"Are you real?" This was the central question posed to Ty Kawika Tengan by his mentor/ethnographic subject, Sam Ka`ai, as Tengan did research toward his book, Native Men Remade: Gender and Nation in Contemporary Hawai`i, published by Duke University Press in 2008. Tengan, a member of the Ethnic Studies and Anthropology Departments at UHM, spoke at the Biography Center today about his "second family," the Hale Mua (or Men's House) group on Maui. Tengan has been a member of the group since 1997.
"Are you real?" is a question that presupposes the sense that you are not. Lacking a material and ritual culture, the Hawaiian men of Hale Mua formed in order to adopt and reshape a culture rendered fragmentary. They responded to a Hawai`i they considered over-feminized (especially by the tourist industry). Tengan showed us a cartoon from the Honolulu Advertiser, 1959, which showed American (a man), welcoming Hawai`i (a woman) onto the "ship of state." Typically, Hawaiian men are represented in the media either as prisoners or as warriors (in sports and in the US military). Hence the name of the UH football team since the June Jones era.
While men like Sam Ka`ai work with material culture--carving, farming taro--Tengan works with mo`olelo, or the stories they have shared with him, clips of which we saw on video. He also has a fine ear for language, pointing out that his friend/subject Kyle speaks of his life in the language associated with taro ("oha" is baby taro, and "ohana" a word for family that comes from that plant). Kyle spoke of feeling "grounded," even as we watched him in his lo`i (though Tengan confessed to having performed a voice-over).
A couple of ideas struck me:
--the "search" for Hawaiian culture, which in many ways resembles an adoptee's search for disconnected origins, is a luxury that depends on steady employment, and in Kyle's case, on there being family lands.
--"masculinity" was figured as warriorship, though Tengan says that their notion of being a warrior is not tied up with violence. That Hawaiians with warrior genealogies become Hawaiians who fight and die in Iraq is a complicated problem, indeed. Warrior for whom? It struck me that the masculinity Sangha is being taught at baseball by the local Japanese/haole/Filipino/Hawaiian/mixed race dads is related to this notion of warrior, but also tied up with violence. Is this due to the uneasy union of traditions, Hawaiian/local and American, or to something else? Might there be a way to convey the beautiful masculinity of ritual without the disturbing undertone of violence I hear in lines like "you gotta take a gun to the war" or "I feel fucking humiliATed")?
--the emphasis on material culture and on farming also serves as possible model for non-Hawaiians in considering what I was writing about earlier, namely the possible future of Hawai`i as a place where food, oil and water are scarce, the economy in deep recession, and existence less an intellectual than a material question. That this notion of material culture has a firm basis in spirituality and community is crucial. That it is figured here as "masculine" might be seen as a problem, but I suspect there are probably other researchers finding powerful models of female culture to complement Tengan's work on the men.
Yesterday, the Star-Bulletin printed an article about Gov. Lingle's demand that unions accept furloughs of 37.5 days (over one year or two, the timing was ambiguous). Retirees medical benefits would be cut. One faculty member estimated that this amounts to taking a 15% wage cut.
I attended an informal meeting yesterday that was called by two futurists, Jim Dator and Ira Rohter. Their thesis is that the current recession will not end with the world returning to what it once was, but that Hawai`i's economy will continue in depression conditions. Fewer tourists, less government money, isolation from the rest of the world due to the cost of oil, fights over water and food. It was a grim picture, indeed, and certainly put in perspective many of the arguments currently in the air at UHM. They tried to present the material in positive terms, but they seemed exhausted by it all.
Witi Ihamaera spoke last night; he's been our Citizen's Chair this semester. Amid the heaviness of this late semester (talk of limited futures, Asian Settler Colonialism, budget cuts at the UH), he offered us a critical lightness. Most memorable was his story about how his grandmother taught him to read the western tradition critically. He had us recite two nursery rhymes, "Jack and Jill" and "Little Miss Muffet," and then showed us how his grandmother took them apart. "Why is Jack wearing a crown?" "Why is Miss Muffet afraid of spiders?" "Why do they not have Maori names?" Witi read his own first fairy tale, a "once upon a time" story he wrote at age 10, which had the maiden run off to marry the dragon in the end. And then he told the story of how a whale came to him in NYC (swam up the Hudson, it did!) and inspired him to write Whale Rider.
Both the futurists (in their dour way) and Ihamaera (in his witty one) put forth positive critiques; although they suggest that something is lacking in our way of looking at the world, their way of addressing it is to suggest possibilities, not foreclosures. While my colleague argues (in the second link above) that alliances between Hawaiians and non-Hawaiians are not possible, and while there are reasons she does this, many of us want to see futures in which communities are formed across differences (and wounds). Our very futures may depend upon it. But if we learn to read like Witi and his grandmother, in a way that is at once critical and welcoming, there's a chance. Let us tend our very real gardens.
Fresh from the AAAS conference held in Honolulu this past week, three Kundiman poets--Tamiko Beyer, Ching-In Chen, and Soham Patel--read this afternoon at Revolution Books, which advertised them as "investigating themes ranging from race, sexuality, and gender to love, family, and the immigrant experience, from war to environmental destruction." And that they did, on one of the most beautiful of recent days on O`ahu, sunny and bright. The poems were also playful, as each poet engaged forms as diverse as haiku, epistle, novel, slam poetry, and a lok-bot (spelling?), which features alternating lines of six and eight syllables, as well as a scheme of internal rhyme.
Each poet is or has been a community organizer, and each (it seemed) had almost quit poetry before the Kundiman program had given them time and encouragement to write. Each is now in or approaching an MFA program. Ching-In Chen has a new book, The Heart's Traffic, from Arktoi Books in Los Angeles; Beyer and Patel both wielded manuscripts that sounded publishable. So much encouraging news for the futures of American poetry. Beyer began with a ten-year old poem about Hawai`i; her mother grew up here, the daughter of a picture bride. The poem sounded like it belonged in Bamboo Ridge, or a volume by Cathy Song, and included a section in which the repeated refrain was "In the house of pidgin." Beyer's more recent work includes a sequence (sequences were important to all three poets) about a girl abandoned by her mother and raised in San Diego; her brother joins the military and ends up in Mogadishu in the early 1990s. Beyer ended with parts of a sequence about the prospect of adopting a child with her partner. The phrase "ethical reponsibility of motherhood" rang a bell for this listener. She ended with a poem that included a reference to the bon dance, and the marvelous line, "the dead on their cucumber horses," which refers to the Obon gathering, but seemed marvelously imagined, as well.
Ching-In Chen read from her new book, which is an extended immigration story. I enjoyed the poem "Fob" in which she defined the word as "deceit or trickery" and as "a small pocket," but never as the letters that stand for "Fresh off the boat," which was the phrase being thrown at her young immigrant character at school. This character proceeds to mis-teach Chinese words to an American classmate, apt linguistic revenge. Chen work was passionate, though I wish she'd realized that the microphone carried her voice so well that the slam poetic performance nearly deafened some of us. I can imagine that in a larger venue her performance would be quite powerful.
Soham Patel lives and works in Colorado Springs, home to the Air Force academy and one of the largest churches in the USA. Her work was the most lyrical, the most engaged with the tradition of surrealism. In "You Do Not Disappear," a poem on the death of Mahmoud Darwish, she wrote, "We will keep your words, and we will speak out loud." Her prose poem, "Three Variables," included a marvelous dream record. Her book of Emily Dickinson poems was due and she could not find it. Finally, she found it inside a John Steinbeck cover; it few away; she chased the wings; she pinched the wings; the wings ignited; orchid petals.
Her wittiest poem was based on several perfumes, including Eternity, Obsession, Escape, and One. The poem, titled "For the glossy black and white ad trying to sell you perfume," ended with the marvelous line, "with purchase, the free gift makes you smell like a man." She ended her reading with "An apology for our mothers," apology in the sense of apologia. And this seemed to bring the reading full circle, back to concerns with family, from its flight outward and inward.
Friday's schedule for Poetry & Politics featured Tinfish 18.5: The Book, so I invited Ryan Oishi and Tiare Picard to join us. Then Jennifer Kwon Dobbs and Ted Pelton separately sent messages that they would be in Honolulu, so I invited them too, and opened the class up to anyone who wished to attend. The ensuing conversation was predictably a bit unfocused, but contained nuggets worth holding up to the virtual light.
Ryan read a revised version of his poem about Aloha Air Flight 243. The poem is about a flight from the Big Island to Honolulu in the late 1980s that was diverted to Kahului after most of the fuselage ripped off. Ryan imagined that the plane was damaged by a huge shark, kind of a reverse aumakua (or not?). He revised the poem after Go! had entered the local airline market, driven Aloha out of business, and then tried to appropriate Aloha's name. So the poem I had read as a commentary on tourism (shark takes big bite out of plane full of tourists) became instead a poem about one airline taking a bite out of another. This poem, like his love poem set in a Walmart (where Hawaiian bones were found, quarantined and air-conditioned), addresses issues of development and the economy.
Tiare read poems about language, militarization, and erasure. Her alphabet poem is marvelous; on one side of the page, she's written a wacky alphabet poem (each line begins with the next letter in the alphabet). On the other side, she's taken that poem and removed all the letters from Polynesian languages. The result is a syncopated burst of sound that resembles nothing so much as Christian Bok, yet whose instigations are profoundly "local" and political. Ted Pelton read from a parable he wrote in the mid-80s about the Agency's search for employees who were honest but had always wanted to lie. Pelton's "story" ended with the very premise of the ad being called into question ("you trusted that we were actually looking for employees?!"). Tiare's question was spot on: "is that fiction?" It reminded me that the Reagan years were a more benign-seeming warm-up for the Bush II years. Nicaragua, Grenada, Lebanon, Iran-Contra, were Iraq and Afghanistan writ small. Jennifer Kwon Dobbs read poems about Korea, and also a new poem, not included in her book Paper Pavilion (White Pine Press), about Cyprus's division, and demilitarized zones in general. Her image of the divided bed at the end of the poem was apt. What I found most compelling about Jennifer's discussion of adoption (she was adopted from Korea and grew up in Oklahoma) was her notion that she begins from "negative capability" and works toward certainty, hence goes in the opposite direction of many imaginations. She also spoke of not trusting still images (which evoked Hart Crane's "still yet moving" bridge to me). Jennifer also spoke to the ancient link between poetry and politics, citing the Greeks (which reminded me how infrequent are mentions of the Greeks in my department, at least within my hearing!).
On Thursday, the day before, I attended Mary Edmond-Paul's talk on Robin Hyde's autobiographical writings. The crux of Edmond-Paul's talk was the treatment of Hyde's mental instability (she was arrested for attempting to commit suicide, such being the laws of her day (the 1930s in New Zealand/Aotearoa). Edmond-Paul spoke at some length about "kindness," the way in which Hyde, because she voluntarily submitted to treatment, was treated with a kindness lacking in the commitment of Janet Frame to the severe care of a hospital. I wish she'd said more about "kindness" as a (dare I say it?) category. The idea that someone would invoke kindness in an academic setting struck me as itself an intervention in the usual goings on, but I would have liked to have heard more. The epilogue offered on the contemporary photographer Yvonne Todd was fascinating, but the bridge between Hyde and Todd did not seem complete. What amazing photographs, though. My colleague, Craig Howes, brought up the problem with seeing writing as therapy--as "scriptotherapy." I remember that one of our visiting writers described how she would pour her problems onto the page at night, and wake up again the next morning with the same problems. To my mind, scriptotherapy works only if the illness is under control; you cannot write your way out of suffering, but you can explain that suffering to yourself later, as meaning, as story, as image (still or moving). The blur of image that Jennifer would address a day later, and the sense of trying to move from negative capability to a sense of sureness with the world, is familiar to me not as an adoptee (I am not one, though my children are), but as someone who suffered several extended bouts of "agitated depression," in which there was no stillness, only some godawful version of "shaken adult syndrome."
Baseball and poetry are one, to mangle Stevens. I sent this to the head coach, who does love the game and concentrates on skills, not in making "warriors" of the boys.
I've been thinking a lot about kids' baseball lately, as both Sangha and Radhika are playing. And I'm a teacher, so I'm fascinated by coaching. I like the coaching I'm seeing; Sangha's skills have improved immensely, and he's focusing in ways I haven't seen, except when he gets a new Lego set. So clearly, the experience has been very valuable for him. But it does bother me that some of the coaches seem to think the goal of playing baseball at 10 years of age is to get to the majors, or be a national champion, or be the very best. Not that I don't like to see people perform well (Ichiro slapping a hit to win the game; Pujols scoring from third on a grounder to the pitcher; Edmonds circus catching in the outfield, all these make me very happy), but it seems to me that there's more to this game than future exploits. There's also THIS moment to enjoy.No one has told the boys that baseball is a beautiful sport, one that teaches you to focus, to move your body in ways that make you and the spectator feel good, one that makes you think better, and that baseball is an art. That's what I would like to hear. Enjoy the moment, live inside of it, and baseball will become something you can enjoy the rest of your lives, no matter when or how your "career" playing it ends. The benefits of baseball are now.
I teach students to write and read poetry. Many of them are scared to death of it. So I have to show them how not to be scared at the same time I teach them to make something new. Very few of them are going to be poets or professors or anything related to my field. But I want them to learn how to think like a poet, how to play with the world in ways that are meaningful and enjoyable to othem and to others. So I have them play a lot (even though I give them grades at the end . . . ). I find that their responses tend to be very positive. So my suggestion would be to tell the kids to _play_ more. It's a game. It can be a very serious one, but you get to the serious stuff by being creative.
[Top: Tiare Picard, Ryan Oishi, Kai Gaspar, Jill Yamasawa Bottom: Enthusiasts from Kalakaua Intermediate School in Kalihi; click on photo to see more students]
Today, April 17, was the large Celebrate Reading festival at UHM, organized by Lorna Hershinow, local literary activist--readings at the Art Auditorium and HIG, as well as break out sessions in Kuykendall, where the English department resides. Ryan Oishi read his "Walmart: A Love Poem" at one of the two opening sessions, and then he and I and Tiare Picard and Jill Yamanasawa and Kai Gaspar met a raucous group of students for a 50 minute session of readings and Q&A. We quickly found out that a large group of the students had taken the bus from Kalihi (they are Kalakaua Intermediate School students) to earn extra credit from their teacher (praise be to him or her). Another couple of students had taken TheBus from the North Shore. This speaks volumes about wonderful teachers inspiring their kids in the public schools. After Kai and Ryan and Jill and Tiare had read from their poems in 18.5, the questions began. One girl from the Kalihi group was especially eager to ask questions, and her questions were themselves a form of poetry, clearly marvelous, but also like koans, hard to comprehend. After she had asked a mysterious question about the imagination and poetry, she followed up by asking: "does the imagination interfere with your past?" After much back and forth, I asked for a final comment and one boy raised his hand and said, "poetry is AWESOME."
After lunch, Ryan, Jill, Tiare, and I had a workshop session. Jill offered an exercise based on the phrase "I am," which included naming yourself based on the objects in your house, historical events, food, and a couple of other items. Tiare chose to give them a word game. Find a word, any word, and play with it, see what happens. Ryan had little time, but proposed an exercise that caused one sentence to grow and ramify with words and phrases added to the end and the beginning. "Love is a mango" erupted into a marvelous compound thing!
Here is my riff off of Tiare's exercise. My word was "torture."
I torture syllables-- I screw down their toe nails until they bleed I pour water into their mouths until they drown I sic dogs on them I smear syllables with fecal matter I take off my clothes for the shy ones, put them on for the brazen I keep them awake, play them loud music, interrupt them with guards I make syllables stand until they cannot, put them in tiny boxes and introduce insects to them I pry open their tiny hearts and replace them with handcuffs My syllables will say anything.
And so I return to the subject of poetry & politics & the way language has been degraded by such as Bybee and Yoo, Cheney, Addington, and Bush.
But let me end by saying how lovely it was to see all these young people listening to poetry, and then writing it themselves!
Friday was the day to Skype Craig Perez in my Poetry & Politics class. After the usual series of technical glitches, we commenced. I asked Craig to read the first page of poetry in his book and to talk to us about his concept of the page as space. On this first page, "from Lisiensan Ga1lago"(15), names given to Guam are put in dialogue and spread like islands across white space--not an Olsonian field, but a Perezian ocean. Craig considers that there are currents between the words; the closer the words are to one another, the more tension is created between them.
Our next conversation was about translation. from unincorporated territory offers the non-Chamorro reader translations into English, although many of them have jet lag, the English translation following its Chamorro word by a page or two or three. This forces the reader to go back in the book, Craig says. He then told us about a significant moment in the text, where words are mistranslated. It happened to be my favorite moment in the text, when the word "teritoriu" is said to mean "my heart" (79). But that is not the case, so the English speaking reader gets it wrong (tourist asks for directions to Hanauma Bay and is told how to get to Yokohama Bay instead?). Translation is an aesthetic and a prosodic act, Craig told us, as well as one that includes readers on different sides of linguistic borders. Given two paths in a wood (or two currents in a sea), Craig chooses them both--he both translates and does not, spells Chamorro in the accepted way and spells Chamoru in the nationalist manner. He writes in the tradition of his storytelling grandparents and in that of the MFA program at USF from which he graduated in 2005. His poetry is as diasporic as he is; what is inevitably not a perfect fit becomes a place in which to play with different possibilities. He is at once Duncan the mythologizer and Truth seeker and Levertov the activist and political truth teller.
Craig talked about his work as a Chamorro activist, including his five minute speech at the United Nations this past October, where he talked about the negative effects of militarization on Guam. He considers this a moral act rather than a political strategy, considering the UN's lack of power to change conditions on Guam. Significantly, Craig also talks about working to inform the community of Guamanians in the Bay Area. The goals of this work are to get petitions signed, raise money and stop the military build-up on Guam by the United States.
When asked to talk about the organization of his book, Craig said that the poem's several sections had each been self-contained in early drafts. But each section seemed heavy and long when he read it in toto. So he began to tease out sections, weave them back and forth through the book, until he arrived at a poem he describes as being like a banyan tree, its roots aerial and spawning new parts of the tree. The ancestors live in these trees, and so can inhabit the book itself.
Oh, and Craig says his manuscript was rejected by another press months after it was published by Tinfish, and at about the point that it was #1 on the SPD best seller list. Hele on!
Inaugural edition of Writer Talks: Poetry, Politics, Publishing & More
April 24, 1:30-4:00, Kuykendall 410
Please join my Poetry & Politics honors class for what I hope will be the first in a series of Writer Talks (like the Biography brown bag series, except not so frequent). We will be joined by two writers who are coming for the AAAS meeting in Honolulu, as well as two writers from Honolulu. This roundtable will covers areas as disparate as writing & politics, adoption, development and militarization in Hawai`i; it should be quite a free for all.
Joining us will be:
RYAN OISHI earned an M.A. from UHM. Several of his poems were published in _Tinfish 18.5: The Book_. He is working on an anthology about TheBus entitled “Routes,” with Aiko Yamashiro, Emelihter Kihleng and Mark Guillermo, which will be published by Kahuaomanoa Press in Fall, 2009, as well as “Statehood Project,” a collaborative project between Kumu Kahua and Fat Ulu Productions. Ryan teaches English at Kamehameha High School.
TIARE PICARD earned an M.A. from UHM. Her work can be found in _Tinfish 18.5_. She is a founding member of Fat Ulu Productions and is currently working for the Census Bureau, driving Honolulu's neighborhoods and training employees. See http://tinfishpress.com/18-5.html for more on _Tinfish 18.5_.
TED PELTON is the author of the novel _Malcolm & Jack (and Other Famous American Criminals)_ and two other books, as well as being the publisher of Starcherone [start your own] Press, an independent press specializing in innovative fiction. He has received National Endowment for the Arts and Isherwood Fellowships in Fiction. He lives in Buffalo, NY. See http://starcherone.blogspot.com/ for more on Ted.
JENNIFER KWON DOBBS was born in Won Ju Si, South Korean. Her first book of poetry, _Paper Pavilion_ (2007) won the White Pine Press Poetry Prize. Her essays, reviews and poems are widely published, and have been translated into several languages. She is the founding director of the SummerTIME Writing Program, a college access program for inner-city LA students. She is currently assistant professor of creative writing at St. Olaf College in Minnesota. See http://jkwondobbs.com/ for more on Jennifer.
Please feel free to email me about the event at firstname.lastname@example.org.
My Poetry & Politics class lingered yesterday over the preface to Craig Santos Perez's from Unincorporated Territory (Tinfish, 2008). I'm struck, on teaching the book, at the very different way I'm reading it--not as a manuscript to decide for or against, or at a book to proofread for "errors," but as a coherent text. This time the experience feels profounder (and reminds me of trying to get Radhika to pronounce "Federer" correctly: the player who is more than simply "Feder"). How appropriate that a poet who gleans one of his headnotes from Gertrude Stein (more on these marvelous epigraphs in a bit), stops to consider how crucial is the preposition "from."
"I" am "from UNINCORPORATED TERRITORY." From indicates a particular time or place as a starting point; from refers to a specific location as the first of two limits; from imagines a source, a cause, an agent, or an instrument; from marks separation, removal, or exclusion; from differentiates borders. (p. 12)
It is the discovery of a prospective "from" that preoccupies Perez (in the face of his country's occupation by the Spanish, the Japanese, the American military). It is the way in which his "from" includes both an oral Chamorro tradition (by way of his grandparents) and an avant-garde western tradition (by way of the mother of us all and other writers) that pre-occupies me, his publisher. If Guam, according to one of the schematic maps drawn by designer Sumet (Ben) Viwatmanitsakul, is the center of a Pacific airport hub, then this book is the hub from which many traditions radiate. One of my students described the book as "inoffensive," which caused us to wonder what charge to put on that word: does it indicate a calm that is itself an act of poetry-politics, or is it a word that means "ineffective"? (The student who said this quite liked the book, but was wondering about it as political praxis.) We will keep this question alive for at least two weeks, as we'll be skyping with Craig on April 17.
I would, for now, point to Perez's own language maps, such as the one on the first page of the poetry section of the book, "from LISIENSAN GA`LAGO" (these were ID tags the Japanese forced Guamanians to wear during the Japanese occupation of the early 1940s, before the U.S. retook the island). Each word for Guam on this page is presented as an island on a larger map (page as ocean). None of these words is erased or rejected (as Chamorro was outlawed by the U.S. educational system), but presented as a map including history (to modify Pound). Over the course of the book, through more than one form of translation, Perez introduces the non-Guamanian reader to crucial words in Chamorro; he tries, as he says at the end of his Preface, "to being re-territorializing the Chamorro language in relation to my own body, by way of the page." That "territory" and the Chamorro word for "heart" are close sonic cousins (79) points to a place "beyond territory," or at least beyond territories that "belong" to colonial powers.
But Perez's use of the western avant-garde is an acknowledgment that this tradition, however problematic in its own right, also tries to de- or re-territorialize the languages we speak. Re-territorializing differs from de-territorializing in its creation of allegiances across cultures. That is certainly why Perez's book fits so well in the Tinfish catalogue. More than that, the book offers a positive critique of any attempt to fence off traditions from each other. Fences don't work well on islands, which may be why so much work along these lines comes from islands--the Caribbean, Hawai`i, Guam, and elsewhere.
My life is consumed these days with Sangha's and Radhika's baseball practices and games. Sangha's coach has a baseball event every day of the week, while Radhika's more moderate coach only has them practicing three or four days a week for their weekend game. (As Radhika would say, "mom, you're being sarcastic!").
The culture of kids' baseball is perhaps not different here from anywhere (aside from the omnipresence of Pidgin among the coaches). But this is what I know, and so I'd like to think more about it, in particular about the models of masculinity that are being offered to my children, especially my nine-year old son. On the one hand, there's a loving-doing-bonding among boys and men, with only the coach's barking of instructions to bring in the linguistic world, which I find very attractive. On the other--there is the governing idea that masculinity involves physical and mental toughness (if the taboo on tears is toughness . . . ) only. That you gotta suck it up, gotta be tough, gotta battle, gotta believe, gotta find yourself, gotta tink baseball, gotta be strong. So many "gotta's." So that learning the rules of the game, which are one thing, bleeds over into the rules of that larger game, which is another thing entirely. On some level playing the game teaches you the game, but you learn other lessons at your peril. (Coach was quoted as saying, don't cheat yourself, cuz you're only cheating yourself.) Yes, and yet.
When I coached t-ball years ago, one father approached me and said, please tell my son not to act like a girl.