"If you know that your ancestors spoke a language other than English, when you met them what language would you speak? How much of your heart and self could you share?" - Poet Michael Wasson on learning to speak his indigenous Nez Perce language, Nimipuutímt.
Michael Wasson’s love of poetry began with music. In high school, he would scribble lyrics in the margins of his homework and notebooks.
“I think poetry’s musicality drew me in and provided its shelter,” said Wasson, 31, in an email from Fukuoka, a city on the southwestern island of Kyushu, Japan, where he has lived for the past two years, teaching English.
Wasson, 31, grew up in Lenore and studied literature, creative writing and his indigenous Nez Perce language, Nimipuutímt, at Lewis-Clark State College. Wednesday he’ll read from his poetry online as part of the LCSC Visiting Writer Series.
Wasson said he was “incredibly introverted” when he arrived at LCSC, but he soon
befriended a student from Japan in a world classics course. This led him to join the International Club, where he got to know others from the country. When the Fukushima tsunami hit Japan in 2011, he and his friends were shaken. Wanting to help, Wasson spent his summer break in Fukushima providing aid. It was there that the idea of living in Japan was planted.
Inland 360 interviewed Wasson about how words have shaped his work.
What drew you to poetry? What do you think its power is, as an art form?
Wasson: Poetry felt like a doorway into something so private and inward for me. The way language could appear on a page. The way the letters could line up within the confines or clearing of space. It felt almost akin to prayer, but housed in language, in metaphor, between a body speaking its secrets to another body somewhere quiet.
Poetry's power, as you say, is in its nature to align us with our inner and outward humanity. In every national tragedy, in our moments of grief and celebration, we turn to poetry. When we fall in love or mourn, poetry is always there for us as a medium of solace. At the core of our shared collective, poems fill the space between us in our junctures of need, of darkness, or of brightness.
You are Nez Perce and studied the language at LCSC. Could you talk about why you decided to study your native language and what that experience was like?
Wasson: If you know that your ancestors spoke a language other than English, when you met them what language would you speak? How much of your heart and self could you share? These were questions I always asked myself when I was young.
As a boy, I sometimes heard Nimipuutímt spoken in fragments, in sudden bursts, in short blooms between elders or people around the reservation. When I was in high school, I had an opportunity to study it with Mary Lynn Walker and Jim McCormack. My two teachers took us along portions of the (Nez Perce War) trails into Montana. At every battlefield many of us cried, or we were quietly respecting the graves of our lost ones. That experience pushed me into language classes at LCSC.
Are there ways the Nez Perce language shapes the world differently than English? Did studying the language change your approach to writing?
Wasson: I am a believer that languages do shape the world into a plethora of worlds. In Nimipuutímt, perhaps we mention the land and its stories embedded therein. Maybe we lean on verbs and how bodies of the landscape relate to each other. Maybe my ear is attuned to the rustle of the leaves differently or the sound wings make when lifting off the earth. I don't know about other speakers' experience, but our verbs and onomatopoeias are very gorgeous, poetic even. And all of this didn't necessarily "change my approach," but gave me "an approach" to understand my own writing's point of entry and departure. When I use my language or its view, I am sharing a part of a history of people who have lived on the plateau for millennia upon millennia.
Tell us about your experiences in Japan; how has your time there affected your perception as a writer?
Wasson: In terms of personality, I find a calmness living here. I do want to say that I don't try to write about Japan. I am usually not writing about points of interest here. It seems to be a place for me to live and learn a different way the world can be viewed. With my friends and loved ones, I speak their language to the best of my ability. And living here does grant distance from an America that I am constantly trying to — how should I say — figure out or decipher, both as an indigenous and as an American citizen.
IF YOU WATCH
WHO: Poet Michael Wasson.
WHEN: 7 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 17.
WHERE: Lewis-Clark State College Humanities Division YouTube channel at www.bit.ly/360Wasson.
OF NOTE: Wasson will be reading as part of the LCSC Visiting Writer Series.