My undergraduate poetry workshop this semester focuses on poetries of place. While Hawai`i is not different from other places in the hiddenness of its histories, these histories often seem closer to the surface that they do in, say, Washington D.C. or Boston or San Francisco. I live near a place called Chinaman's Hat; it is also called Mokoli`i. And therein one finds an argument, like many other arguments here, about priority, about ownership, about reconciliation, about language. Hoping to get my students to be more exquisitely aware of these histories, I've devised this reading list:
Lawson Fusao Inada, Legends from Camp, Coffee House Press
Bernadette Mayer, Midwinter Day, New Directions
Craig Santos Perez, from unincorporated territory, Tinfish Press
Barbara Jane Reyes, Poeta en San Francisco, Tinfish Press
Kaia Sand, Remember to Wave, Tinfish Press
Wayne Westlake, Poems, University of Hawai`i Press
Jill Yamasawa, Aftermath, Kahuaomanoa Press (forthcoming)
We are reading Lawson Inada's book this week, so it seemed an inspired fact of literary synchronicity that Kaia Sand's new Tinfish book arrived from the printer just a few days ago. With a blurb by Inada. While the books have many affinities, including the important work they do on Japanese-American internment camps during the Second World War, they operate in somewhat different temporal directions. Inada's book begins from history, then launches into "legend," transforming individual histories into communal legends. While Inada's legends are still steeped in the histories that inspire them, they are not the work of a "poet-journalist," like Sand.
But let me begin with the point of contact between Inada and Sand. These books share a central documentary text, namely the "instructions to all persons of Japanese Ancestry," signed on May 6, 1942 by J. L. DeWitt, Lieutenant General, U.S. Army. This was the infamous order that mandated Japanese Americans to go to "Civil Control Stations" in preparation for internment (Inada's text comes out of Los Angeles; Sand's from Oregon, but the orders are the same). Inada reproduces the text as was, and then riffs off of it, making a poem of it in a tone of mock reverence. "Let us take / what we can / for the occasion," he writes . . . "Let us bring / what we need / for the meeting"; "Let us have / what we have / for the gathering"; "Let us take / what we can / for the occasion"; "Let there be / Order"; "Let us be / Wise" (5-6). Where Inada presents the text, then riffs off it, Sand writes directly on the document in an old typewriter font. Many of these words are echoes of the document itself, its "civil control," its "transport persons," its "personal effects." On the following page, Sand reduces the bureaucratic language to its bare bones, saving only the language mandating what can be carried by each family to the Assembly Center. It's not much.
Inada spent time in internment camps as a child (he was born in 1938), writes from experience (if not his own, we assume, then what he was told by family). Kaia Sand, born in 1972, shares neither the generational intensity, nor the ethnic marker, with Inada. So, while Inada writes the legends of his uncle, of "Bad Boy" and "Good Girl" with the authority of a participant, Sand relies on documents and on the "form" (physical and poetic) of the walk.
Walk poems have been around for as long as poets have been walking to and fro on the earth. The pedestrian poet has walked the Lake Country, the streets of New York City, Hartford and Honolulu (see Wayne Westlake). Bernadette Mayer devised a wonderful exercise according to which the writer walks, stops 14 times, writes a line, and then presents herself with a sonnet. To walk is to enact meter; to write is to rhyme what you see with what you think. Sand's walk is more literal, and better mapped, than most poets' walks. The book begins with her walk through Portland, Oregon, a walk she led her friends on as the book was being composed. (Her husband, Jules Boykoff, lets me know backchannel that she made that walk many times more.) Here's a picture of the walk, with captions. The red seam (rendered in black--red costs too much money!) that runs across the two pages records her (reproducible) walk from Vanport to Expo Center. In historical terms, the walk goes from the area of Portland where interned Japanese lived after the War and where African Americans settled (a place that suffered a deadly flood in 1948) to the Assembly Center, where Japanese Americans were imprisoned in 1942.
The walk form is dangerous. What do tourists do but walk, often without looking around them? And while the walk form is one that goes through and past and into a future apart from people trapped in floods or internment centers or PODS, what Sand does with the form is to use it to witness history as she excavates it. There is much in this book that is literal: there are documents, photographs, found poems, a map, lists, even the autographs of a woman's roller blade team. But Sand knows that to present history in this way requires the imagination's work. Toward the end of the essay that precedes the first sequence of poems, she writes: "Do we need our ruins visible? How much can we experience that past through interpretative signs? I carry old maps, but sometimes the space seems illegible because reclaimed wetlands and constrution changed the shape of the land. I cross-check books and oral histories and photographs. I imagine." A book built upon facts, statistics, images, remains unpaginated. The imagination sets loose from enumeration and enters an ethical frame, or map.
I will not reveal any more of the plot to this book; I need to sell copies so that we can publish more books like it. (Suffice it to say I have written about only one part of the title sequence.) But I do want to say something more. One of the things I love about the book is the sense of generous responsibility it offers. For argument's sake, let's posit that most readers of this book will not have experienced the Vanport flood or the internment camps. Let's say most readers of this book will be able to afford paying for it. Let's say that most readers have not learned the indigenous languages of the places they live in, that they do not know other languages at all, that when they teach (or speak to others), they teach (or speak to others) in standard English. Let's say most readers are not from Portland, Oregon. And yet, let's also posit that the imaginative reader, taking Kaia's walk, sees what has happened in the name of the American government. Let's also imagine that many readers will wonder how to respond, how they can deal with the hidden past as they walk in the not so hidden present. There are the twin poles of breeziness and abjection, complacency and anger, but neither seems wise or effective. What Sand proposes is "awareness": "A poetic imagination can be an insistent one, comfortable enough in uncertainties to demand meaning . . . Such awareness must be deeply felt while the U.S. government incarcerates so many people in prisons across the nation as well as remote to its borders."
What Sand suggests is that we not let Vanport or the camps or the dammed river or the erasures of languages happen again. Her view is forward-looking, based upon a knowledge of the past, but not locked inside it. In a neighborhood of bad faith possibilities, Sand has righteous faith that we can act. Her house is sturdy, and she is looking out, in all senses of that phrase. The spaces she leaves open on many of the pages of this book are spaces I hope will open in her reader. What now? What next? Let's begin to answer those questions.
[back cover right side, with blurb by Inada]
Remember to Wave was designed by Bao Hoa Nguyen.
5 weeks ago