Sunday, October 14, 2012

An open letter to Wanda A. Adams of the _Star-Advertiser_

This morning's Star-Advertiser (10/14/12) contained a review of the 100th imprint of Bamboo Ridge Journal of Hawai`i Literature and the Arts. Penned by Wanda A. Adams, the awkward headline, "Points of entry are myriad in 100th Bamboo Ridge issue," is prescient. For Adams's review contains several lines of thinking that prevent much of the literary world in Hawai`i from moving anywhere but closer to the comforts of home.  She takes swipes at experimental writing, nay, even poetry and short stories, acknowledging her preference for "long, character-rich novels and deeply researched non-fiction" of the realist kind.

The review begins with a note of comfort: 100 is a pleasing number, Adams writes, because it's so round, so base-10, and "the least you can spend on a good dinner for two" (where on earth does she eat?). While she notes that compared to earlier issues of the journal, this one contains "more troubling places and no fear of going there; less nostalgia, more nuance," she then eases back into well-worn slippahs.  Let me quote: "Some works are so spare and experimental, I frankly couldn't understand them. Others fit like an old slipper, worn ball-and-heel grooves, straps that slide between the toes, so familiar they're like wearing nothing. You put on these pieces and you know just where they'll slide over your consciousness and tuck into your experiences."

No nostalgia there, but also no nuance. Failing to make the link that could be had between "experimental, spare" and "less nostalgia, more nuance," Adams promptly runs back to those pieces "so familiar they're like wearing nothing." Granted she's writing for a deadline (though the issue has been out for weeks now), but am I not alone in NOT wanting to read work so comfortable that it seems not to exist? "There's more enterprise in walking naked," Yeats wrote, but his nakedness was not dreamed of in this philosophy.

Adams finds a moment in Albert Saijo's work--which I'm delighted to see Bamboo Ridge has published, likely against Saijo's own posthumous wishes!--that rings a bell for her: "I WANT THERE TO BE NO DIFF BETWEEN WHAT I THINK AND WHAT I SPEAK . . . NO BELLE LIT IDEAL--JUST UTTERANCE--LIKE BOW WOW LIKE MOO." That mini-rant of Saijo's may seem to chime with Adams's notion that writing should fit like a slipper, but of course it absolutely does not.  Saijo's work is searing, angry, strips naked our notions of authority ("DIRECTED THINKING LIES AT THE BOTTOM OF ALL OUR ILLS"), decorum, pretentiousness, and yes, comfort. Saijo's nakedness, the big caps that are all revelation, no hiddenness, is an ornery stew. NO BELLE LIT, but also no BULL SHIT.

Still, the reviewer slogs on, quoting from some slips of paper she used to take notes, which bring her back to her discomforts and possible ways to justify them. She admits to preferring fiction to poetry, development to spareness, then comes around to a defense of poetry that might make Shelley et al flip in their watery graves: "But this 280-page anthology proves short works can be valuable scraps, vital scraps, even if elusive, like the piece of paper with the phone number on it you just have to find. At best they leave you with a thought, an impression, an uncomfortable feeling, an aha that flirts with your mind's edge, sometimes for days." As someone who tries to show her students that the telephone number on a scrap of paper is found poetry, I find myself oddly in agreement with Adams. Yes, the short form is vital. And yes, fragments are a significant literary form, one that opens poems to the reader, "sometimes for days"!, but "scraps"??

My problem with this review is not the review itself; god knows, I've read enough of these in the past two decades to see them coming, predict the next paragraph, realize that anything but easy, narrative, non-scraps will please most local journalists. But really? In a place so complicated, with so many stresses, so many competing (or neglected) communities, is this the best one can come up with?  I am not one to savage Bamboo Ridge: I know far too well how hard they've worked, and how much shit they've caught over the years, sometimes for good reason, other times because it's easy and comfortable to call them "bourgeois." And I also know that the "darknesses" of this issue, the ones Adams brings up and then neglects, are crucial. Amalia Bueno writes in this issue about women in prison; Wing Tek Lum writes about the Nanjing Massacre; even the typical BR-funny stuff ain't so funny if you really listen to it. I'm looking at you, Lee Cataluna.

So yes, this issue deserved a better review. But, more importantly, Hawai`i's literary scenes merit better journalism and listeners with fresher ears, like the ex-UH football player I met at the reception after one of the readings for this issue, spoke with some eloquence, in response to what he'd heard, about his own growing up in Ka`u, where a local politician had tried to impose a rocket project, only to be turned back by citizens he later savaged at a talk in Honolulu. It's not even that we need to read more work published outside the state, it's that we need to read, and attend to, the work right in front of us.

Editor's note: This issue included three of my prose poems from Memory Cards.

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