Sunday, March 29, 2009

"You'll go down if you don't stand up for yourself": Bertolt Brecht, Paul Chan, Lynne Stewart

I assigned to my introductory poetry students over Spring break. Nothing in particular, just a wild ride through the archive of avant-garde film, poetry, ethnopoetics, music, visual art, and criticism. So today I grazed the site myself, listening to some Celtic voice music, then haphazardly clicking on the videos of Paul Chan. His first ubuweb video, "RE:THE_OPERATION," presented George W. Bush's cabinet as wounded soldiers writing home about sex and power (what else is there for Condi or Donald to write about?). It was conceptually strong, but the video was not as memorable to me as was Chan's interview of Lynne Stewart, the lawyer convicted of "aiding terrorism" by defending the man purportedly responsible for World Trade Center One, as she calls it, namely Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman. She has attracted a lot of attention, much of it negative, along the way. You can see the video, Untitled Video on Lynne Stewart and Her Conviction, The Law, and Poetry (2006) here.

The video, produced very simply and effectively, draws Stewart out into a conversation about her activism, her work as a lawyer, and her interest in poetry, which she refers to as "an emotional noodge" and (less evocatively) as "distillations of thought." The video's unstated central paradox goes as follows: a woman convicted of making a press release for a convicted terrorist ("words only"), argues for the supreme power of words, by way of readings from work by John Ashbery (whom she accidentally calls "John Ashcroft," until corrected), William Blake, Eavan Boland, and Bertolt Brecht.

Aptly, the Ashcroft / Ashbery poem is titled, "Absence of a Noble Presence" from Shadow Train (1981). Think aftermath of Watergate, of Vietnam. Think of the absenting of Ashbery by Ashcroft:

If it was treason it was so well handled that it
Became unimaginable.

Stewart's own "treason" was not well handled, and her sense of irony is thus palpable, especially clothed as it is in a thick New York accent. Ashbery helps her to say what she means to about Americans who were willing to trade the Bill of Rights for "a sense of being safe"--not safety, merely a taste of it:

You've got to remember we don't see that much.

His poem ends on a note she will take up again in reading from Blake's "On Another's Sorrow," namely empathy for the other one (I write this to avoid othering the Other):

It matters only to the one you are next to
This time, giving you a ride to the station.
It foretells itself, not the hiccup you both notice.

This "fore-telling of itself" reminds the listener that World Trade Center One was followed by Trade Center Two; if we had only heeded the literal, had only had the conversation Stewart says we have never had, as to why 19 young men might sacrifice themselves, then perhaps the over-literal and foretold second event might not have happened. The Blake poem is a lovely meditation on seeing with, feeling for. Her later reading of Boland's "Quarantine," about a couple that dies together during the 1847 potato famine, renders the feeling historical, as well as trans-historical, and the final poem, by Brecht, "And I Always Thought," brings us back to the place where "the simplest words are enough," if only you utter them.

Stewart also talks about her career as an elementary school librarian (the kids would listen when she started "Tyger, Tyger, burning bright"!), her activism with the Black Liberation Army, the Black Panthers, the Weather Underground and other groups, her work as a lawyer, and the prospect of jail time. On that last note she tears up when she talks about her family, their worries for her. While she says she would die for a cause, but never disengage from it, she clearly understands the personal costs to family.

When I conceptualized this semester's course in Poetry & Politics, I intended the course to be about poems that are political. What Lynne Stewart taught me today, among much else, is that poems (like Ashbery's, like Blake's) that are not ostensibly political can feed a political imagination, show us how the political and the lyrical are braided together, and be used as persuasive rhetoric in a court of law.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Sarith Peou cited in HARPER'S magazine

Sarith Peou's "Corpse Watching" cited in Harper's Magazine, April 2009

This month's Harper's features a long article on the Cambodian genocide and its aftermath by Ben Ehrenreich, namely "Cambodia's Wandering Dead: The Ghosts of Genocide Pay Penance for Western Guilt." The article is especially brutal on intersections between genocide and tourism in contemporary Cambodia. Ehrenreich opens his essay with a quotation from Sarith Peou's poem, contained in his Tinfish Press chapbook of the same title:

Some corpses catch in the thickets,
Some corpses catch in the reeds,
We don't want their spirits hanging around,
So we give them the push that they need.

We reprinted Sarith's book recently, after it was a finalist for an Asian American Workshop award. The book was designed by Lian Lederman and contains a second "book", which opens from the left, of photographs from the Cambodian Documentation Center in Phnom Penh. I suspect that's where Ehrenreich got his copy of the book.

For more details about the book, please see under "chapbooks"

and consider purchasing one.

Many thanks to Ed Bok Lee, who wrote the book's introduction, for spotting the citation.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Lisa Linn Kanae, _Islands Linked by Ocean_ (Bamboo Ridge, 2009)

[Lisa Linn Kanae & Kimo Armitage]

This past Thursday, Bamboo Ridge Press launched (and the word is entirely appropriate in this context) Lisa Linn Kanae's book of short stories, Islands Linked by Ocean at UHM's Campus Center. Before I get to this new book of hers, let me say a few words about her previous book, Sista Tongue, which Tinfish published in 2001. Sista Tongue remains one of our most important titles; the book is taught in Hawai`i, Australia, England, and the continental United States. It combines the history of Pidgin English in Hawai`i with memoir with story telling with the aggressive design work of Kristin Gonazalez (now Lipman, who also designed Lisa's new book, albeit with more subtlety). I have always considered the chapbook to be an experimental essay, but a colleague once told me that her class had knocked their heads together for over an hour on the question, "why is this a poem?" When I asked why ask that question, she noted that Tinfish had published it, and Tinfish publishes poems. So be it. It is also a poem.

In Sista Tongue, Kanae celebrates a generation of Pidgin writers, most of whom flourished in the 1980s and 1990s, everyone from Eric Chock and Darrell Lum to Lois-Ann Yamanaka and Zack Linmark. These writers gave credence to a language that, as Kanae explains so patiently in her book, was considered much more impediment than speech, more impoverishment than song. Their work in Pidgin enabled her to write about Pidgin as a subject; her book joined theirs as a significant work of local literature. At least a generation of students since has found Sista Tongue an enabling text, poring over it for the history of a language some of them are still ashamed to speak.

With this new book of short stories, Kanae joins those who have used Pidgin not simply as subject, but also as medium for their work about Hawai`i. Most of the stories keep to the convention of narration in English, dialogue in Pidgin, though "Luciano and da Break Room Divas" does not. This story chronicles an office conflict between the high and mighty new secretary (well educated, standard English speaking) and her new office mates (working class Pidgin speakers), one of whom is trying to deal with the first anniversary of her husband's death. The characters encounter one another outside the office at a Luciana Pavarotti concert, where the one character, Hattie, exiles her demons in the wash of the singer's voice.

Many of Kanae's stories take on a comedy of manners theme; there are stories about a wedding shower (with condom contest, notably replayed by some of Kanae's friends and colleagues before her reading), about the paddlers in a canoe, and several about love gone wrong. The stories take place at Ala Moana shopping mall, Barnes & Noble, in front of the television screen (where UH takes on Vegas) and other remarkably ordinary Hawai`i places. The first story, a long exposition about paddling that has little of the intro to fiction conventional climax and denouement about it, is full of wonderful voices and characters, from the foul-mouthed Cyril, who keeps the stroke, to the haole paddlers who somehow fit in. Each story tackles a serious subject, but treats it with ostensible lightness. A story about a Hawaiian couple trying to come to terms with his contentment with American consumer culture and her resentment of it ends by suggesting that a next generation might provide them with a fresh way to deal with the conflict.

But my favorite of the stories is the final piece, "Islands Linked by Ocean," an autobiographical account of the death of Kanae's father in Vegas (surely another island in the Hawaiian chain). This essay finds as its center the appearance of fish in odd places (a picnic bench, a sidewalk at Kapiolani Community College), fish that comes to symbolize a family member's safe journey. In this case, it is the journey of Kanae's father, a man who delivered bread, did not believe in higher education, yet is proud of his daughter, the English teacher. There is something about the way Kanae searches for a meaning outside the story here that I find especially compelling. Her approach to a world not simply of the here and now but also of spirit is crucial, and moves the book from the realist world of Honolulu to a realm understood best through Hawaiian cosmogony. Having read a number of Master's theses recently that appear to mock attempts to reach for meaning outside the daily muck, I was poised to appreciate this ending to Kanae's book. I wish there were more stories and essays like this one in the canon of local literature; this one suggests fresh possibilities for writing in and about Hawai`i.

A couple other notes:

--One of my students who attended the reading asked why Kanae wept at the end of "The Steersman" when she got to the end:

"Long before the image of a moon above Diamond Head had become the darling of aloha shirts, postcards or ninety-nine-cent calendars sold at Longs Drugs, long before there were enough hotels to create a Waikiki skyline at night, there was the ocean and the Hawaiian outrigger canoe. I knew what I saw from where I was sitting was as rare as beauty, truth and magic combined in a single moment. I knew why Cyril Poepoe had us take the long way home."

Kanae's tears gave the listener access to the way in which words are allegorical, mean more than they say. "Mahealani" is at once the moon and Mahealani Dudoit, founder of `Oiwi journal, and inspiration to Kanae and her group of writer friends, including Michael Puleloa, Kimo Armitage and others. Read alone, the passage might seem nostalgic, but when Kanae performs it, opens up as elegy. The moon is the moon, but it is also a mentor.

--Kanae clearly cares about sentences, as well as plot. Much of the fiction I read, here and elsewhere, seems to so fetishize plot elements that sentences get dropped in like coins in a slot machine; if they work, it's because the writer hit a jackpot. When they don't work, it's because the game was chance, not work. Kanae's sentences are worked, and work well.

--I love the homage to Allen Ginsberg in "In the Customer's Hands." Another visiting spirit to Kanae's book, "His ability to transform disillusion and cynicism into lyricism made me look around the stores and wonder if Ginsberg would enjoy observing the crazies roaming the aisles. I think he would." If Ginsberg saw Whitman in a supermarket fondling the vegetables, then how appropriate that Kanae find Ginsberg at home in a bookstore the night of his death.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Kaia Sand, Jules Boykoff & Guerrilla Poetries

Yesterday, the Poetry & Politics crew (few but firm) interviewed Kaia Sand & Jules Boykoff at their Portland home offices via Skype--and, when that failed to work well, by speaker phone. We had read their 2008 Palm Press book, Landscapes of Dissent: Guerrilla Poetry and Public Space; a couple of the students had already completed the assignment of plastering poem messages in public places.

I began by setting up the argument that seems to frame the course, namely one made famous by Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov, among others, between autonomous and overtly political poetries. It's a binary that (like so many brute oppositions) ultimately seems to collapse, but which spurs good conversation before it goes. Kaia talked about the problem of didacticism in poetry and mentioned her recent reading of Gary Snyder's Turtle Island, a book she found overly didactic. She said that the question comes down to one of tactics, namely to the question: what works? Jules likewise addressed the problem of a "look down your nose didacticism," at about the time his image froze and we switched to the speaker phone. He then froze the dichotomy itself, suggesting that what is really crucial is context (which I take to be a spatial variant of Kaia's more temporal tactics). Then he suggested that overt politics work better in the context of--say--the Bush administration than do a Duncanesque "politics through the back door" approach.

Much of what we discussed relates also to the question of humor in political poetry. We began our interview by agreeing that humor is a necessary step in engaging the public, and in engaging the poet him or herself in the political act (Jules mentioned that a couple of the projects they performed were inspired by parties they'd been at). Jules spoke of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert as doing the work of "critical journalism," nearly by themselves, over the past eight years. By the end, Kaia argued for seriousness, but by then we were all laughing, so that binary also crashed tellingly. After Jules and Kaia left us, we talked about a recent SNL skit about Hawai`i, which bashes the myth of tourist paradise in favor of a hard reality of meth labs and teen pregnancy. Clearly, that skit was also an act of critical entertainment, one that alerts people who ought to know better that Hawai`i is not a place set apart from history, but suffers through it along with other rural and urban American spaces.

When one student, the head of YouthSpeaks Hawai`i, asked about oral performance, Kaia acknowledged that their book is more about (delayed) visual performances done in public spaces than about (present) oral performances. Kaia's and Jules's own projects began in rural Maryland, where the economy is based largely on fishing and the military (sounds familiar). What they learned, among other things, was how to place signs strategically in the landscape. See their book for some artful placements, especially in what they call "sign groves," where their signs (anti-capitalist, anti-Cheney) were citizen signs among many others in front of churches and other places that attract language. Later in the conversation, Jules addressed the question of performance by developing ideas for performing on buses and in other public spaces by "seeding" the audience. The ramifications of such performances--both visual and staged as spontaneity--are that the performers also breeak out of the predictable "gestures" of poetry, whether it be performance, nature, lyric, or other mode. Not simply anti-capitalist, but also anti-received form (like advertising, like other attempts to manipulate us into acting in someone else's interest, rather than our own).

Location is crucial in setting up one's signs. Jules used an example from the Sidewalk Blogger in Kane`ohe, Hawai`i, who placed a "Torture = Frat Pranks" sign next to an official state sign forbidding such transgressions as skateboarding and dogs. In that way, signs speak to signs, and the audience (inadvertant, as Kaia said) participates in drawing out the political ironies. In another example, I talked about putting up mock lost pet signs that advertised rewards for locating the US Bill of Rights, which has been lost. Jules mentioned a couple in Portland whose son has been caught up in the "war on terror," and their intent to put up "lost son" signs (surely a higher degree of difficulty, in so many senses of the word).

We also talked about signs as--or as not--forms of graffitti, the extent to which activists are willing to "vandalize" the landscape to imprint their messages on the landscape. The projects discussed in Jules and Kaia's book pull up short of the artificial permanence of official tagging. It demands less work by underpaid employees of corporations or the state than does paint on a wall. But what names remain at places like Angel Island and internment camps remain because someone chose to carve them into the walls.

According to Jules, Steven Duncombe has recently argued for embracing humor and popular culture in advancing a progressive politics. So, why not (metaphorically!) embrace Britney Spears? Or Nascar? Or other symbols of our fantasy lives as consumers of entertainment culture? There's a lovely cooptation here, taking emblems of big money and absorbing them into one of the few markets that cannot make money. Frank Sherlock talks about the freedom involved in not making money. One of the students was especially moved by a photograph in the book that shows a pedestrian hugging Sherlock after Sherlock hands him a poem on the street. That kind of connection, however transient, matters.

Later in the conversation, Kaia talked about a project performed by Laura Elrick in New York City. NYC is so drenched in language that Elrick decided to do a silent performance, walking around in an orange uniform as if she were a shackled Guantanamo "detainee." I remember one of the most compelling public performances I ever witnessed was one in which a speaker at Hyde Park Corner in London simply prepared to speak, but came up short of uttering a single word. When finally he did, the crowd dispersed. While that performance seemed contentless, if compelling, one like Elrick's folds together the effect/affect of silence with an image that damns US policies in the so-called war on terror (a phrase that has been retired under the current administration, even if some of the US's actions have not).

And of course transience is something this kind of art courts more than dismisses. We can create archives of our signs, our writing upon the landscape, but we cannot make our signs permanent, so we play with the necessity of their quick disappearance. It is a temporal, not a plastic, art.

So the skype / phone session ended. Next we read Craig Santos Perez's from unincorporated territory and move from the militarized landscapes of Oregon and Hawai`i to that of Guam.

This past Thursday, I attended Lisa Linn Kanae's book launch for Islands Linked by Ocean (Bamboo Ridge Press) and will have something to say about it after I've read the book. Lisa's Sista Tongue is one of the most important books Tinfish has published, widely read and taught as it is. So it's good to see Lisa finding success with her book of short stories, as well.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Ian MacMillan & some notes on teaching

Paul Theroux on Ian MacMillan:

"Ian was talking to me in Haleiwa about Camus' short stories when an insect landed on his hand. Most of us would squash the bug. Ian raised his hand so that he could better see the insect and, while talking about Camus, he took the insect in, looking at it from every angle, appreciating it like a fine jewel. When he had finished, and while still talking about Camus, he gently moved his hand and let the bug go. He gave it life. From then on, I have refrained from squashing bugs when they land on me."

Such was Ian's power, to offer a Buddhist lesson to Paul Theroux (of all people!) and so to us. R.I.P. Ian.

The major issue that came up in my teaching of CW & Lit this past week was how to explain to students who have absorbed the idea that poetry is the art of leaving things out, of suggesting stories rather than telling them, that there is still a mandate for precision, for exactitude. Not an easy task. The last set of poems I received from these students was full of wonderful gestures at imagery and story, but many of them seemed willfully obscure. The obscurity began on the level of grammar. Every sentence we utter contains a story; someone does something, someone else does something back. But students were refusing the net of noun and verb in favor of lines like (and I made this up): "Swirling in the snow / it glints / the silver light is bright," where the reader is not privy to what is swirling or what is glinting (and yet assumes somehow that these are different "whats").

We rewrote these lines so that there were agents and objects. "I swirled in the snow / my rolex glinting/ in the silver light." My second class was still unhappy, because as one student put it, he just liked vagueness and ambiguity. Which led me to explain (to myself as well as to them) that ambiguity in poetry comes not of vagueness but of precision. We looked at Diane Glancy's poem about a woman's visit to the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa. In this poem she writes very straightforward phrases beginning with the pronoun "she." But what we realized as we read the poem, is that the "she" is ambiguous, belonging both to the speaker of the poem and to the subject of the painting. Glancy, a solitary woman, is gazing at a painting of a solitary woman (and paintings by Vermeer and others of women working). She is looking at herself, a woman in a gilded frame, and also imagining how to step out from such (western, gendered) artfulness.

Tomorrow I think I'll take them something by Emily Dickinson or Hart Crane--perhaps inspired by Michael Snedicker's wonderful essays in Queer Optimism on their "smiles"--to show that even when the subject (smile) is divorced from its usual cause (the immediate happiness of one particular smiler), the poet's grammar gives us reason to meditate on the smile as the subject of a more metaphysical (meta-smilical) phenomenon. I'm not doing them, or Michael, justice here, but this is the direction I want to go, having last time made a counter-argument about needing the subject attached to its object (smile to face) in a way that was too simple, but perhaps appropriate to the conversation we were having. If an image that does not have agency of its own (the smile) suddenly discovers it in a poem, then the poet must offer just cause for this to happen. If I ask for directions to Ala Moana and you send me to Waianae, you have not succeeded. If you send me to Ala Moana and I realize that it is like other shopping malls in other places, then you have succeeded. Ah, the consumer epic!

When, in our latest department meeting about budget cuts, we talked about "reorganizing" the introduction to literature program, which features small classes of underclassman, I realized I have come to love these courses for the very conversations we had during this past week. (This was not the case a decade ago, when the classes seemed to me merely frustrating.) The subject of precision and multiplicity also came up--differently--in a memo from our Chancellor in which she alluded to a bad incident that happened on campus, said she did not approve of it, and never mentioned what it was (namely, a group of rightwing Christians yelling at students that they would go to hell if they so much as failed to disapprove of homosexuality).

We need the name of the thing in order for that thing to mean--and to mean more than it seems to mean.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Blogging Schwartz, Skyping Metres, Meeting Lederman

Yesterday was a technological free for all in Poetry & Poetics. The reading was from Leonard Schwartz's chapbook, Language as Responsibility, and from Phil Metres fine blog, Behind the Lines. Schwartz's chap comes in three parts: first, an interview with Israeli poet, Aharon Shabtai; second, an essay on the poetics of translation (Ibis Editions in Jerusalem, which publishes English language translations from both Arabic and Hebrew); third, a poem in response to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Leonard writes to us of this three part structure: "I think of conversation, proposition, and poem each functioning in relation to one another, but each in their own sphere. Dialogue between two individuals (interview), propositional claims or truth claims (essay), and then the poem, as a kind of epistemological frame for conversation and for statement, a kind of writing that is a form of address to be sure, but does not specify the "to whom", a kind of writing that allows us to pull back from the dreaded missionary purpose of much political writing, which is to convert a reader to the writer's belief... and is itself a problem." Metres's blog, despite its occasional ventures into lighter subjects, provides an amazing archive of news and commentary about the Middle East, along with Metres's own meditations on poetry and protest.

In one of his missives to us, Leonard had mentioned the argument between Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov over the role of politics in poetry. Leonard sides with Duncan, thinks poetry should be political, to the extent that it is, unovertly. Phil, playing devil's advocate, took the Levertov position, that one's politics should be up front in poetry, as in other things. When Lian Lederman joined us later, she took the Duncan position, preferring art that deals obliquely with politics to what she called "propaganda." She showed us an Israeli website where artists' responses to Gaza are posted. Some are rather lurid in their portrayals of the parties in conflict, while another simply showed signs asking the reader to share a moment of silence for all of the dead. That one she thought most effective.

Phil used the phrase "producing dignity" for what a politically aware poetry can do in places like the Middle East. The second time he used the phrase I asked him what it meant. Lian lept in (that sounds like Lester Young!) and argued that art, by presenting complicated images of people on both sides of a conflict, can humanize them, one to the other. She and Phil shared a humanism and idealism that seemed bracing for its opposition to all the guns and butter of the USA and Israel.

Phil read two poems for us, one by Mahmoud Darwish, "A Ready Script," and another by Yehuda Amichai, Wildpeace." Without commenting on them extensively, it seemed clear the ways in which each poet avoided the certainly of category and "side," and instead entertained complexity, or what Lian later referred to as an internal state of conflict, in which sides are not opposed, but contained within each person. She referred us to The Third Side by William Uri, a book that argues for the responsibilities of those not directly involved in a conflict to assist in resolving it. She also directed us to work by Prof. Daniel Bar-Tal.

After Phil left us, Lian talked to us about her design work on Language as Responsibility. She began by telling us that she had grown up on an island, namely the island of Israel. Then she pointed out that the chapbook comes in the shape of Israel, roughly a long narrow rectangle, and that the density and claustrophobia of the place is reflected in the small book without margins. You must literally move your thumbs in order to see the text. One student remarked at her frustration that she could not take notes inside the book, or even underline many sections of it. As the book contains three sections, Lian had three goals for her design:

1. erasure and borders
2. multiplying icons--the skyline of Jerusalem repeated over and again
3. the map of Israel, embedded in the fold of the chapbook

The cover integrates Hebrew and Arabic lettering, and is also stamped (Lian was working at the time for the Rubber Stamp Plantation in Honolulu, as I recall) with the punctuation to a Shabtai poem. That the poem she chose was about sex is a lovely subtext on the surface of the book.

Lian also talked to us about her design for Sarith Peou's Corpse Watching, a selection of poems about the author's experiences in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge time. The poems are oddly flat, as she noted, so her design is equally plain. The cover resembles a manila folder; the words are in a typewriter font; the "second book" running to the left side is a series of photographs of Cambodians who were murdered at Tuol Sleng. The book is as beautiful as the subject matter is horrible.

Somewhere along the way I described my marketing strategy for the Peou book, which involved offering to send extra copies of the book to the war criminal of your choice. Mine went to Henry Kissinger, and then another later on to Gen. Peter Pace, who was living in my mother's old house at the time (so I knew his address). There's a sad, wry irony to marketing books in this way, as tiny interventions, goads, pokes in the ribs against the shock and awe of the military industrial complex. The work seems impossible, but as Phil Metres says, we need to do it for ourselves, to prove our agency, and we need to do it to create conversations in the future. Dialogue, if taken properly, can heal conflict. Or so we hope.

For more on our Skype adventure, see Phil's blog.

The great linguist

The great linguist carries himself as a young man, wears a dapper sweater, jeans, and casual black shoes. He sits back, crosses his legs, speaks discursively, as he himself says. "Please ask questions," he says, when someone asks him a question. What is the difference between a Pidgin and a Creole? He talks to us of parents and children, words and syntax. The great linguist professes disinterest in the memoir as genre, but he is here (at Hamilton Library, of a Thursday noon, for the Biography brownbag series) to tell us about his own, its relation to his work, his travels, those things that are not, strictly speaking, "him." The title of his book, Bastard Tongues, annoys my neighbor, also a linguist; the great linguist's comment about the emergence of creoles out of conditions of "impoverished input" sets others to seething. When asked about his use of this word "impoverished," whether it does not set people against the language, the linguist denies the power of that word. People hate creoles, because their speakers are uneducated people of color, he says. Next? When asked about the title of his book, he tells his audience that he once saw a gay man wear a teeshirt with the word "faggot" on it. Says the n-word. Point of power to appropriate.

The great linguist believes in experiments. Once he proposed putting six couples with small children on a desert island. Each couple would speak a different language. His graduate students would speak to them in single words only of a seventh language. No sentences would be allowed, only one word blurts. His grant denied at the highest stage. When asked how he might do such an experiment now, he refers to "benighted orphans in a south American jungle." They might be isolated and fed single words; they might come up with a pidgin, if the experiment were done right. Any graduate student who spoke more than one word at a time would be whisked away. No harm done; there would still be time for them to learn a language. The great linguist acknowledges qualms, smiles. So why not a day care center in a large city where people speak in many languages? That might work, were it not for the contagion of English. When asked about the state of Hawaiian "pidgin" (HCE), the great linguist refers to it as "highly degraded." More a marker of local identity than a language. Too much English. Especially on Oahu.

The great linguist is the agent of our anger against him and his work. In a chemistry experiment, he is both the agent of transformation and the burned beaker at the end. The great linguist seems, in his archness, to realize this. He enjoys the frisson when his "impoverishment" meets our "political correctness." He likes telling us how he bought his degrees, got his job offers, spent his years in the linguistic wilds. He is a charming man, but we resist his charms. His book sits in its cradle, asking to be bought.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Harvey Hix's 20 questions about poetry

Harvey Hix sent these questions along when my class interviewed him. My last question stands--why this odd mix of seriousness and tabloid imaginings? Then again, why not?

What poet should be in Obama's cabinet, and in what role?
–Rather than offer names (like Charles Bernstein for Sec. Of Defence of Poetry), I'd simply suggest that he have poets in his administration; I don't care what kind or even if they're especially good. I don't even care if they're poets, just so long as they think like poets (playful/earnest/unanchored in ideology).

If you could send O one poem or book of poems (not your own), what would it be and why?
--I did send Obama a copy of Tinfish 18.5: The Book, an anthology of five youngish Hawai`i poets who write about issues of the economy, militarization, domestic violence, and other non-paradisical matters in Obama's home state. I have no idea if he got the book, which I sent to his brother-in-law here in Hawai`i.

What other poetry-related blog or website should I check out?
--Penn Sound is a wonderful resource for teaching, especially. I bet you know that already.

Who is the most exciting young/new poet I've never heard of, but whose work I ought to find and read?
--All the poets in Tinfish 18.5. Try Jill Yamasawa, who has a book coming out from Kahuaomanoa Press: Aftermath.
Others are Kai Gaspar, Ryan Oishi, Sage Takehiro, Tiare Picard.
Then there's Craig Santos Perez, author of from unincorporated territory (Tinfish). Notice the tendency to plug?

Funniest poem? Poem that made you cry?
--Funniest poem lately is Ryan Oishi's “Walmart: A Love Poem.” Joseph Lowery's inaugural invocation was very funny at the end, too. Sad poem? C.D. Wright's One Big Self about prisoners in Louisiana. Didn't make me cry, but close.

Either/or poets (e.g. Moore or Bishop? Dunbar or Cullen?)
--All of them. At once. Synthesis of opposites is always a good thing to try. That's why I like Charles Mingus (Armstrong or Coltrane? Both!)

What supposedly immortal poem puts you to sleep?
--The Waste Land.

What poetry book should be made into a movie; who should star and direct it?
--Probably Ashbery's Girls on the Run, even though it's one of my least favorite JA books. But the visual possibilities are staggering. It should star the poet himself and be directed by Buster Keaton.

Lines from a poem that haunt you now?
--Many lines from late Stevens, “one must have a mind of winter,” especially, strange to think now that I've lived in a tropical climate for nearly two decades.

What poem do you love, love, love, but don't understand?
--Most of the poems I love are poems I don't understand. This is a hard sell in a college classroom, believe you me.

If the AWP Chronicle were the Enquirer, what headlines?
--Oh I do not want to go there!

Poetry scandal rag headlines?
--Encore une fois. Though I do love Brad and Angelina. If it were an even more shoddy tabloid, I might go for Dana Gioia runs away with space alien.

Best non-American poetry you've read lately?
--There's a lot of terrific poetry coming out of Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific these days. I put some of it together for a feature in how2 a couple of years ago.

Where would you like to encounter your next poem?
--I like the found poems in my classrooms, like “No / food or / drink.” No one obeys them. What else is new in poetry?

What poem would you like to hear the main character bust out singing in a Bollywood film?
--What a great question. I just got some sound poems from my undergrads, some of which look susceptible to Bollywoodization. And there's always George Oppen, Lorine Niedecker, Susan Howe, the other quiet ones. I'd have them sing the white spaces.

Do you have a (clean) joke involving poetry you'd like to share?
--I have a great semi-unclean story about Allen Ginsberg. Won't tell you.

Is it poetry you keep in the john, or some other genre (john-re)?
--I don't read on the john.

Can you name every teacher you had in elementary school? Did any of them make you memorize a poem?
--No, and no. I did very much like Ms. Antoinette Zeier, though, in second grade.

Next Poet Laureate (ourselves excluded)? Of former Laureates, who should get a second term? What poet should run for President next time? Why?
--Probably Adrienne Rich. She's a conventional poet, a political poet, and she's a lesbian (they have seemed to steer clear of gay poets for laureate). Maybe Rachel Loden, because she could speak to us as Richard Nixon. Didn't Pinsky already take his second term? I liked his favorite poem project. As for poet for president, I'd pick Obama, both for his juvenilia (Punahou poems) and because he's the best writer/president we've got.

Your own question here.
--Why did you ask these particular questions?

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Witi Ihimaera and students

This past Thursday, March 5, I attended a colloquium in the English department at UHM devoted to the fiction of Witi Ihimaera's students. Witi is our Citizen's Chair Professor and Distinguished Visiting Writer this semester; he is best known, as he acknowledges, as author of the book that inspired the movie, The Whale Rider.

Witi is a lively, engaged teacher. He organized the reading as a kind of call and response, using both his own interjections between readers and gentle demands that audience members turn to their neighbors and chat for five minutes at a time to prompts such as, "What is your Pacific story? WHO are YOU and WHERE are you FROM?" The quick inventories of the past that he demanded we begin with were appropriate punctuations to the readings by Witi, Alexei Melnick, Gina Kanekoa, Ida Yoshinaga, Keala Francis, and Kenneth Quilantang, Jr. Each graduate student (and one undergraduate) began by offering a couple of questions to the audience, as if to make us into a large informal workshop.

The readings by graduate students were remarkable for the spaces and genres they opened up in what has long been called "local literature." Their pieces of fiction were surprising in many ways, not least because none of them followed the usual realist-narrative-in-standard-English-with-Pidgin-dialogue form that has so long dominated fiction here. Hence, we were offered a narrative in flat out pidgin, nothing else, by Alexei Melnick, on the meth epidemic in Hawai`i, a subject that he says makes it impossible to see Hawai`i through any other lens. He also argued for work in Pidgin for those who speak Pidgin, despite claims by unnamed publishers to whom he has shown his manuscript that such people do not read--read "buy"--books. Gina Kanekoa, the lone undergraduate, read a story that linked joblessness in Hawai`i to military recruitment, and chronicled one death in Vietnam. Ida Yoshinaga began with a long explanation of her concerns, which include uses of fantasy writing to explore real sociological and cultural issues in Hawai`i, and then read from her sci fi fantasy work. Among her characters is a woman locked in an abusive relationship who turns to sand when she gets upset. There were also reptiles, space vehicles, and Pidgin English running through the section of her novel that she read. Keala Francis's writing is more lyrical than most I have heard from fiction writers here. She writes about personal loss in a family in which there is a missionary descendant and an ecologist. She quoted another writer who said, "To know what you don't know is a kind of omniscience," the kind of statement one wants instinctively to disagree with, but still provides a useful writerly koan. We go on precisely because we want to know what it is we do not (probably in both senses of that phrase, the positive and the negative). Finally, Ken Quilantang read from an allegorical story about a boy (aptly named Boy) in a tattoo shop who comes from an abusive family; his best friend is a woodrose bush out in the back yard of his house. Much of the piece is written in Pidgin. Again, not the kind of story one hears every day, either here or elsewhere. There is something heart-aching about Ken's work, which tends to be at once vicious and humane, genuinely sad (in a way that word no longer does justice to).

Witi Ihimaera finished with a story of his own, or was it memoir, about his father calling him late at night in Honolulu to ask the narrator to keep him awake so that he would not die (the father is in his 90s). While I wished for a sterner editorial hand in parts of the narration, which seemed in places to become operatic, its center was terribly affecting, as was the entire reading.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Reading the Small Press as Argument, Not Instance(s)

I've been asked to speak about Tinfish Press in Australia in November. Toward that occasion, I've been composing an abstract (I've always loved how abstraction prefigures actual texts in the academy) of such a talk. So I decided to take on an issue that has occupied my thinking for a long while, but hasn't yet risen to the level of speech, partly for reasons that may become obvious in reading the abstract. This is dicey stuff. I'm not meaning to suggest that Tinfish ought to be read in one way--surely its reception needs to be various--but I would like more attention focused to the way we intend to present the work. Editorial intentionality is a much-neglected field! And perhaps the editor is metaphorically dead, but this is my occasion to differ. Thanks already to Gaye Chan for suggesting that the dialogue in question occurs within many of the books, and to Tiare Picard for suggesting that the cross-conversations are not solely between white and non-white writers, as I seem to suggest here (having set apart "experimental white writers" and "ethnic non-experimental writers" in the fashion I see them so frequently segregated). But part of the task here needs to be to scramble those distinctions even as I argue against them. So here goes the abstract so far. I would love to get comments from other editors, poets, readers.

Abstract (Abstract)

When I talk to students about starting a small press, I ask them first to come up with a mission statement. The mission statement helps the editor seek grants and submissions, but more importantly, it posits the press as an argument of which its publications are evidence, example. Tinfish Press's mission statement is that we “publish experimental poetry from the Pacific region.” Bland enough, but nonetheless a fencing out that is, I hope, also a strong argument about what Pacific region writing might include. Definitions of Pacific writing tend to posit tight boundaries. The writing is either white experimental or indigenous Pacific Islander (read “non-experimental”). It is writing by “settlers” or writing by “natives.” It is writing from the Rim or writing from the Basin. To which I ask, “why?” Why do we limit ourselves in this way, rather than asking where these apparent differences can lead us in conversations about language, about regional and global politics, and about poetic form? Tinfish Press, in its production of texts as various as Jacinta Galea`i's Aching for Mango Friends (the most poetic parts of her novel about Samoa and Hawai`i) and Meg Withers's sequences of prose poems, A Communion of Saints, or Hazel Smith's The Erotics of Geography and Jozuf Hadley's Three Poems, renders a positive critique of ways in which Pacific literature is generally figured in literary criticism and in the classrooms of my university, among others.

When faced with the supreme difficulties of marketing and distribution, however, I take an old tack. To keep the press afloat I need sales. Late at night I google ethnic studies departments and specialists in Asian American literature, Filipino American literature, and so on. Where I argue against identities, I market (quite literally) in them. While Tinfish seeks to create an audience that looks to writing and a politics of anti-colonialism as its nodal point, its readers more often look for texts that will confirm their sense of literature as real or national blood-lines, that will fill a space in their ethnic or cultural studies syllabi. Sometimes people will look at an anthology of work, as in our recent Tinfish 18.5: The Book, which presents poets from Hawai`i, and select out the Hawaiian poets, or the Tahitian poet, and leave out the Asian American poets. As if the book were not an argument against such exclusions and inclusions!

So I see Tinfish as a press that is read against itself, using its individual publications as evidence against the larger argument. It is as if Tinfish were a historical and cultural document, but its readers were New Formalists, looking at each volume as whole within itself. Of course there's little I can do about this. I believe in each of the books we publish, or I would not publish them. But I wonder how to ask—nay, demand—of readers that they look beyond the instances of our catalogue and toward the press as an organism. One way to do this might be to collage our different voices in such a way that their possible conversations become more clear. So let me endeavor to set up several of these possible conversations now, conversations between poets whose work may or may not appear to be linked in any other way, perhaps, than its publication by Tinfish Press.

Norman Fischer (Charlotte's Way) and Craig Santos Perez (from unincorporated territory)
--questions of place and decolonization from a political/cultural/historical view and a zen pov
Yunte Huang (Cribs) and Hazel Smith (The Erotics of Geography)
--migration and performance (China to USA; Britain to Australia)
Dan Talaupapa McMullin (A Drag Queen Named Pipi) and Meg Withers (A Communion of Saints;
--a non-Samoan gay man writes about Samoa, and a non-local non-lesbian writes about queers in Honolulu; both write about drag queens
Pam Brown & Maged Zaher (farout library software) and the poets of Tinfish 18.5
--ideas of community in writing, writing with others (even if you don't know them personally!)
Jacinta Galea`i (Aching for Mango Friends) and Naomi K. Long (Radiant Field)
Uses of prose in poetry from the Pacific

God Bless (the ex-president): Skyping Harvey Hix

Yesterday my Poetry & Politics students and I interviewed Harvey (H.L.) Hix on Skype about his book God Bless. Half of this recent book consists of George W. Bush's speeches "crow-barred" into poems (including sonnets, villanelles, sestinas), set alongside poems written in the voice of Osama Bin-Laden. The second half of the book is made up of interviews, the first of Hix himself by his publisher, and the rest by Hix of academics, poets, journalists, and others who think about the divide between the US and the Arab world. Hix has made a book of the profoundest of impasses; by setting Bush next to Bin Laden and vice versa, he does not open a dialogue between the two. Instead, he confirms their inability to speak to one another. Bush dismisses Bin Laden, and Bin Laden ratiocinates in ways Bush cannot begin to think through. The reader of Hix's book, then, is put in the position of "mediator" (the book is a self-proclaimed "mediation" of "political/poetical discourse," rather than a "book of poems") between parties who refuse to engage one another on their own terms. This is couples therapy gone incredibly terribly globally wrong. But my students' engagement with the book suggests that Hix's goal of opening a dialogue might just be attainable, if only between members of a class or other group of Americans (Hix admits that his book will be read exclusively by Americans).

Toward the end of our conversation, Hix referred to contemporary politics as "the big language country." One of my students immediately joked that "that sounds so Wyoming!" But what struck me more than anything about Hix, whose work I am new to, is his reverence for language at a historical moment when it has been debased by politicians, advertisers, all the many marketers of greed. "Reverence" is an appropriate word, as one of his interviewees, Paul Woodruff, writes about the significance of reverence, more than faith, to honest thinking about the world.

That reverence for the word led Hix into a project of perverse proportions; he ended up reading every word that Bush uttered in his first four years in office, from the early unacknowledged legislations of "regime change" to the later patriotic bombast. From that mother lode of rhetorical nightmare he consolidated the words into poems. When I alluded to the way in which Hart Seeley made Donald Rumsfeld into a comic, light character by doing something ostensibly similar, Hix responded that he had wanted precisely NOT to do that, despite the temptations of creating yet another calendar of Bushisms. His poems are, instead, complicated vehicles of humor (the laughing at kind), irony, and false folksiness ill at ease not only with governance, but with the forms into which Hix pours "his" words." The question of intentionality came up when we asked Hix if these are poems, or some other creature. I wondered if it did not matter that Hix mediated Bush into poetic form, rather than Bush performing that act himself. As he did with many of our questions, Hix responded by saying he did not have answers. "And we went to all this trouble to set you up on Skype!" I said.

And what are we to make of this project? For this reader, the crucial distinction came at the very end of the interview section, where Pheng Cheah, a rhetoric professor at Berkeley, makes a distinction between achieving consciousness of one's complicity in economic injustice (her example is IKEA) and actually doing something about it. That something can never be complete, as we are always (already!) implicated in a system we cannot exit, as we exit the box stores where we think we are saving money, but we can mitigate our own complicities a bit. This is not well summarized on my part, as I left my book in my office yesterday in my haste to get to family dinner, but I wanted to take down some notes on this valuable conversation before it evaporates as completely as a Skype session, albeit lacking in electronic cricket songs.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Teaching with Skype: Mark Nowak

I have long been worse than ambivalent about Skype, which brings another person into the room face first and has them talk at you; this method lacks the fascinating and odd semi-privacy of the phone conversation, and fills the house with even more noises than usual. But it struck me a few weeks ago that Skype might make a good teaching tool, and certainly be easier to arrange than full-fledged visits by off-island poets to the classroom. So this semester I've invited poets to join my Poetry & Politics class via computer screen.

The first poet was Mark Nowak, who appeared after several glitches in postage stamp fashion on our Dell mini-laptop. Students had already generated some questions for him about his book Shut Up, Shut Down, in particular about the poems "Capitalization" and "June 19, 1982" (or the day Vincent Chin was beaten to a pulp with a baseball bat in Highland Park, Michigan, just outside Detroit). Here are some of the questions:

--There were a number of questions about process. How did the poems come together? Could you describe in some detail how "Capitalization" came together? How did the sources affect the argument, and vice versa?

[Nowak's most interesting response here concerned the inclusion of the grammar text. He'd lined up his Westinghouse and Reagan sources for the poem on the PATCO strike of 1981, but not the third text. He happened to look through a grammar book and realized he needed one from the 80s. One of his colleagues thought that would be way out of date, but he insisted, only to find--of course!--that grammar books in the 80s were very Cold War in their content. Lots of sentences about the threats from the East--just as now, he suggests, we'll be seeing references to Al Qaeda and the Taliban in our "grammars" (meaning proliferates!)].

-We presume that you had a lot more sources for your poems than you ended up using. So how did you winnow down the sources?

[Nowak talked mainly about his new book here, which juxtaposes materials about Chinese mining disasters and the Sago Disaster in W. Virginia a couple of years ago. He talked about the bushels of sources he goes through before sifting them down into a final "documentary" script. He said he watches hundreds of film documentaries; in some ways, he seemed to want to avoid the title "poet" in favor of "documentarian." If I'd had more time with him, I would have liked to ask more about his discomfort with the station of "poet." It seemed palpable to me. Reasons for it are evident, but one wonders if the title poet-laborer or other similar might not be worth taking on in its suggestive doubleness.]

--Given that you are using "objective" sources toward a subjective end, do you think your poems are manipulative?

[According to Nowak, all literature is manipulative, so yes. This perhaps explains the enthusiasm displayed a few semesters back by my student Father Bob, a retired Catholic priest, who remarked upon the righteousness of Nowak's work in this poem and others.]

Also worth noting was the question about audience. Nowak said he had noticed early on that his audience at the St. Mark's Poetry Project, say, amounted to a few (predictable) poets. He has spent much of his career trying to engage non-poets in poetic work, from union workers in Minneapolis where he works to auto workers in South Africa and now miners in West Virginia. It's certainly a marvelous project he's engaged in.

[Late addition: what I love about Nowak's work is that it IS poetry, that he appropriates texts in a way that revises our understanding of--for example--the early 1980s, its Reaganism, its racism, its economy. The poetry never fails to astonish students, especially the younger ones, with its lack of a lyrical "I"; it gives me a way to show them how to circumnavigate the lyrical I, with its sentiment and its often preposterous self-sufficiencies. It also either erases cliches or reinvigorates them by placing them in different channels. So I would hate to separate out "poetry world" from whatever we call the other, surely not the "real" one. The entire point of Nowak's work--to this pedagogue--is its link to poetry as form and content. Yes, poetry can be about history, and yes, poetry can be composed of voices having nothing to do with one's personal pronoun. The bracing effect of a Nowak poem is much like that of a Kasey Mohammad poem, albeit the paths are very different. Each of these writers presents the student with an extreme example; the best poems I get tend to use these extremes toward the student poet's own ends, like Tiare Picard's "platoon" in Tinfish 18.5, which is a pantoum based on googling, or like Jill Yamasawa's documentary poetry about McKinley High School. It's the way we appropriate these models that matters. Remind me to say something about Charles Mingus sometime along these lines!]

Next on our schedule is Harvey (H.L.) Hix, if he can get Skype to work for him. We are reading his book God Bless, which presents poems (in forms like sestinas and villanelles) composed of the words of Pres. Bush. Osama bin Laden also makes appearances, although those are more imagined.