Thursday, May 28, 2009

Timothy Yu's Race and the Avant-Garde

Timothy Yu's Race and the Avant-Garde: Experimental and Asian American Poetry Since 1965. Stanford UP, 2009.

In Fall, 1992, I taught Ron Silliman's The Chinese Notebook to a class of exceptional undergraduates at UH. Even in the years before cell phones, ipods, laptops, all the many paraphernalia of distraction, students had no trouble with Silliman's parataxes; their disjointed lives matched his torqued new sentences in a syncopated but exact rhythm. At the end of the course, I required each student to write a meditation on poetry in the form used by one of our authors. Several students wrote their own versions of Silliman's Wittgensteinian propositions. I best remember the title of one: "The Chinese-Italian Notebook." The shock I felt at receiving this essay came from the way the student had taken a title that refers to material (the Chinese notebook), and used it to mark his own ethnicity. The student's nationalities, as we say in Hawai`i, were Chinese and Italian.

Timothy Yu's new book addresses questions of race and Language writing and does two important things with them. First, he historicizes them. Then, he makes of that history a compelling argument about parallel avant-garde movements, both of them grounded in protest movements of the sixties, both existing on the margins of 1970s poetry, both entering the mainstream from the 1980s forward. I am most interested in what ethnic and experimental writing have to say to one another when placed side by side, or inter-leaved (I might credit this student's title with at least some of the impetus to start Tinfish Press in 1995). But Yu writes that his “interest lies in the vexed history of division between the two bodies of work . . . rather than in any argument for their unification” (16). Using a definition of the avant-garde that has less to do with aesthetics than with social groups composed of like-minded artists, Yu argues that Asian American poetry and Language writing formed parallel movements in the 1970s. (This is no critical Poems for the Millennium, in other words.) Both presented themselves in opposition to the mainstream; both were marked by questions of form and racial identity. Both meant to create art out of social groups, and reconstitute the social through the reception of their art.

The way in which Yu gets at his argument is sometimes paradoxical. While he's arguing about groups, his chapters focus on individuals. So Ron Silliman becomes the emblematic Language writer, while Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (by way of an excellent reading of her critics) and John Yau become representative Asian American writers. I'm being a tad simplistic, as Yu's narrative also includes a long discussion of what it meant to create an Asian American culture. Unlike African American culture, which can be defined through music, language, and other features, Asian American culture had to be constructed out of its parts—Korean, Chinese and Japanese (all featured in Yu's book), Filipino, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Thai (all outside the purview of this study). Also outside his study is the vexing realm of Hawai`i's Asian American writing, which is at once part of the larger category and a significant sub-category of its own. That Yu can call Cathy Song's poetry “apolitical” shows that his interest is in Asian American poetry outside Hawai`i, where even titles like “Easter, 1959,” bear a political freight, 1959 being the year of statehood. But I needn't torture that point, as Yu has enough fish to fry. The story of Hawai`i's avant-gardes remains to be written.

As I said, many of the larger issues he raises about social and artistic formations are treated at length in case studies of individual writers. As the prime representative of his avant-garde, Ron Silliman is at once the fool and the hero of Yu's narrative. At his worst, Silliman is the proto-Rush Limbaugh (“the Republican party is the oppressed minority”) of the avant-garde. In a letter to about Messerli's anthology of Language writing, Silliman wrote: “I hope, in choosing your title, that you are aware of the comparability of the phrase 'language poetry' to epithets such as nigger, cunt, kike or faggot” (Letter to Peter Glassgold of New Directions, 58). At his best, Silliman simply and honestly acknowledges (in the face of late-60s and 70s identity politics) that his identity is marked, as well. That Yu occasionally takes Silliman at his word, and assigns “white male subjectivity” to Language writing seems problematic to this reader. Ann Vickery has elucidated arguments about gender issues between members of the Language group, which included Lyn Hejinian, Rae Armantrout, and Susan Howe almost from the beginning. But he's right on target when he argues that “Silliman claims his own position as particular and universal, capable of registering class, race, gender, and sexuality while simultaneously transcending their limits” (50). Language writers such as Charles Bernstein and Barrett Watten, in their own ways, have tackled the issue of identity politics, vis-a-vis their nearly absolute distrust of identity. (This, too, is an historical point; Bernstein has embraced the Jewish American tradition of poetry increasingly as he has gotten older.) That they have often failed to do so persuasively illustrates Yu's point about the “vexed history of division” between movements, if not about future possibilities for migrations across them (more on this in a bit).

Yu is adept at revealing the history of Asian American poetry before Garrett Hongo's The Open Boat (1993), in whose introduction the editor tries to place Asian American writers in a mainstream where prizes are earned (Cathy Song won the 1982 Yale Younger Poet award) and photos accompany the poets professional bios. Yu is also good at reading David Mura against Li Young Lee, in terms of the ways in which they express their senses of Asian Americanness. Suffice it to say that Mura does not do well. He is most drawn to what might be termed “problem poets” like Theresa Hak Kyung Cha and John Yau, both of whom test the categories of Asian American and experimental poetry in fascinating ways. The chapter on Cha is comprised mainly of close-readings of other critics on Cha, from those who treat Dictee as a narrative about nation and ethnicity to those who treat it as an anti-narrative about the failures of identities and histories to cohere. And then Yu comes in to show how these readings apply—but only to parts of the text. His reading locates her as both an Asian American and an experimental writer, if not at the same time. “Dictee charts a kind of path from the Asian American to the experimental and (perhaps) back again . . . Like modes of contemporary political criticism, it cannot escape the tension between the need for a foundation for action and the knowledge that no such foundation can any longer be taken for granted” (137).

John Yau's parodic postmodern work (Yau describes himself as “'the poet who is too postmodern for the modernists and too modern for the postmodernists'” 139) uses Chinese American identity to show that it cannot stand as such. For Yau, Asian American identities are produced by the work, and must remain provisional. It's with Yau one senses Yu is most at home, even if that home is like Ashbery's houseboat, sturdy yet afloat, at the whim of the literary and social winds and waters that surround it.

That writers do not organize themselves around their perceived (and actual) differences has sometimes been a disappointment to me, as editor of Tinfish (and member of an adoptive family). If Hawai`i's avant-gardes have included movements for Local Poetry (the late 1970s Bamboo Ridge group), for Hawaiian poetry (strongest since the mid-90s launching of `oiwi, Hawai`i's literary communities have not so easily welcomed the formalist avant-garde. And yet, as I watch some Tinfish poets, I see writers who can participate in many different groups. Craig Santos Perez is a Chamorro activist, a Latino poet, an indigenous poet, an experimental poet, and so on. Tinfish may be a place where he can be all at once, but the luxury (and responsibility) to move across and through alliances is his. I would be eager to hear what Yu thinks the future of his avant-gardes holds for him and for us. Have we arrived at the place pointed out to us by "The Chinese Italian Notebook," in the era of Obama's own multiple ethnic and political identities? Or have we, as I sometimes fear, simply entered into a new series of divisions, disalliances?

Monday, May 25, 2009

"How does a change in vocabulary save your life?"

I located the sentence from Fanny Howe that I parsed yesterday and can now confess to having misrepresented Howe's meaning, if not the way in which language itself creates a schism between "nature" and "adoption." The sentence can be found in Howe's essay, "Immanence," from The Wedding Dress: Meditations on Word and Life (UC Press, 2003). This essay is about Edith Stein, a Jewish philosopher turned Catholic who was murdered in 1942 at the hands of the Nazis. Howe finds fascinating the difference between Stein's academic writing on empathy, writing that "was almost unreadable--it lacked the fluidity of experience or any way of speaking directly, and rested instead on a carefully constructed logic as stiff as wood" (45) and her writing about the experience of writing about empathy. The latter Howe finds moving, based on experience, empathetic. The shift from a logical, impersonal tone, to one "softer and more subtle" is crucial to Howe and matches her own method of moving between her own experience and her ideas about it.

The question Howe asks is this: "How does a change in vocabulary save your life? Replacing one word with another word for the same thought--can this actually transform your feelings about things?" (47). This question (which she never answers--who can?) leads her toward the distinction that bothers me. Howe's concern here is with emptiness: "Each time we exert our will we are exhibiting hope inside emptiness. And over time all the necessary actions that we take will help us develop a familiarity with objects and with space that makes our comforts seem natural rather than adopted" (46). Before I pause to consider the words "familiarity," "natural," "adopted," let me permit Howe to finish her (and Stein's) thought: "We begin to trust the logic of our own and the world's machinery working in tandem and forget the mysterious disjunctures between hopes and arrivals" (48) In other words, "natural comforts" are mystifications, whereas "adopted" ones recognize disjunctures. We think we are natural when we are actually adopted into the world as we become familiar with it.

But consider the vocabulary she uses and does not change, a vocabulary of family, divided neatly into "natural" family (sometimes birth mothers are called "natural") and "adopted" family (where familiarity is set apart from nature). This is the division that inspired a pediatrician to ask me, as I sat with my son, if I had "any children of my own at home." Or one that caused discomfort in an emergency room nurse who asked my husband and me, bringing in a baby having a hard time breathing, "how can we describe his relationship to you?" Or the rather frequent question I got early on: "where did he come from?" (So that the question of birth, if unanswered, inspires questions about history.) I could go on, and I realize that Howe is not using the terms ignorantly or insensitively. But still she has not changed the life of her vocabulary.

How can a vocabulary change your life? Consider that the words we use to talk about family are abstract, that they do not apply to most of us well. Consider then that to write about these words is to bring those abstractions closer to our experience in the way Stein came closer to her meaning for "empathy" when she wrote from experience rather than from "logic." If empathy comes out of a recognition of the fluidity of histories, including one's own, then those fluidities may inspire new words. What, for example, is the word for the relationship between me and the adoptive mother of my daughter's birth sister?

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Notes on Vocation and Inheritance

Just as the semester ended, I read Fanny Howe's The Winter Sun: Notes on a Vocation, a memoir of her life, work, and coming to faith (Graywolf Press, 2009). While, as a sometime scholar of her sister Susan Howe's work, the autobiographical elements intrigued me, what were most compelling were the meditations on time, spirit, poetry and, yes, vocation. It's one of those books immediately dog-eared, appreciative checks pencilled into the margins. When I look back at these pages, not all passages appear as significant as they did at the pencil-wielding instant--yes, egalitarian teaching is a good thing, and yes, vocation is crucial for the "complete attention" it offers us. Other passages will last longer outside the text, like a paragraph citing Jacques Lusseyran, a man who survived the holocaust; his wisdom (like Howe's) merges with commoner sense: "'Light is in us, even if we have no eyes'" (93). Howe's comments on repetition and revision also bear repeating and revising: "Often a poet will use repetition by not repeating the same word in one poem. Instead the poet will almost repeat or rhyme a sound but not quite. Almost suggests there is a margin of uncertainty around your thinking. It reminds you that there are echoes that bounce up and away and all is wildness" (150). Or: "Revision is the opposite of repetition and religion" (150). Or "In revising you teach yourself. You find your own information buried in your body. It is still alive until you are not" (167). And a marvelous thought, grounded in pedagogy, like so many of her meditations: "Walt Whitman shows that in poetic thinking, the ideas that triggered the poem are never stated, exist only in the past, and are never introduced into the poem as its subject. Instead the poem arrives as an effect of these ideas and as a result of discarding many possibilities" (163). How true, and yet how difficult to "teach." Except to say: repeat, revise, repeat.

I have lost track of a passage that made me angry, though not as angry as I would have been six or seven years ago. That I cannot find it here, now, makes me wonder if it might instead be located in Howe's earlier book of essays, The Wedding Dress, which I sampled recently, as well. In the sentence I cannot find, Howe posits that she wants something natural, not adopted (where adoption is artifice, opposed to what is organic). The language allows us to make such distinctions because the word "adopt" can mean everything from adopting a child to adopting a position you do not believe in. Crucially, it can mean "to act," as opposed to "to be." Yet this trick of words is not harmless. Adopted families are often looked at as less than "natural," as "fictions." My mother-in-law, a guardian ad litem for abused children, tells me the state is given money by the feds for re-uniting biological families, but not for putting children in distress into adoptive families. Where there is money, there is sure to be a moral code worth investigating.

When I first became an adoptive mother, this distinction hit me like a ton of bricks. It wasn't that I didn't harbor some unhelpful assumptions of my own--most of us do--but that I had not realized what it meant to be on the other side of them. All adoptive parents, especially those whose children look very different from them, have stories about strangers and friends who ask insensitive questions. My children are asked all the time about their "real parents" by friends at school. "Real" is another of those words that suggests our family is something other than genuine. (When one of Sangha's best friends asked me where we "found" Sangha, I responded by asking him where his family "found" him. What came after was a long story about his mother's divorce and her marriage to his "step"dad.) My skin crawls when Maya Soetoro-Ng is referred to as Barack Obama's "half-sister," when their relationship is clearly one of wholeness, not of fractions. Adopted, step, half: all these words impugn the reality of relations based on something other than blood.

At the time, I reacted by rejecting that "reality," abhorring the usual family politics of relation as resemblance, the comparison of noses and profiles and laughs that families use to emphasize their connections when they feel them. (Physical resemblances between family members who cannot abide each other probably result in narratives of another stripe.) I wrote poems, quarreled with people, opposed the priority of blood families as if I could defeat it on my own terms. If the windmill was resemblance, then I was Donna Quijote, galloping toward it with a baseball bat, aiming to take it out and replace it with what I thought real, namely the emotional and spiritual connections that define my family to me.

And then the other day, I took a portrait of Sangha and Radhika dressed up for May Day celebrations at their school and realized, once I'd downloaded the photo, that Sangha's face resembled my father's. Sangha's smile, his face, was my dad's. That their skin and hair colors differed did not matter; there was an intimate resemblance there. This reminded me that early on in my motherhood of Sangha, then just over a year old, I looked back at his stroller and saw my father's face--my father as an old man, not a child. This happened more than once, most vividly at Times Supermarket (the name of the market seeming over-determined as I write this parable of inheritance). The effect was powerful but not frightening; after the initial shock and perplexity, it seemed right. When Radhika came along, she seemed very like my mother in many ways: Radhika makes constant faces, has a talent for sarcasm, and lacks a sense of direction (except in the sense that she always goes the wrong way).

Has my mind engineered resemblance to assure me that we participate in a lineage, that Sangha is my son just as I was my father's daughter? Is there a spiritual link between my kind father and my kind son (kind in more than one sense) that expresses itself in my reading of their smiles? Does the German Frederick William bear a spiritual relationship to his Cambodian grandson, Sangha Frederick, whom he never met (my dad died in 1992; Sangha was born in 1999 and adopted in 2000)? Does resemblance then matter as much to me as it does to others who have not had the occasion to think about it as much, or with so critical an eye? Or is this another way of showing that resemblance merely represents connections it cannot enforce?

[editor's note: please read the entry that follows this one, but appears above. The reading of Fanny Howe here is not quite right.]

Thursday, May 21, 2009

"Words are what sticks to the real": Wayne Kaumalii Westlake, (Jack Spicer), Douglas Rothschild

When I moved to Hawai`i in 1990, I wandered the aisles of the campus bookstore to see what my colleagues were teaching in their courses. The shelves bore few surprises, except perhaps for the sheer number of Maxine Hong Kingston titles. One title new to me was Darrell Lum's Pass On, No Pass Back, a small Bamboo Ridge book with a cartoonish cover; inside were short stories in Pidgin about a guy who wore a beer-can hat, a hippie lady who didn't like graffiti, an old man at Palolo's Chinese Home. (Those are my memories, in any case.) I went on to teach that book on numerous occasions, along with Lois-Ann Yamanaka's 1993 book, Saturday Night at the Pahala Theatre, which brought Pidgin poetry to the forefront of Hawai`i's literature. In the mid-1990s, at a Local Literature conference at Kapiolani Community College, Richard Hamasaki (a local poet, literary provocateur, Kamehameha Schools teacher) called Yamanaka on the carpet for not using Hawaiian materials in her poems. Out of the considerable energies of that conference and many other meetings and discussions, the native Hawaiian journal, `oiwi, was born. This is to make a very long and important story short.

When I walked the aisles of the bookstore in 1990, I had no idea that there were poets such as Wayne Kaumualii Westlake (or Joe Balaz or Imai Kalahele or Richard Hamasaki or Mahealani Kamau`u—now Perez-Wendt). I had no idea that Westlake had already been dead for six years, killed in a car crash in 1984 at the age of 36. And, while I began to hear his name from time to time, I didn't realize that I was hearing his words in the air--mostly in the poems of other poets. Ryan Oishi is one contemporary poet with an extraordinary ear (prone to poetic kleptomania) who offers up echoes from the past that inhabits our present. Here from “Prayer for Surf”:

Lord, may there be no sharks in the water,
cruising in da surf,
but if get, Lord, please surround me with other surfers
just in case of one shark attack
except of course Lord, if all da surfers are Hawaiian, or part-Hawaiian, cause a guy
went tell me that sharks no attack Hawaiians,
(Hawaiians eat fish/ eat Hawaiians/ eat/ fish eat Hawaiians—I heard that
somewhere too, Lord) Tinfish 17

There in parentheses, though hardly parenthetical, are the words of Wayne Westlake:

Mei-Li M. Siy and Richard Hamasaki have collected and edited many of Westlake's poems into a beautiful UH Press volume. Hamasaki wrote an introduction, an afterward, and composed valuable notes to many of the poems. He frames Westlake's work in myriad ways: as a response to Chinese and Japanese poetry (which he studied in Oregon and Hawai`i), as a retort to the ravages of tourism, as a response to avant-garde movements like Dada, and—most importantly—as the work of an indigenous Hawaiian poet. “This is a poet,” Hamasaki writes in the introduction, “who worked and struggled in an era when few authors from Hawai`i, particularly those of Hawaiian ancestry, had access to established presses” (xv). Westlake taught in Poets in the Schools, founded an “Ethnic Studies” course at UHM with Hamasaki (a course still taught in the English department), wrote editorials for local newspapers, and worked as a janitor in Waikiki. One of the striking details about Westlake is that he never owned a car and so walked Honolulu as few people do—from Aina Haina to Waikiki to Manoa—from home to work to the university. Westlake valued the land, but (and!) in much of his work he was primarily an urban Honolulu poet.

Hamasaki's frame is marvelous; the editorial work is rigorous, and Hamasaki's gifts as a literary critic much in evidence. (His work reminds me of that of Peter Gizzi and Kevin Killian, who have likewise decentered a generation's poetic biography in their recent edition of Jack Spicer's poems). Where Westlake indigenizes, Spicer queers the tradition; hallujahs for them both!) Here, from Hamasaki's Afterward, a comment on the ways in which place and self and culture operate as one: “Waikiki becomes symbol and metaphor for the colonization of his own mind, of his native world as Kanaka Maoli—native Hawaiian—and of his indigenous nation, language, history, and culture" (248). Hamasaki puts Westlake's work in historical and poetic context. In his notes, he also shows how deft was Westlake's translation of Li Po's poem to Tu Fu by comparing it to those of other translators, including Sam Hamill and David Hinton. Surely he's right that “On top Puff-Rice Mountain // I meet Tu Fu/ wearing a bamboo rain-hat in the noonday sun” trumps “I met Tu Fu on a mountaintop / in August when the sun was hot,” etc. (Note 6 on p. 263).

Hamasaki's Westlake is primarily a Hawaiian poet who “brilliantly indigenizes” contemporary movements such as concrete poetry. He uses the Hawaiian “kaona” to draw out meanings in words that would otherwise be hidden. Like Joe Balaz's concrete poems, Westlake's are artful images of words rendered into poetic arguments. For example, his poem using the word HULI, which can be defined as follows: “To turn, reverse; to curl over, as a breaker; to change, as an opinion or manner of living; to look for, search, explore, seek, stury; search, investigation; scholarship; section . . . ; taro top" (253). Westlake turns the word upside down, renders it as meaning turning into image, image becoming meaning:

For more on Westlake's poetics, read ku`ualoha hoomanawanui's essay in a recent volume edited by me and Annie Finch, Multiformalisms: Postmodern Poetics of Form.

While Westlake's haiku and other short poems resemble a strain of American poetry from Emerson through Gary Snyder and Albert Saijo, the work that most reminds me of the Westlake of the Waikiki poems (1972-73) is that of Douglas Rothschild (perhaps by way of Amiri Baraka), whose Theogony came out recently from Subpress. Rothschild has been around a long time, but his work has appeared mainly in small press chapbooks and on the scorecards he loves to keep at Yankee Stadium (should I change that tense to past?). Like Westlake, Rothschild is a bitter urban observer, gifted with a forensic eye and pen. For both poets the losses of the past do not so much breed melancholy as anger, bitter wit. Westlake walking the streets of Waikiki and Rothschild walking the streets of Manhattan might somehow, miraculously, meet in conversation. In their exchange I hear the following:



how we spose
feel Hawaiian anymoa
barefeet buying smokes
in da seven
eleven stoa . . . ? (189)


from Crumbling: Infrastructure

As the subways continue to deteriorate
& suffer fare hikes & service cut backs,

the city finds time to spend millions of
dollars on an extravagant Japanese garden,

accessible only to the rich. (41)

or, from the aptly titled, Memory War:

They've created a Disneyland effect
in lower Manhattan. It is too late

& there is no stopping them

in which Manhattan and Waikiki are one, to tango with Wallace Stevens.

Westlake and Rothschild take on the modernism of Ezra Pound in large measure by appropriating its Imagistic techniques, its verbal precision, and (less comfortably, perhaps), its invective. Both attempt to adapt that invective to a very different, anti-imperial, poetics. And both remind us, always, that “everything is poetry,” whether in Palolo or in Brooklyn. Westlake's model is more important to Hawai`i than Rothschild's will be to New York, most certainly, but the targets of their invective are more similar than not. "Take America for example: / / Show up from somewhere else; / {Northern Europe} kill all / the indigenous people; // become a great nation!" The words are Rothschild's, the sentiments Westlake's, and (I imagine) vice versa.

This will likely be the only review of either Westlake's poems or Rothschild's that links these two poets, or draws in Jack Spicer's oeuvre. I say this not to point to any quirkiness of my own reading, but to lament that so much poetry published in Hawai`i stays in Hawai`i, and so much published outside of Hawai`i stays there. (This now is my agenda, not Hamasaki's or Rothschild's.) There are reasons for this, plenty of them, but there ought also to be compelling reasons for exchange, for conversations real and imagined, past and proleptic.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Ventriloquists from Laenani to Palo Alto

Having typed my grades into the UH system yesterday, I drove off this morning to Laenani Beach Park at Matson Point, and camped myself at a picnic bench (covered once by green paint, now scratched with inadvertent maps) to write in a notebook. The view is peaceful--to the right looking to sea is the Mokapu peninsula, where the USMC's base is located (but cannot be seen from such a distance); to the left the island of Mokoli`i, also known as Chinaman's Hat. There is a line of palm trees next to a sea wall, just past which some skiffs and a wooden pier bob back and forth; the sun is so bright on the water that a distant fisherman standing at the prow of his boat with a pole appeared as silhouette. There were a couple of workmen in the park, the occasional sound of a motorcycle from Kam Highway. And then, "nice place to meditate and read, isn't it?!" a man hailed me, striding toward my bench. "Are you writing a report?" he asked. Dressed in shorts, a Hawai`i themed teeshirt and a Hawai`i cap, he announced that he came from Ohio, had several months ago attended a ministers' conference in Honolulu and had--on his way to the airport to fly home--turned around to stay. He'd prayed to the Lord to tell him if he should remain in Hawai`i or not, but the Lord had told him to choose and, well you know, a guy from Ohio wants to be in Hawai`i.

The man in shorts and teeshirt and cap is an evangelist and a real estate agent (writes mortgages in Waikiki). He held in his hand a brightly colored book about evangelism by a man who draws millions to his revivals in Africa. He has another friend who preaches to hundreds of thousands in Pakistan, although it's forbidden by law. The man in shorts wants to bring such revivals to Hawai`i, so he is reading Land and Power in Hawai`i to learn about this place he so wants to help. Gavan Daws, I averred; now there's a difficult story. He asked me if I was a Christian, and I said Buddhist. He had brought Buddhists to Jesus, he said, and I should have known then to say I had errands to run.

I looked out at the distant fisherman on his boat and on the waves and the distant peninsula as the man's voice fell around me: God gave his only son ("it was a gift, you couldn't do anything for it"); God said a house divided against itself could not stand (I somehow thought Lincoln had said that, but realized he had merely echoed it). The sayings from scripture swirled about my head as his voice arrived at its favored cadence, soft-spoken yet insistent. He said he did not have a denomination, thought all of god's children. . . He had spent all day at St. John's by the sea over the weekend, helping with a church event. Here in Hawai`i a Buckeye boy might think he'd died and gone to heaven. Here everyone greeted and hugged you, and it was truly paradise. How had it taken so long for him to get to Hawai`i? When he asked if my husband was in the military, I said I had to go. As I drove away, he occupied the last picnic bench, took off his shirt, and prepared to swim.

When I arrived home, a book was waiting in the mailbox: Rachel Loden's Dick of the Dead from Ahsahta Press. Rachel Loden has long spoken for her anti-hero (and mine) Richard Nixon. She is not a helpless but a willing puppet for his voice and--as it turns out--for that of the "son" he so gave to the world, George W. Bush. Their genealogy comes clear in "The Richard Nixon Snow Globe," where the poet imagines someone making such a globe:

So he could see Dick's head inside a dome
While hoodoo snow is falling
On the baby bush tricked out with lights
In his rancho home sweet ovum

Dick (and how I love the Facebook "Send a Dick in the Box" gimmick) haunts the White House yet, as Dr. Rice kneels for him, Libby's lawyers recognize him, "Cheney's heart is flying toward" him, and Martha Mitchell wants a kiss.

I have read many of the Nixon poems before. But what is most scary is that because not all the poems are in Nixon's voice, that voice seems (if not sounds) even more pervasive. The book becomes a paranoid fantasy that befits its prime mover. Is he speaking here? I kept wondering, or is it perhaps the poet, Bush, someone? There are as many Dick's as there are Waldo's, and Milhous is surely the Emersonian oversoul of the text.

The book contains, but is not contained by, its parodies. I was reminded of Gizelle Gajelonia's thesis (see below) when I heard echoes of Pound and Creeley, Stevens and Seinfeld emerging through the Nixonian harmonies. In her notes, Loden informs us that this poem:

The USNS Comfort Sails to the Gulf

Huge red crosses on the whitewashed hull:

ought to remind us of "In the Station of the Metro." But who needs notes to recognize the Creeley who is here:

As I sd to my
friend, because I am
always shopping,--John, I

sd, which was not his
name, the market sur-
rounds us, what

can we do against
it, or else, shall we &
why not, buy a Jaguar XKR,

floor it, he sd, for
christ's sake, 4.9
seconds to 60 mph.

("I Know a Brand," 59).

Here the ghost of Robert Creeley comes to change brands from "man" to "car." Or it could be John Berryman trailing his Henry (qua John) behind him. There are too many more echoes to count, each a pincer in the heart of the last century, which gets its own poem, "Props to the Twentieth Century."

So, two scenes of ventriloquism: an evangelical real estate agent from Ohio utters a cascade of scripture at an Oahu beach, while Rachel Loden permits the worst of the 20th (and 21st) centuries to speak through her. One offers revival, redemption; the other promises an "end of miracles" (to quote Albert Wendt). One speaks his lines in absolute earnest, is a willing puppet for the Lord. The other is equally earnest, but her lines are wicked things, willing to be found beautiful once they meet the page, but composed of our historical wreckage (war, capital, deceit, greed). If I had met the evangelist later in the day, post-Rachel Loden/Richard Nixon, would I have left the park with more hope? I doubt it, but the day has seemed full of voices falling as if in some tropical snow globe (snow cone?), twin markers of an American culture that is nothing if not screwy.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Forgetting poets; or the evanescence of memorials

A facebook friend, Christina M. Brooks, recently posted photographs of a park by the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio. This park memorializes Hart Crane's poetry in sturdier fashion than a book or a broadside; the artist Gene Kangas used metal and other substantial stuff to fix Crane's words in the world. Other photos of the park, put artfully next to a bridge, can be accessed here.

I wrote my dissertation on Hart Crane in the mid-late 1980s, long since left to the scrap heap of my own academic history. I still remember the first scrap of Crane I read in a Norton, probably from "Cape Hatteras." An amazing piece of over-writing it was, and I adored it. I wept at the end of all the biographies that had been published at the time. (John Emil Vincent recently read me the penultimate paragraph of a biography I'd missed, so lachrymose in its allusions to sharks' teeth and muscular bodies, death by water, that it was horribly funny.) I dragged my boyfriend of the time to Brooklyn to walk over the Bridge a couple of times; later, we drove to Garrettsville, Ohio, where Crane was born, to find him.

Not 10 feet from the Garrettsville police station there's a raised plaque that reads, "Hart Crane, internationally renowned poet, was born in Garrettsville." Or something. I walked the 10 feet and entered the station, asked where I could find Crane's family house. No one knew. In fact, no one had heard of Hart Crane. But the plaque, I muttered. We crossed the street, went down the stairs into a hardware store, where no one had heard of Crane. After all, you had to cross the street to see the plaque. We went down Main Street, where no one had heard of Crane. But someone said she thought she knew who had: Crazy Annie, whom we would find at the very back of another store.

Sure enough, Crazy Annie had heard of Crane. His was the big white house on the corner down the street, she told us. A man of the cloth opened the door to that house, looked at us askance, and said this was the house Clarence Crane grew up in, not his son; the white house was now a rectory for the church. We could find the house we wanted next door. He pointed to an old greenish house in need of repair, paint, rehab. That house was home to some urban hillbillies, a couple with kids; the house actually was under repair, but the repairs seemed more like disrepairs than anything. The woman who lived there said she had seen a ghost once, coming down the stairs in a large skirt. Turn of the century ghost, she thought, who fled when the vacuum cleaner was turned on. Smart ghost, I remember thinking, must have been Crane's grandmother. The woman said her husband had lost his job, had started to drink, was turning into Crane, or so she feared. A couple people a year found them looking for Crane (imagine how many people gave up who did not find Crazy Annie!)

Hart Crane was clearly not welcome in his home town, even in his own death. The historical society's brochure seemed to have nothing about him either, though Joseph Smith made an appearance for some reason I've forgotten. While the plaque next to the police station memorialized him, that plaque required an audience, one it did not have. How to think about memorials after realizing that they, too, can be insubstantial, forgotten even as they last--physically--across time? My facebook friend, Christina Brooks, took photos of the Gene Kangas pieces, pointing out where they needed repair. Would repairs repair the forgetting that is accorded many of the best American poets? Or is forgetting a stronger thing than permanence itself? Rhetorical question, that. Oh, and the Hart Crane park in Cleveland lacks a parking lot. Case closed.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Albert Wendt and the Adventures of Genre

Albert Wendt, who was Citizen's Chair professor in the English department here for four years (2004-2008), returned last night to give a reading in the Marjorie Putnam Sinclair Edel reading series. He was introduced by our chair, Mark Heberle, in English, welcomed by poet Robert Sullivan in Maori, chanted to by three Hawaiians, and then opened his (English language) reading by thanking everyone in Samoan. His partner, Reina Whaitiri, sang some lyrics from Bob Dylan along the way. He read from recent poems, and from his forthcoming novel, The Adventures of Vela, published by Huia Publishers in Aotearoa.

Some moments:

--Wendt commemorated many recent deaths, including those of Epeli Hau`ofa and Hone Tuwhare. He described his poem about Hone Tuwhare ("Hone in Las Vegas") as part of an essay that might become a book on his travels on the north American continent. The essay/poem/book extract was a kind of inverse travel writing: the indigenous Samoan and his Maori wife travel to Las Vegas's inversion of the real and the imagined. A line that stuck out for me: "All our journeys are about other journeys," which may have been a quotation from Tuwhare.

--"Envy the moon--it goes and returns. People go, but do not return." Samoan proverb.

--Wendt knows the Samoan stories because his grandmother told them to him when no one else was around. He grew up in a fundamentalist Christian community where such stories were not to be spoken out loud.

--He described the way in which he takes real characters, the goddess Nafanua, for instance, and gives them new stories, and said this would get him in trouble with many Samoans.

--Wendt's character Vela is a poet adopted by Nafanua, although he does not want to be adopted by her. He is given immortal life so that he can chronicle her life (so you need to doubt the truth of his stories).

--Adoption is a major theme of the verse novel. Wendt let slip that in the sections on adoption T.S. Eliot plays a large role. T.S. Eliot, who "adopted" other poets' texts gets adopted by Wendt? I look forward to reading the book to see what this link between Eliot and adoption means, and how it plays out.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Asian Settler Colonialism

The recent AAAS conference in Honolulu, coupled with the publication of Asian Settler Colonialism: From Local Governance To The Habits Of Everyday Life In Hawai'i, edited by Candace Fujikane and Jonathan Y. Okamura, has provoked recent conversation. Here are two sound bites, both from the Honolulu Weekly.

First, Candace Fujikane:

A response by Davianna McGregor, of Ethnic Studies, at UHM:

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

TheBus as literary vehicle

[Tortilla & "Stop Requested"]

This semester my honors student, Gizelle Gajelonia, wrote a book of poems about TheBus, that awkward system of transportation that circles O`ahu island, takes workers to Waikiki and ferries tourists out of it, bears the word Aloha on its dirty metal skin. Over the course of a couple of years, Gizelle has seen the world through the bus's windows; when she took a Poetry & the City course from me a couple of years back, she had a notion that buses and cathedrals were the same. Naves, you know. Indulgences. Out of discoveries like that one, she has built herself a monster thesis in which TheBus is simply one vehicle among many. Her bus moves her from Wahiawa, where she grew up, to the university; other buses perform the Circle Isle; a metaphorical bus moves between literary stops. The bus contains intertexts: voices of Filipino workers and those of Whitman, Williams, the Bible. She has chosen to inhabit the poems of others, carefully replacing their references with her own, creating a mix that is almost always funny, but sometimes quite grim. While a stop is requested at the end, these poems never refrain. The wheels on this bus just go round and round!

Last summer, while teaching in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, an odd city inelegantly shared by residents and ex-pats (many of whom own striking houses, one of which we lived in for a month, with fountain, garden, and gardener . . .), I read John Ashbery's "The Instruction Manual" at the open mic. Ashbery's poem is about Guadalajara, a city he had never visited. The details are as ravishing as they are fake. Colors, moods, chatter, all figure into his hallucination of tourism, which reminds any long-time Hawai`i resident of dreams provoked in others by the tourist bureau. Whether or not Ashbery intended to criticize the bad art of tourism, he succeeded deftly. And now, along comes Gizelle Gajelonia of Wahiawa, to write "The Thesis," her take on Ashbery's take on Mexico.

"As I sit looking out of a window on the 52 Wahiawa Circle Island
I wish I did not have to write a thesis about TheBus"

answers Ashbery's own:

"As I sit looking out of a window of the building
I wish I did not have to write the instruction manual on the uses of a new metal."

From instruction manual to thesis is not far to go, if you're on the right bus. And so Gizelle imagines her visit to Columbia's campus ("The school I most wish to attend, and would likely not attend, in New York City"), remarking on WASPS and on the "Jewish boy with the book, he is in love too; / His angst shows it." Her tour of Columbia is as extensive as Ashbery's of Guadalajara, as rife with exoticism and stereotypes as his:

"We have seen street smarts, book smarts, and the smart that is not smart enough for Ivy League
What more is there to do, except apply? And that I cannot do.
And as "Stop Requested" echoes through the 52 bus, I remember that I am but only a second-rate poet from Wahiawa,
So I open my eyes and turn my gaze
Back to the honors thesis that has made me dream of Columbia."

This is perhaps the most extreme of Gizelle's poems, this parody of a parody of an instruction manual qua tourist guidebook. Among the other poems she inhabits, hollows out, and refills, are Stevens's "13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" ("13 Ways of Looking at TheBus"), Elizabeth Bishop's "The Moose" ("The Mongoose"), Hart Crane's "The River," and closer to home, Eric Chock's "Tutu on the Curb" and Jill Yamasawa's "What We Get." And then there is "The Waste Land," which Gizelle mocks and then adopts for the voice of Hawai`i's last queen, Liliuokalani, who was deposed by American businessmen:

I sat on my bed
Thinking, with my people behind me,
Shall I sign the proposition handed to me?
The monarchy is falling down falling down falling down
O ka halia`loha ihiki mai,
Ke hone ae nei ku`u manawa
O oe no ka`u ipon aloha,
A lo ko e hana nei.
It is for them that I would give the last drop of my blood;
it is for them that I would spend everything belonging to me.
Aloha `oe, aloha `oe, aloha `oe.

I don't think that any of the terms Gizelle or I or the thesis committee came up with do these lines justice. This is not strict parody, or translation, or revision. This is the Queen entering the body of a poem by a poet grieving for the loss of his tradition--which is the tradition that did hers in. Irony doesn't say it either. Eliot's poem has been ghosted, re-appropriated. His poem is pure form, and Gizelle's borrowed words fill that form beautifully and sorrowfully.

[Tortilla & "Eulogies"]

Lyz Soto, who runs YouthSpeaks Hawai`i, wrote an extended chapbook called "Eulogies" about her late ex-husband's schizophrenia, their relationship, his suicide, her coming to terms (if such is possible). She included several maps: a map of the Atlantic as a brain; a map of Belgium's (he was Belgian) cities with parts of the brain; a map of schizophrenia itself. What links Lyz's work with Gizelle's is that, like Gizelle, Lyz began by inhabiting another poem. She was quite taken with Adrienne Rich's Atlas of the Difficult World, which was assigned on the syllabus (and discussed while I was away, alas). So her poem began as a possession by and of that poem. Over several months, Lyz wrote, rewrote, and re-re-rewrote the poem until it became "her own," insofar as any poem can be one's own. It is also very much her late husband's poem. Because schizophrenia is a disease as much as a way of seeing the world, Lyz footnoted the chapbook, including scientific work, as well as poems she was reminded of. And then the footnotes because a place for response to her call; they too became part of the poetic linguistic fabric.

One of my favorite sections runs along the right margin; I cannot do it justice here on blog-spacing. The words are these:

Did you know
there are over five hundred
waves of red?
I see them.
Letters written across
they are speaking
even when they are silent.

Your heart has ten shadows
of red.
irony oxide
You are scarlet.

And finally, my two sections of 273: Creative Writing & Literature, made chapbooks and other projects as containers for collages of their work for the semester. Here is a book made by Sam Hatfield out of coconut skin. It is but one of the beautiful and funny creations strewn across my offices' floors. Others include a kleenex box, a trash can, a box carved with the author's name, a score book, a bubble gum dispenser, a picture frame, a manapua box, and more!

["Roots & Branches"]

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Questions from Harvey Hix

Harvey Hix is working toward a large project based on his original blog questionnaire to poets; he's been writing to poets whose work he has read (and a lot of it is from Tinfish Press) and asking more specific questions. Here are the questions he sent me about Dementia Blog, along with my answers:

1.In the “Fore and After Word” to Dementia Blog, you explicitly relate dementia and politics. This is a book that was first a blog: would you also add new media to that set of correspondences (as, say, Neil Postman would), or does the work’s originating as a blog indicate that you would not take new media as corresponding to dementia and the political memory loss you address in the book?

SMS: It depends on what you do with the medium. In general, I agree with Postman and Todd Gitlin that television and computers (email, cell phones, and so on) shorten our attention spans. This is dangerous for a poet who needs time away, space and time not to be bombarded with information, voices, demands. But one of the reasons I am drawn to blogs is that they provide the best source of information on politics. I read Talking Points Memo, Daily Kos, Buzz Flash, and other sites every day. So the way in which the media, in and of it self, contributes to our forgetfulness, our “dementia” in the metaphorical sense, is mitigated by uses of that media to inform us, re-mind us.

2.Pages 15 and 16 list a few contrasts that I’d like to pose back as questions about the book. Poetry or poetic prose? Sequence or unraveling of? Call to action or to observation?

SMS: The point of the contrasts is that they are all true. The book is composed of many genres, even if they are all absorbed into prose. I've had an idea for a long time that you could teach genre and form by way of sentences, ask students to compose sentences that gave them access not to how a form works technically, but how it opens the world up conceptually. Hence, a sentence about sitting under a tree and examining your own life would show you the work that a nature poem can do. Or a sentence in which you remember a lost family member illustrates the work of an elegy. And so on. I found in writing this book that those experiments gave me structures to work through as I wrote my prose sentences.

The book is a call to the action of observation, I suppose. And a way to suggest that observation is itself a form of action, that all action takes as its origin the notice of something in the world, whether it is language or ideology. To notice is to act. And the “notice” (noun) passes that action on.

3.I keep returning to the sentence on p. 99: “The situation itself is the poem; you need only take it down.” This seems to me to echo not only what immediately precedes it, discussion of a “moment of lucidity” in dementia, but also earlier observations, such as “Consolation exists, if it exists, in the act of description” (92). Is documentary, then, not one possible direction for poetry, but an essential impulse of poetry?

SMS: I agree with your reading, that “documentary . . . is an essential impulse of poetry,” something I never imagined when I was younger and less interested in the world as it is. But something else I was getting at is the way in which the world itself, in extreme moments, takes on the shape of a poem, becomes figurative. When my father was in his final illness, he began to “make” things with his hands, and he saw family members who were not there. His real world had merged with an imagined one, which was composed out of his memories. That world seemed to me to be poetic, and I was astonished, because my father was not a poet. (Lesson learned, that poetry is not exclusive to poets.) So that “taking it down” meant finding the poem in the world and rendering it on paper or in pixels. My mother's world, at the time I wrote the blog, was likewise a mix of real and imagined, present and remembered, elements. It was the poem I took down. The consolation for me is that there is meaning there, in these situations that are otherwise quite painful.