December 2006

A poet's journey

By Phil Hall

SHERWIN BITSUISherwin Bitsui is the first Navajo to win the Whiting Writers’ Award for his poetry.

The award, announced Oct. 25, came at a time when Bitsui´s spirits were at their lowest, as he mourned the mysterious accidental loss of his 19-year-old cousin, a close family member, on the Navajo Reservation.

“I called a number left on my answering machine the morning of the funeral with an ache in my heart that I could not dream away, and was given the wonderful news,” Bitsui said. The Whiting Writers’ Award is given annually to 10 promising writers. Candidates are nominated from across the country; winners are chosen by a group of recognized writers, literary scholars, and editors.

When you win the Whiting award you not only get the prestige, but they give you money, too: $40,000, and they fly you out to New York City, where people dress differently, talk differently, and have different views of the world. The world Bitsui comes from most of them cannot imagine — not in their wildest dreams.

To reach Bitsui’s homeland, you drop south out of Cortez, Colo., take Highway 160 west to Mexican Water, then head south again down Highway 191 toward Ganado, Ariz.

It´s a country of colors both dramatic and subtle: browns, Colorado (a deep red like the river) sandstone, the blue-greens and yellows of rabbitbrush and sage. Like fine art they leap from the page.

At other times the wind blows the dry sand in great waves across the whole vast country and Navajo herdsmen cover their faces with bandanas, and the eyes of their horses, too. It´s a land of sharp contrasts: brutal and beautiful.

It´s a country a musician friend of mine would refer to as “roots, baby.” And it is.

Bitsui first came to know this land 31 years ago — he was born here, in a place west of Ganado called White Cone, Ariz., so thinly populated it doesn´t have a post office. People go to Bidahochi to get their mail.

Bitsui is of the Bitter Water people, born for the Many Goats clan.

“Sherwin should publish his work,” noted poet Arthur Sze said from his office at the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) in Santa Fe. That was eight years ago.

Bitsui´s first book of poetry, “Shapeshift” (University of Arizona Press) came out in 2004, announced before a live audience at “Fandango in Bluff,” a poetry festival in Utah. I talked to him by telephone from where I was traveling in Huehuetenango, Guatemala. I asked him how he came to poetry.

“I didn´t discover poetry,” he said. “It found me.”

Inspired by the early Beat poets Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, Bitsui began experimenting. He was accepted into the program at IAIA and began to study under Sze and Jon Davis.

“I was influenced by Native American poets Joy Harjo (Muscogee/Creek) and Sherman Alexie (Spokane) during my early years at IAIA,” Bitsui said. “I was moved by the fact that they spoke with deep and profound voices, in a language which was extraordinary.

“Their influence on me was just incredible,” he continued. “That, and my fellow students. We were all learning, trying anything, everything. We were very alive at IAIA. It was a very nurturing experience, and that´s where my first, and some of my best, poetry came from.”

“Shapeshift” has been widely celebrated. It is now in its third printing. It is because of “Shapeshift” that Bitsui won the Whiting Award, which is given to promising writers early in their careers who possess exceptional talent and promise.

The Mrs. Giles Whiting Foundation, which gave 10 such awards this year, has been giving the award since 1985.

“I´m interested in a poem that keeps me in the presence of poetry,” Bitsui said. “Recently I´ve been reading Thyemba Jess´s [a co-recipient of the 2006 Whiting Award] book of poems entitled ‘Leadbelly.’ I´ve also returned again and again to Arthur Sze´s book ‘Archipelago.’ It generates countless new imaginings for me each time I read it.”

While still a student at IAIA, Bitsui was given an opportunity to work with Navajo reservation kids in schools, through Nizhoni Bridges’ InReach Project, and later through Arts Reach in Tucson, Ariz. Bitsui has worked with schoolchildren in Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona, most prominently in Arizona and Utah.

“Working with kids has had a big influence on my work,” Bitsui said. “They are so timid, some of them, but then they begin to write, and in just a week their thoughts start to emerge and we see some really amazing poetry.

“Sometimes the children and young adults that I work with through Nizhoni Bridges and Arts Reach Poets in the Schools programs, write great pieces that could compete with any of the poems published by professional poets.”

It´s been a long road for Bitsui. I´ve seen him show up in Bluff, Utah, for a residency or a reading without enough money to buy food, or gas for his car. But he showed up and he was on time.

There´s a revolution happening among Native Americans in the world of writing. They haven´t been writing very long. There were Native American writers before M. Scott Momaday (Kiowa), but they were few and isolated.

Momaday won the Pulitzer Prize in 1969. Then, not far behind, came the generation of Simon Ortiz and Joy Harjo (and some others, of course), then the generation of Sherman Alexie and now Bitsui’s generation.

Now come Santee Frazier, Jennifer Foerester, and Orlando White. And there are more out there. Kids in schools on lonely, sandy Indian reservations. We´ve seen some really good work come out of reservation schools. We´re going to see a lot more.