Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Launch of _Jack London is Dead: Euro-American Poetry of Hawai`i (and some stories)_

Fresh Cafe, Kakaako, February 18, 2013

After a brief introductory spiel by Tinfish Editor/me on why we've published an anthology of poetry by white authors, one I'm becoming all too accustomed to delivering, the poets (and one fiction) writer rose to read from their work. As Sonny Ganaden pointed out in Flux Magazine the other day, the poetry speaks for itself. The readers were Scott Abels, Margo Berdeshevsky, Tom Gammarino, Jaimie Gusman (who curates the MIA Series we participated in), Farris James (for her sister, Endi Bogue Hartigan), Evan Nagle, Janna Plant, Eric Paul Shaffer, and Julia Wieting. Some impressions follow:

Scott Abels read from his "New City" poems and from perhaps my favorite, "Dick Cheney Parade," which calls the former veep "A cheerleader / with no real heart." Of his new life in Waikiki, he writes, "In our starter home / impersonators // of Mark Twain / gain popularity." This is not so much memoir as cut-up, in the sense of cutting up, of humor. Abels's deadpan delivery is utterly appropriate to the poems. In a recent radio interview with Noe Tanigawa, Scott talked about how Hawai`i has made him think differently of sincerity; his poems do not always sound sincere in tone, but their content is. I'm not sure he read this section of his "Waikiki" series, but the lines about tourists are telling, "I thought your shirt / said Virginia / and it had a picture /of the island of O`ahu / but no / it's Virginia." I had never thought to check the map to see that Virginia does resemble O`ahu in shape, but I do remember my mother in her Alzheimer's confusing a Kailua Surf-Riders shirt for an Iowa one.

Margo Berdeshevsky flew to Hawai`i from Paris for the launch and a month-long visit to Maui, where she lived for 25 years and worked as a Poet in the Schools.  She began with "Pele's Dark Landing," a love poem about and, in many ways to, Pele, wrapped inside a poem about the speaker's own love. "There are gardens and there are not. / There is love and there is not. There are leaves and / there are not. But there is/was/ever . . . fire." She concluded by reading two paragraphs of her statement for the volume, about an incident of anti-haole racism, and then also about the "more equal" art of poetry.

M. Thomas Gammarino, aka Tom, read "The Culvert," a prose poetic piece set in a place where feeling has been outlawed (to me, it's a loose allegory of the Hawai`i the missionaries tried to make). Tom's work is characterized by wordplay that spins into plot, plot that devolves into play, but always an eye toward ideas, funny sincere ones. "Listen up. It was sometime in the twenty-teens when the town outlawed feeling. You could still do most things, but you weren't allowed to feel them anymore, expect in a muted way. Smelling other people's hair was strictly forbidden. They washed the town in Drano to burn out our olfactory sense, which came too close to the heart of things. The Artery leads away from the Heart." The piece ends with a possible revolution brewing inside the subversive culvert, but then all that's left is one character's memory and that's going too.

Jaimie Gusman lamented her place in the reading after Tom, but then began by reading a poem called "Ejaculation," so that ended that. In it, the Shekinah figure is resting in the mud and she is in prayer. She is creating a world for women out of the mud: "She spelled her name with the roots on the ground. And the earth screamed it for the women. The women began caressing the roots, their own shadows watching their bodies, then digging for their own plots." In which "plots" are many things, denoting life-lines, narratives, sex organs and, finally, death sites. Jaimie's new work, featured in the anthology, is a feminine epic that comes out of her recognition of her own cultural, literary Jewishness. Such are the pressures in Hawai`i, where people talk ethnicity and culture 24/7, that such work emerges from its relative newcomers.

Endi Bogue Hartigan's poem, "Devotion and Red Ginger," was read to us by her sister, Farris James.  In this poem human devotion to the red ginger that is not native results in its being cut: "The chorus / crescendoed / terrible beauty like / a machete clearing / all else, all else[.]"

Evan Nagle is perhaps Hawai`i's sole flarfist, a poetic movement I found myself professorizing about a bit for the benefit of Tom Gammarino, who should really know better! After some self-deprecation and self-disgust, which he termed Caucasian, Evan launched into, "HISTORY THINK SHE BIG," where the silliness of flarf devolves into some beautiful lines after we learn that the poet is driving down the H1 in a 2004 Honda Civic: "Self! / Ointment of all semblance! / I say I see me: / A bit of loose agency hovering / Over the serial procession of / Deceasements." There's something about that image of "loose agency hovering" that speaks volumes to me (though I could not remember the lines when I told Evan how much I liked them) about living here, the hover of it, so nearly Hopkinsian, though his Honda fills in for the older poets bird.

Janna Plant plays frequently with her name. Of course she's animal, not plant, but her poems are rooted in earth, in the cracks in sidewalks where plants emerge, in the keen observation of, for example, a dead horse by the river's edge: "Chestnut nostril widens, / minnows exploring new tunnels. // The drumming structure silenced, / broke-free from halter of heart. // Un-lace those bootstraps, / observe the text: / opening." Where the decaying flesh of horse finds its witness, the text opens up to a "[released] category." Like Nagle's hovering, the decaying horse is not one or the other thing, but a state of moving. Likewise, Janna's map poem, "The Course of the Blood in the West," is an autobiography/map/portrait of the body--not the mind, but the body--which leads me to think that what is unusual in Janna's work is the way she presents ideas, images, stories, as bodies, staying with her metaphor until it becomes utterly literal, earthy.

Eric Paul Shaffer read several poems, one of them a complicated piece about whales, how they are endangered, how the poet watches them with sympathy, how the poet knows that as a human being he would have killed them. "We are everywhere," he writes, of people, of those who kill such animals. What begins as a quiet contemplative poem about observing whales ends bitterly: "may we kill ourselves before we kill the last of them." Like W.S. Merwin writing about the way English took away Hawaiian even as Keats was writing his beautiful poems, Shaffer writes of how he would have been a killer of whales who "[wrote] poetry in the warm golden light of oil / rendered from their sacred, slaughtered flesh."

Julia Wieting caught us up when we were feeling poetry fatigue. She placed her closed book on the side table and recited "Getting found: A Pacific Prufrock," which opens "...And indeed, there will be time / to wonder and sit, to practice / a craft of appropriation." Wow. She takes the Master Sergeant of appropriation, Mr. Eliot, and re-appropriates him in the context of an island to which she has moved ("Shall I say, I have gone to this island, / escaped the Middle's wide, its far flung sky?")  Where Prufrock's poem is utterly personal ("shall I do this, shall I do that?"), Wieting's engages larger issues of identity. "Years after, we still do not ask, 'What are we?'" I'm fascinated by how many young poets have changed Eliot to their own purposes, from Ryan Oishi to Gizelle Gajelonia to Julia Wieting.  I never would have guessed, when I moved here, that Eliot would maintain such a presence in these islands, and that he would have been so generous in his post-colonial post-humous ruminations.

We were sorry to be missing the following writers: Diana Aehegma, Jim Chapson, Shantel Grace, Anne Kennedy, Tyler McMahon, Rob Wilson and Meg Withers. Keep your eyes out for their work, too.

[Members of the Caucasian Cat Circle at a pre-launch party. The Tinfish cat is Tortilla.]

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