Sunday, October 31, 2010

New _Memory Cards: Wolsak Series_ from Ink Press in Metz

From Alain Cressan of Metz, France, I've just received a couple packages of Memory Cards: Wolsak Series. As is perhaps appropriate for a small chapbook whose composer's obsessions are memory and (mostly) forgetting, there's no indication on the chap where it was published, printed, stapled, or by whom. The cover reads Ink, and then #13. So I take photos and put them to float here in interstitial, internetted space.

The chaps arrived while I was in Vancouver reading from the Wolsak poems to an audience that included Lissa Wolsak herself; the next evening, she read from her new book Squeezed Light: Collected Poems 1994-2005. At that reading she made of herself a juke box (juked box!) and read poems requested by Dorothy Trujillo Lusk and Steve Collis, namely her early book, The Garcia Family Co-Mercy, followed by a recent poem, "Thrall." It was in writing about that first long poem that I was persuaded that Wolsak knows exactly what she's doing; like Hart Crane, her words come eight levels deep, many of them. In looking up her new book, I find more on "squeezed light," another reference that pushes the phrase beyond the lyrical and into the speculative world of physics. The word "mercy" made communal--"co-mercy"--with its play on "commerce," as on the more spiritual meaning, is also a constant in her work. She invokes mercy, while often railing at commerce. (Jocelyn Saidenberg, who read with Lissa, referred aptly to Lissa's "graceful rage.") "Thrall" is an extended railing, at once attack (on the Bush administration) and a support (for those who also rail on). This last poem ends with these lines, which I cannot make work in the blogger box the way they appear on her page. So here is content without her chosen form, but not without an echo of Pound as his best. Here is her priority: mercy.

In the stumbling that speaks for me / I say death to vanity, / solipsism's potency / let the pyrrhic / burning thorn / in deeper / Mercy above Justice

When, after a gap of a decade, I began again my memory cards (prose poems that each fit on an index card), I found random lines or phrases from Wolsak's book off of which to riff. The first poems begin from Behold one orphan, then from Compassion is largely exile. Once the tone was set, the poems put in motion, I spent more time looking consciously for lines--cheating, in other words on my own rules--. It's an odd way to read a book, to open it and look for lines and phrases. This cannot be said to be "reading" in the usual sense of the word, at least not until responses are launched, reading occurs actively; this is not to read poems, but to parse phrases inside of poems, to recast them from another imagination. (Since then, I've composed sequences based on poems by Norman Fischer and Wallace Stevens, poets whose work is abstract and philosophical, can be worked through a specific context or set of contexts--response poem, poem in Hawai`i, memory poem, forgetting poem.) Click on the photograph to read the first two.

One of my freshmen lamented on our class blog that she thinks by way of class conversations, but she cannot think on the blog. Lyz Soto and I wrote back that the blog is itself a conversation (if only you read each other's posts!). Each post becomes a conversation once the links are found and installed; they talk back to the writer, and then the reader in their different ways. The new set of memory cards is also a conversation, or a set of them. Speaking back to poets, thinking back on earlier selves. Appropriating words in order to realign them in another space.

Publisher Alain Cressan has new work in Ligne 13; my chap is #13, and my daughter's number on her Eastside Soccer club is #13. There is no randomness in this world that is not an opening to something sturdier, if only "momentary in the mind." His poem is "Angle mort." My foreign eye spies the word "memoire" at least twice therein, along with the dampness of a photograph in the last line. You can read more about the issue here. And because every publication contains a train of thought (on rails . . .), you can find out more about Ligne 13 here. The mysterious Ink can be found here, if anywhere, and Alain Cressan, blogger, at this address.

Friday, October 29, 2010

What do Writers Want? A Poet-centric Reading of Readings

[Kootenay School of Writing, Vancouver]

A lot of ink has been spilled about poetry readings as an institution: what does a poet's voice tell us about the work, the poet? How do communities coalesce around reading series? What are their histories? What is the relationship between the page and the poet's performance? How does the audience factor into a poet's work, and how is that displayed at the reading? What is the sense of sound? How do oral poetries differ from those whose origins are the page or the screen? What is the pedagogical significance of sites like PennSound and UbuWeb? Without doing my due diligence as a scholar here, I allude to Peter Middleton and other writers in Charles Bernstein's edited collection, Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word, as well as the essays in Sound States, edited by Adelaide Morris. And then there are the PoemTalks at UPenn, which use recordings by poets as entry points for discussions of their work. Those recordings and more can be accessed from PennSound.

But, having just returned from doing readings in Vancouver and Boise, my question to myself is: what does the writer want from his or her audience? Is there a poetics of audience? How could such a poetics bring the poet and her audience closer? How can we measure such intangibles as engagement, as warmth (or coolth), as exchange? What does the poet stand to gain from giving readings, aside from a modest honorarium and a cv reference? Why go out there and read? And to whom? What purposes are served beyond poetry itself?

There's a lot of silence around readings. It's hardly the same thing as the silence around traumatic events (death, miscarriage), but I'm reminded of those silences in our inarticulate efforts to respond to the words of others. It's as if we fear saying too much, being intrusive, and so we don't say.

But when a middle-aged man in a bright orange Boise State shirt approached me the other night (you can see him sitting next to the aisle in this photograph, halfway back), having said during the Q&A of my reading that I should "start praying" for the University of Hawai`i football team, which is playing in Boise on November 6, I learned what it is that I want from a reading. He said that he is going through the third case of dementia in his family. He wondered what one does the third time around. But then he engaged his questions with the content of my reading. I will not soon forget these questions:

--You write about the degeneration of your mother's mental state; have you ever written about your own?

--When I said that I try to keep myself out of the story, thinking that the subject is my mother and not myself, he responded, slyly, "oh, you're in there!" (Smart man, Janet Holmes said later.)

--Do you ever write for therapeutic purposes? (When I deflected away from poetry as therapy, he referred to a memory card I'd read about an Iraq vet who was calling in airstrikes to Afghanistan on Waikiki beach.) That was a therapeutic moment, no?

--Have you ever tried to write as your mother?

His questions were clearly self-interested in the best sense; he wanted to know how to deal with his feelings about dementia. But they were more than that. They were craft questions that also engaged issues of content. They were questions that created a momentary community between him and me. He was followed by Ruth Salter, a teacher of creative writing who said she also writes in response to Wallace Stevens (I had organized my reading around poems that engage his work). That was another moment of connection. In Vancouver, two graduate students had approached me about their own work; one is working on David Chariandy's work of memoir/fiction, Soucouyant, the way he writes about children trying to preserve their parents' culture (true for any child of Alzheimer's, I suspect), and another on a Canadian novelist who writes about Alzheimer's. These questions point to the usefulness of the visiting writer; she is a resource, a traveler who comes through with information, as well as her peddled wares.

But back to those silences. Often they are benign; what to say is often difficult matter. Questions also require muses. They have often left the room already, like someone running off to answer a cell phone. Sometimes silences are a mark of disinterest that also indicates self-interest. If the reader does not show a way to write your own work, they are less useful to you. Another way to say this is that sometimes the freshest questions come from those audience members with the least invested in the poetry world, if not in poetry itself. Those inevitable questions of territory, of form, of how you write and about what, and the ways in which we poets juggle to place ourselves in relation to others can be important, yes. But they can also get in the way of attention, of those "ordinary affects" that my semester seems otherwise concerned with. They are acts of judgment, ultimately, acts that we need in order to find our way (acts I have performed in my own mind against other poets). But these acts also interfere with our absorption of what is there as possibility, or simple expression. Far be it from me to advocate pure absorption; I'm enough a fan of Charles Bernstein's "Artifice of Absorption" to know that absorption per se does not challenge us. One of Janet Holmes's MFA students asked about Bernstein, in response to my assertion that Tinfish tries to join together Language writing with what I have found in the Pacific during my years here. I commented on the ways in which even avant-garde poets often come to rely on personal content as they get older. Content is content (if not a site of contentment.) And content exists outside poetry, as well as within it. It's toward that site that I want most these days to reach. More on that soon.

[Boise State audience, Janet Holmes & Alvin Greenberg at bottom right, with her MFA students in the first three rows.]

Monday, October 18, 2010

Ruins Visible and In- : Mid-October's Situational Rhymes

The television is my witness to the Yankees and the Rangers, Andy Pettite versus Cliff Lee; I'm only half watching, especially since Lee's perfect game was lost with two outs in the 5th. But lately I've not been thinking of Texas Rangers but of Washington Senators, a team I watched at RFK Stadium several times with my father when I was a child. That was before they moved away from the Arlington, Virginia area to Arlington, Texas, and long before they were owned by George W. Bush, even longer before they acquired Vlad Guerrero and his much dented, blackened helmet. Long before I ended up in Hawai`i, a Cardinals fan in exile.

Oddly, my memory of one of those baseball games is pretty acute. We watched Vida Blue in his phenom season, when he and his A's beat the Senators, I think, 8-2. When I look the game up on the internet, I find that it was actually 8-1. When I post my memory onto my Facebook page, Dave Taylor in Washington, D.C. reports that he was at that game, too. The box score is here. I remember more of the Oakland players than the home town Senators, though Toby Harrah is a name I recall fondly, if only because I liked his name. Later, Laurence Sterne would remind me of him. Were it not for Wikipedia and the internet, Harrah would be a blank page to me now.

Two details astonish me. The opposing pitcher was Denny McClain, whose 31 victories in 1968 I remember a bit less than Mickey Lolich's defeat of Bob Gibson's Cardinals in the 7th game of that year's World Series. Marianne Moore, I found out in another context, had called the Series for the Cards due to Gibson's prowess. (That was the year before they lowered the mound to prevent other pitchers from ERAs verging on 1.) The other detail, which I find now as I return to the page that contains the box score, is that the rookie Vida Blue was paid just over $12,750 dollars that year. The minimum rookie salary is now $390,000.

A 40 year old memory. Over $370,000 in would-be Vida Blue wages, were he now 21, instead of the man in his early 60s that he now is. I'm now 52; I was then 12 or 13. There were 40,246 fans at the game, as it was a Children's Hospital benefit game (something I did not remember). We sat in the corner of left field, and I think I remember wearing my glove on my right hand, hoping. Zero foul ball snags. My father died November 4, 1992 at age 78, and I'm inhabiting again that space just before he died. It's been 18 years. There are many scores to box, settle, account for, enumerate.

I share something of this memory with Dave Taylor in DC. I share something of it with Nick Smith of Luray, Virginia, who cared enough about the game to ask the folks at Baseball Digest to print the box score. The numbers carry affect. They make an equation that is not mathematical but emotive. They remind me that words themselves have no affect; it's the layers we place upon them, or (conversely) the layers we peel off (the first is P.B. Shelley, Hart Crane, the Kumu Lipo the second William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, Wing Tek Lum). Word genealogies are like resonant waves, the waves Kaia Sand talked about in my classes, where moments in history touch in unexpected ways. This is not to force them together, like memories of tectonic plates before they split. It is to trust a momentary hunch that they might. A hunch requires trust. It's an equation that has a right answer, but one you have to find accidentally.

If I were a freshman in my own English 100A class, Kaia Sand would have taught me one important thing. That is that we operate on our hunches--our hypotheses about how the world is connected--but that these hunches do not always come true. She talked about her walk poem by taking us on a pre-walk, the one that got her to the place she started the poem, not the place where we start it. That her hunches led to to immerse herself in details; that if the details did not pan out, neither did her prospective argument. As a freshman, I often helicoptered in from the idea I wanted to be true, parachuting into details that hardly mattered, but existed for purposes of "proving" my point. Kaia stays on the ground, though her leaps are real, between internment centers to PODS, between what we see and what is now invisible to us. "Do we need our ruins visible?" she asks in Remember to Wave. Whoever sets up memorials, or maintains ruins, believes we do. By bringing forth the documents that made possible or recorded what we no longer see before us she makes the invisible seeable again, if not in the place it was, then in the text. It is not a book, the designer Bao Nguyen insists, but an experience. (I'm confused, as I thought I published and paid for a book to be made!) The book is what is visible; the walk that we contemplate making, is an invisible analogue to it. Hunch confirmed.

[Jules & Kaia]

The affect in Kaia Sand's work arrives in the sound. Her voice (on the page and in the air) is lyrical, melodic. She and Jules Boykoff and I and Alex Dorcean read at the MIA series this past Wednesday in Chinatown. She got us to her walk by way of Honolulu International Airport, Portland's airport and several public transportation stops. Behind her, on the wall across the alley from the Mercury Bar, images flickered as she read "Uptick," also from her Tinfish volume. What is ghostly is also lyrical, though hers was not nostalgia but intervention in its possibilities.
Jules Boykoff, whose concerns are very like hers (economics, politics, history) read poems whose tone was utterly other. They reminded me of Charles Bernstein poems sent through a laser machine; they did not wander, but they playfully inhabited very structured spaces. Das Greenspan became a machine of late-capitalism; Reagan and other 1980s politicians met reggae singers and sang odd lyrics. It was postmodernism as stern ethics, but it was damn funny. Alex Dorcean's work was about his Haitian mother, her language. It too was hilarious seriousness.

The launch of Tinfish 20 occurred yesterday at Revolution Books. It's our first perfect bound journal issue, paradoxically more expensive to buy than the others because of the prestige of its cover. It did not take weeks to put together, like the last issue, which was made of recycled covers. It did not take months of gathering materials. It simply took a pdf to Bookmobile in Minnesota. Vida Blue might understand the odd monetary differential, albeit at a ratio much more extreme. As per ritual, we had guest readers for writers not from Hawai`i, and we had real live readers, the ones who got the lei. Gizelle Gajelonia, who turns 25 in a couple of weeks, read Cheryl Quimba's "Self-Portrait at 25," and Craig Howes, of Toronto, read Steve Collis, of Vancouver's poem, "Stroke." Those were the opposite ends of the age spectrum that the issue contains; I had asked for poems about aging, thinking I would get poems about OLD age, but got instead quite a range. Jaimie Gusman read her "Anyjar Elegy" about her Aunt Rose; Joe Tsujimoto read a poem to Toge Sankihi (1917-1953), using my favorite word, "gimlet"; Kai Gaspar read an allegorical rendering of Le`ahi (Diamond Head) as a homeless woman in Kapiolani Park; Jade Sunouchi read about old Mexican women and their dolls for sale; Amalia Bueno celebrated Filipino writers' texts by making a cento of them; Lynn Young read for Janna Plant; Eric Butler for Xi Xi by way of Jennifer Feeley; Lyz Soto for Lehua Taitano; current Distinguished Visiting Writer, Adam Aitken, for future visiting writer, Craig Santos Perez. Fifty people came to hear.

The Senators/Rangers just defeated the Yankees in New York, 8-0 on a two hitter. It's autumn on the east coast. I went to see my dad for the last time 18 years ago this week or next. The leaves were yellow and orange; they were on the trees and on the ground, too many to count. He had helped me with my "new math," and my later, so much more difficult, math. He had led me marching down apartment building corridors while calling out the steps, in military style. "Hut two three four! Hut two three four!" (That was before we moved to the proper suburbs in Virginia!) He'd read my dissertation, all umpteen pages of it. We're joined by the numbers.

In two days I leave for Vancouver, where I'll read at Simon Fraser University and the Kootenay School, with David Buuck. A few days later I'll head to Boise, where I'll read for Janet Holmes's students and talk Tinfish. I hope to report from the road.

Friday, October 15, 2010

_The Value of Hawai`i_ 3: a guest post by Lyz Soto

As I ran out to drive Kaia Sand & Jules Boykoff to the airport yesterday, I suggested to Lyz Soto, a Ph.D. student in our department, whose book Eulogies was published by Tinfish Press, that she guest blog the Value of Hawai`i event at high noon. Here is her post [to the left, you can see her at the right with fellow grad student, Danielle Seid]. Here goes Lyz:

The third installment of the Teach-In sessions for The Value of Hawai`i focused on issues troubling government, law and the courts, public education, University of Hawai`i, and prisons in the Hawaiian Islands. The speakers were Chad Blair (government), Mari Matsuda (public education), Neal Milner (University of Hawai`i), Kat Brady (prisons), Meda Chesney-Lind (prisons), and Melody Kapilialoha MacKenzie (law and courts). As with the last two sessions, Kuykendall, room 410, was packed to standing room only with an audience that actually listened to what the panel had to say on their subjects of expertise.

What did I get from this talk?

Each speaker was thoughtful and passionate about their topic. The Value of Hawai`i, and organized events surrounding its publishing, is not a casual event for any of these people. They are participating in this dialogue because they want to activate and see real and substantial change in our community.

My first reaction to their analysis was to feel discouraged. The status quo that they outlined has been in place for most of my life. If anything, circumstances appear to have worsened in my lifetime. No one wants to hear that, especially when it is acknowledged that most of the people in current positions of power appear to have no real desire to effect change, or at the very least a renovation of the status quo.

My second reaction was hope, triggered, bizarrely, by Kat Brady’s and Meda Chesney-Linds’ analysis of the prison system in Hawai`i. Do not get me wrong; the picture they painted was far from rose-tinted, and it touched upon the fallout of the continuing drug problem in our community, without really wrestling with it as an active component in our state’s social problems, however, time was severely limited, and their focus was the problems of the criminal system and the role incarceration is playing in Hawai`i.

The brought up Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), which is a for-profit company that, in the words supplied by the company website, provides “…the design, construction, expansion and management of prisons, jails and detention facilities, as well as inmate transportation services…” The community of Hawai`i has experience with this corporation, because a number of people incarcerated in our state have been moved to CCA prisons on the continent. All involved in that decision, apparently, said that “housing” Hawai`i people in continental prisons was cheaper than keeping them at home. Please go to the Corrections Corporation of America’s website! The same language used on that site could be applied to building sewer lines. They focus on "innovation, cost effectiveness, and efficiency." I would not have guessed that this company deals exclusively in the imprisonment of people, were it not for a single paragraph that is one sentence long, in a company description that goes one for six paragraphs. Apparently, they do provide rehabilitation and education programs, but these receive far less emphasis than the fact that CCA has been mentioned in Forbes magazine as one of “America’s Best Biggest Companies”. I digress…

The hopeful reaction! This moment came when Kat Brady and Meda Chesney-Linds pointed out that there is money in the system that can be shifted to fund productive educational programs. Now back to the bad news; it is currently directed at prisons, and incarceration in Hawai`i is a growth industry. This brings me back to the language used on CCA’s website, “[the]… expansion and management of prisons…”. The predicted and desired growth of an incarcerated population is built into this company’s vocabulary, which leads me to an interesting point made by Laura Lyons during the question answer period of the session. She said that it was important to acknowledge the difference between privatization, which is the word most of us use to describe the shifting of programing from government to private sectors, and corporatization, which is a word that more accurately describes what is happening in the American prison system. CCA proudly defines itself as a for-profit corporation, thus by its very nature it will do well to place fiscal interests above the interests of the people it contains. There is nothing private about responding to the will of shareholders.

Chesney-Lind and Brady stated that the economic benefits of a state like Hawai`i using CCA’s services are fictional. It is not cheaper to send Hawai`i prisoners to continental facilities. This begs the question:

Why is the corporatization of this system so appealing to our government officials? If there is no economic benefit, where is the advantage, and perhaps more importantly, who is benefiting from these choices?

All of our mainstream economic models, including those that apply to education, health care, prisons, and government, are built on the incongruous idea that expansion and sustainability are actually synonymous, and that success must lead to more. More of what is not always clear, I have not even touched education, and I could go on for another fifty pages, so I will close with this thought; most of the machinations (I mean this in the best possible way) we employ in trying to effect change involve some element of force, and perhaps this is inevitable in a dialogue that involves people, but I like to hope there are other options. The words creative and imagination were mentioned more than once, and I think the ideas behind these words must be key components of how we approach a bureaucracy supported and sustained by systems of self-protection. If we relegate ourselves to a counter-culture reaction that promotes protest as the main, and sometimes only, catalyst to make a difference, we can never hope to transform or even modify present structures,. We must be the difference, not just in our conversations, but in how we conduct our daily lives.

Here's a longer bio of Lyz: Lyz Soto is a Ph.D. student with an emphasis on creative writing. She is also the Executive Director of Youth Speaks Hawai`i, a non-profit organization dedicated to mentoring youth in the art of Spoken Word. She has worked in construction and archaeology, and received her B.A. from Sarah Lawrence College, and her M.Phil. in Archaeological Heritage and Museums from Cambridge University. Lyz is a performance poet, who enjoys working cross-genre in multiple media fields. Her book, Eulogies, was recently published by TinFish Press.

Tinfish editor added links.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

On Time & Teaching: a Meditation

My graduate course had another heated argument/discussion this past Tuesday on the question of why there is no fiction on the reading list. I launched a defense of the course as one on poetics rather than genre, on ways of thinking about writing qua writing, rather than on generic issues. But this latest moment of tension in the class has got me to thinking on a couple of issues in teaching. There is the obvious question of expertness and inexpertness, which fits neatly with a discussion we were having with Kaia Sand and Jules Boykoff on that same evening. If Professor Schultz is an expert in creative writing, then the students are "inexperts" with strong needs of their own. When perceived needs and desires (the professor for her students' background in poetics; the student for her own more pragmatic needs) conflict, we get more than a Paolo Freire scenario, the banker tussling with the liberation theologists. We also get a conflict in the way time is framed in the classroom.

My desires in teaching often focus on (the unfocusable) future tense. While what happens in the classroom each day matters, and while the essays and poems my students write matter to me, what matters most is an imagined later moment when any student (no longer my student) makes a significant connection between an everyday occurrence and something that happened in the now disappeared course. This is also true for me; what I teach and how I teach it changes, and those changes often become significant stories for me. They are stories about change, but they are also stories about synchronicities. Kaia calls them "situational rhymes," those moments that create waves of resonance across time. Sometimes they're even situational puns or analogies or chords (major and minor, at times dissonant). And tastes change. Where I used to detest poems by Wordsworth and Williams I now use them (especially the good doctor's) quite frequently in my classrooms.

But a student is more rooted in the present, and its necessities. There are books to read, discussions to have, essays to write, presentations to present. They happen in such quick succession, and in different classes at the same time, that the time for expansiveness is merely theoretical. Hank Lazer has told me that he enjoys not-teaching because he can devote more time to reading, not rush through things simply to get on to the next on the syllabus. Life's syllabus is slower, potentially, and less demanding of actual material effort. For the student, the syllabus is a life, but it's a life that lasts only several months before the engine restarts and she's onto something else. There are grades to work for, tangible returns on actual investments (first of tuition, then of time, effort, toner and paper). There is a sense that what one does in each class should fit neatly into the next. That foundations should apply to workshops, for example.

And that brings me to the source of contention in my Foundations course, that there is no fiction on the syllabus. We have passed through two weeks of poetry, which I used to get at issues of place, and we did a book of non-fiction, Katie Stewart's Ordinary Affects, which I used to get at forms of attention, but no short stories, no novel. My defense of the course involved an invocation of "writing" as the mode we are talking about. All writers, I argued, need to consider questions of language, of place, of tradition. (And I would argue, contra some of my students, that even if you don't intend to stay in Hawai`i, questions of place and space are worthy of consideration, framed as they are for many of us here.) I get up my goat a bit, say to myself that I want them to think about issues they do not consider relevant because, damn it!, they will on that five year plan I have in my mind. But their plan is for one semester. So here is my list of foundational questions about fiction. I hope to generate more, and invite readers to send in their own.

--Given that the novel's origins were in journalism in the 18th century, what links do these genres still have to one another? Can Kaia Sand's work help us to think about relationships between creative writing and journalism, as she claims to be a "journalist-poet"?

--One semester I taught short stories by Lydia Davis. She writes stories that tell more than show and that contain no dialogue. She provokes the question: why do most of us place so much value on dialogue and on "showing" rather than "telling"? Replace these items with any items that are repeated over and over in CW classrooms ("write what you know"; "write from your imagination"; "climax & denouement"; "narrative arc" and so on). Imagine how you might write a story that deliberately broke all these rules and succeeded. What would that story be?

--Mikhail Bakhtin loved the novel for the way in which it includes all other genres; it is (arguably) the most multi-voiced of the genres. How do you approach your fiction, knowing that you can use ALL the tools out there?

--Poetry's market is tiny, a fact that allows poets enormous freedom, because their work is not considered marketable. Fiction is, at least potentially, another story. Think about ways in which market demands affect fiction. (Uzma Khan has interesting things to say along these lines, as she has had an editor who demanded certain kinds of writing from her.)

--Writing workshops tend to devote more time and space to issues of craft than to issues of content (such as politics and place). What do you write about? Why? What would you like to write about, but can't yet? How do you mean to get there?

--Write a resume/cv for a fiction writer (or poet or dramatist). What does this writer need to know to write well? What are the books s/he he should read? What languages should s/he learn? Where should s/he travel?

--Consider the ways in which the truism "you can reach truth best through fiction" works and does not work. What truths are we talking about?

--If you write fantasy fiction, what are links between your genre and poetry, say, or science fiction? How can you use symbols in ways that realist novelists cannot?

--Why is realist fiction generally privileged in university MFA programs? How might you learn more about experimental fiction and adapt its techniques and fascinations to your own work?

--Rewrite a short piece--a Shakespeare sonnet--as a short story. What happens? In what ways do these pieces of writing work? What gets lost, or gained, in translation?

--If you write in more than one language, how do you use them in your fiction/poetry/drama? Do you translate? Do you draw your reader in or alienate him or her? Are you Brecht or are you Spielberg?

--What do you want to do with your fiction other than "tell a good story"? Do you want to engage political, cultural, linguistic issues? Do you want to create a certain music in your work? What is the relationship of sound to sense in your prose?

--What writers have you read who operate successfully in more than one genre? How do they do that? Do they do different work in each genre, or is there significant overlap?

--What happens when you mix genres? If you are a novelist, have you ever put a poem in your fiction, or a section of a play? What would be the point of doing so?

As you can see, many of these questions work for more than fiction only, but I've framed them in such a way that fiction is foregrounded. But try to re-frame other questions we've asked this semester--questions about tradition, place, publishing, form--in the context of your particular genre.

This evening I am reading from and talking about my dementia work with Prof. Miriam Fuchs's class on memoir. I'll blog soon on that and especially on the wonderful visit by Kaia Sand and Jules Boykoff that ended at noon-time today when I left them and Jessi at the airport for their return trip home to Portland.

Friday, October 8, 2010

_The Value of Hawai`i_(Part Two), & other synchronicities

Just a few jottings, as we are preparing to host Jules Boykoff, Kaia Sand & their daughter, Jessi, for a few days . . . yesterday, my English 100A class finished discussing Jill Yamasawa's documentary book of poems about McKinley High School, Aftermath. The book is notable for the way it links McKinley's military tradition to the school's current militarization (recruiters just off campus, needing to fill the maw of the Iraq/Afghanistan war machine), as well as the way it shows us the confusing and complicated lives of its students. It contains a photograph of Daniel K. Inouye, famous graduate of McKinley, and such a war hero that the Washington Post recently referred to him as more important the Hawai`i's history than Kamehameha, whose armies united the islands. I notice the article has changed title from "King of Hawai`i" to "Hawai`i's Reigning Son."

I went nearly straight from class to the second installment of the English department-sponsored teach-in's about The Value of Hawai`i: Knowing the Past, Shaping the Future, co-edited by Craig Howes and Jon Osorio. I blogged about the introductory segment here. This panel, composed of Kathy Ferguson, Davianna McGregor, and Ramsay Taum, focused on militarism, tourism, and sustainability in rural communities on the neighbor islands. And so Daniel K. Inouye re-entered the conversation. Oddly, having just told my class that Sen. Daniel Inouye, not Sen. Daniel Akaka, gets the bumpersticker "Dan," I heard Ferguson say the same thing. He's that important here.

Kathy Ferguson (who co-authored an essay with Phyllis Turnbull) talked about what will happen when he is no longer Senator Inouye, when his considerable power to bring us military pork, is gone. The military will leave Hawai`i eventually, was her point, and we need to prepare for that time. Evidence of the military's increasing disinterest in Hawai`i is the move of 8,000 Marines from Okinawa to Guam, where Ferguson claims there is less organized resistance to the military presence. (Ask Craig Santos Perez about that.) Ferguson referred often to a book she had written on the military, asserting, with some irony, that it is "sacred ground." As Taum later pointed out, that was a pun. The military operates on Hawaiian sacred ground, even as it makes itself inaccessible to researchers like Ferguson, or to journalists. While tourism has its own UHM department and attracts the attention of many scholars and writers, the military controls its own information, as well as a great deal of land on these islands.

Davianna Pomaka`i McGregor talked about communities built upon subsistence farming, fishing and hunting: places on Moloka`i, rural Maui, and Lana`i that are overlooked by the state's powerful politicians on O`ahu. Among the projects she sees endangering the cultural kipuka she talked about is a wind turbine farm on Lana`i, which would be composed of 200 towers, each on the equivalent of a 40-storey building. These would block access to sea and mountain, among their other aesthetic problems. The power would, of course, all be sent to feed O`ahu's hungry maw.

Then it was Ramsay Remigius Mahealani Taum's turn. If everyone in Hawai`i carries their paradoxes on their sleeves, then his are long and especially fascinating. He graduated from Kamehameha, where he was a member of ROTC. He was admitted to West Point and the Air Force academy, opting for the latter. (Kamehameha was himself a military man, Taum noted.) He is also involved in the tourist industry. From there things get more interesting. What he does is to work with big companies coming in to do projects--companies like Disney. He confronts them with the need to talk to local communities (not just native Hawaiians, but Hawaiians who live in the area where the project is being developed). Even as he is well aware that they will eventually leave, he tells them they have a responsibility to the place once their debt is cleared or their profit is made. So he spoke as someone quite militant about the need to support Hawaiian culture, but he spoke in acronyms and puns (kaona!) that made him sound like a military man delivering a power point. The combination was, at first confusing, and then started to make sense in the way so many such joining of opposites begin to come into focus.

Later in the day, in the infamous Kuykendall 410 conference room, Adam Aitken read from his poetry. I tried to give a sense of Australian poetry--where it is, how it got there--but fear I mostly just talked a lot about Frank O'Hara, about whom Australians seem obsessively interested. Adam's own poems are conversational, place-oriented, like O'Hara's, often witty, but engage a very different field--his inheritance as the son of a white Australian father and a Thai mother, his travels in Malaysia and Cambodia, his clear fascination with languages and film. Once his guard was down a bit, Adam's wit came through. "I wrote a poem for the King of Thailand," he announced at one point, as if it were the usual thing. And then there were the difficulties of translating one poem into Malay, where there is only one word for insect. How to translate a line that distinguishes between an insect and a "bug"? "This was not an insect; it was an insect."

Ah, language. Buy Adam's latest book here.

Better yet, seek him out. (He's on facebook.) The out of Australia book prices are very high, but I know he has some with him.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Tinfish #20 is on its way; home & away events

The new issue of Tinfish, our 20th, will soon be available. Please see our website for details. The cost to you is $15, including postage. We are not taking subscriptions at present, or submissions.

If you don't press the links, here's the description:

Tinfish 20 will be our last issue for at least two years; along with its editor, the journal will go on sabbatical in 2011. Unlike our previous issues, whose covers were made of recycled materials, #20 is perfect bound and relatively thick. While Tinfish does not run themed issues, #20 includes many poems on aging—on being 25, 41, 60 and older—and also on dying. Also included are an engaging mix of poems from Hawai‘i, Guam, Korea, China, and the west coast of North America. Among the poets in issue #20 are Aaron Belz, Caroline Sinavaiana, R. Zamora Linmark, Craig Santos Perez, Lehua M. Taitano, Janna Plant, Eileen Tabios, Juan Gelman, Kenny Tanemura, Linda Russo, Kai Gaspar, Joe Tsujimoto, Stephen Collis and others. This will be the last issue produced under the art direction of Gaye Chan, to whom we owe a debt of gratitude (and good fun) for her many years with Tinfish Press.

Cover Art by Tava Tedesco
Interior Art and centerfold by Allison Uttley
Design by Chae Ho Lee

The first launch of #20 will take place at Revolution Books on King Street on October 17, Sunday, at 3 p.m.

Other upcoming events:

--October 7, Kuykendall 410, 3 p.m.: reading by the UHM English department's Distinguished Visiting Writer, Adam Aitken.

--October 11, Monday: Political Science department talk by Jules Boykoff. Boykoff and Kaia Sand are authors of Landscapes of Dissent: Guerrilla Poetry & Public Space (Palm Press). He is also author of Hegemonic Love Potion, a book of poems.

--October 12, Tuesday: Kaia Sand & Jules Boykoff will be speaking to my classes. Kaia is author of Tinfish's Remember to Wave about Portland, Oregon's secret histories. I blogged about the book here.

--October 13, Wednesday, 7:30 until: MIA reading series, Mercury Bar, Fort Street Mall, Chinatown, Honolulu (world, universe . . .): Kaia Sand, Jules Boykoff, vudu munki (Alex Dorcean), Susan M. Schultz

--October 17: Tinfish 20 launch

I will be traveling (10/20-28) to Vancouver to give readings and speak at Simon Fraser University and the Kootenay School, then the Boise MFA program, on my dementia work and on Tinfish.

A busy month! Hope to see many of you (who are you, fair reader?) at one or more of these events.

aloha, Susan

Friday, October 1, 2010

Confrontations / Coalitions: The Value of Hawai`i Part One

Kuykendall 410, the room where English department faculty go to hear and deliver colloquia, like other rooms in the building, is confining. As Mari Matsuda said yesterday, you can't see the mountains (behind the back wall) and you can't feel the trade winds. It signifies public education as a proto-industrial activity, divorced from place or local purpose. This room, large and cold and capable of "holding" dozens of people, was the stage for two events in my professional life this week, events that signify to me where we are (actually, conceptually, metaphysically!) as writers and residents of this state.

On Tuesday evening, Adam Aitken's and my Foundations of Creative Writing course met in 410 to discuss readings that can be found in this previous blog post and on-line. The readings include a take-down of W.S. Merwin for rewriting Pi`ilani's narrative of the life of her husband, Ko`olau (also made internationally famous by Jack London, but that's another story, indeed); a back and forth between Ku`ualoha Ho`omanawanui and Dennis Kawaharada about whether or not his work (the publication of Hawaiian mo`olelo in English in books and on-line) amounts to an appropriation of Hawaiian culture; and an essay by Nandita Sharma and Cynthia Wright that argues (in part) against the Asian Settler Colonialism paradigm set forth in a book by that name co-edited by Candace Fujikane and Jonathan Okamura. The readings were intended to provoke, but I envisioned the conversation as one between friends (the students are fond of one another), where we poked at sore spots, but then worked our way toward a place where we as creative writers can all be active, productive.

Needless to say, perhaps, the class did not work to plan, although it did prove productive. A palpable tension filled the air-conditioned room. I began by suggesting that there's something Platonic about considerations of literature in Hawai`i, that more emphasis is put on "truth" than on imagination. Many of our literary controversies have entailed arguments over the truths of representations (of Filipinos, Hawaiians) or language (did you get your Pidgin right, your Hawaiian?).

We had opinions across the spectrum, from "anything goes" to "what can I write about here, when everything seems sealed off culturally?" We talked about the act of framing; if you say you don't know exactly what you're talking about, one student surmised, you can forge ahead. If you let people know you are writing what you hear, then you can get languages wrong, another posited. On the other side, there was suspicion of the audience, the readers who may know nothing about Hawai`i. One woman said she had taught someone in NYC a phrase in Hawaiian, which she worries she butchered, and is scared that the woman might consider her to have been "authentic" in some way. Another student talked about being but not appearing Hawaiian, growing up immersed in pop culture, and experiencing the sting of being told she wasn't "Hawaiian enough." And then a white male student erupted into an angry confusing diatribe about being called an "f-ing haole" and how the local community does not spend all its time thinking about these academic issues. He walked out.

On a personal level, I was left feeling that the students did not trust me or each other, that the conversation had been warped by fears of saying something that would be judged ill by someone else in class, or reported on to others outside of class. There was a sense that most of what was most valuable to say didn't touch the air-conditioned air. But Adam spoke eloquently about migration and his own experience as a mixed race person in Australia who has circulated around the globe for love and work. And I launched into my notion of "positive critique." If something is missing in the literary community here, fill it in. Write it. Publish it. Make alliances with other people who live here over the big issues, like the economy, like tourism, like militarism.

The class ended. I got some impassioned emails and much silence. I hear through the grapevine that some students didn't want to have the conversation at all; others worry that they didn't explain themselves well enough. And so the conversation will go on, mostly internally in ways that can be destructive, but one hopes can branch out, move, form, not get stuck. Stuck is a place that Hawai`i, or at least academic Hawai`i, lives in too much of the time.

Fast forward to Thursday at noon. The first of several panel discussions of The Value of Hawai`i: Knowing the Past, Shaping the Future, edited by Craig Howes and Jon Osorio, and published by the University of Hawai`i Press. A large audience showed up from all over campus and the local community. We sat facing the windows that run only at the top of the room, so all you see are some clouds, if you're lucky. We sat facing Jon Osorio, Carlos Andrade (and their guitars), Tom Coffman, and Craig Howes. It was one of the few days I didn't have my camera with me, so it will need to be an imagined past for my readers. The event was advertised as an overview; the more focused discussions--of the military, tourism, education--will follow in coming weeks.

In somewhat backwards chronology, Osorio led us through the 1970s in Hawai`i, when the Hawaiian sovereignty movement became strong. No one could have imagined how strong it would become, he said, nor how many small movements it would inspire: the Protect Kaho`olawe Ohana, the Waiahole/Waikane protests, which led to the state mandating against development in that area (very near where I live), and so on. Many of these movements were peopled by the poor, the uneducated, but they spoke truth to power. Coffman then filled in the backstory of the 1960s, just after statehood, when Hawai`i took off economically, when multi-ethnic Hawai`i was a model for the rest of the country. Howes spoke of the near-universal health care coverage Hawai`i had as recently as the mid-80s and early-90s. Andrade sang a mele he wrote about Hā`ena on Kaua`i, where real estate and property tax prices are driving Hawaiians off their land. Julia Roberts, it seems, is a heavy in this discussion, as she paid $15 for a piece of property.

What impressed me most was the way that Osorio, in particular, spoke of Hawai`i as a place where we live, a place we need to protect. While he aims to work toward an independent Hawai`i (a goal toward which I have yet to figure out my own feelings and thoughts), he also means to do so un-exclusively, by figuring a community of like-minded (rather than racially-marked) citizens. As he writes in his essay from the book, restoring the Hawaiian Kingdom has garnered support over the past decade "because it does not lead to the destruction of relationships among friends and families because of race" (18).

Without in any way thinking this was a panacea for what ails us, I left the room feeling lighter, more optimistic than I have in years about how we all live and think about our lives here. I felt at home, and that's a place I want to be.

As a digression that is not one: Carlos Andrade talked about the need for self-sufficiency in growing food and trying to avoid consuming resources. I'm proud to say that my husband, Bryant Webster Schultz, has taken upon himself the project of easing us, to whatever small extent we can, off the grid.

He abandoned the dryer months ago, and hangs our clothes outside. He bought solar panels, so that our living room lights in the evening run off solar. He got us a rain barrel, so we can water our plants without using the tap. And he's now built a garden box, with plans for more on the bottom lanai, along with a second rain barrel. To a large extent this is all symbolic. We still drive too much--to Sangha's school, to my workplace, to Radhika's soccer games in Waipahu--but we are at least experimenting with the notion that we do not need to spend the world's resources at so quick a rate.

In future, I'd like to blog about the effects of this fresh paradigm of Hawai`i on the literature of Hawai`i. What does this mean for our notions of form? Practice? Publishing? Content (something we who teach CW think too little about with our students, I fear). Until then . . .

[Editor's note, 10/2/10: At this morning's soccer game, I talked to Chris Cummins (about whom a bit more at the end of this post), who remarked on the irony that the self-sufficiency I describe at the end of the post depends on privilege--space in which to grow things, put up solar panels, and the money to do it. The guy in a tent in the park can't grow his own food, Chris pointed out. Nor can he, in his small apartment, which he compared to the windowless hole of Kuykendall 410, remembered vividly from his student days. He also talked again about the "many directions" Hawaiians can go with the issues raised earlier in this post, legally, culturally, politically. Complication is the coin of the realm.]