Thursday, April 2, 2020

Lilith meets a boat pilot

Ran into a neighbor from down the road whose small terrier has very erect and fuzzy brown ears. A knitted red rose graces her neck. I ask him how isolation is going. He says he's still working; he pilots the boats that guide Matson ships into Honolulu harbor. "Keep the toilet paper coming," I say, and we laugh.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Lilith missed the mail man

"Our mailman is a loon," was how Bryant greeted me when I got back from my walk with Lilith. "You mean, you didn't know that?" said I. Oh yes, he knew that. B had told him he was glad to see him wearing gloves. Well, he'd hadn't been told to, but he wears them for other reasons; not worried about the pandemic. It's all about getting ad revenue from people who watch TV. He doesn't believe the growth in cases could be anywhere near as bad as claimed in the news because it's not going up 2, 4, 8, 16, etc.. B pointed out that 30% a day IS exponential growth. He also doesn't believe in global warming. There are more polar bears now than in the 1930s. B responded that of course, people aren't shooting them now. They're bothering the Inuits, he said, there are so many of them. Yes, and the Inuits' houses sink in the mud in the summer, B responded. But I gather the mailman won the argument when he claimed that the ice cap has gotten larger--harder for "Deadliest Catch" fishermen to get fish. And yes, B found, the ice is larger this year than in several years. Therefore, no climate change and no coronavirus. Case closed!

Teaching email: on documentary poetry

30 March 2020

Aloha class--
This week we’ve started reading (and, I hope, writing) documentary poetry. I’d like to answer a couple questions here, and then tell you something about my own interest in this sub-genre of writing. I’ll do this as a Q&A between me and myself and you!

--When does this tradition of writing begin?
While documentary poetry seems especially popular (is that the word?) these days, the form comes out of Modernism (which was a response against Romanticism). Poets like Ezra Pound, in the Cantos, and T.S. Eliot, in The Waste Land, used literary and political histories to write “poems that include history,” as Pound put it. William Carlos Williams’s long poem, Paterson, and Muriel Rukeyser’s Book of the Dead, are important early instances of documentary poetry. That Williams was a doctor and Rukeyser a journalist, inclined them to using documents (consider that prescriptions are documents, as are newspaper articles) in their poems. Rukeyser’s work inaugurated the use of documentary poetry as a kind of activism. She wrote the poem about an industrial disaster in West Virginia in the 1930s in order to shed light on abuses against workers, who were put in harm’s way without adequate protections. Her poem includes everything from the blues to excerpts from Congressional testimony. Another poet who used documentary poetry in a similar way was Charles Reznikoff, whose Testimony, drew from legal cases, many of them about terrible injustices against African Americans, among others. He also wrote a book called Holocaust, which uses the Nuremberg Trials as its basis. I’ve never been able to get through that book; it’s unrelenting.

--Why is documentary writing so important?
The 20th and 21st centuries have been chaotic: monarchies gave way to democracy and to communism; colonialism collapsed and post-colonial nations floundered; there were wars and wars; faith in institutions, systems, faiths fractured. Poets responded to this chaos either by 1) trying to put Humpty Dumpty together again, as the Modernists did or 2) by cobbling together a new way of representing the world, trying to heal the fractures by investigating them. The Modernists tended to be Fascists, which is certainly one way of organizing things. The post-modernists have tended to be more on the Left side of the spectrum, like Rukeyser and more recent poets like Adrienne Rich and Mark Nowak. Lisa Linn Kanae and Donovan Kūhiō Colleps try to make sense of Hawai`i’s very fractured histories of western contact and immigration. The documentary method is good because you can at once acknowledge the breakages (the poem is written in pieces) and try to show a way to patch the pieces together.

I wrote two books about my mother’s dementia (Dementia Blog and “She’s Welcome to Her Disease”: Dementia Blog, Vol. 2, both from Singing Horse Press). These are mixed genre books. I used more documents in the second volume, having to do with the government asking if my mother had remarried or even if she existed (this was about my father’s military pension); questionnaires sent out by the Alzheimer’s home about my mother’s habits and interests (sadly few at the end); and the contents of her bedside drawer after she died. Each of these rather impersonal sets of documents opened up questions about identity, history, and how to grieve for someone who had not yet died . . . it was tough stuff, but the biggest adventure of my life as a writer. (Yes, writers tend to thrive on crises.)

--Why teach documentary poetry?

I’ve found that this mode of writing works really well for students here. There are so many layered stories and cultures and languages in Hawai`i that the material is there to be tapped. I also like to teach documentary writing because it’s a wonderful way to make connections between private family stories and public historical ones. For example, if your ancestors came here as refugees from Vietnam, your family story is necessarily tied to a series of shatterings in world history—wars, displacements, and so forth. One of my favorite teaching stories involves a young man in a class years ago who responded by my asking the class to find out their family stories by telling me that he and his father didn’t talk. I suggested that he explain that this was an assignment for a class, that he needed to do it. So his father started talking. He was Vietnamese, fled to the USA, and is now a commercial fisherman. By the end of the semester, this student had a project that illustrated those connections/separations and he was also closer to his dad. Like so many great teaching stories, it depended not on great teaching, but on simply making an event possible (without evening knowing I was doing that!).
Donovan Kūhiō Colleps’s Proposed Additions, which I hope many of you have and will read, also came out of documentary poetry class I taught on the graduate level. The layers Donovan uses range from the Hawaiian histories of Ewa to contemporary Ewa. He uses his Hawaiian grandfather’s cancer diary, and his blueprints for an addition to the family house, as well. His grandfather becomes the link between Donovan and his immediate family, as well as to Hawaiian culture and language.

--Why write documentary poetry? I’m asking you to write a short piece this week. Take a document, like a birth certificate, or adoption papers, or a passport, or a family photograph, or a newspaper article, and work with it. You can write on top of the document, or you can expand outward from it. Give it a try. It becomes a wonderful way of exploring yourself in the context of larger histories and cultures.
Which brings me to the accidental conjunction of our readings of documentary poetry (Joseph Han’s on-line chapbook next week is another example) and the current global pandemic. Our lives have been fundamentally changed, and very quickly, by this virus. It’s not just our politics that have been affected, but also our daily lives. If we lived in larger communities before, we’re now living fairly solitary lives. If we had service jobs to work at before, we’re now unemployed. If we loved to enter the classroom and teach, we’re now reduced to writing emails to our students from the privacy of our “offices” (multipurpose spaces that they often are). As one of my son’s profs told him, we are now living history.

This is material for documentary poems, believe me! Get to them!

Wishing you all good health and peace of mind.

Susan S.

Monday, March 30, 2020

Lilith and the policeman's pug

When she was a puppy, Iwi the brown pug would run across the play area like a mad thing. Somewhere around the time her person (a member of the police) lost two of his friends near Diamond Head, Iwi developed a blockage in her esophagus. She had several surgeries. Even now, she requires a feeding tube and a balloon to open up the blockage (she's the first dog in Hawai`i to get that treatment, G told me today). She drools, because she's perpetually nauseated. G says there's no leadership from the top of the police department. No advisories on how to deal with the public. He asks me how on-line education is going. I tell him some of my quiet students have come to the fore on discussion boards; other students have gone missing. S has a missing professor. I tell him I'm worried that the crisis will become an excuse to convert us all to on-line from now on. He nods. Everything's changing. Kids whose refuge was at home are now trapped with their abusers. It's really sad, he says. Then he and Iwi go one way, as I try to steer Lilith toward the direction of a longer walk, one she starts and then refuses to continue.

[I wonder if the label "ordinary life" still applies to anything at all that appears here.]

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Tupelo Quarterly Forum on Diction in Poetry

Daniel Tiffany anchors a forum on diction in poetry; he was kind enough to ask me for a response. Here are links to his essay and to my response. There are a lot of other responses. Take a look!

Today, the worlds of contemporary poetry and academic scholarship about poetry and poetics are taking starkly different approaches to the social and political functions of poetry, the latter reviving attention to nuances of form, and the former increasingly preoccupied with matters of diction.


Thank you for asking me to respond to your fascinating essay, “Speaking in Tongues: Poetry and the Residues of Shared Language.” Rather selfishly, perhaps, it resonated with me as a kind of manifesto-after-the-fact for Tinfish Press. I founded Tinfish in 1995 as a platform from which to argue that experimental forms (with their various dictions) make good vehicles for work in largely post-colonial Pacific spaces. The con/fusion of poetic form and radical diction has been central to Tinfish’s argument from publication of Lisa Linn Kanae’s (2001), Sista Tongue, Barbara Jane Reyes’s Poeta en San Francisco (2006) Donovan Kūhiō Colleps’s Proposed Additions (2014), Leona Chen’s Book of Cord (2017), Geneve Chao’s émigré (2018) many other books and poems along the way. In each of these works, dictions/languages meet at fault-lines cut by political and cultural power.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Letter to my students

27 March 2020

Dear students:

Wow, that sounded rather impersonal. I miss all of you and am working my way around the room in my head as I type this. Know that I’m thinking about you and the class community a lot.

Some of you have written in your attention exercises about the effects of the pandemic on you. It’s an very stressful time, and easy to get derailed (though getting derailed is also an important part of this experience we’re sharing distantly). But there are some antidotes: E writes about going to the beach and seeing a baby whale breach; S’s busy cooking; J is meditating (keep at it!); C is watching animal videos about inter-species friendships; J is cataloguing disrupted lives for his poem; L is writing about the effects of moving a table in her house, effects that are more dramatic than she’d realized. And J’s fancy google doc system won’t let me in yet! These are the responses I’ve been reading this morning.

Which brings me to this: the most important part of this class—perhaps even before the lockdown and world emergency—was the attention exercise. Your moments of attention have been beautiful and funny and perceptive from the beginning. But now they’re turning into a coping strategy. I know my daily walks with Lilith provide me with many small moments that seem even more precious now: conversations with neighbors, meetings with new dogs and people, stunning views of the Ko`olau mountains from Temple Valley in all kinds of weather. My feelings are mixed: the world’s beauty offers consolation for our difficulties, but also makes me tear up often. I’m reminded of losses—in the past and, I fear, the future—and of how precarious our lives are at all times.

So do the attention exercises with special care—not just for class credit, but also for yourselves.

I’ve started doing yoga with a poet friend, Brenda Kwon, on zoom. That helps ease anxieties and fears. My family is eating together, joking together, annoying each other together. So find releases for your internal exile(!). If you lose a job, know you’re not alone. If a friend or family member gets sick, please reach out to the class and to others. If you need something, ask.

Which brings me to our class. Many of you have moved smoothly into this new space of on-line conversation. Some of you are adjusting more slowly. It’s ok. We may soon have a credit/no-credit option; when that happens, be in touch. The withdrawal period has been extended; if you’re thinking of withdrawing, be in touch. I’d rather you not do that. I have no intention of grading harshly; all I’m looking for now are acts of attention that show up in your reading, your poems, and your lives. If you want to write a poem unrelated to the week’s prompt, please let me know. We can do that.

Important question: how many of you have copies of Donovan Colleps’s Proposed Additions, which we start soon? I can supplement the reading, for those of you who don’t have it, with on-line materials, I’m pretty sure. It’s too bad we can’t have a visit from Donovan, who works at UH Press and is a wonderful person. Maybe another time—I’ll ask him if he’s up for on-line discussions.

In the meantime, be well and take care of yourselves and your families and friends.

Much aloha, Susan S.
PS I see I'm getting J's materials as we speak. Thanks, J!

Thursday, March 26, 2020

26 March 2020

26 March 2020

“A nucleic acid molecule, in a protein coat.”
Nuclear medicine in a leaden cloak.
Nuclear family, crammed in one townhouse.
The deck needs a coat of paint.

All hands on! Called to be handy-
people, we put on latex gloves,
Our hands each wear a narrow coat.
Hand-masks against the viral load.

Load us up with medical supplies.
The lodestar of this pandemic is paper.
Products lost in bulk at the very back
Of closets filled long ago with goods.

In the morality plays, Goods wears
A capital coat, rides in a wagon across
The plain to stage a lock-down.
In the capitol. Quarantine’s

An inventory; it finds us home
And bids us count, as if numbers could
Shed their coats, walk naked
Through the supermarket at elder hour.

Today, we isolate from ourselves,
Each to a room, a computer, a remnant
Wind outside, promising us,
But not delivering weather shifts.

A shift in key. A shift key on the board.
A shift beneath a dress. The dr.’s dress
Resembles curtains, cinched by a belt,
Another performance set to begin.

The performance starts with the clown.
He wears a long and narrow tie, gazes through
White circles surrounded by Tangy skin.
Declares us soon free to move about--

Do our jobs, circulate with friends,
Infect the globe with our optimism.
There’s a drug coming, he knows it.
What it does, he doesn’t care.

The confidence man charms us;
He puts us under; he pulls the sheets up
And over our eyes. Somewhere, someone
Is building new morgues to handle

The over-flow of bodies.
We vow to give them to the charity
Of the Fortune-500, for hallowed
Be thy name. Kingdom come.