ceremony. You work on it all day, and at the end of the day, whoosh, brushed away.
An ethereal writer of haunting stories and magical scenery lifts her pen in the air:
What was the first story that spoke to your imagination as a child? Why do you think this is, and who told it to you?
I really love my grandparents. I really enjoy listening to them talk. My grandpa was a medicine man, and he had this other knowledge about the world, about history. One story really ignited something in me. It was a memory our people had about being in that place. We were going through a really severe drought, in the early 90s. I was a shepherd at that time, herding the sheep for my grandparents. I remember the desperation. The cows had all gone hungry, and they looked skeletal. People were selling their cows for a penny just to get them away. I remember traveling to Montana those summers, and seeing the abundance of water…having this relationship with the north.
Sherwin looks to the bottle of water at his feet and picks it up. He acknowledges the reality of what he is holding.
At some point, during the drought, even the notion of praying for rain and watching a cloud go overhead with a single drop of water… that single drop was significant. My grandpa [also] pulled out a bottle….he mentioned something about the day we would start selling water. I thought there was something about [those moments].
We all look at the water bottle he is holding. Some whisper “wow.” Others hum in affirmation. We are a bit shocked and want to ruminate in this silence… we do not move to the next question for some time.
The memoirist is brave and traverses the silence:
How do you go from being that kid on the school bus on that border town to going on book tours? What choices did you make? Did you wish for others?
A lot of my people are still struggling. I just had a cousin, my aunt’s son, two and a half weeks ago he was found in a border town dead at 32 years old. That’s the reality. There are many, many traumas happening in this space, and everywhere, but I feel it really acutely because these are people in my community, these are family members who are really struggling. Somehow they don’t have the opportunity that I have. And maybe its books and stories… somehow the beauty of creating dazzling language took me out and gave me wings. I get to talk to you because of that. I look back at it now and it does feel like another time.
Writers begin collecting their recorders from the coffee table. Sherwin stands up and clasps his hands.
“Should we take a little breather before we write together?”
Sherwin Bitsui reading to VCFA students and faculty.