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General Commentary by Sherman Alexie

Alexie on his poetic inspiration

"[Alex Kuo’s poetry workshop] was the first place I ever read contemporary poems, especially contemporary American Indian poems. And I read one poem in particular that was revolutionary and revelatory. The line was, ‘I’m in the resrvation of my mind.’ It was by Adrian Louis, a Paiute Indian poet. For me, that was like, ‘In the beginning . . .’ It was , ‘Because I could not stop for death, death kindly stopped for me . . .’ It was ‘ I sing the body electric . . .’ It was all that and more. It was the first line I ever read in any work, any fiction anywhere that ever applied to something I knew. Literally, it was this flash of lightning, roll of thunder, Bert Parks parking, Bob Barker barking, where I understood everything that I ever wanted to be. At that moment. When I read that line. It was really like that, like a light switch. And at that moment I knew I wanted to be a writer."

from Bob Ivry, "From the Reservation of His Mind." Bergen Record 28 June 1998.

Alexie on Poetry
[Interview with Thomson Highway]

(S.A.) I started writing because I kept fainting in human anatomy class and needed a career change. The only class that fit where the human anatomy class had been was a poetry writing workshop. I always liked poetry. I'd never heard of, or nobody'd ever showed me, a book written by a First Nations person, ever. I got into the class, and my professor, Alex K[u]o, gave me an anthology of contemporary Native American poetry called Songs From This Earth on Turtle's Back. I opened it up and--oh my gosh--I saw my life in poems and stories for the very first time.

(T.H.) Who were some of the writers in the book?

(S.A.) Linda Hogan, Simon Ortiz, Joy Harjo, James Welch, Adrian Lewis. There were poems about reservation life: fry bread, bannock, 49's, fried baloney, government food and terrible housing. But there was also joy and happiness. There's a line by a Paiute poet named Adrian Lewis that says, "Oh, Uncle Adrian, I'm in the reservation of my mind." I thought, "Oh my God, somebody understand me!: At that moment I realized, "I can do this!" That's when I started writing--in 1989.

(T.H.) The poetry that you would have studied in American Studies, for instance, the poetry of Wallace Stevens or e.e. cummings or Emily Dickinson never influenced you at all?

(S.A.) Of course it did. I loved that stuff. I still love it. Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson are two of my favorites. Wallace Stevens leaves me kind of dry, but the other poets, they're still a primary influence. I always tell people my literary influences are Stephen King, John Steinbeck, and my mother, my grandfather and the Brady Bunch.

(T.H.) Then you moved on to short stories.

(S.A.) I'd written a couple of them in college. After my first book of poems, The Business of Fancy Dancing, was published by Hanging Loose Press in Brooklyn, New York, I got a great New York Times book review. The review called me "one of the major lyric voices of our time." I was a 25-year old Spokane Indian guy working as a secretary at a high school exchange program in Spokane, Washington when my poetry editor faxed that review to me. I pulled it out of the fax machine beside my desk and read, " of the major lyric voices of our time." I thought, "Great! Where do I go from here!?" After that, the agents started calling me.

(T.H.) Where did the book of poetry come from?

(S.A.) It was my first semester poetry manuscript. Part of the assignment was to submit to literary magazines. The one I liked in the Washington State library was Hanging Loose magazine. I liked that it started the same year I was born. The magazine, the press and I are the same age. Over the next year and a half they kept taking poems of mine to publish. Then they asked if I had a manuscript. I said, "Yes!" and sent it in.

It was a thousand copies. I figured I'd sell a hundred and fifty to my family. My mom would buy a hundred herself and that would be about it. But, it took off. I never expected it. Sometimes I think it would have been nicer if it had not been as big, because my career has been a rocket ride. There's a lot of pressure.

from Thomson Highway, "Spokane Words: An Interview with Sherman Alexie"

Alexie on Heroes

I've always been picky about heroes. Like most American males, I've always admired athletes, particularly basketball players. I admired Julius Erving and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar not only for their athletic abilities, but for who they seemed to be off the court. They seemed to be spiritual, compassionate, and gracious people. Neither has done nor said anything over the years to contradict my image of them.

Unlike many American males, I always admired writers as much as I admired athletes. I loved books and the people who wrote books. John Steinbeck was one of my earliest heroes because he wrote about the poor. Stephen King became a hero because he wrote so well of misfit kids, the nerds and geeks. Growing up on my reservation, I was a poor geek, so I had obvious reasons to love Steinbeck and King. I still love their novels, but I have no idea if they were/are spiritual, compassionate, and gracious men. There is so much spirit, compassion, and grace in their work, I want to assume that Steinbeck and King were/are good people. I would be terribly disappointed to find out otherwise. . . .

Most of my heroes are just decent people. Decency is rare and underrated. I think my writing is somehow just about decency. Still, if I was keeping score, and I like to keep score, I would say the villains in the world are way ahead of the heroes. I hope my writing can help even the score.

from Laura Baratto, "On Tour: Writers on the Road with New Books." Hungry Mind Review Summer 1995: 22.

 Alexie on Indian Literature

Reflecting oral storytelling traditions, in which repetition exists not for memorization but to deepen meaning with each iteration, Alexie’s writing returns to certain themes, such as the fire that killed his sister and brother-in-law. In his most recent collection of poetry, The Summer of Black Widows (Hanging Loose Press, 1996), one section is entitles "Sister Fire, Brother Smoke." . . .

When asked why he made the switch from poetry to prose, from short stories to novels, from writing to film, Alexie immediately responds with two answers: sales and access. Novels and film pay the bills better than poetry, and with the broader sales he can get his work out to more people, particularly Indian youth. . . . "As I have been working with the film," Alexie says, "I’ve come to realize sitting in a movie theater is the contemporary equivalent of sitting around the fire listening to a storyteller. . . . And because of this, Indian peoples, all peoples, will respond more powerfully to movies than to books." . . .

Another of Alexie’s concerns is that Indian literatures are erroneously assumed by non-Indian readers to represent social and historical realities in ways that other readers do not. When readers’ expectations take an anthropological turn, writers are put in the awkward position of being expected to represent their tribes, communities, and Native America. "Most of us [Indian writers] are outcasts," Alexie says. "We don’t really fit within the Indian community, so we write to try to fit in and sound Indian. So it’s ironic that we become spokespeople for Indian country, that we are supposed to be representative of our tribes." . . .

What does Alexie want to see within the ranks of Indian writers? "I want us to write about the way we live." He wants Indian writers to write from their own lived experiences, not some nostalgic and romanticized notion of what it means to be Indian. "When I see words like the Creator, Father Sky, Mother Earth, Four Legends, I almost feel like we’re colonizing ourselves. These words, this is how we’re supposed to talk—what it means to be Indian in white America. But it’s not who we really are; it’s not what it means to be Navajo or Spokane or Cour d’Alene."

from Susan Berry Brill de Ramirez, "Fancy Dancer: A Profile of Sherman Alexie." Poets and Writers January/February 1999: 54-59.

 Alexie on the Responsibilities of Native writers

EK: Would you speak to what you see as our responsibility is as Native Writers? Do you see that responsibility restricting/constricting certain avenues of creativity?

SA: We do have a cultural responsibility above and beyond what other people do, more than other ethnic group, simply because we are so misrepresented and misunderstood and appropriated. We have a serious responsibility to tell the truth. And to act as . . . role models. We are more than just writers. We are storytellers. We are spokespeople, We are cultural ambassadors. We are politicians. We are activists. We are all of these simply by nature of what we do, without even wanting to be. So we’re not like these other writers who can just pick up and choose their expressions. They’ve chosen for us , and we have to be aware of that. I also think that we have a responsibility to live up to our words. As Native writers, we certainly talk the talk about the things that everybody should do, but if you’re going to write about racism, I don’t think you should be a racist.

If you’re going to write about sexism and exploitation, then I don’t think you should be a sleeping around. If you’re going to write about violence and colonialism, then I don’t think you should be doing it to your own family. So, I think we have a serious responsibility as Native writers to live traditionally in a contemporary world. And I don’t think that a lot of us do.

EK: What do you think prevents us from doing that?

SA: A lot of it is our own dysfunctions. While we may have more responsibilities because of what we do, that does not automatically make us healthy. Part of the danger in being an artist of whatever color is that you fall in love with your wrinkles. The danger is that if you fall in love with your wrinkles then you don’t want to get rid of them. You start to glorify them and perpetuate them. If you write about pain, you can end up searching for more pain to write about, that kind of thing; that self-destructive route. We need to get away from that. We can write about pain and anger without having it consume us, and we have to learn how to do that in our lives as individuals before we can start doing that as writers.

from E. K. Caldwell, "Interview: Sherman Alexie."

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