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Memories take shape in student's poetry

By Lisa Schumaier
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Friday September 26, 2003

As an undergraduate in the creative writing program, Sherwin Bitsui is among us, but the poems in his book, published by the University of Arizona Press, allow us to truly walk beside him as he spins his narrative.

"Shapeshift" is the first collection of poetry from this young Navajo born in White Cone, Ariz. His words, which witness the spliced scenery of contemporary times, give the reader the shape of a memory and force him to recall what was beside it.

In Bitsui's poems, there is the likeness of absurdity, and he gives us a timeline of its movement. Bitsui's message seems urgent: "Read this,/Understand their language,/Or sleep in a bottle of nails for the rest of your life."

Wildcat: What do you think about the creative writing program?

Bitsui: I love the poetry center and what they are doing there, but I really didn't find a writing community really not a cohesive network like I would have liked to. But I found it through Red Ink Magazine, where I am co-managing editor. It is a Native American publication that comes out of the UA. We print art, poetry, book reviews and articles from people all over the country.

Wildcat: What does the title "Shapeshift" mean?

I am not too concerned with giving people answers. I am more concerned with raising questions.

- Sherwin Bitsui
student poet


Bitsui: "Shapeshift" refers to direction and a re-mapping of the world. It isn't trying to reconcile anything; it's just showing it as occurring. The experience of the reader is that they are brought into this world where things are occurring as they are. The sort of endings leave you with a choice to interpret something, but the shape of the things matter more. Everything is gelling into something else and the disconnection is in contemporary times. But there is the underlying notion that they were all connected in the first place.

Wildcat: What does your writing obsess about? You seem to be unscabbing some things over and over.

Bitsui: I am really kind of obsessed with bringing a counter-narrative to the source of some things, (as well as) a Navajo narrative and the history of otherness. I try to interject a worldview that has been ignored by the mainstream on our contemporary world. We are sort of in a state of environmental frenzy. Throughout the book there is the idea of drought on the reservation we have been in drought for more than 11 years now and the damage that has erupted out of this period.

Wildcat: In the press release it says that you "take on American culture and politics and their lack of spiritual grounding."

Bitsui: That is a weighted one. I don't consider myself a spiritualist. There is a tendency for the general audience to look at native people for spiritual grounding or knowledge, and it is kind of dangerous because it can be misinterpreted. I am not too concerned with giving people answers. I am more concerned with raising questions.

Wildcat: The inscription of the front of your book calls your writing "haunting."

Bitsui: I am haunting (laughs and then repeats the word). No, I guess because some of the images are stark and not easy to digest.

Wildcat: No, your poetry does not promote good digestion, but maybe it is time we choke a little if it means examining what is on our plate.

Shapeshift can be bought at Antigone's, 411 N. Fourth Ave.; Reader's Oasis, 3400 E. Speedway Blvd., Suite 114; the UofA Bookstore and online.

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