Esther Belin

“Sonnet 1,” a poem

10 Questions with the Massachusetts Review

Esther G. Belin is a Diné multimedia artist and writer, currently a faculty mentor in the low-rez MFA program at the Institute for American Indian Arts. She holds degrees from the University of California, Berkeley, the Institute of American Indian Arts, and Antioch University, Los Angeles. Her poetry collection From the Belly of My Beauty (University of Arizona Press) won the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation. Her latest collection is Of Cartography: Poems (University of Arizona Press). She is a second-generation off-reservation Native American resulting from the U.S. federal Indian policies of termination and relocation. Her art and writing reflect the historical trauma from those policies as well as the philosophy of Saah Naagháí Bik’eh Hózho, the worldview of the Navajo people.


From the Belly of My Beauty (University of Arizona Press) 
Of Cartography: Poems (University of Arizona Press)

Our Interview

What does the sonnet form mean to you; Does your personal significance align with or shift from the traditional definition of a sonnet? How is that expressed through this poem?

EB: The sonnet form tends to represent a portal, access, proficiency, ability, a formula. The form holds a code that at first appears to be rigid but once you experience the form as a form, there is a playfulness. The result of so many layers of form and pattern and code placed on Indigenous communities transmutes those creations which are often misrecognized as confinement rather than image. I say image because there is a visual pattern that also enhances a sonical fastening to content.

For my poem, I definitely wanted to enhance the visual movement. I wanted to play with the repetition. When tribal people were first introduced to the English language in boarding schools, the main teaching style was rigid repetition often enhanced by sound and without attention to content. One of things I am interested in is the context and formulation of meaning making when my parents learned the English language while in boarding school. Many of [my] poems and especially this one are a study of that process.

I got the idea of using the sonnet as a vessel for this study from reading some of Terrance Hayes’ work—and his poetry genealogy is extensive.

MR: You decided to title this work “Sonnet 1”—is this poem part of a larger collection? Do you find the form influencing which topic you choose to write about?

EB: This poem is part of a larger series. The idea of titling becomes part of that study. My personal study of exploring means to how my parents learned the English language in boarding school is present. My parents were given names in boarding school. Identity markers. Portals. This poem is part of that pattern, introduction, portal. We give meaning so in that sense, the readers will give meaning to the poem and the title serves as identification.

MR: In our 10 Questions interview, you mentioned that “Hosteen dibé bitsą́ą́’ yiyą́ą́” translates to “Hosteen eats mutton” in Diné bizaad. Can you speak about your choice to write without a direct translation? Ideally, how would you like readers to engage with this poem?

EB: The translation is like a coded layer. “Hosteen eats mutton” does not carry the sonnet rhythm or pattern. The sonnet formula is satisfied only when the line is not translated, yet there remains a desire from the reader to know what it means. The poem reads as a sonnet, a song as well when there is no English translation. Perhaps that is a commentary on the Indigenous identity. There tends to be immense ignorance/erasure around Indigenous people/history/presence. The desire to know is not always relational but many times it is approached from a settler-colonial lens so the difficulty or amusement by the unknown is intentional. 

“The sonnet formula is satisfied only when the line is not translated, yet there remains a desire from the reader to know what it means. The poem reads as a sonnet, a song as well when there is no English translation.”

MR: What is the significance of “hey ya”? Why did you use this phrase to end each line?

EB: The ending creates the song, the playfulness. In many tribal songs, “hey ya” is used to enhance rhythm and emphasis, it is a sonic marker.

MR: Why is it important to write in the way you do? Why not just in English or just in Diné bizaad?

EB: The importance is in the emotional attachment to meaning. When my parents learned English in a forced racist educational system, there was emotional attachment to that process and grief at the loss of erasing their Navajo language and thoughts. The poem proposes to take the reader to the essence of frustration and emotional dysregulation around correctness as a qualifier of acceptance. Federal Indian policies dehumanized as a method of civilizing. Severing and disembodiments were intentional. Healing is the reversal.

MR: What is it like for you to read this poem out loud?

EB: Reading the poem is ceremonious, not necessarily because of the meaning but because of the meaning making.


1. Background information on the Sonnet, from the Academy of American Poets

2. An introduction to Native American boarding schools and their practices of assimilation, from the Northern Plains Reservation Aid, a program of the Partnership with Native American

3. “The Intergenerational Effects of Relocation Policies on Indigenous Families,” an article by Melissa L. Walls, PhD and Les B. Whitbeck, PhD, that utilizes life-course perspective concepts of linked lives and historical time and place to examine the multigenerational effects of relocation experiences on Indigenous families. Overall, the study revealed significant direct and indirect effects whereby grandparent-generation participation in government relocation programs negatively impacts not only G1 well being, but also ripples out to affect subsequent generations.