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 Londonis 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.
J. Vera Lee, aka Jee Young Lee, is a poet who has lived in Hawai`i for the past year and a few months. She grew up in Meadville, Pennsylvania, attended schools in Berkeley and Seattle, and has a son in intensest Little League here in Honolulu. Tinfish Press will be publishing her first book of poems.
What is the
working title of the book? Diary of Use. It will
be published Summer/Fall (2013) by Tinfish Press.
did the idea come from for the book?
‘Diary of use’ comes
from my poem ‘item’ about hummingbirds and red-tubed flowers.
There’s a kind of used beauty or used idea about the flower’s red
tubes and I have a strong sense of recovering images from loss and
What genre does
your book fall under?
What actors would
you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie
Plants, water, snow, but no animals, even though
there is some mention of animals in the poems. My son usually says
we are animals too.
What is the one sentence synopsis of
The poems in this first collection try to make a
place for human relationships in nature, that banal or spiritual
How long did
it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
started writing the many of these poems in December 2011, but I’ve
included some poems that were written and published around 2005-2007.
Who or what
inspired you to write this book?
The book started,
though many of the specific images have disappeared from it, because
there are no deciduous tress in my yard in Makiki. At night - the
wind can seem stronger then - I noticed green shoots that would later
harden into branches and had the idea of a scalpel parting the
leaves. It was my first experience of a play on Eden and/or
paradise, and I think my poems, though I hadn’t ever been
religious, bear out the disaffection.
about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
verge on hope, even faith. This feels almost mawkish or
unfashionable to say except that the poems have a denuded look.
Will your book be
self-published or represented by an agency?
Make up a
question you think is pressing in way of poetry today.
What is the lineage
of influence in contemporary American poetry? Is this important to
Ron Silliman did a good review the other day at his blog about new anthologies, among them Tinfish Press's Jack London is Dead: Contemporary Euro-American Poetry of Hawai`i (and some stories). You can find that here.
Tony Trigilio interviewed Tinfish Editor, and has just posted the podcast on his Radio Free Albion series, here. We talked about many things, from the St. Louis Cardinals, to dementia writing, to Jack London, and then to memory cards. Tony is a lovely, lively host who already has a wonderful line-up of podcast people.
I'm just back from five sick days at the Boston AWP. The Tinfish table was located in outer nowhere. Not the best of our conference stints, but really lovely to see some good friends and meet some more.
When I did my next thing, here, I tagged Steve Collis, here (that's his Tinfish Retro chap, for free lidat). I previously blogged on his work, here. This is his self-interview.
What is the working title of the
To the Barricades, forthcoming
from Talon Books in April.
Where did the idea come from for the
The book is the third in a series,
following Anarchive (2005) and The Commons (2008), to
investigate the history of insurgency and revolution—especially in
its “grassroots” formations. After looking at the anarchist
revolution in Catalonia in 1936 and the resistance to enclosure in
England, from the Diggers to John Clare, I wanted to look at the many
instances of barricade building in Parisian history (although this
became entangled with scenes of contemporary protest and occupation).
An inspiration here was David Harvey’s book, Paris, Capital of
What genre does your book fall
What actors would you choose to play
the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
Ah…maybe the non-actors from Peter
Watkins’s fictional documentary film, La Commune: Paris 1871.
What is the one sentence synopsis of
A long time ago in a galaxy very nearby
… we came close to revolutionary success, we can get there still,
and the voices of insurgents past and present are merging into one
What else about your book might
pique the reader’s interest?
The book is also interested in the idea
of the revolutionary potentiality of what I call the “biotariat”—the
uprising of the exploited planet itself.
Will your book be self-published or
represented by an agency?
When poets get agents we will know that
something is deeply wrong.
Make up a question you think is
pressing in way of poetry today.
A good deal of politically engaged
poetry continues to be written, but how do we get past the
self-defeating idea of efficacy (if political art is defined
in terms of its efficacy, poetry pales) to an enabling idea like
solidarity (political art so defined works to strengthen
networks of solidarity by deploying its affects of engagement,
urgency, indignation, etc.)?