#AWP18 Featured Presenter Q&A with Sherwin Bitsui

AWP | January 2018

Event Title: Poetry, Myth, and the Natural World: A Reading with Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Rajiv Mohabir, and Sherwin Bitsui, Sponsored by Blue Flower Arts
Description: The layering of cultures; the complex wonder of the natural world; the riddle of faith; the deep resonance of mythology: what better place for these dimensions to wrestle and converse than in the poetic realm? The urgency inside the poems of Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Jay Hopler, and Sherwin Bitsui offer a complicated empathy with the world, one that grapples with loss and is tinged with sorrow: even beauty can hurt. Yet their language, resplendent with song, also sings into being a world of joy.
Participants: Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Sherwin Bitsui, Rajiv Mohabir, Miyako Hannan
Location: Ballroom B, Tampa Convention Center, First Floor
Date & Time: Thurdsay, March 8, 4:30 p.m.–5:45 p.m.

Q: What are some of the conference events (besides your own) or Bookfair exhibitors you look forward to seeing?
A: I enjoy seeing as many readings and panels as possible. Choosing a panel over another is always difficult—there are simply too many concurrent events. The Bookfair is a wonder of the world. I spend a lot of time looking at what new books poetry presses have to offer. Mostly, I like finding new and interesting collections—and supporting long standing independent presses. It’s always good to see my friends at Copper Canyon Press and the University of Arizona Press. I always come home with more books than I planned on buying.

Q: What are a writer’s main responsibilities in this particular cultural moment?
A: To help people experience a deeper sense of themselves, their relationships to each other, and the world around them through poetry and story. These connections make us who we are, we need to continue to cultivate awareness and imagine spaces where our humanity is most present. Elder writers of my community like Luci Tapahonso, Ofelia Zepeda, Simon Ortiz, and Joy Harjo gave me, as a reservation-raised Indigenous person, a reflection of my life and community through story and poetry. Their writing opened pathways toward my own story and gave me a ground to carry my poems upon. They lived up to their responsibilities as cultural workers—I feel it’s important, as a writer that I, too, support all writers.

Q: Has public funding for the arts made a difference in your life and career as a writer?
A: Yes, every reading I give is probably a result of some public funding for the arts. I am greatly indebted to such programs and how they offer platforms for poets and other writers. If it weren’t for public funding, I may not be able to present my work to audiences outside of my local community. Public funding has probably contributed to the Poets in the Schools programs I was fortunate to teach for early in my career. Both Tucson based Arts Reach and Southern Utah’s Nizhoni Bridges brought me to reservation public schools to give poetry workshops. They were crucial in helping me to understand, first hand, the importance of poetry in Native American communities. I saw great improvement in the students’ confidence levels and communication skills after intensive immersion in poetry writing. It was a true gift to work for such entities, unfortunately these two specific programs are no longer in existence. They gave so much to Native communities, it is a shame they are gone. Yet, I am certain there is lasting effect in the participants lives, and in my own. 

Q: If you could run into any author, contemporary or historical, at #AWP18, who would it be and what would you talk about?
A: Pablo Neruda is high on the list of historical authors I wish I could meet. I don’t know what we’d talk about, I’d rather let the conversation evolve on its own terms.

Q: If you’ve been to Tampa before, what places do you recommend that our attendees should visit?
A: I’ve never been to Tampa before. Florida is as far from my own high desert homeland as I can imagine. I’m looking forward to being close to sea again. It has been awhile.


Sherwin BitsuiSherwin Bitsui is the author of two collections of poetry, Flood Song and Shapeshift. He is the recipient of a Whiting Award, an American Book Award, and the PEN Book Award. He is Diné of the Todí­ch’ii’nii (Bitter Water Clan), born for the Tlizí­laaní­ (Many Goats Clan), and has received fellowships from the Lannan Foundation and the Native Arts & Culture Foundation.

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