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Poet Sherman Alexie Talks ‘Faces’ and ‘War Dances’

October 22, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Author Sherman Alexie talks about his new book of poetry called "Faces" and his new short story collection, "War Dances."
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And, finally, another in our series on poets and poetry. Tonight, Sherman Alexie, who grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation and now makes his home in Seattle. He’s the author of numerous books of fiction and poetry, and he wrote the screenplay for the 1998 film “Smoke Signals.”

Earlier this year, he published a book of poems called “Face.” And, this month, he has a new collection of stories and poems called “War Dances.”

SHERMAN ALEXIE: My name is Sherman Alexie. And I’m a writer of short stories, poetry, novels, movies, a little bit of journalism.

I grew up in a storytelling culture, a tribal culture, but also in an American storytelling culture. I was obsessed with TV. The form I most enjoy writing is the sonnet or sonnet-like forms, where you have a — you know, three stanzas or two stanzas that lead into a concluding couplet.

I’m a big fan of the concluding couplet these days. I like the summation of it. And it feels very traditional as well, because, when you’re talking about tribal songs, you know, whether they’re short or long, there’s a lot of repetition involved. There’s a lot of recitation of themes and ideas and sounds.

But it always ends, you know, with that final drumbeat, that boom that tells you it’s over. So, a concluding couplet in a sonnet feels like that last drum beat of a powwow song to me. So, I get my nice mix of Western culture and tribal culture.

What inspires a poem for me is usually a moment. It’s often eavesdropping, either listening to people or watching them, something somebody will say.

You know, people speak in poetry all the time. They just don’t realize it.

"On Airplanes"

"On Airplanes"

"I am always amused by those couples, lovers and spouses who perform and ask others to perform musical chairs whenever they, by random seat selection, are separated from each other.

"'Can you switch seats with me," a woman asks me, 'so I can sit with my husband?'

"'How dare you? How dare you ask me to change my life for you? How imperial. How colonial.'

"But, ah, here is the strange truth. Whenever I'm asked to trade seats for somebody else's love, I do. I always do."

A father's influence

My father was a basketball player, so I loved basketball because he did. It was a direct transference. But, more than that, basketball, in the United States at least, plays the same function that soccer does everyone else in the world. It's the sport of poverty. It's the sport born of poverty. It's the cheapest sport.

It's the easiest to play. All you need is something resembling a hoop and something resembling a ball. But, in the Indian world, it's huge. I think, in some ways, basketball has replaced other warrior expressions.

My father's death is probably -- I mean, no, it's not even probably -- it's the most profound thing that's ever happened to me. Number one, I share his name. I'm Sherman Alexie Jr. So, every time I look at his gravestone, my name is on there.

That's sort of a metaphor for our entire life, how intertwined we are. We looked alike. We talked alike. We thought alike. More than anybody else in the family, my father and I were immeshed in all sorts of ways.

And I was immeshed with a lifelong binge alcoholic. I was immeshed with the emotionally unpredictable. I grew up in that space between my father's enormous potential and everything he did not accomplish. And I think that's what my poems and stories are all about, in some way, even when I'm writing about anything else.

Even when I'm writing about a crow, or a pigeon, or an ant, or a powwow, or a basketball game, everything I write about ends up being in some way about my father and who he couldn't be.

"The Blood Sonnets"

"The Blood Sonnets"

"When my father left me and my mother and siblings to binge drink for days and weeks, I always wept myself into nosebleeds. And, sure, you might think this is another poem about a wounded father and son, but, honestly, the only blood was mine. And it flowed from absence, not from a punch or kick.

"My father, drunk or not, was kind and passive and never lifted a fist to strike. Drunk daddy only hit the road. And I would become the rez Hamlet who missed his father so much that he bled red ghosts. Years later, in Seattle, my nose bled when my mother called and said, 'Your father is dead.'"

JUDY WOODRUFF: You can watch Sherman Alexie read more of his poetry on our Web site, NewsHour.PBS.org. And we have extended excerpts of our interview with him.