Engaging with Sherwin Bitsui's Torrent of Words

Flood Song by Sherwin BitsuiReview by Julie Swarstad

Sherwin Bitsui is a Dine poet originally from White Cone, Arizona.  He received an AFA from the Institute of American Indian Arts Creative Writing Program and has been awarded numerous grants and fellowships, including the prestigious Whiting Writers' Award, along with publications in American Poet and The Iowa Review.  Currently residing in Tucson, Arizona, Bistui is the author of two collections: Shapeshift (University of Arizona Press 2003) and Flood Song (Copper Canyon Press 2009).   Bitsui is a frequent guest in classrooms as a visiting poet through the ArtsReach program.

Bitsui will read at the UA Poetry Center on Friday, September 10th at 8 p.m. along with Ofelia Zepeda and Alberto Rios.

In Flood Song, Sherwin Bitsui explores "the dimming atlases of our lungs," atlases which are infused with his Dine background and a distinct sense of place that is both rural and urban with a hint of apocalypse.  This sense of place is rendered in a stream of surrealistic images that rush and brim with an energetic, almost wild, power.

Flood Song is a fast-paced collection of untitled poems exploring landscape and place, weaving meaning into everything the speaker sees.  In the November/December 2009 issue of Poets & Writers, Bitsui describes Flood Song as "a song that floods, ebbs, and is searching for a name...a body of work that speaks a third language, combining Navajo sensibilities with English linearity."  Bitsui's writing is an unstoppable stream of images and ideas which "wrap this blank page around the exclamation point slammed between us," the exclamation point perhaps being cultural or experiential distance.   

Bitsui uses language in startling ways; he describes hearing "a crow digging wren eggs / from beaks tied with eyelash hair" or encountering "the mind's muddy swan served on a platter with lemon rinds."  While many of Bitsui's juxtapositions may not be immediately accessible to readers, they shake up the conventions many students unfamiliar with modern poetry may have about the genre and hopefully encourage readers to experiment with more unusual choices in their own writing.

Be aware, however, that Bitsui's strange images can sometimes become a bit overwhelming; as the title of the book suggests, Flood Song progresses with a force that threatens to sweep the reader away.  Bitsui's writing is a barrage of concrete images pulled from the extraordinary, leaving the reader little to immediately make sense of.  Despite, or perhaps because of, the surreal qualities of Bitsui's collection, Flood Song is an exciting choice for readers ready to be awakened to the linguistic and cultural power of language.

Have you previously taught Bitsui's work in your classroom?  How did your students respond to his work?  We welcome your suggestions on how to teach Bitsui's powerful and engaging poetry.

Created on: 
Friday, September 10, 2010
Arizona Board of Regents