Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Is _Jack London is Dead_ a Community of Writers?

                                          [Flyer for the HCC event]

I drove home from Honolulu Community College wondering why I'd expressed such ambivalence when Eric Paul Shaffer, who'd organized an event for his English 201 (Introduction to Creative Writing) class expressed surprise that he felt community with other writers in Jack London is Dead: Euro-American Writing of Hawai`i (and some stories). Do we feel the same? he asked. "It's terrible, isn't it?" I began, sputtering about how, since founding Tinfish in 1995 I had tried to foster conversations between members of categories that I otherwise don't much like, how I had "succumbed" to the ethnic anthology in making this book. How I loved having the conversation with the students, most of whom are not white. These are feelings I expressed in the book's introduction and in my statement, mixed feelings (making me think perhaps Tom Gammarino's fictional place where feeling is illegal might not be all bad). But, after two fine readings and an extended conversation with Eric's students and the other writers at these events (Tyler McMahon and the writers on the flyer, above), some rethinking is in order.  Or, if not rethinking exactly, then recalibration. For, how are we to have these conversations if we haven't yet had the conversations with writers whose experiences (educational, ethnic, diasporic) are like your own? The logic of the ethnic anthology is becoming clearer to me, even as I still instinctively resist it and the very book I edited. The book is its own best defense against its editor, I suspect.

Monday's event was at Hawai`i Pacific University, and was organized by Tyler McMahon. Today's was at HCC in Kalihi, a working class concrete campus whose back parking lot was used by the makers of Lost to represent Iraq, complete with bombed out cars and Eric Paul Shaffer's part-Mexican brother-in-law, as an Iraqi. Eric's poem on the event gets at the layers of meaning and fakery in that film shoot.  "Disbelief is no longer willingly surrendered, but eagerly / and widely applied to horrendous events that overcome us," he writes in "On the Set of Lost: Dillingham Boulevard, Honolulu." "It looks so real on TV. Desert dust swirls around / my brother-in-law, the U.S. mail-carrier, an Iraqi-for-a-day. There must be / some truth in appearances, and whatever it is / must be what makes Hollywood a shrine and paves a sidewalk with stars."

[The parking lot at HCC that was made to look like war-time Iraq, with Tom Gammarino on the left and Eric Paul Shaffer on the right]

We local readers from Jack London is Dead have settled into a rhythm of sorts: one of us introduces the anthology, explains why Jack London is dead, holds forth on how contemporary white writers are working within a context more diverse and complicated than any dreamed of by Jack.  (That I am beginning to pity Jack should inspire me to read his work, now that I've proclaimed his death as a literary figure in Hawai`i. Maybe.) Then we do the following in alphabetical or reverse alphabetical order: Jaimie Gusman reads from her Shekinah poems, beginning with one called "Ejaculation," which is very much about a goddess creating the world from her own thighs (today I thought of it as being like the passage in "Song of Myself" where Whitman masturbates a world, except that in Jaimie's version it's a female deity); Evan Nagle reads flarf poems in utter deadpan, moving from the crazy to occasional lyrical passages that quickly flit away; Eric Paul Shaffer reads his "Lost" poem and also a poem about the `okina (we talked later today about punctuation as meaning); I read some memory cards, today making a link between adoption and my living in Hawai`i (a relationship of love, family, but not genealogical in the usual sense); Julia Wieting reads poems about animals that are actually about parts of speech; Tom Gammarino reads one of his two short stories in the book about Peter-or-whatever who lives in a place where feeling is illegal.  Poor Peter writes a poem, which is his downfall.  He must have snuck into the poetry anthology by writing a short story about a poem. I wish that Tyler had read from his short story on Monday, but he assured us he'd read at his campus just recently.

Eric's students had read the anthology because he gave them copies, so they quoted to us from some of our statements, knew what was at stake, and mostly--this was wonderful--had questions about being a writer.  When do you write?  How do you write? What do you write about? Some of the questions then led into the territory of whiteness, of living in a place where the central wound is colonialism, of thinking about how to write about Hawai`i in ways that might help to mend that wound. It was a good, a fruitful, conversation, for both what I had imagined for Tinfish when I founded it (conversations across cultures, experiences), and for what I had not (those conversations coming from a recognition that those of us who are white writers in Hawai`i have certain experiences that mold us as writers).

                                          [Eric's marvelous class]

I've heard from several readers ("readers are the most important people," said Eric's students, on cue) that the prose statements are the most compelling parts of the book. The more I hear the contributors read their poems, however, the more I believe that the poetry is what matters, even if readers need the context offered by the prose. "Why are you in the anthology?" Eric's students asked him, thinking he was not as "innovative" as other contributors. To which I would say that it's the diversity of forms and content that draws me back to the book, as well as I think I know it. I'd like to start thinking about ways in which poems are in conversation: Eric's poem about Lost with mine about an Iraq vet calling in airstrikes on Waikiki Beach (a story told me by Adam Aitken); Evan Nagle's flarf with Tom Gammarino's wickedly dark funny prose; Scott Abels's and Rob Wilson's poems about Waikiki; Jaimie Gusman's and Janna Plant's poems about the earth; Julia Wieting's and Endi Bogue Hartigan's poems ostensibly about animals and plants. Perhaps one day we can have a call and response reading, foregoing the alphabet and entering a more fluid ground of poems as conversation.

[Tyler McMahon at HPU, 3/18/13]

                                   [The rest of the band at HCC, 3/20/13]

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