Q&A with Sherman Alexie, visiting poet

Trends Reporter

Indian. “That’s what we call each other, it’s an everyday language,” said award-winning author Sherman Alexie. “Indian isn’t any more inaccurate than Native American. Native American just means anybody born here, so the most accurate term would be ‘here first-ians.’”

Much of Alexie’s writing draws from his Native American ancestry and experiences living on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Washington.

Alexie’s first poem was written for an assignment in Alex Kuo’s class his first semester at Washington State University in 1987, where he initially dreamed of becoming a doctor. Alexie’s poem, “Futures,” was published in his debut collection, “The Business of Fancydancing: Stories and Poems” in 1992.

With his eyes closed, Alexie conducted an impromptu recitation of “Futures” in its entirety during an interview with The University Star before his reading, Q-and-A and book signing Friday at the Wittliff Collections:

Jordan Gass-Poore’: When you were at Washington State University there was a Mr. Kuo who seemed to be your mentor. What is the importance of having a mentor, specifically as a young person, in shaping your career?
Sherman Alexie: Well, I took the poetry class sort of accidentally, it just sounded like fun. And the human anatomy class I was supposed to take I couldn’t handle. So, I took the poetry class and then wrote a poem for the first assignment, and (Kuo) came up to me after the next class, and asked me what I was doing the rest of my life. I said, “I don’t know,” and he said, “Well, you should write.” And I’d written one poem. So, really the idea of having a mentor was somebody who actually believes in you, somebody outside your family. So, really is getting, the sense is getting permission to do what you do. So, it’s an emotional connection and then it’s professional—one of the things you had to do in his class was to submit work.

JGP: That was a requirement?
SA: Yeah, that was a first semester poetry class you had to submit to magazines. It was part of your grade. And (Kuo) was always talking about the life of a writer, as well as inside the class, though he didn’t make the assumption that we’re all going to be taking his class once, I mean, he talked about it in terms of the rest of our lives. And then he was handing me books, introducing me to writers I never would have heard of, never would have found. So, he was this combination of job mentor, library, father figure, grandfather, yeah, he was amazing. He is amazing.

JGP: How old were you at this time?
SA: I was 21.

JGP: Do you still stay in contact with Kuo?
SA: Oh, yeah. He lives about an hour-and-a-half away.

JGP: Have you stayed in contact with (Kuo) throughout your career?
SA: Yeah. And you know, I mean, I’m his star, of course. There have been other writers he’s had, but nothing like I’ve done, so he’s proud, certainly. But he’s a teacher, so he’s proud of hundreds. You know, he has this huge network of former students that are friends as well. So, I’m not just friends with him, I’m friends with multiple generations of students. So, there’s this community that’s built around him.

JGP: Do any members of your family still live on the reservation?
SA: Everybody’s still on the reservation—siblings, mom, all my first cousins. One uncle lives off the res, but everybody else is still on the res. One’s in Seattle, but the rest are on the res.

JGP: You left Washington State (University) three credit hours short of receiving a bachelor’s degree, but did they award you something else?
SA: Yeah, I have an honorary bachelor’s degree. Well, they may have given me the credits for life experience. So, it’s a real degree, but I like to call it an honorary bachelor’s.