Poet Sherwin Bitsui’s most recent book is Flood Song (Copper Canyon, 2009); he serves on the faculty of the low-residency M.F.A. program at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe.
What makes the Institute of American Indian Arts different from other programs?
The Institute of American Indian Arts places priority on Indigenous worldviews in a contemporary context and attempts to locate its curriculum within that field of knowledge. The low-residency program is a place where one can meet and learn from other Native American writers and poets, as well as non-Natives with similar interests. Mentors include writers and poets like Sherman Alexie, Eden Robinson, Joan Kane, Santee Frazier, Natalie Diaz, Manuel Gonzalez, Linda Hogan, and Pam Houston.
How do the instructors incorporate their different backgrounds?
Every instructor brings their own perspective and pedagogy to the program’s diverse approaches. Experience and focus vary among the instructors, and this allows the participants to carve their own path and aesthetic direction. Though it’s certainly apparent that students are working in a space that acknowledges Indigenous worldview, philosophy, and literary history, an aesthetic focus is not forced upon the students.
What do you tell your students about how to embark upon a career—as an artist or as anything else—after receiving their degrees?
Personally, I am interested in helping the students to realize their full artistic potential. Though it’s important they embark upon a career path after they finish the program, I hope to also encourage them to look at the importance of creating a body of work that is informed by their personal artistic and intellectual pursuits.
If someone asked you, “Why should I get an M.F.A.?” what would you tell her?
It’s a great place for writers to find community and be encouraged by writers producing serious work.
Any general thoughts about the M.F.A. scene today?
I’ve been a visiting writer at the University of Wyoming, University of Montana, and San Diego State University in recent years, and I’ve come to value each of my students’ decisions and willingness to participate in their chosen program. Most students I’ve spoken to already know that the field is highly competitive and that jobs in the teaching sector are quite rare. They don’t seem to suffer any illusions that an M.F.A. degree is a guarantee for immediate success. Still, they come to class ready to share their poems and ideas with each other. I am inspired by these emerging poets and only wish the best for them. The scene is what we make it. I am rather appreciative that we can build programs for writers and allow each other an entrance into these conversations.