Sherwin Bitsui

“Amá,” a poem

Sherwin Bitsui (Diné) is originally from White Cone, Arizona, on the Navajo Reservation. He is Diné of the Todich’ii’nii (Bitter Water Clan), born for the Tl’izilani (Many Goats Clan). He is the author of Shapeshift, Flood Song, and Dissolve. His honors include a Lannan Foundation Literary Fellowship and a Native Arts & Culture Foundation Arts Fellowship. He is also the recipient of a 2010 PEN Open Book Award, an American Book Award, and a Whiting Writers Award. He is on faculty at Northern Arizona University.


Shapeshift (University of Arizona Press)
Flood Song (Copper Canyon Press)
Dissolve (Copper Canyon Press)

Our Interview

What led you to title this poem “Amá”?

SB: The word means “mother” in Dinébizaad. Not “my mother” but “mother” in the third person. Although the poem is about my memory my mother bathing me as a very young child, it can also be about any Navajo mother during that time.

MR: Could you talk about what it was like for you to write this poem? What is it like for you to read it aloud?

SB: I was interested in finding a “poem” in my lived experience. Navajo poet Luci Tapahonso mentioned that she tries to find moments in her memory that are poetic—such memories eventually become poems that provide beautiful windows into the Navajo experience. I thought I’d investigate my own memories and see what poems I could summon. It wasn’t easy at first—then I remembered the hissing sound of the Coleman lamp near the kitchen table in my parents’ first trailer. Its light wavering light then illuminated this scene for me. There was no running water at the time also, so the child in poem is also being washed in water hauled in from the nearest spring.

MR: Each piece of “Amá” is separated into three lines. Was this a conscious choice? How does this poem’s form speak to its intent, if at all?

SB: I suppose it wasn’t terribly conscious on my part. I wanted the poem to be precise and vivid. It didn’t need say much more than what is on the page. I hope the reader can feel they are in the scene; that they can celebrate the beauty and light of all mothers.

MR: How do you imagine the relationship between the speaker and the reader to come together?

SB: I don’t have many expectations other than I hope a reader can sit a moment and reflect on their own childhood memories.

“I hope the reader can feel they are in the scene; that they can celebrate the beauty and light of all mothers.”

MR: “Amá” returns to images of water, or things that resemble water. Can you speak a bit more to your intention behind those images and themes?

SB: I’m from the high desert where water is scarce. Some of our natural springs have dried up in recent years, and I remembered the relationship we had with water—and continue to have. Anyone who carried buckets of water into the house or to the sheep corral during extreme weather knows the power and preciousness of water.

MR: The poem also provides strong imagery of place—Mother’s single-wide, the tub in the kitchen. How is place significant to this piece? Culturally?

SB: I suppose it’s just a home like any other—it just happens take place on the Navajo reservation at a particular time in history. I think it says everything that needs to be said.

MR: Did the length of this piece shift from its first and final drafts? How so?

SB: Maybe. It’s been so long since I revised this piece. I’m sure I pulled out a line or two. The poem only needed to reflect a moment in time—nothing else. I believe I succeeded here. “Ama” is one of my favorite pieces.

MR: Throughout the piece, there are moments of alliteration in each section—for instance, in the lines “Brown back / oil black / slick hair pressed flat”, and “…white sigh / all adrift / in her wind-rattled single-wide.” What led you to make this choice?

SB: I wanted to connect sound to action and image. The rhythm and sound were necessary components for such brief poem. The sharp k sounds open to the sighing/whispering aspect of the setting. The opening sounds of a story perhaps.

A Reading

Sherwin Bitsui reads from his work at the New York State Writers Institute.