May 2002

Jen Crispin

misc columns

Crush on Sherman Alexie

I never knew how in love I should have been with Sherman Alexie until now. Our first introduction, in 1996, was inauspicious. Quality Paperback Club (who had a large hand in sinking me into debt in college) was plugging his novel, Indian Killer. Hmmm, I thought, a novel about a Native American serial killer murdering and scalping white people, written by a Native American. Nope, definitely not interested.

Then in graduate school I went to an East Lansing Film Society showing of the movie Smoke Signals (screenplay by Sherman Alexie) and fell into deep smit. This movie is just terribly good, surely one of my top ten favorites of all time. It's that good. If you are reading this right now, thinking to yourself "I have no idea what she is talking about," you owe it to yourself to run out and rent it right now. NOW! Don't worry, I'll still be here when you get back.

Not too long after seeing the movie, I stumbled across the collection of short stories, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, from which the movie got its start in a bargain books store and quickly grabbed it. And although the stories were good, they were noticeably darker than the movie. Both were funny, but it was the goofy optimism of Thomas's character that pulled me into the movie. In the stories, that optimism was muted. So my obession with Sherman Alexie was muted. For the moment, at least.

Then, a few weeks ago, signs for the twentieth annual Tucson Poetry Festival started popping up. When I checked the Tucson Weekly, lo and behold! There was Sherman Alexie's name listed amongst the poets to do readings. "He writes poetry?" I thought. "Who knew?" So I arranged my life around going to see his poetry reading that Friday evening.

Friday evening arrived and I almost didn't go. I found out at the last minute that tickets were much more expensive than I thought. It would be all the money I had and I would be flat broke for at least another week. But I'd already woken my husband from his nap and convinced him to spend his spending money on his ticket, so we went.

The reading took place at the expansive Loft theater, which shows art-house movies and Rocky Horror, and which I had never been to before. Being used to the small screens and seating areas of modern multiplexes, I was not prepared for the hugeness of the Loft. I wondered how full it would get, as this was a *poetry* reading and all. But they packed it. The readings didn't even start until a half an hour late, because people were still filing in and struggling to find seats.

Following an impossible to live up to introduction by an over-earnest young woman whose resemblence to Alanis Morisette was a bit disconcerting (especially when later, Sherman Alexie made fun of Alanis, mostly for her song, "Ironic,"), the first poet, Jane Miller stepped up to the mic. I had not been at all impressed with the excerpts they had chosen to print in the paper that were supposed to represent her works, but when she started reading from her (hopefully!) soon to be published work "Seven Mediterraneans," I quickly changed my mind. Although she probably doesn't have more control than any other poet I read (which is what the Alanis-look-alike host said) she was still wonderful, and I will be watching faithfully for that work of hers to come out.

Then it was Sherman Alexie's turn, and I had no idea what to expect as this huge 6'2" Native American came on stage, and joked with the stage hand who was adjusting the height of the mic from the very petite Jane Miller to this giant. Then he looked out into the audience and told us, we profile you white people too, you know. (I will put none of this in quotes because I have no faith in my ability to remember what he said word for word.) We melanin folks, he said, profile white people. The rule is, stay 100 feet away from the white person for every square foot of flag they are waving. So, it's been hard for us... What I was certainly *not* expecting was to be doubled over in laughter as he told us stories about his experiences since September 11th. But that's what happened. And then he started reading his poetry. And they were fabulous and funny and depressing and real. And I realized that it was probably a good thing that I had left my wallet at home, or I might have cleaned out that table of his books that they were selling, and that certainly would have hurt me.

So I did the next best thing. I went straight home and put his collections of poetry on my Amazon.com wishlist. ::sigh:: Now I just need to win the lottery.

So now I am in love with Sherman Alexie. I just stumbled across his website, and it suggests pilgrimages to Washington for the truly obsessed. And now I'm trying to figure out when I can take a vacation...