All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling-Oscar Wilde
April is National Poetry Month, and I don’t care. It’s not that I have anything against poetry: I don’t. I just don’t enjoy it. I love to read, but if an author slips a poem into his story, I skip it. I’m here for the story; don’t sneak a poem in that you couldn’t sell.
Reading poetry is a chore. Sonnets, meter, iambic pentameter-it’s boring. Poetry isn’t meant to be studied. It’s meant to be heard. It’s why I shelled out twenty bucks to see Sherman Alexie, a Native American poet and writer.
I was hesitant to pay that much to hear a poet, but Alexie has been called “one of the major lyric voices of our time”. It’s a lot of hype to live up to. Especially since I saw him before he became “poet as rock star.” It’s rare to have such a writer come to the area.
I was familiar with the work of Sherman through a college friend. My friend was an English major before he realized that he wanted a job when he graduated, and switched to computers. He was deep in a “Native American” phase which involved long hair, tanning hides, and bad poetry.
He shared the poem, How to Write the Great American Indian Novel, and I didn’t hate it. It’s an angry, funny poem that smashes stereotypes and left me feeling a little sad. Still, I’m not really into poetry. I do love the short story.
Sherman Alexie’s most well-known collection of short stories has a great title–The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. It’s a great anthology filled with a mix of memory, fantasy, and the stark reality growing up on The Rez*. It’s a work of fiction used to tell deeper truths than might have been possible with a memoir.
It’s about being Indian, and what that means. There’s anger, and bitterness, and a sense of pride even when there’s nothing left. There is also passion, friendship, heartbreak, and humor. It’s the humor that makes his characters likeable and real to me.
Sherman came to the Boulder Bookstore when I lived in Colorado. It was free to attend, or maybe it was just the cost of a book. I don’t remember. It’s not hard to convince me to buy another book, and I hadn’t had the opportunity to have many autographed books.
He wasn’t as successful as he is today. He wasn’t as experienced. His anger was still raw. He gave a good reading, but wasn’t interactive with the small crowd. He signed books in silence, and I felt like he couldn’t wait to leave this room full of white people.
It’s okay. Writers aren’t always the best speakers, and I still enjoyed his work. His young adult novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, is both poignant and funny. I read it in one sitting and loved every page. The book won the National Book award and it would have been an injustice if it hadn’t.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I heard he was coming to Corning, NY. I wanted to observe and compare it with my previous experience, but the performance was sold out. Winter weather cancelled his first performance and an illness cancelled the second.
Tickets were refunded and went back on sale. I didn’t know if I’d have the chance again, and so I purchased tickets for my wife and me. I didn’t want to drive an hour to hear the same performance that I had seen so many years before. I didn’t.
Sherman is a storyteller, and has grown into quite a performer. It was more like watching improv or a comedian. His sense of humor, however, is a tool, a means to show injustice and an unpleasant truth, but if you can make someone laugh, you can say damn near anything.
Time may have softened the edge of Alexie’s anger. His hair is shorter. His cheek bones not as prominent. He’s talented, skillful, and has grown successful, but he’s still human, still likeable. He hasn’t forgotten where he’s from, or lost his laughter. He can’t.
America isn’t always the land of dreams. Our history is often cruel, sometimes unjust, frequently difficult, but sometimes she really does deliver on her promises…
*Slang for a Native American reservation, for Sherman it was a Spokane reservation in Washington State.
A poet and you know it? Or what’s a met a for? Comment and let me know!