Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Community Poetry, or, The Story of A.

Tinfish Press is a utopian pursuit. In that sense, it often strikes me as practically futile, even as the idealism of its particular vision (across cultures, languages, categories) appeals to me. At least three times a year (or so) it feels like the perfect set up for a fall; bruises accumulate, colorful and tender both. As I've written elsewhere, I would have readers (and writers) of Tinfish books read the entire catalogue (oh impossible wish), so as to absorb the press's ethos, but most readers read a book at a time. The old record album listener cedes to the ipod's aficionado of the single. It's an odd return to the well wrought urn notion of poetry, back from a more historical, cultural view of its complicated playing field. The forms are sometimes different, as they are forms of identity or, very differently, forms of experiment, but they resist the iconoclasm of categories stacked together until plates fall down, tectonically, and readers confront the necessity of rebuilding shattered (self) images. I write this knowing how different the valences are for categories such as "experiment" and "identity" and even "reading," but wishing for more discussions of why we place the values we do where we put them. I cling to my own without sometimes acknowledging the competing interests of other systems, some of which intersect with that of Tinfish or carry the Tinfish moniker or use Tinfish books to construct arguments not intended by the editor. (Why should they?)

Or do I complain too much? Is the project too small to warrant such attention outside the head of its editor? Perhaps. And yet the press is also process, a thinking through of these private and public issues.

Provisional answers to these doubts come from surprising places, and this is part of the hard-won joy of editing. Under the enthusiastic and loving aegis of Leonore Higa, a retired vice principal who now works in the library of Farrington High School in Kalihi, I organized a group of four poets to read for more than 50 students. The poets were No`u Revilla, Jaimie Gusman, Craig Santos Perez, and Gizelle Gajelonia. They read raucous, sexy, political poems to a group that was sometimes restless, but always lively. No`u's poems were about power, sexuality and sovereignty; Jaimie read about vocation and loss; Craig slung out his canned meat poems; and Gizelle was closest to home in her poems about riding TheBus in Kalihi, about dissing Farrington (she's a Leilehua grad).

During the Q&A session, which I moderated, a young man at the very back of the room propelled a question in our direction that I couldn't hear or understand. It had something to do with poetry and life experience. He was adamant. Then he walked to the front of the room to ask another question. Again, I had a hard time with it. "When is your next chapter?" he kept saying, and I didn't know if that meant "chapbook" (which I'd written on a large piece of paper) or "reading" or what. We did our best.

When the session ended, the male students lined up for photos with No`u (one had asked "did it hurt when you fell from heaven?"), and a few others leafed through the books and chapbooks on the table where I left them. After a while, they all left. But the young man with the questions about "chapters" stayed. He asked me more about "chapters." Soon it became clear to me that A. was really jazzed about the event, especially the way the poems came out of ordinary life moments. He started pacing forward as he said, "you mean it's everything you do in a day?" I pulled him into the larger group; he started to recite a poem that rhymed. He told an anecdote about the television and waking up and doctors and the phrase "shut up." Again, I didn't quite follow, but the affect behind his words was powerful. His voice was blocked, but he had many things he wanted to say with it.

He left with a copy of No`u's chapbook, courtesy of the press; he also turned down a copy of the journal, as being too much. Leonore Higa said he was a "special needs" student. She had never seen him so excited about anything.

That's the utopian moment. It has nothing to do with the literary world, or with reading all the books or with abstract arguments about form, heated discussions of identity issues. It doesn't necessarily have anything to do with Tinfish Press, though our writers were its vehicle. It has to do with A., a young man for whom an hour of poetry meant more than he had imagined it would, more than we could have imagined it might.

Sometimes poetry makes something happen.

[Considering how she riffs off pre-existing texts, I thought it perfect that Gizelle should be standing under a sign that reads, "how to make copies." The flyer at the top was made by Leonore Higa for the May 9th event.]


Anonymous said...

I remember when writers from Bamboo Ridge visited my English class at Farrington over 20 years ago. It left an impression and shaped my work as a teacher and scholar. Thanks Susan for continuing this work in schools like Farrington.

No'u Revilla said...

Aloha e Susan. I'm writing A. poems to organize his reactions in my head. The words he used - encounters, flow, and chapter - the way he fidgeted from foot to foot, staring at the carpet, looking at us as if it was a risk...he was so beautiful.

Mahalo for the post.

No'u Revilla said...

Aloha e Susan.

I'm writing A. poems to organize his reactions in my head. I think we all wanted to write A. poems after meeting him. The words he used (encounter, flow, chapter), the way he fidgeted from foot to foot, the way he stared at the carpet, risking to look at us from time to time...he was so beautiful. Vulnerable, but willing to risk.

Mahalo for the post.