Tonight I attended a ceremony for the 27th Annual Larry Neal Writers' Awards, a wonderful program the DC Commission on the Arts & Humanities uses to honor Washington's child, teenage, and adult writers in the genres of fiction, essays, dramatic writing, and poetry.
The guest speaker was Sherman Alexie, winner of the 2010 PEN/Faulkner Award for his novel War Dances. He told a charming story about overhearing a couple break up in a bookstore, sentencing the (ex-)boyfriend to a lifetime of nauseous association with bookstores. Or (here the storyteller in him was kicking into gear, he warned), perhaps the distaste would extend to all books. Heck, all words. And how would one then navigate this world, where even the buses have words on them? To live a life dodging language, Alexie suggested, would be as maddening as living a life--as he does--seeking language out. Reading the backs of cereal boxes to the point of memorization, if cereal boxes are the only thing handy.
Alexie was a perfect choice in part because of his gregariousness (the little kids loved him), and in part because of his versatility in so many genres. Some people know him as a writer for young adults, some as a fictioneer, and some (like me) will always consider him a poet. The title poem of his first book, The Business of Fancydancing: Stories and Poems, which was published by Hanging Loose Press in 1992, is one of my favorite sestinas:
THE BUSINESS OF FANCYDANCING
After driving all night, trying to reach
Arlee in time for the fancydance
finals, a case of empty
beer bottles shaking our foundations, we
stop at a liquor store, count out money,
and would believe in the promise
of any man with a twenty, a promise
thin and wrinkled in his hand, reach-
ing into the window of our car. Money
is an Indian Boy who can fancydance
from powwow to powwow. We
got our boy, Vernon WildShoe, to fill our empty
wallets and stomachs, to fill our empty
cooler. Vernon is like some promise
to pay the light bill, a credit card we
Indians get to use. When he reach-
es his hands up, feathers held high, in a dance
that makes old women speak English, the money
for first place belongs to us, all in cash, money
we tuck in our shoes, leaving our wallets empty
in case we pass out. At the modern dance,
where Indians dance white, a twenty is a promise
that can last all night long, a promise reach-
ing into the back pocket of unfamiliar Levis. We
get Vernon there in time for the finals and we
watch him like he was dancing on money,
which he is, watch the young girls reach-
ing for him like he was Elvis in braids and an empty
tipi, like Vernon could make a promise
with every step he took, like a fancydance
could change their lives. We watch him dance
and he never talks. It’s all a business we
understand. Every drum beat is a promise
note written in the dust, measured exactly. Money
is a tool, putty to fill all the empty
spaces, a ladder so we can reach
for more. A promise is just like money.
Something we can hold, in twenties, a dream we reach.
It’s business, a fancydance to fill where it’s empty.
I love how lightly this poem wears its formal inclination on its sleeve. Don't be fooled; the line's conversational, loping, yet balanced enjambments can be as difficult to execute as the endstopped gravity of Elizabeth Bishop's "Sestina," discussed in yesterday's post. The doubled repetitions at the end of each stanza/beginning of the next stanza are always tough to manage, but Alexie uses the echo to underline the urgent neediness of the speaker's voice.
The poem's musicality is intensified by the rhyme of "empty," "we," and "money." Sometimes I think that in great sestinas, the whole story can be gleaned from the endwords alone. Miller Williams drives this possibility home in his "Shrinking Lonesome Sestina."
Also, you just can't forget the image of an Elvis in braids.
I was happy to find this Q&A, from a larger interview published last year as part of the Poetry Society of America's "Crossroads" series, in which poet Diane Thiel asked Alexie about his interests in form:
DT: The title poem of your first book, The Business of Fancydancing, is a sestina, and I notice that an interest in using the various forms of poetry has persisted in your body of work. Who were your early influences of "formal" poetry? Why did you feel drawn to it? What do you think are some of the possibilities using form provides?
SA: Although I would certainly be defined as a free verse poet, I have always worked in traditional and invented forms. Though I've never recognized it before, the fact that the title poem of my first book is a sestina says a lot about my varied ambitions. My earliest interest in formalism came from individual poems rather than certain poets. Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress," Roethke's "My Papa's Waltz," Gwendolyn Brooks' "We Real Cool," and Langston Hughes' "A Dream Deferred" are poems that come to mind as early formal poems I admired. Speaking both seriously and facetiously, I think I've spent my whole career rewriting "My Papa's Waltz" with an Indian twist. Lately, as I've been writing much more formally—with end rhyme, a tenuous dance with meter, and explicit form—I've discovered that in writing toward that end rhyme, that accented or unaccented syllable, or that stanza break, I am constantly surprising myself with new ideas, new vocabulary, and new ways of looking at the world. The conscious use of form seems to have freed my subconscious.
This feels so right to me--so kindred--this blend of inheritance and influence. I admire the way he describes the fixed endwords not as a burden to be born, but as a liberation to his creative instincts. The best sestinas, for all their linguistic cages, have an untamed wildness to them.
I don't know about you, but it's a Friday night. I'm off for some fancydancing--