Michael Wasson says he is enjoying the quiet countryside life on the Koshikijima Islands off the coast of southwestern Japan. Only three of the series of islands are inhabited by less than 6,000 people. It’s a beautiful and tranquil area, and one that’s perfect for the 2012 graduate of Lewis-Clark State College.
Michael teaches foreign languages at 10 schools (one preschool, five elementary, and four junior highs) across the islands. The 27-year-old is also a prolific writer of poetry and has won several awards, including the 2017 Adrienne Rich Award for Poetry, named after one of the most influential American poets of the second half of the 20th century.
Michael’s journey has had many stops and starts, but it was his time at LCSC that made a real difference.
“I wouldn’t be where I am today without those bonds I made while at LC,” he said in an email interview. “My time at LCSC helped to prepare me professionally for my life in both teaching and engaging myself internationally.
“Also, in terms of my creative and critical production, I must say that LCSC carved out a path for me to pursue graduate school, discover and strengthen my passion for poetry, art, and writing, which is how I frame the world—how I gradually swallow all of these experiences into my body and make something for my own small but once granted life.”
Michael says he moved a lot growing up and attended 12 schools before high school. He says he usually wound up back at his grandfather’s home in Lenore, Idaho, and he moved back to the Nez Perce Reservation before high school. He graduated from Lapwai High School in 2008.
“I first thought about art school, Portland State University, the University of Idaho, or Washington State University,” Michael says about his plans following high school. “But when I considered conflating my advocacy for my indigenous language (Nez Perce) and the pursuit of a creative/critical study in literature – something I initially was not very skilled in —couple that with the resources, funding opportunities, cost, and the wonderful student-teacher ratio at LCSC, I ended up applying to LCSC. It boiled down to what I wanted to pursue, costs, resources, and smaller classes.”
The combination worked well for him. He chose English with a creative writing emphasis as his major with a Nez Perce Language minor.
“It's actually quite unorthodox because I chose a field that I wasn't particularly strong in coming out of high school,” Michael says. “My high school teachers thought I would go into the hard sciences, history, or even anthropology. However, in high school I treasured my time in art class and, although I wasn't a naturally strong or gifted reader, my classes is where I could read a book and think carefully about its language and effect. I chose the English degree because I wanted to better myself as a reader, thinker, writer, and overall conscious citizen of both my nation(s) and global citizenry. I wanted to read, write, engage, critique, create, and connect in my own quiet introverted way.”
Michael enjoyed the literature and history classes at LCSC along with the professors. He says the classes helped shape him and his place in the world. He cherished listening to the stories of the Nez Perce elders and professor Harold Crook, and helping put up a teepee on campus each year during the annual Native American Awareness Week celebration.
“I have to say, aside from all the wonderful and horizon-bending conversations I had by slipping into one of my professor’s office during office hours, the lasting friendships I made with the Japanese students as well as the international students,” Michael said about his favorite thing while attending LCSC. “It changed my whole path. Those relationships truly helped to build a better me. A better self. I wouldn't be where I am today without those bonds I made while at LC.”
Following graduation in 2012, he volunteered in Fukushima, Japan, working in the field and with farmers, and with international connection projects. He then was offered a spot in Oregon State University’s Master of Fine Arts program in poetry, which only accepts about 25 percent of its application field. While studying, he also taught courses at OSU and assisted in the writing program. After finishing graduate school, he applied for the teaching position he currently has.
“It’s been quite a ride thus far,” he says.
With his writing, he won the Dan Parker Research Award in 2012, the Joyce Carol Oates Award in Poetry in 2014, the Vinyl 45 Chapbook Prize in 2016, along with the recent Adrienne Rich Award. He also has had several works published.
Michael, however, is quick to point out that he doesn’t write poetry for the honors.
“One difficulty I have is actually talking about my writing—what it does, how it stands to simply being the world, or how it even emerges—but perhaps my poems find themselves at the site of the indigenous body. How indigenous existence stands at thresholds between nations, between touch and violence, between loss and survival, between grief and resiliency. I find myself speaking for ghosts and the dead in order to continue this living and breathing.
“The inspirations that give earth to my poems range from family, suicide, history, loss of a home, citizenship, borders, land, social injustice, language, myths, body, indigenous sovereignty, the divine, doubt, (de)colonialism, and how touch can heal or bury us. Also, the silences that build around our bodies.”
Michael says he is only beginning his journey with writing.
“I don't know how rewarding writing is for me,” he says. “I don't consider it so much satisfying or gratifying as it is essential to my own self-determination as an indigenous person and, possibly, an artist. Maybe it's the dead, the ghosts, the passed on ones, and my own people who I'm doing this for. I don't know. Maybe it's in that interaction between the living and the dead where I'm unearthing some sense of abstract reward because honestly writing in this vein, in this space I've carved out, is neither easy nor financially nor emotionally rewarding. I'm sure there's something deeper there I've yet to discover.”