Award-winning poet Sherman Alexie to speak tonight

caitlinhardee

Tonight, Thursday, April 15, at 7 p.m., Whitman will see award-winning poet, writer and filmmaker Sherman Alexie visit campus for the latest event in the Visiting Writers Series and National Poetry Month. The prominent poet’s appearance has been booked in place of the series’s usual Walt Whitman Lecture, a change that has sparked excitement among students and faculty.

“I have always admired Sherman Alexie for his prolific and genre-crossing work, and I had planned to use his new collection of poems (as well as several of his earlier volumes) in poetry classes this year,” said English Department Chair Katrina Roberts, who organizes the Visting Writers Series. “The English Department is lucky to have on campus this year Jennifer McGovern, the Visiting Johnston Professor in Native American Literature, and this seemed a good year to invite Sherman. As well, several members of the English Department have incorporated his work into departmental offerings this term.”

“I’m very excited about having him come; it’s going to be terrific,” said McGovern. “I’m personally teaching two classes in Native Literature. This year they hired me to teach four classes in Native Literature over the course of the year, so we’ve had a lot of students get exposed.”

With Alexie’s strong personality, the lecture promises to be full of surprises.

“I’ve heard that he made a scene with the English Department when he was here like, six or seven years ago,” said first-year Aaron Baumann. “I hear that he offended the English professors because he like, hated on academia and said that it was stupid and pointless. He’s a really strong, wild guy, so I’ll be interested to hear what he has to say.”

Alexie, who was born on the Spokane Reservation and lives in Seattle, is particularly known for his work’s grounding in his Native American heritage: a focus that is sometimes stressed to the point of overshadowing the man himself. Baumann recounted one such incident.

“I’m in a class with Katrina Roberts, who booked him, and she said that when the schedule was announced, someone came up to her and [said], ‘Now you can feel good, because you’re bringing a minority poet to campus.’ I don’t think that’s the right way to look at it,” said Baumann. “Even though he writes about his heritage, I would imagine that he looks at himself as a poet, not a Native American poet. Just like women writers: they’re writers, not women writers.”

While stressing the universal value of his work, professors did discuss the particularly positive nature of the lecture as a strengthening interaction with the Native American community.

“I think Whitman students have struggled because there’s such a small native community here, and I think it’s a pretty underrepresented minority,” said McGovern. “As a result, I think it’s harder for them to get noticed, and so in some ways, bringing someone like Sherman Alexie to campus gives native students a chance to feel a presence on campus. I think, too, he’s just very accessible, to every student. All students, regardless of their ethnic background, can identify with [his work].”

Roberts elaborated on the beneficial aspects of the event towards bolstering ties between Whitman and the nearby tribes.

“[Associate Professor of Education] Kay Fenimore-Smith and others on campus have been wonderfully invested in working with students from the Nixyaawii Community School located on the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, and I’m excited that these young students will also have a chance, because of Whitman College, to interact with Sherman,” said Roberts.  “I’d love to imagine the work we do and the services we provide here at Whitman College might indeed help to heal, confront, provoke, educate, inspire and forge new bonds across many different cultures and communities. I hope, too, that members of all tribal communities within the region will feel welcomed to come to our campus anytime; this event, as are all Visiting Writers Reading Series events, is free and open to the public.”

“Hopefully everybody will just go and enjoy him,” said McGovern. “He’s a hilarious lecturer, and it’s a chance to hear someone who’s a really wonderful scholar, but also someone who’s very entertaining.”

The lecture will take place at 7 p.m. on Thursday, April 15, in Cordiner Hall.