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


Jill said...

Funny that you are writing this now because I just had to write a lesson plan with a group of soon to be teachers in my education class and the topic was "Hawaiian Literature." I pulled up Brandy, Kimo, and Sage to use as examples while another student suggested Haunani. I think this is seen as highlighting Hawaiian Literature, placing it in the forefront of our English classes, which is important and necessary. But I think it also serves to buffet literature. We should teach Hawaiian writers all the time along side white, Asian, black, and other indigenous writers writers--not just once in a while, not just in one class. Oh, wait, you can, in Tinfish books and journals.

Ryan said...

Hi Susan,

I appreciate the honesty of this post, and wanted to tell you that, as a young poet, I really do appreciate Tinfish Press, precisely because of the ways in which it constantly challenges and expands the ways in which I think about literature from Hawaii and the Pacific. This dialogue has helped me to think about the boundaries I set in my own poetry (often unconciously), and as a result, has helped to grow as a writer.

As a new high school English teacher, I've been thinking a lot about the role of the teacher in facilitating conversations, how we are able to guide conversations about a particular text to certain points or ideas that we feel are important for our students to understand. A part of me thinks, why not an editor as well? Of course you don't want to close off other conversations, but if you would like to suggest to readers the possibility of thinking of Tinfish in a certain way, for example, as a conversation amongst different voices, as a cohesive organism rather than a catalogue of separate publications, why not? Posting on this blog is a great way, but why not take it a step further? Is there harm, for example, in creating model lesson plans to go along with each publication, that suggest different ways for teachers to approach a given text? (I am thinking specifically at the high school level, where such assistance could go a long way in getting a new book into the classroom). I think that would be one practical way of expanding a Press's potential audience, moving beyond the more obvious connections to ethnic and cultural studies departments of Universities, to other types of classrooms as well.

susan said...

Thanks, Ryan. I hope this is a first step toward what you're thinking about, namely ways to get the readings--and particular ways of approaching them--into classrooms beyond universities here and elsewhere.

Then again, I don't want to be overly directive. It's a tight balance, between suggesting readings and demanding them! Will think more on it.

Unknown said...

The words of Jacinta Galea'i touched me. I read her piece over and over. Thank you for posting thoughtful, emotionaly honest, writers!!!!

Unknown said...

My heart was touched, and moved by the writings of Jacinta Galea'i. Thank you for posting thoughtful, insightful writers like Jacinta