The Poem That Made Sherman Alexie Want to 'Drop Everything and Be a Poet'

Alexie never thought he could leave his reservation to pursue a writing career—but a line written by Adrian C. Louis taught him to venture outside the "reservation of his mind."
More

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature.

Doug McLean

In 1993, when Publishers Weekly previewed Sherman Alexie’s short story collection The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, the author was “primarily known as a poet.” Things change in 20 years. Today, Alexie is celebrated for his acclaimed novels, stories, and collections of both poetry and fiction, screenplays and film work, and a National Book Award-winning young-adult novel. He helms a killer Twitter feed. He’s an indispensable and versatile American voice.

But in an interview for this series, Alexie confessed that his writing career very nearly never happened. For Alexie, a Spokane/Coeur d'Alene Indian who grew up destitute, literary dreams were more than beyond reach—it never occurred to him that a reservation Indian could speak out and be heard. A chance encounter with a poem by Adrian C. Louis gave Alexie the life-altering license to sit down, put pen to paper, and write out all he knew.

Lone Ranger’s initial reception was sensational—the book won the Pen/Hemingway Award for best first fiction, and the Chicago Tribune likened its publication to the culture-shattering arrival of Richard Wright’s Native Son. Now a celebratory 20th-anniversary edition, issued this fall by Grove Press, makes it clear why the collection has become a cherished classic. Alexie’s steely portrait of reservation life centers on Victor, a hard-drinking, listless former basketball star haunted by two missed free throws that cost his team a championship. His friend and tagalong is Thomas-Builds-the-Fire, a long-winded would-be bard whose cryptic parables elicit groans and put-downs, and who eventually falls silent. In its balance of plaintive lyricism and pained, wry humor, Lone Ranger remains a timeless examination of the many chains that bind each human person, and the stories we tell to survive.

Alexie spoke to me by phone. After our conversation, I scoured the internet for versions of Adrian's poem, but could only find isolated quotations in scholarly papers. I reached out to the poet, who graciously sent a copy of the poem for us to republish. At the bottom of this post is Louis's "Elegy for the Forgotten Oldsmobile," appearing online in full for the first time.


Sherman Alexie: In 1987, I dropped out of Gonzaga and followed a high school girlfriend to Washington State University (it's called Wazoo). And by complete chance, I enrolled in a poetry workshop that changed my life. On the first day, the teacher, Alex Kuo, gave me an anthology of contemporary Native poetry called Songs from this Earth on Turtle’s Back. There were poems by Adrian C. Louis, a Paiute Indian, and one in particular called “Elegy for the Forgotten Oldsmobile.” If I hadn’t found this poem, I don’t think I ever would have found my way as a writer. I would have been a high school English teacher who coached basketball. My life would have taken a completely different path.

This was the first line of the poem:

            Oh, Uncle Adrian, I’m in the reservation of my mind.

I’d thought about medicine. I’d thought about law. I’d thought about business. But that line made me want to drop everything and be a poet. It was that earth-shaking. I was a reservation Indian. I had no options. Being a writer wasn’t anywhere near the menu. So, it wasn’t a lightning bolt—it was an atomic bomb. I read it and thought, “This is what I want to do.”

The line captured that sense of being tribal, being from a reservation—and the fact that you could never leave. I was the first person in my family ever to go to college, leaving the reservation, leaving my tribe, feeling excited about going but also feeling like I’d betrayed the tribe. And knowing that no matter where I ended up, or what I did, I would always be there. Some large part of me would always be there, on the reservation.

At the same time, I’d never seen myself in a work of literature. I loved books, always, but I didn’t know Indians wrote books or poems. And then to see myself so fully understood in one line of a poem, as though that one line of a poem written by someone else was my autobiography ... It was like understanding human language for the first time. It was like hearing the first words ever spoken by a human being, and understanding for the first time the immense communicative power of language.

I had never intellectualized this feeling that I’d had my entire life. And then, to hear the thing aloud. To see it in print. These are the kind of emotions that nobody puts words to, at least not where I’m from. So an intellectual and emotional awakening were fused in this one line. They came together and slapped me upside the head.

I’d written stuff before, but it was always modeled after greeting cards or the standard suspects: Joyce Kilmer, a Keats poem. The classics that every high school kid reads. But as soon as I saw that poem, I knew I could write about myself—my emotional state, the narrative of my emotional life. When I wrote before, I was always wearing a mask—I always adopted a pose. I was always putting on a white guy mask. And all of a sudden, I could actually use my real face.

Immediately, I started writing poems. The poems I wrote were about things that actually happened. I didn’t think an Indian’s life was important enough to write about until Louis gave me permission to do it. My first poem was called “Good Times," after a Lucille Clifton poem. My poem's original title was “In the HUD House,” but I changed it later. It’s in my first book, The Business of Fancydancing, and it’s probably the only one I still have memorized.

Bang. It was right there. It was waiting for me. People talk about “that moment when you just know”—I don’t think that many people actually have that moment. But I did. And from then on, there was never a Plan B.

I started publishing with the micro-presses, 26 years ago. I was published in journals that were photocopied and hand-stapled. With print runs of a hundred or less. With names like Tray Full of Lab Mice and Giants Play Well in the Drizzle. I was finding acceptance in those kinds of journals: None of the other Indian writers had really ever sent them anything. So when this Indian voice, which they’d never heard before, came in by mail—well, I got published quickly in those journals. The first five or six submissions I sent out were accepted. I ended up in the journals with Bukowski a lot. It was those kinds of places. There was a similar ring to our work—his was much rowdier, but it was the same notion of a desperate life.

I graduated from college and couldn’t find a damn job. So I ended up back on the res. And I was on the res—no job, no money no hope. Those were the days when you wrote letters, so I reached out to Adrian Louis, whose work meant so much to me. I sent him this ranting, raving letter, and he wrote back. There was a $50 bill taped to the paper that said, “Keep writing your poems.” So I did.

I wrote some of these poems and stories on a typewriter I borrowed from my girlfriend in the unfinished basement of my reservation HUD house. With typewriter ribbons that I bought with the $50 that Adrian Louis sent to me. It was the most important $50 of my career, certainly.

Then the Brooklyn-based small press Hanging Loose published me. Logically, it should have peaked there. A Native American writer writing mostly about the reservation: I should have stayed “small press.” I should have stayed on the reservation inside the literary world. But I got lucky. I was part of an omnibus review of Native literature on the front page of the New York Times Book Review. And that only because the editor, Richard Nichols, was in the slush room—where all the review copies come flying in, pile up, and nobody looks at them—and saw the cover of my book and liked it.

So, it’s a line that sits with me all the time. I know I’ve mentioned it many times before. But until I started talking about it in-depth, it had become rote for me I think. And it’s making me re-examine it again; it’s coming to life again by thinking about it so much. What does it mean for me now?

When I was younger, my reaction was much more personal. It became a personal statement for me. And now I think it’s a philosophy. I feel like I could start a church with that line. The number one tenet of that church? No cedar flutes. Also, no references to talking animals. And a concerted effort to get everyone off the res. What would be the symbol of my church? It’d be a broken circle. And that would be a positive sign. That break in the circle would really be an explosion of possibility. Indians always praise circles. But they actually are chain-links.

Now I am actively and publicly advocating for Native kids to leave the reservation as soon as they can. The reservation system was created by the U.S. Military. It was an act of war. Why do we make them sacred now, even though most reservations are really third-world, horrible banana republics? I think “I’m in the reservation of my mind” has an incredibly destructive connotation for me now. It’s apocalyptic, when I think about it. The human journey has always been about movement. And a century ago, when we moved onto the reservation, my tribe stopped moving. All the innovation we’ve done since then has been just modeling after Europeans. I mean, our greatest successes are casinos! So, “I’m in the reservation of my mind” addresses this lack of innovation, the Native imagination being shackled and curtailed, as well as the failure to celebrate the innovations that have happened.

That line “I’m in the reservation of my mind” also suggests to me the marginalization of Native literature. You know, approximately 70 percent of Natives live off the reservation. But you wouldn’t guess that judging by our literature. Almost all of it is reservation-centric. So our entire literature is in the reservation of its mind. That line doesn’t just describe Adrian’s poetic world, the world inside that poem, and it doesn’t just describe the effect it had on me: I think it describes the entire literary native world.

Joy Harjo, who’s a Creek Indian poet and a jazz musician, was once asked by a white reporter why she played the saxophone, since it’s not an Indian instrument.

And she said: “It is when I play it.”

If “I’m in the reservation of my mind” is the question, then “It is when I play it” is the answer. It’s an internal condition, and we spend too much time defining ourselves by the external. There is always this implication that in order to be Indian you must be from the reservation. It's not true and it's a notion that limits us—it forces us to define our entire life experiences in terms of how they do or do not relate to the reservation.

The line also it calls to mind the way we tend to revisit our prisons. And we always go back. This is not only true for reservation Indians, of course. I have white friends who grew up very comfortably, but who hate their families, and yet they go back everything thanksgiving and Christmas. Every year, they’re ruined until February. I’m always telling them, “You know, you don’t have to go. You can come to my house.” Why are they addicted to being demeaned and devalued by the people who are supposed to love them? So you can see the broader applicability: I’m in the suburb of my mind. I’m in the farm town of my mind. I’m in the childhood bedroom of my mind.

I think every writer stands in the doorway of their prison. Half in, half out. The very act of storytelling is a return to the prison of what torments us and keeps us captive, and writers are repeat offenders. You go through this whole journey with your prison, revisiting it in your mind. Hopefully, you get to a point when you realize there was beauty in your prison, too. Maybe, when you get to that point, “I’m on the reservation of my mind” can also be a beautiful thing. It’s on the res, after all, where I learned to tell stories.

You know, for many years, I felt very insecure about being a writer—it wasn't Indian enough. And then, one day, I was on stage and it occurred to me: Wait. I travel the world telling stories. How Indian is that? I’m doing the traditional thing—I’m doing the oldest thing known to humans! Before fire and the wheel, we had stories. Why did I ever let Indians who managed casinos make me feel bad about storytelling?

So there is power in this. I get to pick and choose what the prison means to me, float in between the prison bars, return in my mind when and how I want to. We’re all cursed to haunt and revisit the people and places that confine us. But when you can pick and choose the terms of that confinement, you, and not your prison, hold the power.


Elegy for the Forgotten Oldsmobile
by Adrian C. Louis

July 4th and all is Hell.
Outside my shuttered breath the streets bubble
with flame-loined kids in designer jeans
looking for people to rape or razor.
A madman covered with running sores
is on the street corner singing:
O beautiful for spacious skies…
This landscape is far too convenient
to be either real or metaphor.
In an alley behind a 7-11
a Black pimp dressed in Harris tweed
preaches fidelity to two pimply whores
whose skin is white though they aren’t quite.
And crosstown in the sane precincts
of Brown University where I added rage
to Cliff Notes and got two degrees
bearded scientists are stringing words
outside the language inside the guts of atoms
and I don’t know why I’ve come back to visit.

O Uncle Adrian! I’m in the reservation of my mind.
Chicken bones in a cardboard casket
meditate upon the linoleum floor.
Outside my flophouse door stewed
and sinister winos snore in a tragic chorus.

The snowstorm t.v. in the lobby’s their mother.
Outside my window on the jumper’s ledge
ice wraiths shiver and coat my last cans of Bud
though this is summer I don’t know why or where
the souls of Indian sinners fly.
Uncle Adrian, you died last week—cirrhosis.
I still have the photo of you in your Lovelock
letterman’s jacket—two white girls on your arms—
first team All-State halfback in ’45, ’46.

But nothing is static. I am in the reservation of
my mind. Embarrassed moths unravel my shorts
thread by thread asserting insectival lust.
I’m a naked locoweed in a city scene.
What are my options? Why am I back in this city?
When I sing of the American night my lungs billow
Camels astride hacking appeals for cessation.
My mother’s zippo inscribed: “Stewart Indian School—1941”
explodes in my hand in elegy to Dresden Antietam
and Wounded Knee and finally I have come to see
this mad fag nation is dying.
Our ancestors’ murderer is finally dying and I guess
I should be happy and dance with the spirit or project
my regret to my long-lost high school honey
but history has carried me to a place
where she has a daughter older than we were
when we first shared flesh.

She is the one who could not marry me
because of the dark-skin ways in my blood.
Love like that needs no elegy but because
of the baked-prick possibility of the flame lakes of Hell
I will give one last supper and sacrament
to the dying beast of need disguised as love
on deathrow inside my ribcage.
I have not forgotten the years of midnight hunger
when I could see how the past had guided me
and I cried and held the pillow, muddled
in the melodrama of the quite immature
but anyway, Uncle Adrian…
Here I am in the reservation of my mind
and silence settles forever
the vacancy of this cheap city room.
In the wine darkness my cigarette coal
tints my face with Geronimo’s rage
and I’m in the dry hills with a Winchester
waiting to shoot the lean, learned fools
who taught me to live-think in English.

Uncle Adrian…
to make a long night story short,
you promised to give me your Oldsmobile in 1962.
How come you didn’t?
I could have had some really good times in high school.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Joe Fassler is a writer based in Brooklyn. His fiction has appeared in The Boston Review, and he regularly interviews authors for The Lit Show. In 2011, his reporting for TheAtlantic.com was a finalist for a James Beard Foundation Award in Journalism.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Why Do Men Assume They're So Great?

Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, authors of this month's Atlantic cover story, sit down with Hanna Rosin to discuss the power of confidence and how self doubt holds women back. 


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Where Time Comes From

The clocks that coordinate your cellphone, GPS, and more

Video

Computer Vision Syndrome and You

Save your eyes. Take breaks.

Video

What Happens in 60 Seconds

Quantifying human activity around the world

Writers

Up
Down

More in Entertainment

Just In