Sherwin Bitsui by Joy Harjo

BOMB 145 Fall 2018
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Photos by Sherwin Bitsui.

Raised in White Cone, Arizona, on the Navajo Reservation, Sherwin Bitsui is a poet and visual artist based in New Mexico, where he teaches at the Institute of American Indian Arts. Shifting, pulsing, flooding with images in motion, as well as Native history and myth, his poems and paintings speak to transformations of the Southwestern landscape. In working on Dissolve (Copper Canyon Press, 2018), Bitsui found himself taking more photographs, a practice that fed this latest collection of poems, which engage the theme of dissolution and the dissolve as a cinematic device. He shares an ongoing dialogue with the distinguished writer, artist, and musician Joy Harjo, one of the pioneers of the wave of Native art and activism that emerged from IAIA in the ‘70s. This summer they exchanged recent work and convened to pick up the thread.

Joy Harjo So in American time, today is July 5. It’s my daughter Rainy’s birthday. And we’re here because of Sherwin’s new book, Dissolve. But let’s start off with how we met in 1997. It was after I had started the band Poetic Justice, and you were a student at IAIA [Institute of American Indian Arts], and I remember having a one-on-one meeting with you, going over your poetry—

Sherwin Bitsui Yeah, but we met before that. Poetic Justice was going to have a show one night in Santa Fe, and I went to the venue early. I introduced myself and said I was a poet in the program at IAIA. I was starstruck of course: you’re Joy Harjo and I’m this young poet. I wanted to write books and make this my life, and you took time out of your rehearsal to sit down and ask me about poetry and give me some of your thoughts on the power of the medium. I had just come off the reservation when I came to Santa Fe in 1997. That was the first time I had lived away from my homeland, so it was really nice to connect with you. I consider you a mentor, and it seems we’ve continued having that same conversation we started then, over and over, constantly, throughout the past twenty years.

JH Yeah, when we talk, I feel like there’s so much we don’t have to say. We can just start where we left off. And I have a special connection with Diné, your Navajo people. I went to school at IAIA when it was still a BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs] school. In our English classroom there were stoves lined up that had been used just a few classes before to teach girls apartment living, instead of literature. Those students weren’t taught the arts. I didn’t become a writer until much later, as I was set to be a painter, but I was there at that moment of the beginning of the huge wave of Native contemporary art that was set off by the artist and sculptor Allan Houser, the painter Fritz Scholder, and students at IAIA in the late ’60s. Some of us were just kids in high school, but still we were taking it all in and became part of it as we questioned what it meant to be artists from our particular tribal groups, who were also influenced by Western artists and world artists. We were inspired by the arts and artists around us, like T.C. Cannon, the prominent Kiowa painter, and the Doors, Jefferson Airplane, all that music, and we were staying up late doing our art and talking about really what’s become the crux of what I do, or how a lot of us have proceeded: the notion of artistic sovereignty, so to speak. Later I went to University of New Mexico, after going home to Oklahoma, then coming back, and I was part of the KIVA Club, which was a native student club there—we were a major political activist organization. The club was mostly southwestern Natives. There were few from elsewhere. They were mostly Pueblo and Navajo—I was really close with Larry Emerson and Marley Shebala, and we organized marches, a lot of community action work, so I spent a lot of time out in your part of the world and actually took Navajo language classes for two years. Learning the language really gave me a sense of Navajoness, so talking to you that first time—I didn’t know exactly where you were coming from, but there was a connection, as I was familiar with the land and the language, which tell so much about a people. I started writing poetry about the time I began studying Navajo. And when I read your poetry, all the way from Shapeshift to your new book, Dissolve, what I know of the language tells me your poetry is very Navajo. The way the poems lay themselves out on the page has everything to do with landscape and verbal constructions. One of my favorite moments in American poetry is at the beginning of your book Flood Song, the repeated tó tó tó, which is water in Navajo. When I read that, it blew me away. People of the earth will understand more and more how precious water is through very hard lessons, but when you’re a desert people, you know perhaps better than anyone because of the constant  need for rain. There’s just so much in that repetition, that layering.


Photo by Sherwin Bitsui

SB I’ve been privileged to read some of your new work, and I notice our work has a real dialogue, some deeper conversation with the world or the spirit that makes our poetry what it is, gives us that drive and sense of being. I was astonished because as poets we write in isolation. We look inward and feel the world, and then somehow there’s a vibration happening—I’m always humbled by poetry’s ability to shock me and make me feel that there’s a bigger story here, that as poets we summon this from a river that’s already flowing and sing this into being. Many of our poems are songs, and that may seem contemporary, but I also feel like they come from people who’ve gone before us and they resonate with that history, that continuum. I’m just sitting here, trying to locate where my thoughts are coming from and where my heart is in terms of this work, and where it needs to be. I’m really abstracted right now…

Recently I translated a Li Po poem into Navajo language. I couldn’t find a way to translate the word wall. It took me some time to figure out how to describe it in Navajo, and then I thought about how and where I grew up: in a vast open landscape. There were barbwire fences, but no conception of walled-in spaces, and I think that notion came through naturally in the structure of Flood Song and Dissolve. The work had to be flowing over as nature does. That’s how I was able to be in the world when I was young. I could walk anywhere, be anywhere. I was always welcome in my family’s homes. That perspective is present in our work even today. Your poems are songs. They keep singing. And they merge, for instance, traditional singing and blues together.

JH Right, well the blues is traditional singing too. In Muskogee we don’t really have a word for poet. I wonder about Navajo—I don’t know a word for poet. Hatáli is singer, who is kind of a poet. One of the origins of poetry is song, even as there are roots to oratorical speech as well—telling people who they are, where they are, how they belong, how they relate to the place in which they move. I was thinking about how your three books could be a kind of trilogy, from Shapeshift to Flood Song to Dissolve. Shapeshift, to me, sets out where we are. In a way a poet is a shapeshifter. To be a poet of the Bitter Water people or of the Muskogee or Wind clan, and then here we are born into the arms of colonization, a shifted world, there’s so much shapeshifting, going back and forth between language realms that have different rules and expectations. Both worlds have been altered tremendously. It shows up in the language, in poetry. Like right now, we are using English to speak to each other. A few years ago, I could have bumbled along with you in Navajo. Our ancestors of only a generation or two back might have conversed in Spanish, or sign language. Our collective environment has shifted and is shifting dramatically. These are the times we were warned about years ago. I sat in circles and listened to those who knew things discuss these very times we are in. We are losing metaphor in our languages, even in English. The act of metaphor-ing opens up layers of meaning and possibility. With the lack of metaphor in our everyday transactions we are losing ourselves—like eating processed foods instead of foods that we know where and how they were grown. And here we are in the texting world. Language is stripped of nuance. So much evil has encroached our worlds. I use that word to mean lack of connectedness, even as we are so digitally connected. I remember when traveling out on your rez way back for those political actions, there was really no rape, drugs, none of that kind of thing. People felt relatively safe. Evil was something, in a way, that you could handle—you had songs, you had ways to deal with it. It wasn’t so overwhelming.  We left our doors open. Everyone was essentially a relative. Now we are coached in the daily deluge of language from our devices that refugees, immigrants, and those who are not like us are evil.

With Shapeshift I say, Okay, I’m here—I get the sense through that book of somebody who’s been up all night watching and listening and participating and then early in the morning all of this clarity comes and some of it’s confusing and chaotic, but there’s a beautiful pattern. This is who we are, where we are, in the middle of it. And then along comes Flood Song, which is an attempt to clean out and move emotional material, emotional mountains. You think of the water and how important water is in the desert and how the whole desert of the Four Corners used to be an ocean, you can see the layers of ocean on those beautiful rocks. And then Dissolve is, I think, a disappearance of water, but I also see your work as very painterly. Reading Dissolve, I felt compelled to draw images around your words. Your words feel written by an artist. You’re also an artist and a photographer—we have that in common. There are very definite, complex metaphorical images. It’s quite stunning. And then there’s the dissolve as a cinematic technique: it gets you from one image or scene to another, and it can move you forward or backward, one image disappears as another appears.

SB Shapeshift is a book where everything is in transformation. I didn’t know that until after I wrote it. Everything was becoming something else, a horse peeled itself into a flower toward the end. And Flood Song took on the shape of the flood, and with Dissolve, there is a cinematic quality. There are a lot of photograph-like images in the work. I really appreciate your insight into the book because it’s still fresh for me. I’m still trying to understand what it’s really doing. What are the sublayers or the deep concerns of this work? As the artist, I can feel it in my body, but I’m interested in always letting the  be vulnerable to the world around it.

These books may be a series, or a trilogy, but I always feel like I’m writing toward something unknown, and I feel that aspect in your new poems too. Thinking about the arc of your work, this more recent stuff is quite reflective. You are looking back to the children. There’s wisdom in the voice speaking to the young readers, giving them the gift of poetry. You reach from deep time into this time, bringing stories that are necessary, locating those specific instances, and then distilling them in the form of a poem or song and handing them to future readers, grandchildren, or perhaps people who are new to poetry, and really gently opening that window for them. As Native people, certainly as Navajo people, we’re always looking forward to old age. When someone reaches ninety or so, that’s when they are most wise, that’s the full life. My grandmother recently passed away at ninety-seven years old. And there was something really beautiful about her reaching that age. I think most of my family members look forward to that point in their life when they can look back. We always call the eldest person in the family, usually the eldest matriarch, aląąjí’ níhásízį’: the one who stands before us, or the one who stands at the front of us. There’s a place for that person and their wisdom, and this current work of yours is accessing that for readers, and also reorganizing my notions of what—even as a poet in his third book—poetry is or should be. Sometimes it’s nice to be gathered, to have your thoughts gathered and realigned with the beauty and mysteries of the world, to recalibrate the imagination or whatever guides us toward these songs.

JH It reminds me of how in each of your books I can feel the presence of different people or places. With Shapeshift, I felt the boniness of Tucson so present. But in this new work, your grandmother is very present. I can feel her there, poised on the rim of a time canyon. It’s exciting to watch this arc, to be absolutely in what you’re in. As you were saying, we don’t know what we’re doing. If we think we know what we’re doing, we’re on the wrong track. We’re in service of something so much larger than us. When you’re writing poetry, you’re given these gifts: images, lines, metaphors, that you’d never think of on your own, but you move into this interactive space with color, with place, with packets of meaning that have everything to do with, say, your grandmother in her childhood, or the earth, or a possible future twenty years down the road—because in that space, there is really no time.

Thinking about so many people I started out with, keeping up the art of poetry is a relationship—some of them are long and some of them are not. I have a relationship here, and I stayed at it for a long time, and more keeps being revealed, but I’ve noticed that as you come closer to the door that will open to the next chapter, so to speak, you realize it’s another opening. When we’re born—and I’ve seen this with every newborn I’ve held in my arms—we remember everything. They come to us with so many stories. They have the ancestors with them. And you can see it in their eyes, and sometimes they remember you; they’ve known you before. And then the older you get—we get so caught up because we have so much to accomplish while we’re here, responsibilities to our people, to what we set forth to do, to society, to help those around us, and to gain knowledge—you start walking back into that place of the ancestors. And it happens in poetry too. There’s a danger there with sentimentality and I was concerned about my new stuff edging along that line. About two weeks ago, I was thinking, I’m going to leave this place soon, this place in the southeast that my people were forcibly removed from. I came to Knoxville for work but also because I have family history here. My grandfather of seven generations back, Monahwee—who figures prominently in the new poetry book I’m working on—used to steal horses here when Knoxville was a nub of a town. You know, this is all our tribal territory here. My husband’s the same tribe too. We wanted to see what we would find here. And now that we’re getting ready to leave, what will I return with, what will I say? This is how the book came together: to be here in this place of loss has been painful, and yet so many other memories and doors have opened. I have been treated well by my colleagues, staff, and students at the university and will miss them when we return to Oklahoma. But it is difficult to walk around in this beauty and see that none of the families descended from original Mvskoke and Cherokee inhabitants live here.

SB I have this little stanza highlighted in your manuscript: “I sing my leaving song. I sing it to the guardian trees, this beloved earth. To those who stay here to care for memory. I will sing it until the day I die.” We talked about this line. You said you’re in—what did you call it?—the leaving time.

JH Well when you hit fifty, you start feeling it. That marks a shift.

SB (laughter) I’m not very far from that now.

JH Most of the people in my family were gone by the time they were my age.

SB Yeah, and none of us will make it to the end of the poem. It’s the long haul. You said you have a lot of friends and colleagues who’ve stopped writing—I’ve taught in MFA programs, and I hope my students will continue to write, but some of them have already gone on to other things. What has kept you in this work? That’s probably a silly question because it’s something that compels us, right? Something that makes us, drives us. There’s so much happening right now in the world, in our political climate, and sometimes I wonder, What is a poem going to do? Is there some other action I should take? Who’s going to come to the poem? And what is the purpose of writing poetry in a time when language is being abused in so many ways? Perhaps I’ve answered my own question. Because language is being abused in so many ways, we have to reorganize it and make it anew. Do you have any thoughts on that?

JH Yes, I always remember N. Scott Momaday’s essay “The Man Made of Words”—and this was way back—about how language had lost its meaning. There was so much language being produced all over newspapers, magazines, all these stories not holding the value that they would, say, within oral cultures, in which you are in direct human contact with the power of words. But poetry has always mattered and I think it always will matter. What has kept me going is that sense of discovery, of spirit, of the soul. I go there for communion. I always loved John Coltrane because of what I feel in his music. He was such an innovator, with heart and soul; he was talking to the creator. He went directly to the origin of creation and sang about it, and kept recreating the track of music, what it could be. That’s what motivates me. And yet poetry’s in the world, it’s political. I’ve been at that same caravan bar in your poem “The Caravan.” The one on Central?

SB It’s actually not there anymore. I think they knocked it down, and now it’s going to be a library.

JH Oh, interesting. People will be feeling things in that library, saying, “I think I need a drink,” without knowing why. Or they’ll want to dance country western.

SB It was a beautiful old bar.

JH It was. And this poem winds up here:

and I text:
      I’ve only rescued a sliver of him,
      he’s only twenty-five
      and he smells like blood and piss,
      his turquoise bracelet snatched for pawn,
      by the same ghost who traded his jacket
      for a robe of snow and ice,
      before inviting him
      back into the Caravan
            for one more, just one more

At the root of all of this is activism. I used to feel I should be out there on the streets—and I have been out there. I should be a grassroots organizer, I should do this or that, and here I am writing poetry. But Dissolve, in all of its incredible beauty, as it moves through a field of disjuncture and even evil, is activism. And that’s been a prime motivator for me with writing poetry. That is justice. It’s about being able to languish and be languorous in language. I’m a sensualist when it comes to writing. I like rubbing up against the sounds and feelings of words. I used to think words could change the world, but now I think just being we change the world in some aspect. Yet, words have residual impact. All wars have started with words spoken in houses and alleys in small communities. But these days the words spoken over the tables and backrooms of multinational corporations.

There are so many images of catastrophe in Dissolve: “engine fluid trailing its gullet,” “this address wears the fog’s yellow ankles.” I keep feeling like there’s a phone call in the night and somebody’s lost in the city and they could die in the streets. We could all die in the streets. And if this world dissolves, because it is dissolving and always has been, another will emerge. When I first met you and read your poetry, I thought, Yes, there you are—because at that time I was looking, like we all do, to see who’s following, who’s coming up.

SBI do that too.

JH And there was Joan Kane. I called her a poetry daughter. And dg nanouk okpik. Natalie Diaz. So many of the young poets coming up.

I have all these notes about the metaphors in Dissolve. Like “the slashed wrists of the Colorado.” Or one of my favorite moving images is “a field that shivered with a thousand cranes / evaporates in someone else’s backyard.” With every dissolve—Navajo languages tell us this—there’s always movement. There are more verbs in Navajo than nouns.

SB Navajo is full of verbs and everything is in motion. When I make an image most clear or vivid, it’s always in a state of movement. And with “The Caravan,” there was a gesture toward the desire to rescue. Like you said earlier, it’s the activism, the desire to rescue something, but sometimes you really can’t. There’s only so much one can do. And in that particular poem, death is pacing behind the characters. I live in Albuquerque, and you go down Central, and you see so many of our relatives out on the streets. The violence here against Native people is really prevalent and painful.

JH My sense in Dissolve is that you’re trying to undo a curse. It’s like you’re a healer with these words, going through each image and noting exactly what it is to list each one so that it goes. In Albuquerque, we’d always run into relatives or beloved ones on the street who were having a hard time, but I wonder in these times if there are even more because times were hard then, but it’s even harder now for people to make a living, or just get by. It reminds me of when I lived in Hawaii, and a lot of the Hawaiian Native people—many who worked jobs—were on the streets because they couldn’t afford housing.

SB Albuquerque looks much direr now. And it’s also Native land. The whole hemisphere is Native land, but it’s interesting to live here in this city. A few years ago, two Navajo men were murdered by some kids. They were sleeping behind a building, and they were violently attacked and killed. Their heads were smashed in by cement blocks. This was up on West Central. One of the three men there that night escaped, and the next day the news anchors tried to interview him, and I remember it was so poignant because the guy was so emotional. I might have misheard him, but in my memory, he was asked about being homeless, and he goes, “Homeless? We’re not homeless. We’re on our land. This is our home.”

JH Wow.

SB These words have stayed with me to this day. It’s an interesting juxtaposition to be here and also not be here. To be in a kind of exile. This is the thing we have to deal with as Native people, in all parts of the world.

JH Yes. Which is what I’ve been writing about in my book, exile and memory. At least in Albuquerque you can see people; here in Knoxville it was so violent and ferocious that they moved us out of here. And there is nobody. I don’t see any Creeks. There are a few Cherokee students. They moved us so completely out of here throughout the South. It was such a violence. And then to come back and say, “I’m here.” Sometimes I feel like I’m moving about like a ghost in this place.

SB With the memory.

JH But there is, I think, hope…it’s been interesting and sad.

One of my favorite moments in Dissolve is “their dream of lightning dreams.” The layers of dreams remind me of my daughter, when she was about three years old and I was going to graduate school in Iowa City, and we would drive to Oklahoma and down to New Mexico and back. We stopped to get gasoline somewhere in the middle of the night, and she said, “I was just dreaming somebody somewhere else and I wonder if somebody somewhere else is dreaming us.”

SB Beautiful.

JH I always loved that. And I love your “mountaining” as a verb—even the nouns in your work are not static. And of course metaphor is part of engendering that movement.

I’ve been thinking about painting again—as soon as I finish two projects I’m pulling in right now. I can already see my paintings. Scott Momaday wrote and then went into painting, and I was just up at Leslie Silko’s house, and she’s got paintings everywhere. She’s done murals, all kinds of paintings. And you’re a painter and photographer. So I wonder how all of that figures in for you. Like you could’ve painted Dissolve instead of writing it. It has that quality.

SB While writing Flood Song, I painted a lot, and when I recite the poem aloud, I’m aware of all the colors in it. It feels impressionistic. I lived in Tucson when I was writing it, so one gets the Sonoran Desert colors. With Dissolve, I did some paintings, but I was taking more photographs. I feel like I paint to be able to enter poetry. There’s movement and gesture that will lead me eventually to another grouping or field of poems. I have this deep love for painting. I can’t describe it. But it’s also a medium I’m not that confident in. It’s always trial and error for me. When I discover that I can make a line move in a certain way or I create this composition that works, there’s some chiaroscuro or some gesture here, that’s a moment of discovery. And it translates into the same sort of compositions or dimensions that I want in a poem. I’ve been painting a lot of lines lately. I’m interested in continuing the lines of a poem into the field of a canvas. There are no words that I apply to them. The lines, to me, are lines of poetry that didn’t quite become words.

JH Interesting. I came to poetry from painting, and for years I felt like I was a painter writing poetry.

SB Yeah, they’re good friends. (laughter) And they’re both needy. They pull me in different directions. When I’m painting, I feel like I don’t have the capacity for words. The world becomes so vivid. Colors are everywhere. And life takes on a different texture. And then when I’m writing poems, I can see movement. I can see things photographically. Painting and poetry seem to come from the same space, yet if the body is a kind of machine, they’re located in different parts of the body.

JH That makes sense. Yeah, painting’s a different kind of imagining. I could paint for days and not move out of that space.

SB In your new work, I’m paying attention to time. There’s a fluidity between the past, present, and future. Where does that notion of timelessness—or sense that all time is happening—come from in this particular body of work?

JH In our traditional ways of singing and knowing, time is fluid—clock time is a whole other realm. I have a story of my grandfather folding time. He can bend time. It shifts, you know. I can remember being an infant, it was immense, and I could go everywhere. I went all over the world in my imagination, to Egypt, to all these places before I knew language. I noticed a different kind of time, related to language, I’m sure, which cements you, so to speak, to the present. And then at seven years old, I remember a big shift in time awareness being at school. From there time starts quickening. It appears to go faster and faster, and yet there’s still, in the midst of it, pools where there is no time, and that’s what we enter when we write poetry. We lose time and move into eternal time. Ceremonial time is a lot like that. Even though you have exact markers with songs or rituals that you do, you’re able to connect with past, present, and future.

SB Poetry is like that for me too. It’s happening. It’s here. It’s there. It’s a place. And I always go back to that. When people read Dissolve, I hope that they feel like they’re in a time and a place. And as they enter it, maybe linger a bit.

JH Yeah, well I opened it up and I saw “one pill at a time,” and then “everywhere is dreamt, arranged.” We absolutely need it in rhythm and time. Mvto to you for this.

Joy Harjo was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and is a member of the Mvskoke Nation. She is a poet, musician, and author, whose books include Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings (W. W. Norton, 2015), Crazy Brave, How We Became Human, and A Map to the Next World. She sings and plays saxophone with her band, Poetic Justice, and has released five albums. 

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BOMB 145, Fall 2018

In the process of putting together each new issue of BOMB, we often come across distinct resonances between interviews—shared themes, creative preoccupations, and even specific phrases crop up time and again within otherwise disparate features. In these pages, artists discuss their expansive notions on collaboration. Their practices tend to split, reapportion, or redefine authorship, privileging process over individual intention and encouraging unique partnerships with spectators, local communities, film subjects, and one another. These willful acts of reaching out and beyond are as vital as ever, and worth emphasizing here.

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