A Conversation: Sherman Alexie & Diane Thiel
Diane Thiel: Can you say a bit about working in different genres in your writing, and often crossing genres in a single book? A signature element in your books seems to be a fusion of forms. One wonders while reading: "Is this a poem or short story?" What distinctions do you see between genres? Do you think some distinctions are rather artificial? Has your relationship with the different forms changed at all in the evolution of your work?
Sherman Alexie: I suppose, as an Indian living in the U.S., I'm used to crossing real and imaginary boundaries, and have, in fact, enjoyed a richer and crazier and more magical life precisely because I have fearlessly and fearfully crossed all sorts of those barriers. I guess I approach my poetry the same way I have approached every other thing in my life. I just don't like being told what to do. I write whatever feels and sounds right to me. At the beginning of my career, I wrote free verse with some formal influences, but I have lately been writing more formal verse with free verse influences. I don't feel the need to spend all my time living on either the free verse or the formal reservation. I want it all; hunger is my crime.
DT: And what about the fusion of poetry and story in your work, in The Business of Fancydancing: Stories and Poems, and in One Stick Song in particular. Could you tell me a bit more about crossing those barriers? Not many writers defy the genres, and I'm curious about your decision to collect thestories and poems together as you have. And also about your path towards the novels and screenplays. Did you feel you needed a larger or different kind of canvas to tell certain stories?
SA: The original decision to include poems and stories in the first collection, The Business of Fancydancing, was made by the Hanging Loose Press editors. I was only 23 years old when that book was accepted for publication, and didn't really know how to put a book together (I still don't know how!), so it was really an editorial decision. I guess those Hanging Loose guys understood my work was a blend of poetry and fiction, and since I was such a baby writer then, I think that fusion is just natural, maybe even reflexive. I have to work hard now to make a poem completely identifiable as a poem, and not as a hybrid. Of course, I still love hybrids. I'm a hybrid. So I think it was the Hanging Loose editors who helped me define myself as a poet. They're still my poetry publishers, and I'm very curious what they'll do with my nextbook, which will be mostly formal poems. I think my path toward novels and screenplays was, number one, the simple effort to make more money so I could be a full-time writer. But heck, I haven't published a novel in 7 years, so I'm not sure I can be described as a novelist. I think I'm a poet with short story inclinations. And since screenplays and movies are poetic in structure and intent, I find that I'm much more comfortable writing screenplays than I am writing novels. I am currently working on my first non-fiction, a big book about four generations of Indian men in my family, and our relationship with war, and I've broken it down into fiction, non-fiction project, and poetry, so I'm really looking for a hybrid work here. In some sense, I feel this new book is a summation of all my themes until now. After this book, I think I'll be looking in some radical new directions.
DT: Could you speak a bit about converting literature for the screen? What are the different demands of the work in print and the work on the screen? What is your process? What useful advice have you received along the way? Was there any "advice" that you instinctively did not agree with?
SA: Although I have written two produced movies, and worked on screenplays for a half-dozen unproduced flicks, I still haven't figured out what works or what doesn't. I don't think the audiences for movies are nearly as forgiving or ambitious as the audiences for poetry or fiction. Ninety-nine percent of all movies ever made, from the most independent to the most capital driven, from the crappy ones to the classics, are identical in structure. If poets worked like film-makers, we'd all be writing sonnets, only sonnets, and nothing else! Just try to make a movie out of "The Wasteland" or "Portrait of an Artist as Young Man." I want to make movies that are much more like poems, so I'll be making them myself for extremely low budgets. The best advice I've ever received: "Sherman, quit wasting your time in Hollywood!" Of course, I have completely ignored that advice.
DT: In First Indian on the Moon, the poem "The Alcoholic Love Poems" ends with the lines "All I said was 'When I used to drink, you're exactly the kind of Indian I loved to get drunk with.' Oh all my life in the past tense." How does the recognition of "past tense" in this poem affect your writing? Do you often feel as if you are writing about past selves, past injuries? Can you discuss how past meets present in your work?
SA: In my dictionary, "Indian" and "nostalgic" are synonyms. As colonized people, I think we're always looking to the past for some real and imaginary sense of purity and authenticity. But I hate my nostalgia. I think I'm pop-culture obsessed because I hope it's an antidote for the disease of nostalgia. So I think the past and present are always duking it out in my work. The Lone Ranger and Tonto will always be fistfighting.
DT: The title poem of your first book, The Business of Fancydancing, is a sestina, and I notice that an interest in using the various forms of poetry has persisted in your body of work. Who were your early influences of "formal" poetry? Why did you feel drawn to it? What do you think are some of the possibilities using form provides?
SA: Although I would certainly be defined as a free verse poet, I have always worked in traditional and invented forms. Though I've never recognized it before, the fact that the title poem of my first book is a sestina says a lot about my varied ambitions. My earliest interest in formalism came from individual poems rather than certain poets. Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress," Roethke's "My Papa's Waltz," Gwendolyn Brooks' "We Real Cool," and Langston Hughes' "A Dream Deferred" are poems that come to mind as early formal poems I admired. Speaking both seriously and facetiously, I think I've spent my whole career rewriting "My Papa's Waltz" with an Indian twist. Lately, as I've been writing much more formally—with end rhyme, a tenuous dance with meter, and explicit form—I've discovered that in writing toward that end rhyme, that accented or unaccented syllable, or that stanza break, I am constantly surprising myself with new ideas, new vocabulary, and new ways of looking at the world. The conscious use of form seems to have freed my subconscious.
DT: That's exactly how I feel about using form—that it has the power to free the subconscious. I've actually thought about Roethke's poem when reading your work. For me, too, it was one of the poems that startled me into poetry early on. It's an interesting poem to teach because of the range of reaction to it. Some—those who focus on the waltz and the horseplay—feel the tone to be much lighter. Others—those who concentrate more on the whisky on his breath, the way the child "hung on like death," and the ear scraping a buckle— feel that it's much darker. I think that the tug of the two different tones creates the true charge in the poem.
SA: I think the poem is incredibly sad and violent, and its sadness and violence is underscored by its gentle rhymes and rhythms. It's Mother Goose on acid, maybe. I think that its gentle music is a form of denial about the terror contained in the poem, or maybe it's the way kids think, huh? My dad wasn't violent, but he would leave us to go drinking, and would sometimes be gone for a few weeks. He was completely undependable and unpredictable. My wife's father was a scary and unpredictable alcoholic, charming and funny one moment, violent and caustic the next. So Roethke's poem, I think, is all about the unpredictability of the alcoholic father.
DT: I find the way the personal fuses with the political a very evocative element in your work. The love poem, for instance, is often simultaneously a political poem. Sometimes this is suggestive, but other times it is quite direct, even in the very title—as in "Seven Love Songs which Include the Collected History of the United States of America." Could you discuss this fusion and how it evolved in your work?
SA: I've stated in other places that Indians are politicized from birth. I was five or six years old, standing in line to get free government food on the reservation, when I had my first political thought: "Hey, I'm in this line because I'm an Indian!" Of course, I was having a great time in that line with my very funny and highly verbose siblings and parents. I would guess my family, pound for pound, is one of the funniest in the world! So I was taught to fuse the political and the artistic, the poem and the punchline. It seems to me it is just as much nature as nurture. In terms of love, I was involved in a longterm love affair with a white woman, and our races and our political positions were always a subject of discussion and dissent. I am never, not even in my most intimate moments, completely free of my tribe.
DT: The poet Michael S. Harper (with whom I studied years ago) has a book entitled, History is Your Own Heartbeat. I've always been particularly interested in exploring history in a poem, but doing so via a very personal current. Was it a conscious choice for you—to take on all that history in your work, or did it just slowly become your subject matter? What writers influenced you, in the way the personal and the historical mesh?
SA: Generally speaking, I think Indians have a much longer memory than white Americans. Or perhaps we Indians hold more passionate grudges! But I think my work has been more autobiographical than historical. So maybe I've been a personal historian. A poet-memoirist. In the link between personal and world history, I think other Native American poets have influenced me most—Simon Ortiz, Adrian C. Louis, Joy Harjo, Leslie Silko, just to name a few, who are constantly aware of history. In Ortiz's book-length poem, From Sand Creek, he weaves his personal history with the history of genocide in the U.S., and creates a stunning brand of confessional poetry. Simon seems to be confessing in a royal voice, with a tribal "we" and not a narcissistic "I." I hope that's what I'm doing with my poems.
DT: I've been thinking as we talk that perhaps the reason you're drawn to form in poetry might have something to do with your attraction to repetition and refrains. Many of your poems employ a kind of elliptical repetition. In your chapbook, Water Flowing Home, for instance, I feel the poem "This Woman Speaks" has an elliptical quality:
This woman speaks, this
woman, who loves me, speaks
to another woman, her
mother, this daughter
speaks to her mother...
Could you comment on your use of repetition and the cultural aspects of this?
SA: In my tribe, and in the Native American world, in general, repetition is sacred. All of our songs go on for hours, "This Indian will be coming around the mountain when he comes, when he comes, when he comes..." So I think repetition appeals to me on that level, and it also appeals to me on a simple musical level. I want my poems to sound like tribal songs, and with repetition, I can sometimes make English sound like Salish. I also think that in terms of spirituality and prayer repetition can sound a note of desperation. Think of Hopkins, "Pitched past pain..." God can feel so far away. So we sinful slobs have to keep screaming until God pays attention.
DT: When I heard you read in New Mexico, I was struck by the performative aspect. I know you've been involved in a number of poetry slams and have held the title of Heavyweight Poetry Champion (or something like that). Do you think of a poem as something meant to be performed, and what are the different ways you've developed to make a poem come alive in the air?
SA: Storytellers were telling stories long before they had the means to record them or write them down, so I think performance is primal. I know it feels primal to me. When I'm really doing well on stage, I feel almost as crazy and wonderful as I do when I'm writing the stuff. As a storyteller, I also feel a responsibility to my audience. I want them to feel as strongly about the work as I do. I want them to know how much I both love and hate it. If a poem is funny, I want to hear the laughter. If it's sad, I want to hear the tears.
DT: How did your "stand-up" readings develop? Was it something you always did, or did it develop as a kind of backlash to the often dry humorless readings that can be a part of the literary world? Would you consider yourself an extrovert? Or do you just don that persona when you are performing?
SA: Most of the readings I've been to are so damn boring! We've got a lot of competition out there in the world. I have to be at least as good as Eminem or I'm dead! In my personal life, I'm an introvert. I spend most of my time alone, with my thoughts for company, and much prefer a book and a bathtub to any gathering of messy human beings. As a public performer, I "act." It's a strange thing. I become a slightly larger and more exaggerated version of myself.
DT: I hear a great deal of humor in your fiction and drama (and in your performances), but it's often more subtle in your poetry. How do you feel about humor in poetry, in general?
SA: I think my poems are very funny, but readers are not trained to laugh at poems. And I think funny poems are seriously devalued in the poetry world. I'd love to edit an anthology of humorous poems that are serious and great by any standard. I'd call it "Funny Poems." I think Auden is hilarious. I think Lucille Clifton is very funny. And Frost is to my mind an incredibly bitter Bob Newhart.
DT: There are many references to the dream world in your work, even when it's not explicitly a dream being explored. "Dead Letter Office," for instance, begins with a very believable occurrence—receiving a letter written in your native tongue that needs translating—but as the poem goes on, the experience feels increasingly surreal, and you traipse after the translator, "Big Mom" for years, "holding some brief letter from the past." I chose that poem as an example because it's not directly about a dream, and yet it feels decidedly like one.
SA: I was hydrocephalic at birth, had serious brain surgery at six months of age, and had epileptic seizures and was on serious sedatives until age seven, so I certainly have a more scarred and ragged brain than most. I don't know how to speak of it medically, but I'm sure my brain damage gives me all sorts of visions! I've always been nightmare-prone and insomniac, so sleep and the lack of sleep, and dreams and nightmares have always been my primary obsession. I was taking phenobarbitol before I went to Kindergarten, so I was probably destined to be a poet, enit?
Originally published in Crossroads, Spring 2004.