For all of the different controversies that have surrounded Sherman Alexie, from the banning of his book The Absolute True Diary of a Part-Time Indian to accusations of misconduct amidst the #MeToo movement, he is a phenomenally prolific and gifted writer.
An author, performer and poet, Alexie has published 26 books, won the National Endowment for the Arts Poetry Fellowship, the PEN/Hemmingway Award, the PEN/Malamud Award, the PEN/Faulkner Award, the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature and a myriad of other awards and honors.
He has a new chapbook of poetry out titled A Memory of Elephants that has been published by Idaho-based Limberlost Press. It’s a short but deeply reflective and personal collection, and in an email interview with Boise Weekly, Alexie wrote about his new book, his thoughts on elephants, policing and his own struggles with mental health.
BW: Rick Ardinger from Limberlost Press also sent me Dangerous Astronomy a collection published previously. Could you tell me about your relationship with Limberlost?
SA: I don’t specifically remember the first time Rick contacted me about publishing with Limberlost. But Rick and I, being literary folks in the Idaho-Washington-Oregon triangle, have many friends and colleagues in common. I quickly agreed to be published by Limberlost because of Rick’s kindness and literary taste. And the books are gorgeous. There is some inherent relationship, a love affair, between poetry and letterpress books.
BW: How long have you been putting this new chapbook together, and if the overarching theme of Dangerous Astronomy is fatherhood in various forms, what would you say is the theme of A Memory of Elephants?
SA: Limberlost has always had a bit of an open invitation for me to publish another book with them. So when Rick asked me last year if I had poems, I put together what I thought were the best poems I’d recently written. So I guess you could say the book is organized by chronology rather than an emotional theme.
BW: If God were an elephant, would They have more empathy? Do you believe in God?
SA: Elephants have complex emotional lives. That’s been witnessed and filmed many times. I think of the video footage of an elephant gently handling the tusks and bones of a fellow pack member who’d died. And I think I’m probably demonizing humans and canonizing elephants but I do believe that elephants are better than us in many ways. Elephants don’t write poetry but they don’t commit genocide, either.
During my life, I’ve been a believer and non-believer in God. But I think I’ve settled into a curious atheism. I respect and love theology. I write about God, and the idea of God, all the time. I’m always wrestling with the concept of God. I’m happy to think of all life as a collective spirit called God even as I don’t believe of God as a specific entity.
BW: Does writing poetry help you to unpack your thoughts and feelings or is it that you already have come into an idea and put it down? And is the speaker always you in the poems? Sometimes they seem to be about you telling someone’s story.
SA: My poetry is memoir and fiction. I prefer to write narrative poetry rather than lyric poetry. So, in being a narrative poet, I think I’m more storyteller and less painter.
Poems come to me in all ways. I began to write “Ode to Spilled Milk” when I actually spilled milk on our kitchen floor and noticed, as I tried to wipe it up with an inadequate sponge, that the milk was taking on different shapes. It is an accidental poem. An incidental poem. To the contrary, I wrote the title of “Ode to Hospice” before I began to write the poem. I had a preconceived idea of what that poem was going to be.
BW: Many of these poems, although personal, seem to be speaking about bigger issues that the U.S. is dealing with, like “Custody,” there’s a line, “I believe in law.” How are you holding that idea and the idea that officers are responded to as if they are deities?
SA: Civilizations cannot exist without structure. And part of that structure must, by definition, be judicial. We need cops. And, certainly, as children and less so as adults, most of us see people in uniforms as heroes. Firefighters, EMTs, police officers, soldiers. All of those jobs are about service to others. All of them require a self-sacrifice that most of us don’t practice. When I write, “I believe in law,” I mean that I believe that humans have already and will continue to create judicial structures that provide protection. And, of course, those judicial structures are flawed, sometimes fatally so, because they are created by flawed humans.
BW: What are your thoughts on the current policing model and what’s been happening in regards to police killings?
SA: I think policing definitely requires reimagining and reform. I don’t believe, as some do, that police departments should be eliminated. I also recognize that my relationship with police officers is radically different than that of Black people. As an Indian, I’ve been racially profiled by the police. I’ve taught my sons how to respond to that kind of racial profiling. I know that I have to be cautious when it comes to certain police officers, especially in rural areas, but I’ve never been in the same kind of danger as a Black person.
BW: Also I like how the words bleed from the end of one stanza to the next in that poem. To me, it pulls the feelings through. I saw this style in the previous collection, too, and in “Three Day Hold.” Could you speak to the construction?
SA: I’m very much a free verse poet. I use rhyme but I rarely write in meter. But I do believe in poetic forms. As Alex Kuo, my college poetry professor, taught me, I use line and stanza breaks to create additional meaning. For example, in the poem, “Three Day Hold,” I end a two-line stanza with the word “leap” and then move from that stanza to the next and continue the sentence with “over the railing.” Thus the line/stanza break becomes a visual image of a leap. The leap from one stanza to the next matches the leap over the bridge railing. The leap becomes real inside the structure of the poem.
BW: Why are there so many odes at the end of the collection? Was it just a style you were working in or is there a different significance?
SA: I’m mentally ill. I have bipolar disorder, which used to be called manic-depression. I’ve been in Dialectical Behavior Therapy for a few years and I’m learning how to hold two opposing ideas at the same time—to work hard to be in balance, to live by a “both-and” philosophy rather than an “either-or.” In more basic terms, I’m learning that I can be in a depressed or manic state, and be very distressed, and still successfully manage those emotions and enjoy a good life. So, as part of my therapy, in embracing opposites, I decided to write odes of praise to distressing subjects like spilled milk and hospice. This embracing of opposites is also very literary. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that the “test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind and still retain the ability to function.” I don’t know if I have a first-rate intelligence but I’m doing my best.
BW: I’ve been through hospice with a parent and I very much connected with “Ode to Hospice,” how role reversal left me feeling in the dark about what to do and some guilt as well. Did writing it give you any release?
SA: I am very empathetic when it comes to other people. But I don’t have much empathy for myself. I spend a lot of time being very self-critical. I think “Ode to Hospice” is an apology to my parents. But how far can an apology go with my late mother and father? I end up apologizing to their tombstones. So I don’t know if my poetry helps me. But I know that it helps other people. It’s a painful dichotomy.
BW: The ode almost seemed like two poems in one. I felt I could read the stanza headers separately as another layer, like the genesis of two. Can you speak to how you put it together?
SA: You perfectly describe the poem when you say, “genesis of two.” My hospice poem uses a poetic form called the villanelle, which involves the strict repetition of two poetry lines. And I honor that form. There are two lines that do repeat in my poem. But I also veer away from the form. I call the form a “busted villanelle.” These poems are formal and informal, controlled and wild. In writing about hospice, I use the form to capture the emotional highs and lows and the numbing repetition of grief.
BW: In “Ode to Spilled Milk” I kept thinking about how spilling milk is a mistake, but the poem has a lot of what I think of as purpose in it. Could you please explain?
SA: As a writer, I’m always looking for a story to tell. I’m always looking for structure. And, often, I create stories and structures in unexpected places. I create new things. I say things that nobody has said before. I doubt that anybody else has ever written an ode to spilled milk and I’m quite certain that nobody else has seen the shape of dolphin in a pool of spilled milk. So my purpose as a writer, as a poet, is the attempt to create something utterly original whenever I work. I fail at this about 99% of the time.
BW: Are you working on any other projects?
SA: I’ve just about finished with a novel that is largely set in a small North Idaho town. And there is also a scene that takes place in Boise. Being a Coeur d’Alene Indian and a child of Eastern Washington, I’m very familiar with North Idaho, but Boise and Southern Idaho are somewhat of a mystery. And the mystery of Boise does play a brief role in my novel.
Readers can find copies of A Memory of Elephants on the Limberlost Press website for $20.