A life without poop

Sherman Alexie, writer of War Dances and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and many other books of every writing style out there, came to Walla Walla last night. I hadn’t seen an Indian perform in oh, a year or so, not since Tomson Highway came to town, singing and telling stories. Actually, with so many native folks around here, it’s interesting that I don’t see them more often, not that I expect them to have neon signs over their heads, blinking “I’m an Indian!” That’s only for my fellow middle easterners, because we’re the terror threat. So Alexie came to town.

sherman alexie, authorHe’s self-deprecating, earnest, childlike, but also a touch cynical, down to earth, pretentious (admittedly so), and very literary. He’s also really prolific, having authored something like 628 distinct works of writing. Okay, it’s not that many, but it’s a lot. Every time I’ve seen him he’s been dressed like an absent-minded English professor, slightly worn sports jacket, dress shirt, open at the collar, jeans, khakis or some neutral chino trousers, and no tie. Tonight he had on a tie and a velvet smoking jacket, and all I could think was, I’ve never seen him in a tie. Won’t he get hot in that jacket?

I convinced Susanne to leave early because even though this reading would be taking place in the largest auditorium on campus, it was going to be packed. It’s not like Walla Walla also had a jazzfest, an opera, two staged plays and one movie on the green to compete with. And people absolutely revere Alexie, as well they should. She gave me one of her “Ev’s being funny again” looks and we left with 15 minutes to go to the performance. This was probably okay, as everyone in Walla Walla is late to everything. It’s as if everyone gets a 10-minute grace period. The only time this rule isn’t in play is when approaching an intersection with a yellow and sometimes even red, traffic light. At that point, grace periods are not in play and one must proceed to move as quickly as possible, through said intersection.

So we walked the block from our house to the lecture hall, and really, there was a stream of other people walking from all directions, direct to the hall. We were suddenly book zombies, being called by our leader to watch him turn printed pages and move his mouth with sound coming out. Susanne noted all of the others going to see him and told me I was right, to which she quickly added, “in this one instance.”

We got pretty good seats, smack in the middle of the room, roughly halfway back from the stage, and I was pleased as punch with myself (and actually, I don’t know what that means), until two others came and sat next to us, absolutely reeking of cigarette smoke. Cigarettes are bad enough, but when the smoke gets stale, like beer that’s been left to soak into a carpet for a week, it is gut-wrenching. A few minutes into sitting there, and we both had headaches, although I suspect it was just me with the bad college flashbacks. There was an open seat one chair away, so we moved over, hoping not to cause any drama.

He started off by reading some of his poetry, which I can appreciate but not replicate in any meaningful fashion. I like some repetition, I love the idea that poets could sit for days and weeks trying to isolate that one exact word that would perfectionize the poem. I don’t have any time for that nonsense, honestly. I love rewriting and I love craft, and I genuinely want to play with phrasing and word choice and meter, and I aim to do those things, but I can’t just suffer the slings and arrows while scrambling in my dictionary for perfection. I want my writing imperfect. I’m imperfect. But I do appreciate poets, and Alexie is a very good very good poet. He’s good enough to stop time for the duration of one small poem.

He pauses after a poem and begins this cycle of self-ridicule that is really a critique of white America. Why is he in a tie, he asks. Indians don’t wear ties, right? I tell myself I noticed the tie for different reasons, due to context and my own experience standing under stage lights. I wouldn’t wear one by choice. I tune back into him because he’s turned to another poem.

He stops to tell a story. He feels like he’s home, because he too is from eastern Washington. I suspect his eastern Washington isn’t going to make it to the cover of Wine Enthusiast anytime soon. He tells us what he likes about farm girls, including their calloused hands. He reads a poem about a farm girl he liked, and he clearly revels in the memory of it, or maybe that’s just for show. It’s hard to tell.

He tells us about a time when he crapped in his pants, as an adult, no less. This is because he couldn’t get everyone to raise their hands and admit they poop. So in true Alexie fashion he goes straight to the worst imaginable poop story in his personal experience, which is a little like the Jesus narrative if it was a lot more excretable. Or about excrement. I pooped for your poop, perhaps. He is raising his hand for all of us.

He tells the college students they’re smart, like every reader I’ve seen here tell them, but he quick fires straight away that they have massive amounts of privilege. They’ve probably heard that, too, and they laugh about it like people do when they’re embarrassed but not about to change their behavior. The most magnificent moment of the night, however, came after he was supposedly done reading, during what was a laughable Q&A. You’ve got Sherman Freaking Alexie on your stage, on your campus, and you can ask him anything.

And, silence. Then, out of the ruffling of the crowd, a frat boy-type shouts, “I love you, man!” Alexie looked at him, and in the quiet I felt his message: That is the stupiest thing you could say right now, man.

“I . . . love you too,” he said, raising his voice ever so slightly, as if the possibility of a interrogative would serve to call the entire exchange into question.

Then, another voice, this time rising out of the nervous chuckling making its way through the audience. It took me some effort to attach the voice to a person, but I found her, speaking in a crescendo as she tried to find a volume that would be heard by Alexie.

“Mr. Alexie, I have come all the way from [I couldn’t make out the name of the place] to see you. Your poems mean to much to me. You have saved my life.”

Again, he spent a few seconds taking in all of her and what she had said. He put his hands together and bowed, and then read the poem When Asked What I Think About Indian Reservations, I Remember a Deer Story. He read it to her, just for her.

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2 Comments on “A life without poop”

  1. nmk
    April 16, 2010 at 1:20 pm #

    She came all the way from the Yakima reservation, I believe.

    And while his story was about farm girls, the poem was about “rez girls.” 🙂

    • evmaroon
      April 16, 2010 at 1:23 pm #

      Wow, Yakima? That was a long ride. There was a high school class from Boardman, OR, too.
      Thanks for the clarification, I appreciate it. What else did you enjoy from his reading?

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