Skip to main content

Navajo poet is also comic book enthusiast

  • Author:
  • Updated:

PHOENIX - Navajo poet and literature professor Hershman John writes poetry
with Navajo themes and symbols; his grandmother Nalishe on the Navajo
Reservation, trickster coyote from Navajo legends and Navajo deities.

This past winter, a poem he wrote in 1997 was published in "Food Poems", an
anthology, alongside heavyweights like Allen Ginsberg, Robert Frost, and
Rita Dove.

But at age 31, with a dozen poems to his name, he still enjoys comic books.
Actually, he's an expert; teaching comic book writing at Phoenix College.
Some say that outside of New York and California, he may be the only one
that teaches the course in the Southwest. His students learn about
historical developments in comic book writing, characters, sub characters,
and plots. "I like a good story and a good artist for 22 pages," he said.

Comic books and poetry may seem an unusual mix, but not to John, who spends
$300 to $400 a month on comic books, "I just wanted to do something for
comic books," he said. "How does someone write a comic book? What are the
rules? It's not the same as poetry because a writer and an artist have to
collaborate in developing a comic book," said John who was selected to
spend seven weeks in Hawaii last summer through a National Endowment for
the Humanities grant. "The dialogue is very important. Who knows maybe I'll
write the next X-Men."

His bedroom wall is stacked with comic books, comic figures, alongside
poetry books. But, even though he often hangs out at a comic book store in
Phoenix, attends the annual Comic-Con International in San Diego and can
converse with 12-year-olds about Spiderman or Thor, "I am mainly a poet,"
he said.

Born and raised in Los Angeles until he was 8, John's parents returned to
the Navajo community of Sandsprings upon receiving their degrees. Back on
the reservation, John attended school at Sandsprings then later finished at
Tuba City Boarding School in Tuba City, Ariz.

Scroll to Continue

Read More

As a high school sophomore, his writing talents surfaced. "I didn't do too
well on essay writing at the time," John remembers. "But I did enjoy

At Arizona State University, where he received his undergraduate and
master's degrees in English, he started out as a civil engineering student
and took creative writing courses on the side, "But once I hit calculus,
that was it for me as an engineer and so I took the path that people were
saying I would be good at and I have loved it ever since," he said.

He joined the Phoenix College faculty in 1995 as an English professor. The
reading list for his Navajo literature class includes Irvin Morris' "From a
Glittering World."

"I like his voice, especially how it is broken up," he said about Morris,
another Navajo, and his favorite American Indian writer. "Traditional
Navajos didn't like it because it talked about the traditional. But I liked
it all."

John's favorite poet is Nazim Hikrat, a Turkish poet. "I like his great use
of language - use of images, color and style," John said. His best Hikrat
poem: "Things I didn't know I loved."

"There are three major voices [in] my work," he said. "There is my voice,
my grandmother and coyote." Like many Navajos today, John was raised in a
family that didn't participate in tribal ceremonies. "None of my family
from my grandparents, to my 10 aunts, and one uncle or many Cousins
participate in any ceremonies," he said.

The focus of his poems are "to tell my stories and to reclaim my past
especially my childhood," said John. "Because of boarding school, I
personally feel I didn't have a childhood. Because of boarding school, I
have no tolerance for authority figures as well. That's one reason why
comic books attracted me immensely. It was an escape."