In the Spotlight
Sherwin Bitsui & Allison Adelle Hedge Coke
About: Sherwin Bitsui (Diné) is originally from White Cone, Arizona, on the Navajo Reservation. He is the author of Shapeshift (University of Arizona Press, 2003), Flood Song (Copper Canyon Press, 2009), and Dissolve (Copper Canyon Press, 2018). In addition to teaching at the Institute of American Indian Arts, he is a member of the faculty at Northern Arizona University. An AWP member since 2005, Sherwin lives in Flagstaff, Arizona.
About: Allison Adelle Hedge Coke’s books include Streaming, Burn, and Effigies III. Her recent awards include the Library of Congress Witter Bynner Fellowship, the First Jade Nurtured SiHui Female International Poetry Award, a Fulbright Fellowship, and the Dan and Maggie Inouye Distinguished Chair in Democratic Ideals. A distinguished professor of creative writing at UC Riverside and a former sharecropper, she has worked fields, factories, and waters. Allison has been an AWP member since 2003.
Photo Credit for Bitsui: Ungelbah Davila
Photo Credit for Hedge Coke: Adrianne Mathiowetz
A Couple of Poets Passing Time, December
Allison Adelle Hedge Coke: Sherwin, what are you working on now?
Sherwin Bitsui: I’m working on new poems. It’s quite early to say which pieces I’ll keep. It’s always hard to know what a work will become in the end. I try to stay within the “mind” of the poem, and let it guide me toward its final form and articulation. I have become more interested lately in writing from memory. Each recollection of a lived experience provides me the opportunity to illuminate a poetic quality that may be present within it.
Bitsui: What is calling you to write at this point? How have your travels abroad informed the new poems?
Hedge Coke: Traveling. Met a gray raven in Budapest, other beings in Nikšic, each one filtering presence, poetry... What’s inspiring you?
Bitsui: Home. As I get older, my work seems to be locating itself in memory: plateau desert, horses, reservation life, ceremony, etc. I’m moving between languages much more frequently in this new (old) setting, having recently moved back home to teach poetry in the MFA Program at Northern Arizona University. The ground between these worldviews (Diné and Western) is tense and illuminating. I’ve been traveling these spaces lately, and my poems are watching these tensions unfold.
Bitsui: How has memory guided your own work? What touchstones do you keep returning to in your poetics?
Hedge Coke: Elegies, labor, building, tending plants, working with horses, rivers, waterways, fishing, cranes, migration, leaving, loss, learning, lingual leanings, love, familial memory, cultural knowledge, math, equations, intricate cultural and socio-economic meanderings and meanings, moving, illness, disability, pain, abuse, grief, fires, dust, measuring up, hope, all of it, embedded in marrow-based musicality and in some flagging motion of recall that every step into the unfamiliar brings intentionally present. Motion. Etic/emic moves. Always.
Bitsui: It’s been challenging for me to define poetry because we don’t have a name for poetry in Dinébizaad. Navajo poets have attempted to define or locate the meaning or phrase(s) for Poetry in Navajo language, but we are constantly debating whether one person’s name for it, which then also houses meaning, is also shared by someone else. In that sense, poetry is continually mysterious—a depth within language, it beautifies and generates thought and connection to a moment in time and connects us again to some truth of an experience. It’s energy, carried into the world through utterance and song.
Bitsui: What is poetry for you? What brought you to it? Do you remember your first poem?
Hedge Coke: As alluded to above, poetry is everything, really. Lyric came first. Wrote my first song in preschool. Formed a garage (shed) band then, too. On the side, as a kid, composed many original poems that few people saw. Was the kid that imagined someone would find them in a drawer after finding the kid dead and realize they were a thinking person, human. As a study, after many years in music, the first poem was a class exercise, from postcards. No idea what the image was. My first poems were long poems: “Radio Wave Mama,” “The Change,” “The Year of the Rat…”
Bitsui: I remember looking out my bedroom window as the setting sun bathed the butte north of our home with coral light. It was beautiful. I was eighteen, unsure of what my life had in store for me, but I typed my first lines on a blank page. The lines were like the barbed wire fences my grandparents strung around their cornfields. The poem was about fences as well, a border perhaps, something crossing the land, dividing it into grid patterns. My mom was in the kitchen clapping flour dough into discs before placing it on a frying pan to make tortillas. I now associate that memory with poetry, the visual beauty and nourishment it offers.
Your poems are incredibly musical, sometimes they do feel like song. Does sound come first when you compose the work?
Hedge Coke: When on chemo, having had cancer for twenty years, one of the side effects is a type of Tourette’s Syndrome. My like-Tourette’s was the exact sound of radio replication Motown, straight from the mouth, involuntary. Dad gave us all transistors we repaired out of other peoples’ trash cans/curbs/dumps. These were held on each ear to drown out madness—literal, with mom’s schizophrenia. All the car radios we placed into wooden cabinets we built. Instruments we played. Gatherings, singing. My first thoughts are literally music, often suffering lingual absence in the midst of song. A bit of synesthesia, as well, so often images have some sort of sound, for me.
You, what moves that amazing mind?
Bitsui: I’m drawn toward moments and scenes that reveal a kind of truth about the historical and political reality of my experience as an Indigenous person. I am constantly reminded of my “place” and how settler culture positioned its mindset on top of a world that has no beginning or end. My poems feel like they attempt to articulate the ”betweenness” of these realms. Poetry exists in the world already—as poets, we call it forth.
What is the poet’s responsibility in this moment?
Hedge Coke: Poet is camp crier, is caller, is troubadour, is enlightener, is mediator, is singer, is orator, is recorder, is artist, is mirror, is youth and is elder. Poets, if equipped, if so moved, have the same essential responsibility as any critical time implicates; to address, articulate, call, summon, insist, portray. The entire planet is endangered, in crisis. The consuming empires are literally killing us. To not speak would seem to some criminal, unless intentional vow of silence of beauty, language, lyric. Like Carmen Gimenez Smith anoints, be Recorder.
Bitsui: What do you think is not being attended to by poets?
Hedge Coke: Would love to see more poets attending to allowance of every voice, unmeasured, as an element of collective voice. Collective inclusion. Putting as much effort into supporting others’ works as their own and actually more so. Our work is collective, conversation, rich with lineage and new lines rivering on. We are Pando and never the single quaking aspen appearance, presentation, one may (mis)identify as (individual) tree. Poetry behaves like the wonderfully gelatinous Blob, oscillating unicellular intelligence—like a bit of the heart of Sky Woman extending throughout us, our world. It is a meme of mimetics, memory of meaning, masterful. Multiple nuclei acting as singly walled entity. We simply collide with it and if poet-headed give into, work in concert with. It exists like Physarum polycephalum exists. In motion, collective.
Competitiveness of the field is not poetry. Something else insidious, really. The anti-poetry. Poets, keep your foot in the entryway of each door through to reception, then usher. If they come in stabbing at others, let them find their own way, otherwise keep open wide, easy welcome. Here, Harjo’s insistence—letting go of fear “to be loved/to be loved”.
Do you think we call poetry forth, or is it that poetry exists and moves us, receptive, when it needs to? What is poetry at its heart when you are in poet-head?
Bitsui: I feel a poem is in the world already. We are moved to call it forth, imbue it with sound, texture, and witnessing. It’s always been like this with me since my entrance into poetry. I sometimes feel like I wander into a poem and am stunned by some aspect of a clarity of perception. I must be attentive as it awakens my poet mind and follow the images until they complete the page. Each turn in a line is negotiated, I must look at it from all sides and find its most resonant and sound form. Poetry is an immersion in beauty and terror for me, I don’t necessarily search for it.
Hedge Coke: How do you know when the resonance and form have come to fruition? Is there a way you motivate yourself to remain attentive?
Bitsui: Form and resonance come into view midway through the creative process. I don’t start poems with an idea or intention in mind necessarily. The “aboutness” reveals itself when the pieces begin to cohere as one body of work or tone. From there the poem’s content and energy begin to inform its direction. I spend years writing and revising my manuscripts. Revision is a creative act, and it is just as important as imagining the line or image. Motivation is maintained simply by intuition on my part. I remain close to the work, asking myself what tension or experience created an image within the work. The poems are shaped by the atmosphere of this time.
How has climate change affected your work? What can poetry do to speak to this crisis?
Hedge Coke: Dad, born in 1922, raised in Dust Bowl (his parents in the one that preceded), deeply immersed in Native thought, became an environmental protector in his life work, so we grew up keenly aware of what was happening and had been happening. Watching it play out… in my youth, and long before me, ghastly visible pollution was evident. Relatively unseen emissions are killing us now. Not to mention plastics. All the blatant resourcing. Oil man camps in the US and Canada ripe with rapists and killers, of the earth, of the women and children. They are murdering Indigenous leaders and villagers to our south, burning the forests, jungles, nests of homes, for what? A temporary pipe dream with no redemptive notion. Our mother planet hurling on a downward spiral since colonization. The diabolical resourcing hasn’t eased up at any time.
So, we live in this and it permeates our lives and our works, and we adhere to the poetry that sweeps through it, touch its tail feathers and ride long enough to get the composition presented through winds of whatever it brings. Poetry is the voice of crisis, of humanity in crisis and of the beautiful and desperate world. The first poetry classes I taught in the ’90s were called The Beautiful and the Horrendous. That’s it and that sums up what the crisis is. Both sides. Like our father and mother, like our grandparents, friends, lovers, like our mentors, our children, Poetry teaches us how to see and what to do. It empowers us and gives us a sense of strength and peace through reckonings and seeings. Poetry unveils the unnoticed and redeems the cast aside. I love our mother, this place. Like my dad said, it is hard to leave this beauty, life. It is our love, our relative. Maybe all poems are love letters and letters of heartbreak. We write as witnessing protectors, place the call.
How do you find light and meaning when some might say we exist in impending doom?
Bitsui: As a Diné, I’m aware, historically, that our people, like many Indigenous nations, have been through cataclysms and catastrophes before. We have always moved forward and always sung new places and time into beauty. I suppose in some way a sense of doom has been there, preceding my birth, ever-present in the lives of my family and community members. Poetry may be a way for me to speak of these crises from the perspective of a consciousness that has experienced those previous worlds. The imprint of those dimensions is encoded in our language and philosophy, retold in our traditional stories. These stories speak of destruction, but they also make us reflect on the beauty of life and give us strength to persevere and grow.
Your poem “Burn” takes on the quality of a range fire consuming everything in its path. Even as the fields burn, your memories and associations are triggered. Did you compose the work aware that the book also took on the form of a brushfire?
Hedge Coke: Wrote the whole poem/book rapid fire in the middle of the worst fire in Texas history, at Marfa. On the way to residency, Martha said there was brushfire. I stayed two full months throughout the duration.
Form, for me is a thing the poem calls for and makes of itself. This is an orchestration of fire, composition, symphony, yes, of many fires, present, remembered, and future fires are all within the pages. Having been personally impacted by fires on numerous occasions, having peeled my brother’s denim from his self-immolated legs/body when he was eleven and me, twelve, having run through arson fires with burned feet and clothing, having stood upon cinder of friend’s homes completely gone, having been caught in many brush fires along the lifeline, yeah, you could say the memory invoked easily in witnessing the present burning. Moreover, the longevity of it and conjoined fires gave the book/poem multi-featured endurance. It’s dedicated to the Marfans who are community there and stayed on. Dustin Mater’s illustrations make the book a complete thing.
What is similar and dissimilar in your last two major and truly brilliant works, Flood Song and Dissolve?
Bitsui: Dissolve takes place after Flood Song. They are similar because they are book-length poems, but Flood Song rushes through the imagination like a desert flashflood, while Dissolve feels like snapshots of a world that is fading or becoming transparent. Dissolve is also a site where narrative threads are emerging, much like sprouting plants after spring rain. Flood Song is erratic and propulsive, Dissolve is dense and darker tonally, like a cloud. Transformation is the one constant in all the books. A shapeshifting poetics, I suppose.
What does your next collection look like?
Hedge Coke: Fluttering wings, catastrophe… Transfixed. Something akin to turmoil... long, horse-like tails our lovers threw over their shoulders... maybe you’ll find yourself in there somewhere… manzanitas gleaming... For now, it is the offering, we make... bluecurls... California... California…
Yours? Where next?
Bitsui: I’m interested in translating English poems into Navajo, or vice versa. I’m speaking my language more regularly since I’m closer in proximity to my family. I’m interested in the silence between languages, a frightening and revealing moment when things are simultaneously visible and invisible. I feel Poetry has the capacity to transmit those experiences…
Hedge Coke: Silence revealing. The capacity of Poetry. Love this. Looking forward.
Bitsui: Looking forward, thank you for this conversation.
Hedge Coke: Thank you.