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(S.A.) I started writing because I kept fainting in human anatomy class and needed a career change. The only class that fit where the human anatomy class had been was a poetry writing workshop. I always liked poetry. I'd never heard of, or nobody'd ever showed me, a book written by a First Nations person, ever. I got into the class, and my professor, Alex K[u]o, gave me an anthology of contemporary Native American poetry called Songs From This Earth on Turtle's Back. I opened it up and--oh my gosh--I saw my life in poems and stories for the very first time.

(T.H.) Who were some of the writers in the book?

(S.A.) Linda Hogan, Simon Ortiz, Joy Harjo, James Welch, Adrian Lewis. There were poems about reservation life: fry bread, bannock, 49's, fried baloney, government food and terrible housing. But there was also joy and happiness. There's a line by a Paiute poet named Adrian Lewis that says, "Oh, Uncle Adrian, I'm in the reservation of my mind." I thought, "Oh my God, somebody understand me!: At that moment I realized, "I can do this!" That's when I started writing--in 1989.

(T.H.) The poetry that you would have studied in American Studies, for instance, the poetry of Wallace Stevens or e.e. cummings or Emily Dickinson never influenced you at all?

(S.A.) Of course it did. I loved that stuff. I still love it. Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson are two of my favorites. Wallace Stevens leaves me kind of dry, but the other poets, they're still a primary influence. I always tell people my literary influences are Stephen King, John Steinbeck, and my mother, my grandfather and the Brady Bunch.

(T.H.) Then you moved on to short stories.

(S.A.) I'd written a couple of them in college. After my first book of poems, The Business of Fancy Dancing, was published by Hanging Loose Press in Brooklyn, New York, I got a great New York Times book review. The review called me "one of the major lyric voices of our time." I was a 25-year old Spokane Indian guy working as a secretary at a high school exchange program in Spokane, Washington when my poetry editor faxed that review to me. I pulled it out of the fax machine beside my desk and read, " of the major lyric voices of our time." I thought, "Great! Where do I go from here!?" After that, the agents started calling me.

(T.H.) Where did the book of poetry come from?

(S.A.) It was my first semester poetry manuscript. Part of the assignment was to submit to literary magazines. The one I liked in the Washington State library was Hanging Loose magazine. I liked that it started the same year I was born. The magazine, the press and I are the same age. Over the next year and a half they kept taking poems of mine to publish. Then they asked if I had a manuscript. I said, "Yes!" and sent it in.

It was a thousand copies. I figured I'd sell a hundred and fifty to my family. My mom would buy a hundred herself and that would be about it. But, it took off. I never expected it. Sometimes I think it would have been nicer if it had not been as big, because my career has been a rocket ride. There's a lot of pressure.


From Thomson Highway, "Spokane Words: An Interview with Sherman Alexie"