“I Am Another of Yourself,” a poem
Michael Wasson is Nimíipuu from the Nez Perce Reservation in Lenore, Idaho. His poetry collection This American Ghost (YesYes Books) was winner of the Vinyl 45 Chapbook Prize. He was a 2019 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellow and a 2018 Native Arts and Cultures Foundation National Artist Fellow in Literature. His book Swallowed Light is forthcoming in spring 2022 from Copper Canyon Press. He currently lives in Japan.
Is it correct that “I Am Another of Yourself” is an ekphrastic poem about the Gayle Crites piece by the same name? How did you first encounter this artwork, and what captured you about it?
MW: Yes, I found a chiaroscuro series by Gayle Crites while exploring art pieces online several years ago, and her 2016 piece looked like a close up of skin, of flesh, via these different mixes of media. My work sometimes deals with self-inflicted harm as a central point of historical tension, and to have this re-assemblage of flesh “made” and set before me, became an entryway into the poem. I want to remember how the wound was before being blown apart, and Crites’ work was a reminder of that time.
MR: Your poem “I Am Another of Yourself” is mostly written in English, and also includes words in Nez Percé, also called Nimipuutímt. Tell us about the choice to use those particular words in Nez Percé, and the choice to not include translations for readers.
MW: The poem is maybe a way to communicate to the flesh or loved one that is lost. So after the intro lines, I imagined the language of my ancestors more like a bundle of flowers (latitláatit means “many little flowers”) that we give to the dead. So in a way, to speak like latitláatit hilatíyo is the narrator of the poem realizing “I speak like how flowers bloom.” My image of my language is more like flowers breaking concrete or cracking the sides of the pot that tries to hold it. It is unexplainable, even for me often, but I love to see or witness how a language unknown fits or passes through the eye of another. It is both a gesture of beauty and utter hesitation—knowing that this language was here in this land long before English touched our air into America.
MR: “I Am Another of Yourself” seems to move between several selves, and the vision available to different eyes in different selves. Did you have specific selves in mind, or for you, is the poem describing specific selves?
MW: I never thought about the poem as a refraction or multiplication of selves—wow. But the self of this poem, when I read it now, seems to move into several imagined, mythical spaces—both familial and cultural: one space of the artwork by Gayle Crites, the flowers everywhere, the black opening of a barrel, the bedroom, the morning, the woods, and the river. The only self I still see is a son, a boy, learning to wash the blood of his father in the river that made him, but I love this interpretation of myriad selves in different timelines.
MR: Your poem begins with the lines “I speak / to this made flesh.” For you, what is the relationship between language and body?
MW: This is such a beautiful and fascinating question, one that I could never answer in full because of how the relationship shifts or changes every time I think about it. But I want to appreciate the body because of how much it attempts to house language, despite the many forms it tends to take—whether ghosted, historical, sensual, in mother tongue, or given tongue, or the country or land that surrounds us.
MR: Is there anything else that you want readers to know as they interact with your poem?
MW: I had a lovely conversation about this poem at Copper Canyon Press, and something that I shared with my editor there recently after she did a cold reading of it was a story called “Heart of the Monster.” This is our creation story about how nimíipuu people were created, or made out of a destroyed body. Toward the end, as Coyote (niséeweynu is the special, rare, mythic word for Coyote) fashions several tribes and people out of parts of the monster, distributing bones and organs across the land, he is asked, “What about this land around us? What people will live here?” And finally, totally out of parts to use, he washed the monster’s blood in the river nearby, and sprinkled that on the shore. There, the nimíipuu people, my people, emerged.
MR: What are some books or writers you’ve read this year that excited you?
MW: For a lot of the past year, I didn’t have very good access to books in English (I lived in Fukuoka for several years and just recently moved to Tokyo), so I will just share some writers whose books, essays, or poems I read that left me in a beautiful rubble of myself: Alexander Chee, Nome Emeka Patrick, Seiichi Takeuchi, Jane Wong, Don Mee Choi, Shangyang Fang, Kenzie Allen, Paul Tran, Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu, Kayleb Rae Candrilli, and Garth Greenwell.
MR: Do you have upcoming publications that you’d like readers to know about?
MW: My full debut book, Swallowed Light, is forthcoming in spring of 2022. I am both frightened and excited that the book will become a real, real thing at last.