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.


bill sherman said...

Just scrolling through ... I don't see how Richard Hamasaki can say Lois-Ann Yamanaka's brilliant, painful, and joyful first book, SATURDAY NIGHT AT THE PAHALA THEATRE, doesn't use Hawaiian materials. I guess he's just trying to carve out a bit of space for himself. Unless all of his contributors write and publish in the Hawaiian language.... See my posts on Hawaiian stuff @
Bests, Bill Sherman (

Jill said...

Susan, I just finished Westlake╩╗s book. It was a refreshing to read. You know who I heard when I read it? My father. They are close in age and apparently, mindset.