Sherwin Bitsui is the author of three collections of poetry: Dissolve, Flood Song, and Shapeshift. He is the recipient of a Whiting Award, an American Book Award, and the PEN Book Award. His poems have appeared in Narrative, Black Renaissance Noir, American Poet, The Iowa Review, LIT, and elsewhere. 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.
This interview was conducted via e-mail by Interview Editor Savannah Yates. Of the process she said, “In his latest collection of poetry Dissolve, Sherwin Bitsui uses language to create shifting landscapes of death, decay, and rebirth. For me, reading this collection has opened new doors to what poetry can be. I can’t thank him enough for his incredible commentary.” In this interview Sherwin talks about capturing the present moment, the influence his Navajo heritage has on his writing, and why poetry is his favorite medium.
Superstition Review: Within Dissolve, surreal imagery is zoomed into, like tightly framed photographs. At the same time, there is fog and mist circling each poem. This creates an effect of vignetting, where subjects and sharp feelings of pain and loss are quickly swallowed up by something. Could you discuss the themes of Dissolve and why you chose this surreal, cinematic style to explore them?
Sherwin Bitsui: I don’t necessarily think of themes when I begin writing a poem. Themes emerge by swirling around and “swallowing the poem.” This approach helps me reveal deeper connections in our naming of the present. The images and subjects may appear “surreal” to a Westerner, but in my Indigenous perspective, the world has a much wider field of experiences to draw from. I write from multiple vantage points. Poetry gives me the ability to compress opposing worldviews and attempt to harmonize those seemingly disparate energies.
SR: While reading this collection, I felt a constant forward movement. Images are fleeting: “No language but its rind, crackling in the past tense.” We can only catch a glimpse of unsettling or visceral pangs until they fade, smear, or blurr. These poems makes me think of our need to process the past, whether it be the loss of a day or a loss of a life. Could you discuss your treatment of time in these poems?
SB: This book is not so much about processing the past, but more about processing our present and future. The past, lately, is constantly changed or erased. Multiple pasts are now erupting from previously silenced spaces. I’m excited about the present, but I’m also aware that nothing may prepare us for what lies ahead. We may all have incredibly varied origins and cultural systems, but the world, our planet, is one being, it determines everything for us. We are only blurs on its surface. I hope Dissolve works on multiple levels. The cinematic and photographic qualities you mentioned earlier are certainly there. I want the reader to be arrested by the severe clarity of an ambiguous image (if that makes sense), and thus intuit that these moments are temporal and fleeting. I suppose it’s my way of capturing a present when Indigenous languages are being preserved on recordings while living speakers are on the decline; where glaciers are melting and swallowing landmasses whole; where our national, political dialogue is polarizing and divisive.
SR: I find that you have an awesome talent with verbs, some of which you seem to have invented like mountaining and mothing. In an interview with Joy Harjo for BOMB Magazine, you talk about the abundance of verbs within the Navajo language. Could you discuss other ways the Navajo language and culture is embedded in this collection?
SB: I’ve come to realize that my Navajo worldview is what makes my poems possible. The movement, the extended visual interplay and sharpness of the images all rely on the motion and movement my language captures in daily speech. I also write poems for the ear as much as I do for the eye. They are sonic landscapes; worlds that reflect the present fused with a long and continuous past. The poems may feel like a lament at times, or epic in their quality, but I look at it as thought extending through time and memory. Thought can travel between all things, even land is “thought” thinking about us. I want my work to feel alive at the moment of the reading—I want people to sense they are in the poem with me, witnessing these events as they unfold. Verbs are helpful in making such gestures, they make my poems feel like a landscape—a landscape is never still.
SR: In an interview with Blueshift journal discussing your last book, Flood Song, you talked about how compiling a collection of poetry is a long and arduous process. Did you have a similar experience with Dissolve? How has the process changed for you, if at all?
SB: The creative process for Dissolve was similar to my process for Flood Song—except the lines and images needed more torquing this time around. Rather than base the pieces in a system that mimicked a kind of natural phenomenon (the flood), Dissolve, in my conception, hovers slightly above a drought-worn plane. There was something specterlike about Dissolve. I also noticed early on, that some of the figures in the poem were in some state of blurring or fading. while others have clear hands and fingerprints. The poem ultimately needed to feel irreducible to me. I wanted to push language to a kind of heightened clarity that didn’t look away from events within it that may be considered brutal or dark. Every gesture and event stayed as close as possible to a tone I felt was truth for the work. I suppose the difference between the process for writing Flood Song and Dissolve is the direction of their movements. Flood Song flows outward and horizontally. Dissolve collapses inward and moves vertically within certain smaller fields where new narratives emerge only to be wiped away again.
SR: I understand that you also enjoy painting and photography. What makes poetry your main medium of expression?
SB: Painting requires much time standing in one place and I don’t have that kind of time or space anymore. I love painting, but I also struggle with that medium. Photography is more immediate for me than poetry. I don’t have a good camera—but my iPhone is always available, and I try to capture moments that feel like poems. I love coming across scenes or images in real time and photographing such scenes. These three artistic expressions operate from the same source—they reveal the between-places where light dazzles and shapes the world accordingly. Poetry is always a great mystery to me. Its ever-deepening beauty connects and simultaneously breaks down boundaries between worlds. There is a great power there, it responds to shifts in our collective consciousness and provides new ways to experience a truth of a particular moment or event. Poetry is my chosen medium because it’s the most challenging and rewarding artform out there.
SR: What does your writing space look like?
SB: I don’t have a dedicated writing space. I write where I can. Mostly, I’m sitting between stacks of books on my dining table.