Like many of today’s Native poets, Sherwin Bitsui, Navajo, blends ancient and modern, bridging the two with language.
“I grew up in a traditional family, and I always knew that language is powerful, that it can enact things and change things and transform them,” he told ICTMN. “But when I saw contemporary forms of poetry, in books, anthologies…the metaphors and the structures of their poems resonated with me on a basic human level. So it was a natural gravitational pull to this thing that we call poetry.”
Bitsui is Diné (Navajo) of the Todich’ii’nii (Bitter Water Clan), born for the Tl’izilani (Many Goats Clan). He grew up on the Navajo reservation and today lives in Tucson, producing work to critical acclaim.
“Steeped in Native American culture, mythology and history, Bitsui’s poems reveal the tensions in the intersection of Native American and contemporary urban culture,” says the Poetry Foundation.
“His poems are imagistic, surreal and rich with details of the landscape of the Southwest.”
Flood Song (Copper Canyon Press, 2009) was his second collection after 2003’s Shapeshift, published by the University of Arizona Press.
“Reverent to his family’s indigenous traditions while simultaneously indebted to European modernism and surrealism, Bitsui is at the forefront of a younger generation of Native writers,” says Copper Canyon. “His poems are highly imagistic and constantly in motion, drawing as readily upon Diné (Navajo) myths, customs and medicine songs as they do contemporary language and poetics.”
Bitsui originally wanted to be a painter but was drawn to poetry while attending the Institute of American Indian Arts.
“When I went to the institute I found all these Native poets who were interested in poetry from all over the U.S. and Canada and Alaska,” he said. “There was something very beautiful about that moment I first walked into the classroom and there were all tribal members sitting with their pens and pencils and poems out, and we all shared poetry. It was cathartic, I think.”
Native author and poet Sherman Alexie admires what he calls Bistui’s vision of “violent beauty in the American landscape.”
“There are junipers, black ants, axes and cities dragging their bridges,” Alexie wrote. “I can hear Whitman’s drums in these poems, and I can see Ginsberg’s supermarkets. But above all else, there is an indigenous eccentricity, ‘a cornfield at the bottom of a sandstone canyon,’ that you will not find anywhere else.”