Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The Split This Rock Interview with Sherwin Bitsui

By Susan K. Scheid

This conversation is one in a series of interviews with poets to be featured at the Split This Rock Poetry Festival: Poems of Provocation & Witness, 2018.

The festival is three days at the intersection of the imagination and social change: readings, workshops, panel discussions, youth programming, activism, a book fair, and a party. Celebrating Split This Rock’s 10th anniversary! The poets to be featured are among the most significant and artistically vibrant writing and performing today:  Elizabeth Acevedo, Kazim Ali, Ellen Bass, Sherwin Bitsui, Kwame Dawes, Camille T. Dungy, Ilya Kaminsky, Sharon Olds, Sonia Sanchez, Solmaz Sharif, Terisa Siagatonu, Paul Tran, Javier Zamora.

On-site registration is available every day during the festival at the festival hub: National Housing Center, 1201 15th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20005. A sliding scale of fees is available for full registration, beginning at $200. Student registration (with ID) is $75. One day passes are $85. Two-day passes are $170.

Full festival schedule available on the 
website. The Festival Mobile App is Live! Download the free app  for iOS and Android today for easy access to the schedule, session descriptions, presenter bios, and more! Just search your app store for Split This Rock.

Events Open to the Public

  • Nightly Free Poetry Readings: National Housing Center Auditorium
  • Social Change Bookfair, Saturday, April 21, 10 am-3:30 pm, National Housing Center (Free)
  • Poetry Public Action, Friday, April 20, 8:30-10 am, Location TBA (Free)
  • Open Mics, Thursday, April 19 & Friday, April 20, 10 pm-12 am, Busboys and Poets, 5th & K, Cullen Room, 1025 5th St NW, Washington, DC 20001 ($5 on
  • Closing Party, Saturday, April 21, 10 pm-1 am, National Housing Center Auditorium ($10, tickets available soon at Split This Rock's website)
Open mics and the closing party are free to festival registrants.

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Image of Sherwin Bitsui in closeup, outdoors with the Grand Canyon behind him. The plants in the canyon are green and blooming. Bitsui looks intently toward the distance, out of frame to the camera's right. He wears a black, fleece, pull-over with a zipper and has short, dark hair and dark eyes.Sherwin Bitsui (Diné) is the author of Flood Song (Copper Canyon Press) and Shapeshift (University of Arizona Press). He is of the Bįį’bítóó’nii’ Tódi’chii’nii clan and is born for the Tlizilłani’ clan. He is from White Cone, Arizona, on the Navajo Reservation. Bitsui holds an AFA from the Institute of American Indian Arts Creative Writing Program and a BA from University of Arizona in Tucson. He teaches for the MFA in Creative Writing at the Institute of American Indian Arts. An ecopoet, he has poems published in Narrative, Black Renaissance Noir, American Poet, The Iowa Review, LIT, and elsewhere. Steeped in Native American culture, mythology, and history, Bitsui’s poems – imagistic, surreal, and rich with details of the landscape of the Southwest – reveal the tensions at the intersection of Native American and contemporary urban culture. Bitsui's honors include the 2011 Lannan Literary Fellowship, a Native Arts & Culture Foundation Fellowship for Literature, a PEN Open Book Award, an American Book Award, and a Whiting Writers Award.

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Susan K. Scheid (SKS): Your book, Flood Song, is full of beautiful and dream-like imagery. I wanted to savor it like rich food eaten in small bites. Some of the images that stay with me were: “I pinch your silences into soft whispers, / pile them on your still chest” and “The luminous wander the cornfields without husbands; / their wooden faces splinter the owl’s nest;” and the references to the “cornfield inside you.” I wonder if you are willing to share with us a little of your writing process? Can you describe what takes you to this place where you can write such surreal and powerful poems?

Sherwin Bitsui (SB): I like to think the poems reveal themselves to me on their own, they meet me halfway and it’s my job to give them shape and form. Sometimes I follow them for months and years until I’m able to see their edges sharpen and clarify. My process unfolds — there are many detours along the way. I am lucky to find at the end, a line or two, that speaks to thought in a new and interesting way. Lately, I feel that the poem is already here in our time, a poet just reveals it to the reader or listener—that moment of recognition is what makes poetry most powerful for me. Time and distance fold away, something deep in us is revealed and we are renewed again, briefly, by its beauty.

SKS: In one interview you stated that the Navajo language is “thought in motion”. How does that inform your poetics?  And since you are also a visual artist, does that influence your writing?  How do your poetry and visual art interact with one another? 

SB: I’m always in some state of translation — a poem is also a kind of translation. I don’t know how deeply Dinébizaad affects my writing in English — it’s difficult to see myself and my work as some kind of ethnographic subject. I sense my ability to encounter both worldviews simultaneously gives me the perspective and distance needed to create my work. Language then takes on another quality besides meaning-making — there is weight, movement, tension, texture and tone that also inform the emotional quality of the experience I’m trying to create for the reader and listener.

SKS: In Flood Song, I was struck by the imagery of the land, the water, and the invasion of technology. These poems express the centuries of indigenous people’s struggle, the removal from their lands, the loss of traditional ways, and the encroachment of technology. They speak to me as well as someone who grew up surrounded by corn fields, who now sees so many drastic changes to our planet. Do you think of yourself as an environmental/eco-justice poet? If so, what does that mean to you?

SB: I don’t particularly see myself as an environmental/eco-justice poet. The poems may reveal some aspect of my thoughts on the subject of ecology and our collective response (or lack of?) to shifts in our relationship with the land and environment—but they do so because I only write what is essentially present in my world at the time. It is a difficult time to write poems — there is much to look away from and ignore, poetry doesn’t have that option — it must see and respond even when we choose not to.

SKS: Flood Song has poems with the repetitive drip of rain and the rhythmic lapping on the shores of a lake, or an ocean. This rhythm and many of the images and themes in your book remind me of Walt Whitman. How would you describe the way your poetic voice has developed?  Who are some of the poets that have influenced you?  Is there anyone else (non-poet) that has influenced your work or your poetic voice?

SB: I hope my work continues to evolve with each book — each work teaches me something about myself and the world around me. I always want to feel like I’ve been called to write a poem. Sounds strange, but I know my poems feel forced if I try to write when I’m not necessarily in the right space or time. This may explain why it takes me several years to complete a body of work. Flood Song and Dissolve are both book-length poems. Flood Song is a lapping, horizontal work that moves and takes on the dimensions of a kind of flood.

Dissolve feels like a much different work. It is restrained or tethered to something deep inside; perhaps it’s a floating work, one suspended above the ground but unable to fully free itself from the gravity of the shifting world beneath it. The breath of the poem feels like it’s moving inward as opposed to moving outward. There is also a lot of mirroring in the new work. One stanza or line may contain a gesture that is replicated in another line or stanza. Lately I’ve read pieces from Flood Song before moving into Dissolve, I notice very quickly how my voice has to shift in order to locate the frequency of the newer lines.

SKS: What role do you think poets can play to bring hope to the world?  Do you have any words of encouragement for fellow poets?

SB: Poets renew language and bring worlds together. I’m always hopeful that poetry can change lives. Poets should continue to be uncompromising in their creative vision. It’s also important we support each other and appreciate the very fact that we are here making language do things it is probably not supposed to do.

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Additional Links

Bitsui’s poems in the April 2018 issue of Poetry Magazine, with poems by all the poets featuring at the festival.

Three Poems by Sherwin Bitsui (The Quarry)

I Don’t Stand Alone: Poets Orlando White and Sherwin Bitsui on the Importance of Mentors, by Jennifer De Leon (Ploughshares)

The Motion of Poetic Landscape: An Interview with Sherwin Bitsui, by Bianca Viñas (Hunger Mountain)

Sherwin Bitsui: Sounds Like Water, by Thomas Hachard (Guernica)

Three Native American Poets: a conversation between Allison Adelle Hedge Coke, Linda Hogan, and Sherwin Bitsui with Poetry Lectures from The Harriet Monroe Poetry Institute hosts (audio file, The Poetry Foundation)

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Susan K. Scheid is the author of After Enchantment (2012). Her poetry has appeared in Truth to Power, Beltway Quarterly, Little Patuxent Review, The Sligo Journal, Silver Birch Press, Tidal Basin Review, and other journals. Her work is also included in the chapbook anthology, Poetic Art. She has taught workshops as an Artist-in-Residence at the Noyes School of Rhythm. She lives in the Brookland neighborhood of Washington, DC. She is Co-Chair of the Split This Rock Board of Directors.

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