Saturday, October 31, 2009

Chin Music Press & Issues in Creative Writing

[Tom Gammarino, Todd Shimoda, Linda Shimoda; photo by Steve Canham]

What better way not to watch a game of the World Series sans Cardinals than to attend a reading by writers (and an artist) of Chin Music Press? And so on Thursday, I went to hear Todd and Linda Shimoda talk about their literary/artistic collaboration, OH! a mystery of mono no aware, and M. Thomas Gammarino (we call him Tom because he's a Ph.D. grad student here) reading from his first novel Big in Japan: A Ghost Story. The works were high and tight, as befits the press that published them.

Both books are as involved with ideas as with plot-lines; their subtitles tell us that. Todd Shimoda's book is the third of a "loose" trilogy: the first features woodblocks and robotics, the second calligraphy and neuroscience, and this third, poetry and social networking. OH! offers up Zack Hara, "emotional eunuch" tech writer in L.A. who goes to Japan, teaches English, gets caught up in an on-line suicide pact, and becomes a vehicle for notions of mono no aware, or "things of sadness." Thus, the mystery of the book (as I gather, having heard only bits of it at the reading) is as much what mono no aware is as how Zack resolves, or fails to resolve, his emotional vacuum. Linda Shimoda talked about the way in which she and her husband collaborate on projects. She is a visual artist, very much involved in Japanese calligraphy and art. The process sounded somewhat familiar to me from Tinfish, where our collaborations are less than concurrent conversations, more like parallel tracks on a related route. Todd and Linda talk about a shared concern, and then adjourn to separate work spaces for months. He writes a novel, she creates a series of images. When they've finished their solo projects, they come together and organize the two pieces in conversation. Thus, Linda's project on emotions entered into his project on the failure of emotion; then, a third eye entered in the person of the graphic designer for Chin Music. The result is a stunning artist's book (how can it be sold for $22.50?).

In his recent Ph.D. prospectus defense, Tom Gammarino had waved OH! around as an exemplar of what he believes will happen once trade paperbacks migrate into Kindle form. The book, as object, will then be freed up to be an art object, rather than a mere carrier of words. We shall see, but the premise sounds reasonable.

Tom began the reading with a story. When he first went to Japan, he had long hair. The summer was too hot. He went to get it cut. He only knew three phrases in Japanese, two of which were "hello" and "good-bye." He and the hair-cutter communicated through gestures and pre-linguistic noises, which he replicated for us. She cut a large swath of his hair, sounded a question, whereupon he uttered his only other phrase of Japanese, "mono no aware!"

Tom's protagonist is a white American who goes to Japan with his band, Agenbite (yes, Joyce fans, that one); Agenbite is to Tom's book what mono no aware is to Todd's. Like Zack Hara, his emotional life is not right. Brain (his name invokes Pynchon, as does a lot of the book, which hearkens back to V. to this reader) falls in love with a Japanese sex worker, cannot separate love and sex, gets involved with a student, breaks up with her (much to her failure to care), and so on. As you can tell already, Tom is ushering in every stereotype adhered to by stereotypical American white males in Asia, but he attempts at the same time to expose and demolish them. This is a dangerous course, to put it mildly. But he mostly does so. The book is flat-out funny; he plays with the stereotypes the way a cat does with its prey, like some latter-day Rabelais.

What I most appreciated about Tom's writing, aside from its go-for-broke humor, was the way in which he crafts sentences. The book is not written in the clumsy everything-for-the-plot manner of much fiction, but almost as a collection of tightly wrought sentences. Tom's attention to language finds its tightest focus, however, toward the end of the book, when Brain is high on mushrooms (he ate them in a sandwich) begins to think in Japanglish.

You speak Japanglish now. Japanglish speaking is by what you are. At least the dad was honest. Strict vew of life, was his truth, you were informed entirely, it was war. You take those, the wife while having sexual intercourse, the specialist and of substance you are polite mutually. That then a certain way.


Who gets to speak, and for whom, is a huge issue in Hawai`i. Tom's book takes it on like Philippe Petit on his rope. The question loomed when I attended Craig Howes's English 620 (Introduction to the Profession of English) course this past week. I was there to introduce "issues in creative writing" to the entering M.A. students. I did so by asking them to read one issue of one of the journals published in Hawai`i now: Bamboo Ridge, Manoa, `oiwi, Tinfish. Given that all of these journals are published in Hawai`i, their sense of where they are and whom they speak for is crucial not just to the editors of these journals, but also to their readers. While all of these journals are now active, one gets the sense of a current narrative that posits Bamboo Ridge as an historical object, `oiwi as a current one, and Manoa and Tinfish as tangential to current stories told about Hawai`i's literature. While there's an inevitability to this narrative, I find it unfortunate, based more on ideas about Hawai`i than about what one actually finds in the journals. Local literature, as it is taught in my department now, is seen almost exclusively through the lens of Asian Settler Colonialism, which posits Asians as part of a problem (colonialism, cultural appropriation, and so on), not part of possible solutions. Such readings, while they aim to be ethical, often rely on binary moral paradigms to make a space for Hawaiian literature and culture by sweeping away the claims (or indeed the texts) made by Asian local writers. Sure, the stories about grandpa fishing and grandson later on eating the food placed on his grave, have lost their eclat (they probably lost that eclat in the 1980s), but Bamboo Ridge has published Lee Tonouchi and Hawaiian playwrights in recent years. That they published a book by Ian MacMillan was itself a fascinating, but not often commented upon, event. He was the first white writer to be included in their canon of single author texts.

I asked Craig's students to imagine journals that would fill literary holes. They tended toward strategies of representation (generation, gender) and genre (nonfiction came up more than once). Publishing, I suggested, should not be considered from the point of view of desire to be published, but from the need to create communities of writers by way of becoming publishers. I look forward to reading examples of the work that feels necessary to these students.

I talked a bit about how a book like Tinfish 18.5 , whose writers are all Hawai`i born and raised, tries to field a conversation between writers from Hawai`i that is not based on nationality or race. I don't mean this to be a collection of "local writers," either. The term "local" seems to have outworn its usefulness. Perhaps we can develop new terms for the literature that creates alliances between writers in Hawai`i, no matter their identity positions or even aesthetics (though Tinfish's aesthetics are pretty clear at this point). I hope Tinfish can provide one model for possible literary futures here.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Tinfish Thanksgiving Sale

Tinfish Editor's Blog brings you a brief commercial break before regular blogging continues--tomorrow.

Give more than thanks for wonderful books from Tinfish Press! Buy one or both of our sales packages as presents for friends at Christmas, or for yourself right now! A good way to experience some of the strengths of experimental poetry (and some prose) from the Pacific, while supporting the future of small press poetry. We have two offers:

--The 2009 package:

Living Pidgin
, by Lee Tonouchi: a second edition of our 2002 collection of essays and poems in Pidgin by Da Pidgin Guerrilla, Hawai`i's foremost agitator for da kine nonstandard English.

Jammed Transmission
, by Paul Naylor, with introduction by Norman Fischer: the latest in our sublist of Buddhist-inflected books, a conversation between a contemporary California poet and a 13th century Japanese Buddhist writer.

Tinfish 19: lovingly and laboriously made issue #19 includes work about Hawai`i's TheBus, landlords, the White House, Mao's insides, and much more.

List price for these three is $42. Yours for $30 plus $4 shipping.

--Package #2

Erotics of Geography, by Hazel Smith, with CD-R. Poetry by an English/Australian poet, pedagogue, musician. Performances on cd are not to be missed.

Cribs, by Yunte Huang. Seriously funny collage work by Huang about being Chinese in America. A linguistic romp.

farout_library_software, by Pam Brown & Maged Zaher. A poetic conversation between an important Australian writer and an engineer-poet from Egypt, now living in Seattle. Truly world literature!

List price for three is $41: all three for $30 plus $4 shipping. Go to and click on "purchase."

You can get both packages for $50 plus $5 shipping, as well. We also have back issues of the journal available at a discount—simply inquire at

In coming months, we will be publishing more beautifully designed work by Kaia Sand, Lyz Soto, Daniel Tiffany, Gizelle Gajelonia and others. Your purchase of books now means that we will more easily be able to publish more.

Thanks very much,

Susan M. Schultz
Editor, Tinfish Press
47-728 Hui Kelu Street #9
Kaneohe, HI 96744

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Documentary surrealism: Matt Jasper's _Moth Moon_

I'm reading "Surrealism" (from Rothenberg and Joris's vol. 1) for Wednesday's Form & Theory of Poetry class. Andre Breton is telling me, from the echo chamber of 1924, that he believes "in the future resolution of these two states, dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality, if one may so speak" (469). This surreality will present "the actual functioning of thought . . . in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern" (468). The difficulties involved in arriving at the "actual functioning of thought" can be seen in the fact that many Surrealist exercises were collaborative, rather than singular, communal rather than solitary. The exquisite corpses I ask my students to write end by approximating Ashbery's solitary writing practice, perhaps, but even Ashbery was schooled on Surrealist techniques in the early 1960s. The "Language Events" recorded in the anthology depend upon pairs of writers composing separately, then "taping" together their questions and answers. In that sense, as in many of the Surrealist exercises, two very ordinary statements, when taped together, make for one "marvelous" (Breton's word) event. The exchange between Benjamin Peret and Andre Breton goes as follows:

If orchids grew in the palm of my hand
masseurs would have plenty of work.

or, this between Yves Tanguy and Andre Breton:

When children slap their father's face
all young men will have white hair.

In neither case is there anything terribly strange about either half of the pseudo-logical statement. Even where one half of the statement is dream-like, "When shoestrings grow in the workers' gardens," for example, the syntax is normative, the image possible to see, the world still ordered in its self-estrangement.

When I began to write about my mother's dementia, I noticed that what she said was often sur-real in this way. She would take two unrelated true statements and splice them together to create what was to me a fiction--to her a true event. She would confuse time periods and run them together in grammatical sentences, which asserted that they were the same. She would confuse cause and effect, putting the latter before the former and creating an effect-cause effect. Much of the confusion I felt as her audience (daughter!) was in the fact I understood the elements of her conversation to be elements she shared with me. Even when her conversation became more strange, as when she asserted that she was in Afghanistan and needed a ride to Wooster, Ohio, I could infer that she had heard the word "Afghanistan" on the news and remembered that her mother and brother had lived and died in Wooster, Ohio. (Something similar happens when Ian Lind visits his dad on O`ahu and is told that he has been driving cars on Maui. Ian's occasional posts on his father's dementia are lovingly documented.)

To say that dementia is a surreal condition is probably not to say anything anyone doubts who has confronted a relative or friend with Alzheimer's disease. More interesting, on a literary level, is the way in which writing about dementia creates a hybrid form, documentary surrealism. If documentary poetry combines the strengths of historical writing, journalism, collage, and the lyric, then documentary surrealism opens up the field to the ways in which the imagination is actualized by mental illness or other extreme states (such as the post-traumatic syndrome Andre Breton dealt with during WWI when he treated soldiers off the battlefield).

Matt Jasper's book of poems, Moth Moon, owes a lot to what Pagan Kennedy terms "every surrealist who ever leashed a lobster," in one blurb. But the opening sequence of poems, based on the poet's experiences in a home for geriatric schizophrenics, has less to do with performing the imagination's oddities (walking lobsters) but with true mental states, recorded straightforwardly. The poet is not imagining anything; he is taking down dictation from those whose minds do not separate the real from the dream-state. Hence, in the title poem, he shows us a man who wears his hair away on the pillow saying "no," and a woman I don't think I shall soon forget:

A woman who suffers from Dutch elm disease,
who speaks to her hands as they turn to dried leaves
outside the window--
her hands covering the ground. (11)

Or, in "Anastasia, Purdy Group Home":

At nine in the morning I try to wake you.
I say your name, I rock you back and forth.
You open one eye
and say, "what you touching my hip bone for,
you going to make soup?" (10)

Or David D. who was arrested for "pounding nails into the yellow line on a busy city street." Or the woman in "The Tip of the Iceberg," who contemplates murdering the poet who says, "I've had mobsters tell me everything. / I mean everything" (37)

What to make of this conjunction of documentation and surrealism? Certainly it puts the focus on something other than imagination, other than aesthetics (though Breton said he didn't care about them, he surely did), other than "systematic displacement" (466). What to a surrealist is "displaced" is to a documentary writer (and his or her subject) a fact. It may not be a "true fact," but by the same token, it cannot be doubted.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

"Why are we doing this?" Education as explanation.

"Why are we doing this?"

I was in the midst of asking my Literature & Creative Writing (English 273) students what sounds vowels make and then having them, Christian Bok style, write sentences in which they used as much of one vowel as they possibly could. We were reading these sentences out loud when the student next to me asked this simple question.

I was annoyed. I put him off. And then, for the next day, I contemplated the question, which was, after all, a good one. Why were we doing that? My intention, which I had not yet stated, was to have the students think about sound. When they enter the class (these are introductory level students), they read poetry out loud as if their voices were filtered through a tone-reduction device. Their renderings are flat, affectless, unmusical. We spend a lot of time in class reading out loud, precisely to mitigate this atonality, this lack of engagement with sound. The students are bathed in music by their ipods, but have not been immersed in the musicality of language.

So I asked the students during the next class to say simple sentences like "how are you today?" as if they were in very different contexts. As if they were speaking to a lover, or to a lover they thought had cheated on them, or to a dog (not to be confused with that middle term). We talked about what it's like to find oneself surrounded by speakers of a language we don't know, and what we can tell about the speakers simply through the sounds of their speech. We talked about listening through a wall. And I'm hoping it began to make sense to them, why we were indulging in the non-sense of a week of sound poetry.

But that question also resonates in a larger echo chamber. Why we do what we do is not something teachers and scholars do well. That lack of communication shows, when you read the comments section of the local newspapers, or talk to people who wonder why you're not at work at 10 a.m. on a given day, or who ask how many hours a week you teach or how many books you sell. (This reminds me that I was once confronted at a Halloween party by a man dressed as a gypsy who loved the football coach, but wanted to know how many hours a week I was in the classroom; I responded that I was pretty sure the coach only coached three hours a week.) What we seem precisely to lack is what we're constantly asked about: product, and quantity of product. Who knows if explanation will work; during my recent trip to SFSU I was told that the cutbacks are so severe that they're allowing students to enter classes five weeks into the term. Needless to say, the classes are larger than they had been, and faculty are teaching more of them. But we owe it to ourselves to explain the value of what we do to those who do not consider it important enough to maintain during this recession.

What is our product? We like to think that we teach critical thinking, observation, even enjoyment. But what is that? I like to think that in encouraging my students' creativity, I am freeing them from the very questions we are always asked--about practical realities. These are interior qualities, not something one can see, or purchase. They are not consumables. That one of my students came to me at the end of his college career and said he had discovered a love for theater and opera touched me deeply, but just won't cut it in the public sphere. There, intangible goods are not good; they are excess, luxury, inessential.

My husband, who is a high school science teacher, says that our "product" is those students who graduate and make the state work, the lawyers, the politicians (well . . .), the teachers, the architects, and so on. He says we need to claim that we're creating something tangible in this way. Much as my idealism still pushes hard against my gorge, I think we must say these things. We also need to assert, as my colleague Joan Peters did to me yesterday, that the public sector cannot be compared to the private, as it so often is in the comment streams. It exists for other reasons, and in another economy. But no one who succeeds in the private sphere who went to a public university has done it "alone," without the support of a community larger than self, than family.

While we cannot lay claim to our students' successes, we can fairly lay claim to having provided the materials and the methods (critical thinking, creativity) for their success. Let's start making lists of UHM grads who are prominent in our community, and elsewhere, and send them to the newspapers and the television stations. Recently, my blog post on the UH crisis went viral, my colleague S. Shankar wrote an op-ed in the Star-Bulletin, and several of my colleagues wrote and signed a letter in the Advertiser. Our union's website archives letters by faculty to the administration. Ku`ualoha Ho`omanawanui wrote an open letter to her school friend, Lee Cataluna, whose opinion piece in the Advertiser presented the university's faculty in a very poor light. This is all to the good.

Today a facebook friend sent me a link to the UK Guardian about the four-day weeks Hawai`i schoolchildren are facing as of tomorrow, the first "Furlough Friday." (The school week in public schools will actually be three and a half days, due to early dismissal on Wednesdays.) And what will the end result of that be? I tell you, that's a rhetorical question.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

New Reading Series!

The brains behind this new series mostly belong to Jaimie Gusman, a new Ph.D. student at UHM. The brawn will be reading once a month from now on. The organizers plan to present readers from Hawai`i and from elsewhere. Along with me, the first readers will be Ranjan Adiga and Joseph Cardinale, both Ph.D. fiction writers at UHM, Jerrold Shiroma of, who has recently moved to O`ahu, and Robert Reed, the mystery entrant. I'm a bit worried about the metaphorical field, (MIAs, Van Gogh and his ear, and kamikazes), but we will surely prevail, peacefully.

[Click the image, as ever, to make it bigger.]

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Prose at the Poetry Center: Futurism Now, Or, My Trip to San Francisco

I went to San Francisco to give a reading with Renee Gladman at the SFSU Poetry Center. Along the way a few things happened.

[Honolulu to San Francisco flight, 10/13, a woman and a man across the aisle begin to talk, at first about health care]

--We're just going to have to suffer through this for a while.
--They're so starry eyed.
--They play the race card all the time, but they won't admit it.
--They don't see the evil that's being done underneath.
--You know how much they hated Bush. Those liberal bozos.
--Yes, George Bush and Cheney were good men who cared about this country.
--I sometimes don't say these things out loud.
--We've been in business for 40 years; it doesn't get easier. I never noticed the mortgage crisis.
--It was because the Democrats in Congress insisted that minorities buy houses with bad loans.
--And WE worked so hard to get what we have.
--The economy was very good there for a while.
--I'll think of you when I'm suffering through this.


Steve Vincent shows me the Mission District's murals. He rings the bell at Hamburger Eyes and someone named Roy peers out from the second floor, remembers Steve, invites us up. No public gallery any more, need to make money. He shows us the case of publications, points to the roof, which leaked during the recent storm, says he grew up on O`ahu and do I know Naomi Long? Yes, I say, wishing I could send him a link to Radiant Field.


Norman Fischer, Buddhist priest and poet, sits at Mel's Diner in the Mission District and asks, "what is the role of poetry now?"


It was prose day at the Poetry Center, SFSU, on October 15. Renee Gladman and I read, she from a 60 page novel and I from my retrofitted Dementia Blog book. Renee is obsessed with the sentence, not so much as a unit of grammar as with a unit of experience. We live in sentences, she says, and our lives are as confusing as they are. She spoke of wanting to write of experiences that don't go anywhere in particular. Her character lived with a sentence that moved around her room. The sentence flew to the window and sat on it for a while. The character was supposed to murder someone. The character had occasional outbursts. The world (and the sentence) were so changeable that plots erupted and disappeared in their course. This seemed like my Dementia Blog, whose concerns are more quotidian, more "true" perhaps, but recall a world every bit as like dandelion fluff. Stephen Vincent's haptics were good maps to the breaths of air that scattered those seeds. The Q&A was about our being publishers and writers, about Gertrude Stein's distinction between the sentence (unemotional) and the paragraph (emotional), about doing research, genre blurring, sentences.


Marjorie Perloff lectured on Futurism at SFMOMA during the President Obama traffic jam on October 15. She began by invoking a blog post by Julian Myers that Rachel Loden told me about, in which a writer announced he would boycott the Futurist events of the weekend because F.T. Marinetti wished for the "hygiene of war" and hated women so. Perloff did not take the position I might have taken, that while Marinetti's positions were horrid things, his style and energy remain significant, his attempt to deal with the machine. But Perloff's narrative excused Marinetti, citing his humor, the context of his Manifesto, and the way in which his Manifesto turned--later on--into a Manifesto more about writing style than revolution. That his use of the word "war" was misunderstood. She lost me there, but the slides kept coming and the wonderful details and the definitions of Manifesto and the "words in freedom" divorced from syntax kept appearing in gorgeous typographical manifestations. Free words, not free verse, which drew a caustic commentary from our speaker, who lamented the bane of the form that refuses to fold. Afterward, Johanna Drucker joined Perloff on stage; they sparred verbally over Marjorie's allusion to Russia as "backward," even as she spoke glowingly of its Futurists. They agreed with one another that Manifestos are "quaint" and have outlived their purpose.


Rusty Morrison and I had breakfast in Berkeley and talked small presses. I broached my current train of thought, a very heavy and smoky one, about the ways in which small presses can make arguments, and wondered if she'd had the experience of having Omnidawn's argument misunderstood (or taken otherwise). She spoke about books as singularities, about the way in which she looks in manuscripts for an instance of inspiration. So that certain singularities of vision seem to be her way of organizing a book list. I said I wish that more people wrote reviews of presses, rather than simply of books.


[BART train from Berkeley to Powell, 10/16: two men and two women with bicycles get on; across from me is a man reading a book called The Intelligence of Dogs. One woman gets off with her boyfriend; as she leaves, her bike gets caught up with the other woman's bike, the one who is wearing gray shorts, a helmet, and running shoes. Her bike is a Specialized. The woman in gray begins to shout in Russian-accented English]

--Get off the train; fuck you! No FUCK YOU!
[The man reading]--Just be quiet, you are a MAGPIE!! Shut up!!
--I have hurt fooot. My fooot had surgery. My fooot hurt.
--You shouldn't be riding a bike, then.
--You should be encouraging me; I am getting help for my fooot.
--I hope they amputate your foot. I hope your foot ROTS OFF.
--Oh, Fuck You.

As I exit the train, a woman is saying to her grown son:

--You should NEVER talk to anyone in BART. Never.
--What did you say? [I ask, wondering how others absorbed the shouting match).
--I told him he should have just kept reading his book. It was cruel to egg that woman on.


San Francisco Center for the Book
had a open house on Friday to show off their presses and have visitors make their own broadsides of a Futurist poem, "Let me have my fun," written by Aldo Palazzeschi, and translated by Paul Vangelisti, who was there to talk Futurism, discuss and read the poem and watch visitors (who included Standard Schaefer's entire writing workshop) print over a John McBride broadside with bright red letters and signs. Kathleen Burch was very warm and accommodating; she co-founded the center in the mid-1990s and has been going strong ever since, with series of workshops and classes. People wandered in and out. When Paul Vangelisti began to present his own new book AZUSA, designed by Rebecca Chamblee of Otis, a curious man began to videotape the performance. It became clear that no one present had any idea who the man was. He had a strong accent, gray hair pulled up into a small bun, tinted with remnant orange dye. And he loved the letter H, kept asking Paul to read the H page of his alphabetarium. H, he wanted H. He wanted H to have more space in the book; he noticed that I followed more closely than did most letters to one another. So Paul read from A-H, as the man, who proved to be Rumanian, roamed around the large table with his video camera.


By then I was fast friends with one Ann Tashjian, who introduced herself as "the driver." For her husband, that was, the man with the white mustache in a bright green shirt and a hat. The man who buys fine books, rare ones. Standard says he studies Joseph Cornell, taught at UC Irvine. Ann says she watched the inauguration to "make sure nothing untoward happened" and then, when she ("an avid smoker") thought of the sadness of Obama's attempts to quit smoking, she decided to quit for him. And she did. She was talking to a man in his 70s about Obama, a man in L.A. who had gone to Punahou, then Harvard. She had asked him if his wife was Hawaiian. "His entire body changed position," she said, "and he turned to me and said, 'NO, she's Japanese!'" Ann found this story odd; I confessed that I did not. She had once seen a man in skin tight pink, shoes and hood to match, who rode his unicycle back and forth in her BART car. It was his day to ride about town on one wheel.

We attended a concert played on 16 Futurist "noise intoners." The instruments resemble stereo speakers of various sizes, with large cones attached; at the top of the wooden box are levers, and behind the box is a crank mechanism. The players of these instruments were thus engaged in a lot of pulling, pushing, and cranking; occasionally they beat upon their boxes. There were singers, too, who sang sounds, not words, and a woman who both sang and played a violin. She was accompanied by a man who blew into a small instrument with a keyboard, then moved to his noise intoners (one stacked on the other), and by another man who played something that might have been a xylophone had it been a normative instrument. He also had a drum he banged. It was the concert of a lifetime. I will not need another such, but was delighted to see that 400 people came to a concert to hear the music of asthmatics and difficult to start cars and tuning violins. The wheezy spirit of it was immense.


When I left town this morning, the women's marathon runners had arrived to take the places of the intricately name-tagged Oracle conventioneers. The Futurists were still in place for the weekend, Obama was leaving the city, and all the voices were noise intoners until they could be transcribed. So here they are.

Thanks also to Janine Scancarelli, Steve Dickison, Carrie Takahata, Rachel Loden and Jussi Katonen, for making the trip such a rewarding one.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Another Installment of "Read a Memo": President Greenwood's response to the University of Hawai`i faculty rejection of the "last, best" contract offer

In the last installment of "To read a memo," we saw the way in which the new president of UH, M.R.C. Greenwood, attempted to bond with the community through her repeated uses of the words "aloha" and "ohana" and "mahalo." (See also here.) That was before the faculty union (University of Hawai`i Professional Assembly) rejected "the last, best offer" by the administration, to the tune of 86% nay. One friend, Kathy Cassity, noted that the news she watched referred to the number as "only" 86%.

The day after UHPA's vote was announced, the university community received a new mass email. The tone had shifted; there were no Hawaiian words in this memo to bind us together; no longer is there a sense of "us." Instead, the body of the message begins like this:

"The university is disappointed in the UHPA vote to reject our contract offer."

I was hardly alone in feeling a gut punch as I read this sentence. For what Pres. Greenwood has accomplished here is to create a neat (too neat) division between "the university" (here conceived as what? administrators? buildings?) and the faculty. If the faculty have rejected the proposal, they are no longer members of the institution. There's violence in this sentence. As I will argue thoughout this post, the violence is not directed only at the faculty.

"The highest priority of our offer was to protect students. There would be no loss of instructional days and the resulting salary savings would have helped minimize program cuts and layoffs."

Another cut of the knife, this time to divide the faculty from the students. Here, the administration sees itself as ministering to student needs, whereas the faculty, by extension, are leaving students hung out to dry. And what are the details of this very benign and reasonable offer?

"We believe our offer was fair and reasonable. We proposed a 5 percent wage reduction, the lowest percentage proposed for any state employee. Other state employees are reportedly being asked to take cuts in the 8-9 percent range. UH has already implemented a 6-10 percent wage reduction for management. The university's offer included initiating tuition scholarships for faculty dependents and minimum salary levels for faculty, two benefits UHPA has long sought. Our offer also included 13 days of paid leave which does not include instructional days."

That does sound reasonable, given the widely-bruited budget crisis in our state. But what Greenwood does not mention here is the loss of health benefits written into the new contract (to the tune of another 5% of wages) and the refusal to guarantee that there will be no retrenchment, no lay-offs. The president as much as admits this in the next paragraph:

"The university's offer to UHPA makes no changes in the current retrenchment procedure and commits to no retrenchment during fiscal year 2010. In addition, I had publicly committed that there would be no layoffs of tenured or tenure track faculty for fiscal reasons through fiscal year 2011."

No lay-offs of tenured faculty until 2011! Who wouldn't leap at that offer! No retrenchment until 2010! Again, who would not find that reasonable?!

"The university is now considering its options for resolving this dispute. Budget reductions of $76 million have already been imposed on the university and the UHPA vote does not change that fact. The university believes that the most balanced approach to managing these reductions is through a combination of salary savings from pay reductions, payroll lags, vacancies and retirements, tuition revenues, and increased efficiencies and other cost saving measures."

She does not acknowledge there that the union's refusal to go along with this contract does not mean the union has refused to negotiate. To the contrary, the membership is telling the administration that they want to negotiate further. But Greenwood, like Governor Lingle, is already leaping into the "we must do this ourselves" mode, imposing the terms of this "last, best offer" rather than returning to negotiate.

"The university is an essential resource to the state of Hawai'i. The Board of Regents and I are determined to sustain the state's only public institution of higher education for our students and the community, and we will continue to advocate on their behalf."

Here, the President has aligned herself with the Board of Regents, most of whom were appointed by our Republican governor, Lingle. She promises to "advocate" on the behalf of the "students and the community." Nowhere does she say she or they will advocate on behalf of the faculty. The faculty are no longer "the university."

The memo is signed simply, with her name, without a closing in either English or Hawaiian.

Both Greenwood and Lingle are attempting to manage the news that comes out of this dispute. We hear on the evening news that professors make an average of well over $100,000 a year (I'm a full professor who has published and edited seven books of her own, dozens of publications through Tinfish Press, have a good teaching record, and I make tens of thousands less than that); that professors recently received a 30% pay raise (we just finished several years of pay raises that we earned after the strike of 2001, when we tried to make up the considerable difference between our salaries and those paid most professors on the continent). Denby Fawcett's question to Governor Lingle was especially noteworthy: she referred to the faculty as "lollygagging" until next year. The comment streams in the Advertiser and the Star-Bulletin are full of hate for the university's professors (lazy, spoiled, pointy-headed, mainland haole, etc. etc.)

So let me respond in my own way. The professors I know are not as upset about being docked 5% of their pay as they are in the way the university itself is being destroyed. This is not the first such hit we've taken. The 1990s were recession years in Hawai`i--we suffered through several hiring freezes, a couple of years when the library bought no books, deferred maintenance, and much more. So it wasn't really a surprise the other day when one of the buildings on campus was condemned and everyone ordered to leave it empty because it might fall down. The men's rooms in Moore Hall do not work; nor can they be fixed. Kuykendall Hall, where I work, is due not just for repairs, but to be replaced. We do not have adequate technology in our classrooms--where there are computers, they are ancient. The classrooms in my building are moldy, despite the over-active air-conditioning.

Given the sorry state of the campus, there is nothing left to cut but people. Under threat of their jobs are the ever-vulnerable lecturers and instructors. Yet those of us who will keep our jobs will witness a tremendous change in those jobs over the next few years, if we don't fight back (and probably even if we do). We will teach more classes, and they will be larger. We will not get to know our students nearly as well. And we will not have time or resources to do our other work--editing, writing, researching. The UH will be--effectively--a community college, instead of the one research institution in this state, and one of the finest in the entire Pacific.

As Prof. Jonathan Osorio encapsulated it: "But perhaps that is the real message the state is sending. Good education awaits those who can afford to send their children somewhere else. Nothing could more appropriately sever the state government from the community it is supposed to serve than that message."

What we are demanding is not a few percent more shekels, President Greenwood, but advocacy on behalf of the university as an important institution. We don't mean lip service about its being the economic engine of the state, which we hear all the time, but real advocacy. What we are demanding from Gov. Lingle is a return to the social contract. We need to make it clear that public education is a moral right, not simply a convenience in good times, a line item, or liability, when times are bad.

Refusing the contract was one way to say this. That the vote is being interpreted as selfish intransigence is not a surprise, but "the university" (that's UH faculty and students) must fight back. If the university is wrecked now, it won't be rebuilt later, no matter how much the economy improves. Precious little was spent to improve UH during Gov. Lingle's boom times.

I conclude by quoting Prof. Osorio's eloquent and historically rich speech at the October 8 UH Teach-In. The uses of the rhetoric of Hawaiian nationhood in this dispute will require other posts:

"The Kingdom [of Hawai`i] knew what every public official in Hawaiʻi today should also know: That an ignorant people are a poor people; less effective; less able to contribute to their own society, and more likely to despair and desperate acts."

You can find other photographs of the teach-in thanks to Ian Lind of h/t to Prof. C. Franklin for suggesting we read Greenwood's memo in conjunction with Osorio's speech.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Tinfish 19 as Unalienated Labor (only the accounting sheet is alienated)

[part of the Tinfish hui]

Early in my graduate school career, if it could be called that, I took a course from Ralph Cohen. I don't remember the name of the course, or even much about it, except that we read Raymond Williams and that the very dapper Professor Cohen, who often wore a bright yellow sport coat, would occasionally wind up like the MGM lion and roar, "we know the product, but we have lost touch with the process!!!" He once alluded to napkins, how we use them without knowing who made them.

Even though I am editor of Tinfish Press, I am often distanced from the labor used to produce the issues of our journal, almost all of which have had recycled covers (tourist brochure proof sheets, x-rays, cereal boxes, bank annual report covers, and so on). Once the words go out of my hands, Gaye Chan turns them over to a graphic designer (currently Chae Ho Lee), who designs the innards. She also invites an artist to do a centerfold (this one's done by Maya Portner). And she asks someone to make covers out of recycled materials (this time Maya Portner crafted covers of the orangish brown fiber board used in expandable folders; she stamped a pattern onto them with a partially disguised 19 at the center).

As if this were not enough labor, the print shop, which staples the insides to the outsides, informed Gaye that the covers were unworkable (everyone on the design staff had thought they would work). So Gaye went back to the drawing board and devised a plan. She would cut the covers in half, make jigs to hold the pieces down, have someone cut strips of bookbinding cloth, have another someone add glue to the cloth, and then put the pieces back together with the cloth. The print shop would then staple the remade covers to the insides.

For two of the last three Sundays, Maya and several of us have gotten together to put together 500 covers. It's been a difficult process, and involved the labor of 10 or so people for approximately 4-8 hours each. If you add those to hours spent by me, Jade Sunouchi (this issue's assistant editor), Gaye, Chae, and Maya over the course of many months, you have probably 100 or so person hours. That these hours are uncompensated makes the process somehow more vivid, and more precious (in the small press sense, which is highly figurative).

[Radhika and Sangha Webster Schultz]

I have blogged elsewhere about how Jade and I put the issue together. Here is the description that we'll put on our website:

Tinfish 19 includes parodies of Wallace Stevens by Jill Yamasawa and Gizelle Gajelonia; a letter to the editor in verse by Ryan Oishi; poems from Daniel Tiffany's forthcoming Tinfish volume, Dandelion Clock; landlord poems by Oscar Bermeo and Deborah Woodard; interventions in Maoist indigestion by Kenny Tanemura and Guantanamo by Rachel Loden; as well as poems by such luminaries as Barbara Jane Reyes, Jody Arthur, Jennifer Reimer, Janna Plant, Brandon Shimoda, Mandy Luo, Dennis Phillips, Emelihter Kihleng, Paul Naylor and others. Graphic design by Chae Ho Lee, covers and centerfold by Maya Portner, editorial assistance from Jade Sunouchi, art direction from Gaye Chan, and editorial due diligence by Susan M. Schultz. The covers were handmade, the books handbound. $10.

Due to the intense labor involved in creating Tinfish issues, we've decided to move over to a perfect bound format for future issues. That will allow us to publish more work, as well as to cut back on the time sink that has been the journal. We will keep our eyes open for recycled materials, however, for use as chapbook covers.

To buy an issue, go to our website, click on "purchase," go to near the end of the list, and click on Tinfish 19. We're charging $12 because we no longer get postage from the English department due to the budget catastrophe. Or send a check to the home office at 47-728 Hui Kelu Street #9, Kane`ohe, HI 96744. We are momentarily suspending the subscription deal for future issues, but will resume next year, when our issues will look different.
Please support small press publishing!


[Richard Hamasaki, left; Sage Takehiro, right[

After spending several hours in the Art Department fiber room putting together Tinfish covers (we shared the room with lots of mannequins, only some of them clothed, one in erupted yellow softballs, another in saran wrap and broken glass), I went down the hill to Revolution Books on King Street to participate (as it turned out) in the Friends of Wayne Westlake reading organized by Richard Hamasaki and Carolyn Hadfield. Highlights included Richard's and Mike Pak's performance of Westlake's Futuristic/Hawaiian Manifesto; Sage Takehiro's performance of a concrete poem; TravisT's and Brenda Kwon's recital of only a few minutes of a 13-minute poem, "God Is" (and you thought John Lennon's list was long!). Once the reading ended, everyone waxed nostalgic about books for a while, almost as if they had already disappeared. The most nostalgic voice of all belonged to Travis; when I told him he was perhaps too young for such intense nostalgia, he declared that he is 30. Sigh.

I left Revolution Books with glue still sticking to my fingers, but reaffirmed in the project that publishes writers like Westlake, with his fusion of Futurism, Chinese and Japanese poetry, Hawaiian spirituality, and rage against the concrete canyons of Waikiki.

You can buy a copy of Westlake's poems here.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

"Writing Found Poetry" (Sidewalk Blog) & a Faculty Reading

Today's English department colloquium featured faculty writers Marie Hara, Rodney Morales, Anne Kennedy, Gary Pak, Kathy Phillips, myself, S. Shankar, and Caroline Sinavaiana, in that--very alphabetical--order. There were fascinating threads, including one that involved sewing and mending, which linked Marie Hara's piece about "us locals" (with several wonderful local voices in it) with Anne Kennedy's selection from "The National Costume," on "the effects of plenty." In Kennedy's piece, a mender/seamstress learns to read the tears in clothing that is brought to her, tears usually caused by "passion," but not presented to her as such. S. Shankar read from a novel-in-progress, "Demons and Lovers" about an Indian girl forced to choose marriage offers by a young and alluring, but poor cook, and an older, less alluring, but rich man. (She chooses the latter over continued poverty.) Kathy Phillips's piece about Asian American vets dying, going to heaven, and talking about Ehren Watada's refusal to serve in Iraq (they didn't appreciate his resistance), linked to my own presentation of some installations by the Sidewalk Blogger. Gary Pak read from an epic poem about Korea in a Korean form, the shijo, while thinking about ways in which his three volume epic might resemble The Faerie Queen, which he studied with our chair, Mark Heberle, back in the day. Caroline Sinavaiana presented from a memoir-in-progress, "Nuclear Medicine," about her treatment for breast cancer; the manuscript is written via three traditions, American, Samoan, Buddhist, but also concerns western medicine, which she terms "another country." She also delved into the history of Queen's hospital; I, for one, hope she does more with that material, which adds historical depth to her story. While each piece was distinctive, there was a continual dance between them, and between cultures. When Shankar spoke about the work of translation within a piece of fiction written about India, but intended for an audience outside India, several writers nodded significantly.

I presented a slide show of my Sidewalk Blog of 2007-2008 (the link is to the fourth album of blog photos), riffing off of Jules Boykoff's and Kaia Sand's book on guerrilla poetry, which includes a chapter on the project. I had never presented my signs before, nor had I answered questions about them. So the exercise was valuable for me, and (I hope) for anyone planning resistance to the state of Hawai`i's evisceration of the university and public school system. The slides offered a compressed narrative of slides from the origins of the project (the word "impeach" on a narrow piece of wood).

Other signs were piggybacked on pre-existing messages:

to the middle period (where old Christmas signs were doctored):

to the last signs, which played off of Orwell's contraries ("war = peace" and so on).

I also showed one of the memorials placed beneath telephone polls, which included a piece of wood with the current death toll in Iraq, as well as a pot of flowers and an American flag. My colleague Laura Lyons asked a fascinating question as to why I said they were "like shrines" and were not shrines. My answer was overly complicated, though it led me other places. The direct answer would be that, unlike shrines to people killed in car crashes at that very telephone poll, these used telephone polls as platforms for anti-war interventions, by way of marking the dead.

The long version developed as I responded to Laura. These were not simply memorials to the dead; they were highly politicized. (The American flags were mostly cover for a subversive anti-war message.) The intentions were different. But when I thought more about it on the way home I realized that no memorial reflects simple emotions--all memorials reflect grief, anger, and so on. These memorials distinguished themselves from shrines to car crash victims only in scale, perhaps, and because they took on the government. But one of the signs that carried the number of Iraq War deaths, which I hung on the Marine Corps base fence, was left behind when all the other signs were taken down. So shifts of contexts could easily change the meaning of the signs--and work against the Sidewalk Blogger's intentions.

A couple of my students had wonderful comments. Lynn Young was taken by my story about the IMPEACH sign that kept growing a leaf over the IM so that you could only see PEACH from the road. Clearly, the Sidewalk Blogger had found a conversation; she could not know what it was about, however. (The entire question of reader response proved knotty and difficult to suss out--were signs ripped down due to anger, or because a road crew member was paid to take them down?) Jaimie Gusman asked what is was like to "write found poetry," a way of putting the activity I had not thought of in so many words. That it was poetry only occurred to me some time into the project, when I began to get more playful, more willing to play with the limitations of the form (especially the limitations of the given material used to create the sign, everything from narrow bands of wood to large canvases of cardboard to recycled political signs turned around to reveal a blank "page.")

Good to have had the opportunity to think more about my project, but also to sense the connections, however attenuated, between our larger concerns as faculty of UHM and citizens of this place (Hawai`i) and the globe. In the current climate of budget cuts and threatened retrenchment, such gatherings seem especially precious.