Poet Sherwin Bitsui has a Compelling Voice



Poet Sherwin Bitsui Has A Compelling Voice

Orlando White


“Are the windows there, so we can look in, or are they there so we can look out?”

Santa Fe”“IAIA alum Sherwin Bitsui’s first book of poetry, “Shapeshift,” was published in 2003 by the University of Arizona Press with words of praise. “Shapeshift” is “a strikingly original debut, unique in voice and in vision,” says poet Arthur Sze, IAIA creative writing professor. “His poems enact a personal ceremony, restoring balance to his and our world,” he adds.

“It was wonderful to enter this landscape, impossible not to be compelled by this voice, by the beautifully nuanced tone of the poems,” poet Janet McAdams says in her review comment.

Since the release of his book, Sherwin has done numerous readings in the United States, Canada, and Italy. He has taught workshops to elementary, high school, and college students, as well as to Native and non-Native communities on and off the Navajo reservation.

Originally from White Cone, Ariz., Navajo Nation, he is of the Bitter Water People and born for the Manygoats People. He currently is attending the University of Arizona, studying in the creative writing program; he serves as an editor for the university’s Native American student publication called “Red Ink Magazine,” and resides in Tucson. Sherwin first attended the Institute of American Indian Arts in the fall of 1996 and graduated with an Associate of Arts degree in creative writing in 1999.

Poetry With Passion

Sherwin is known to be outgoing and daring not only in his personality but in his poetry, too. “I remember the first time I met him,” says a friend and IAIA classmate, Melanie Cesspooch. “He took some poems from his back pocket and said to me, ”˜Do you want to read and hear some of my work?’”

Sherwin’s former instructor, Jon Davis, IAIA professor of creative writing, says, “Sherwin’s poetry is obscure and different””deep politics. He has passion and ”˜Duende’ present within his paintings and poetry. That is what separates him from other artists.” Duende is the mysterious, passionate power that the Spanish poet Garcia Lorca called “the spirit of the earth.”

This is what he had to say about his newfound fame in a recent interview: “I don’t think much of it. Like some people, I wish to believe that art making is cathartic, that it offers a release of something or acknowledges the present in most things. Seeking recognition for celebrity is a strange occupation. I’d much rather build a house out of glass and throw stones at it.”

Images of Mystery

Sherwin’s work has a strong emphasis on the visual, and images are very involved in his creative process.

“As artists, we think in images,” Sherwin told Native America Calling’s radio host, Harlan McKosato in a radio interview aired Oct. 29, 2003. According to Sherwin, an image, could be “my saying, ”˜I went to see the blue coils of a song sung underwater.’”

And in Sherwin’s poetry, listeners and readers alike, experience the heightened sense and mystery of his images. “The image is a meeting place where the voice of the poem is as much the participant as the reader or listener is,” he states.

There is also a strong narrative presence in Sherwin’s poetry but with more of an irrational than rational, conventional storytelling. “I am unaware of where the irrational is placed in relationship to the rational when it comes to storytelling,” Sherwin states. “I am not concerned with where the story comes from. I am more concerned with how the narrative grows outside its skull. Are the windows there so we can look in, or are they there so we can look out?”

When hearing Sherwin read his work, there are “black sounds of Duende” in the depth of his poetry. He explains, “I’ve yet to know where anything comes from. In order for me to create, I must not ”˜know’ it all. I must remain in between knowing and feeling. When I step from that space and begin to instruct the reader or listener, I lose them to theory.”

The Writing Process

Like many great poets, writing for Sherwin was constant revisions and somewhat of a ceremonial task. He says that his process for writing poetry is like the presence of a rock in his mind, an enigmatic presence pulling him toward mystery. When he goes back to his poetry again and again, its surface is barely grazed.

He feels the best part about writing poetry is beginning one, because it is not yet figured out. The exploration of starting a poem, he said, is “like how the Diné language creates poetic spaces within daily speak.”

According to Sherwin, poetry can “inform the unsaid, and translate it.” He feels that this is what makes him privileged to be reading and writing poetry. “If I am inclined to say that poetry is in all places, then we should all continue to insert poetry in places it shouldn’t be.”

Sherwin is a visual artist, too; in collaboration with Gabriel Lopez Shaw (Paiute) their film “Chrysalis” debuted at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. He is also a painter, and his paintings are as much poetry to him as his creative works. Sherwin’s paintings and poetry are somewhat related to each other. He often feels that he is unable of expressing certain thoughts in words. “Visual arts, preferably, painting, allows me some access to a language outside of the spoken I climbed paint strokes to try to reach a world that shifted under the weight of ants ,” he says.

Sherwin is now working on a new collection of poems. Readers can expect great poetry in the future coming from this deep and intuitive poet.



“Sherwin’s poetry is obscure and different ””deep politics.”
Jon Davis, IAIA professor of creative writing



“We should all continue to insert poetry in places it shouldn’t be.”

Copyright © IAIA CHRONICLE 2004

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