Emerging Poet: On Sherwin Bitsui
I have taught at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, since 1984. The IAIA is a federally funded two-year college with one-hundred students, representing over seventy tribes, from across the United States. Students can receive an Associate of Arts degree majoring in creative writing, museum studies, two-dimensional arts, or three-dimensional arts. It has been a privilege to work with Native students who are pursuing poetry, and I am sometimes astonished at their progress.
Sherwin Bitsui came to the Institute in 1997 and graduated in May, 1999. He studied poetry and painting with enormous dedication and skill. While there, he received a Truman Capote Literary Trust Scholarship as well as a scholarship to attend the summer writing workshops at Naropa Institute. His poems have just begun appearing in literary journals, such as Frank (Paris) and Retinal Exchange, an anthology of New Mexico writers.
Sherwin Bitsui was born in 1975 in Fort Defiance, Arizona. He is Diné (Navajo) and has a profound connection to his culture. He speaks Diné, is a member of the Bitter Water clan, and actively participates in the ceremonial life of his tribe. Yet, although his world view is Diné he is writing rhythmically supple poems in English.
Upon a first reading, the sharp, vivid images of Bitsui’s poems appear to have some connection to surrealism. And one could argue that there is a deep current that connects him to Latin American surrealism, although he enriches and modifies it by drawing on the landscape of the Southwest and on images intimately connected with Native ritual and myth. His images oftentimes depict a world-out-of-balance. Indeed, his work struggles with the tension between Diné and English, between the desire to restore a balance with the natural world and the recognition of how ineluctable the forces of twentieth century technology are. In struggling to reconcile these opposing forces, his poems and prose poems enact a personal ceremony.