Trevino Brings Plenty can be intimidating. A large Minneconjou Lakota Indian who often wears a dark trench coat and a stern unforgiving look on his face (a characteristic he humorously points out in his poetry and prose), his serious appearance and sharp words would turn Christopher Columbus into a puddle of nervous sweat.
Trevino has been reading his poems and publishing his own books around Portland for eight years. His work shuns mopey introspection and mystical posturing in favor of realism, skepticism, and gritty philosophizing akin to Charles Bukowski or Adrian C. Louis. He can make you laugh out loud, shock you, offend you, or make you feel uncomfortable — often at the same time. At the age of 29, Trevino displays some of his best and most polished work in his new book, Removing Skin.
Kevin Sampsell: When did you first start writing and what inspired you?
Trevino Brings Plenty: I first started writing in high school. I was a young Indian kid from a low-income family who lived most of his life in the city. When I started I didn't want to write of being NDN. I was scared. My writing ability was not there yet.
At that time, I studied and composed classical music. Having grown up with Pop Music, Hip-Hop, and traditional Lakota music, I felt I had a voice to cultivate and to do that I had to get serious about what I enjoyed. The romantic time period in western history fascinated me. There was mention of literature influencing music, from there I picked up the writers of the period. I was reading romantic poets and feeling that what they were writing was poetry. I was 16 years old and writing like I was from the 19th century. Boring.
"The power of one word is amazing," my stepfather said to me as he read over treaties, pondering the meaning of Indian life in the present. That was my chant while I studied poetry: the power of one word. I browsed the dictionary looking for words. I went nearly every day to the public library and checked out CD's, musical scores, and poetry books. As I went through the history of western music I did the same with literature. A few years later I found the Beat writers and Jazz and more writers of color. I felt I was getting closer to my voice.
When I first started writing, I sucked. Having been through the public school system, I didn't know anything about grammar until I studied Spanish in college. I still have problems with grammar, English was not my first language, Broken English was. It has been only the past 7 years that I've read more contemporary poets, especially Native Writers, that's when I started to write of being Indian in the 21st century. My voice began to focus. I felt more comfortable.
Really, writing is escapism. I feel I can control the story while my life spins all over the place. I write in a voice I both want and don't want to be.
KS: You've read at several venues around Portland and elsewhere. You're often the only Native American at these places and you often read work that is confrontational (even if it's not a poem about your blood or your heritage, your work still confronts). What are your internal thoughts before you read?
TBP: Ego stroking and adrenaline are my drugs of choice. I write my stuff on the computer, print it, revise it, and then read it aloud. Then I might take it to a stage. I write for self. Each piece I write I envision it in a poetry collection. Sometimes when I make it to a stage, a reading, I think, will this piece still hold up? Is it clear enough? The audience has a short attention span, at least I do. Will I sell some product?
I look about and I am the only Indian in the room. My Indian features say more of what people have experienced and studied than I can make for them. Can I break a stereotype? Can I entertain and hopefully illuminate? Forget it, I say. All this means nothing. I just try to read aloud well, present my pieces, and hope I don't get into a fight on stage or after. Whether I fail or succeed in a performance, I think I still walk away the winner. The adrenaline is pumping through my veins and I am by myself. But if I read with another Native writer, I hope we are on the same page. I'm not a magical/mystical Indian. I don't think I write magic. I document my stay here on earth before I'm dead. I just hope to have fun and try to stay sane.
KS: Do you tour around that much?
TBP: I try to tour whenever I can, but that involves me doing a lot of the leg work getting the gig. But once the dates are set I am glad to have something to look forward to.
My trip over the summer '05 to Amman, Jordan, was quite the experience. It was definitely a "coming of age" story. I was in Arabic country and had a great time. I met some great people. It was the week of the Ascension of Muhammad to Heaven (it's like Christmas here in the States) and also it was the week of Hurricane Katrina. I'm working on Jordan poems now, though the steam is diminishing. I would definitely go back for another visit.
KS: Most of your poems have an equal amount of humor and outright anger. Is humor an important tool for you to deal with the anger?
TBP: Humor is a tool for sure. Anger is the muse's excrement. I'm a human with many faults. Comedy is hard to write. Expectations of a Native writer are sometimes too strange. I play off of these expectations. Some of my pieces are a Q&A session or just a messed up story. Anger for me is not powerful since I am coming from the source. I don't really know if I am angry. I don't have a perspective until the piece is dated. If I have a piece that is written in the negative I usually feel positive. Maybe it's growing up in a family that used humor even at inappropriate times. It's a defense mechanism.
We are a cynical generation. Sarcasm has made us sarcastic monsters. I know I write in voices and characters. I can distance myself from the pieces. I am already far from them anyways and working on something new. I want strong writing and that's what I try to write. Writing is math. I need to see the form: Intro, development, synopsis, and maybe a punch line. I think what I have experienced and what I can imagine is twisted enough that if someone takes offense to it I moved them in someway; it can begin and/or end a dialogue. Beauty and ugliness have the same wonderment.
KS: Tell me about your band, The Vinos.
TBP: The Vinos is my idea and venue to present simple music from my simple mind. I play guitar and sing. I have been doing the band thing as long as I have been writing. I've been performing as The Vinos for 3 years. It gives me a chance to growl my words with a nice melody attached to it. The Vinos is like a beautiful woman telling you bad news. You can't help but enjoy the noise. Something good will come from The Vinos, I can see it.
KS: What are your thoughts on the recent scandal involving the writer called Nasdijj?
TBP: I can't be unbiased to this Nasdijj situation. The guy is only out for money in the worst way possible. He's a con man that used American Indian identity to power his agenda. There is no truth at all in any of his claims. His creditability is nothing.
There have been other writers claiming American Indian heritage. They use the good and bad press to lay claim to writing careers and get paid. But if the story written is a good story, some say it doesn't matter, but that doesn't negate the fact that appropriating and exploiting a culture does matter. There are a lot of people pissed off about this manifest destiny crap. The American Indian has survived all these 500+ years of Western Civilization destruction. With Nasdijj it's no different. We will survive and be more watchful in the Native American literature world.
A lot of people want to be Indian and however they go about it, they are still lost, little silly-peons. The word Nasdijj is a joke now. My friends and I use it synonymous with phony, fake, wannabe-Indian, liar.
The published nom de plume Nasdijj is dead now. In Indian country, the guy better watch out or else he might be too.
KS: Are you trying to write more prose these days?
TBP: I'm doing my damn best to write more prose. I like stories. My work, be it poetry or prose, is focused on development, climax, resolution. A lot of my poems might be considered Flash Fiction if I took out the line breaks. I have a limited attention span so I like shorter work. The novel is a beast to keep fed. I'll get one out one of these days. Writing a play is more gratifying than a book. I'm kicking around that idea at this time.
÷ ÷ ÷
Kevin Sampsell runs the small press section at Powell's and is the publisher of his own micro-press, Future Tense Books. His books include Creamy Bullets, Portland Noir, and the memoir A Common Pornography.
Books mentioned in this post
Kevin Sampsell is the author of A Common Pornography: A Memoir