Thursday, November 24, 2016

On Writing #114 : Craig Santos Perez

On Writing from the New Oceania
Craig Santos Perez

1.       Write from: 

From indicates a particular time or place as a starting point; from refers to a specific location as the first of two limits; from imagines a cause, an agent, an instrument, a source, or an origin; from marks separation, removal, or exclusion; from differentiates borders. Where are you from?” In the preface to my first book of poems, I wrote: On some maps, Guam doesn’t exist; I point to an empty space in the Pacific and say, ‘I’m from here.’ On some maps, Guam is a small, unnamed island; I say, ‘I’m from this unnamed place.’ On some maps, Guam is named ‘Guam, USA.’ I say, ‘I’m from a territory of the United States.’”

from excerptus: pluck out” from ex- out” + carpere gather” or harvest”

From also indicates an excerpt or a passage quoted from a source. My own passage and migration from Guam to California often feels like living an excerpted existence; while my body lives here, my heart still lives in my homeland. Poetry is a way for me to bring together these excerpted spaces via the transient, processional, and migratory cartographies of the page. Each of my poems, and each of my books, and seemingly every breath I take, carries the from and bears its weight and incompleteness.

2.        Write Oceanic

The imagination is an ocean of possibilities. I imagine the blank page as an excerpt of the ocean. The ocean is storied and heavy with history, myth, rumor, genealogy, loss, war, money, the dead, life, and even plastic. The ocean is not aqua nullius.” The page, then, is never truly blank. The page consists of submerged volcanoes of story and unfathomable depths of meaning.

Each word is an island. The visible part of the word is its textual body; the invisible part of the word is the submerged mountain of meaning. Words emerging from the silence are islands forming. No word is an just an island, every word is part of a sentence, an archipelago. The space between is defined by referential waves and currents .

Oceanic stories are vessels for cultural beliefs, values, customs, histories, genealogies, politics, and memories. Stories weave generations and geographies. Stories protest and mourn the ravages of colonialism, articulate and promote cultural revitalization, and imagine and express decolonization.

3.       Write Archipelagic

An individual book is an island with a unique linguistic geography and ecology, as well as a unique poetic landscape and seascape. The book-island is inhabited by the living and the dead, the human and the non-human, multiple voices and silences. The book-island vibrates with the complexity of the present moment and the depths of history and genealogy, culture and politics, scars and bone and blood.

A book series is an archipelago, a birthing and formation of book-islands. Like an archipelago, the books in an ongoing series are related and woven to the other islands, yet unique and different. Reading the books in a series is akin to traveling and listening across the archipelago.
Because Guam is part of an archipelago, the geography inspired the form of my from unincorporated territory book series. Additionally, the unfolding nature of memory, learning, listening, sharing, and storytelling informed the serial nature of the work. To me, the complexity of the story of Guam and the Chamorro people — entangled in the complications of ongoing colonialism and militarism — inspired the ongoing serial form.

The first book of the series, from unincorporated territory [hacha] (2008) focused on my grandfather’s life and experience on Guam when the island was occupied by Japan’s military during World War II. The second book, from unincorporated territory [saina] (2010), focused on my grandmother’s contrasting experience during that same period. The third book, from unincorporated territory [guma’] (2014) echoes and enlarges the earlier books through the themes of family, militarization, cultural identity, migration and colonialism. Furthermore, [guma’] focuses on my own return to my home island after living away (in California) for 15 years. I explore how the island has changed and how my idea of home has changed. I also meditate upon the memories that I have carried with me, as well as all that I have forgotten and left behind.

The titles are meant to mark and name different books in the same series. Just as an archipelago has a name, such as the Marianas Archipelago, each island of the archipelago has its own unique name. The names can be translated as [one], [elder], and [home]. My first book was given the name, [hacha], to mark it as the first book, first island, first voice. While one might expect the second book to be named, second, I chose the name, [elder], to resist that linearity and instead highlight genealogy, or the past. The third book, which means house or home, was an attempt to weave together time and space (the house or book as spatial and temporal). The fourth book, from unincorporated territory [lukao] (forthcoming, 2017) includes themes of birth, creation, parenthood, money, climate colonialism, militarization, migration, and extinction. The Chamorro name of the book, [lukao], means procession.

My multi-book project also formed through my study of the long poem”: Pound’s Cantos, WilliamsPaterson, H.D.’s Trilogy, Zukofsky’s “A, and Olson’s Maximus. I loved how these books were able to attain a breadth and depth of vision and voice. One difference between my project and other long poems” is that my long poem will always contain the from,” always eluding the closure of completion.

I also became intrigued by how certain poets write trans-book poems: such as Duncan’s Passages” and Mackey’s Songs of the Andoumboulou.” I employ this kind of trans-book threading in my own work as poems change and continue across books (for example, excerpts from the poems from tidelands” and from aerial roots” appear in both my first and second books). These threaded poems differ from Duncan and Mackey’s work because I resist the linearity of numbering that their work employs.

4.       Write Cartographic

I use diagrams, maps, illustrations, colalge visual poetry as a way to foreground the relationship between storytelling, mapping, and navigation. Just as maps have used illustrations (sometimes visual, sometimes typographical), I believe poetry can both enhance and disrupt our visual literacy.

One incessant typographical presence throughout my work is the tilde (~). Besides resembling an ocean current and containing the word tide” in its body, the tilde has many intriguing uses. In languages, the tilde is used to indicate a change of pronunciation. As you know, I use many different kinds of discourse in my work (historical, political, personal, etc) and the tilde is meant to indicate a shift in the discursive poetic frame. In mathematics, the tilde is used to show equivalence (i.e. x~y). Throughout my work, I want to show that personal or familial narratives have an equivalent importance to official historical and political discourses.

Cartographic representations of the Pacific Ocean developed in Europe at the end of the 15th century, when the Americas were incorporated into maps: the Pacific became a wide empty space separating Asia and America. In European world maps, Europe is placed at the center and Oceania” is divided into two opposite halves on the margins. As imperialism progressed, every new voyage incorporated new data into new maps.

As I mention in the preface to my first book, the invisibility of Guam on many maps—whether actual maps or the maps of history—has always haunted me. One hope for my poetry is to enact an emerging map of Guam” both as a place and as a signifier.

The actual maps” in my first book are, to me, both visual poems and illustrations of the rest of the work. In my imagination, they function in two ways: first, they center Guam,” a locating signifier often omitted from many maps. Second, the maps are meant to provide a counterpoint to the actual stories that are told throughout the book. While maps can locate, chart, and represent (and through this representation tell an abstracted story), they never show us the human voices of a place. I place this abstract, aerial view of Guam” alongside the more embodied and rooted portraits of place and people.

Song maps” refer to the songs, chants, and oral stories that were created to help seafarers navigate oceanic and archipelagic spaces. Pacific navigational techniques are often understood as a visual literacy,” in the sense that a navigator has to be able to read” the natural world in order to make safe landfall. The key features include reading the stars, ocean efflorescence, wave currents, and fish and bird migrations.

Scholars and navigators describe this technique as moving islands” because in these songs, the canoe is conceptualized as remaining still, while the stars, islands, birds, fish, and waves all move in concert. Islands not only move, but islands also expand and contract. For example, if you see an offshore bird associated with a certain island, then you know that island is nearby (thus, it has figuratively, expanded).

With this in mind, I imagine that poems are song maps of my own journey to find Guam across historical and diasporic distances. I imagine the reader is in a still canoe, reading the songs in order to navigate the archipelago of memory and story. In this way, books and words become moving islands, expanding and contracting, inhaling and exhaling.

Craig Santos Perez is a native Chamorro from the Pacific Island of Guam. He is the author of three books, most recently from unincorporated territory [guma’], which received an American Book Award 2015. He is an associate professor in the English department at the University of Hawaiʻi, Mānoa. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter and here:

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

On Writing #113 : Susan M. Schultz

Against Revision
Susan M. Schultz

"What is the longest it's taken you to write a poem?" (Tom Gammarino)

"17 years." (Tim Dyke)

—Hawai'i Book and Music Festival Q&A

 a. To look or read carefully over (written or printed matter), with a view to improvement or correction; to improve or alter (text) as a result of examination or re-examination. Also intr.with object implied.
 b. To examine or re-examine (something, esp. a law, code, plan, or the like) for the purpose of improvement or amendment; to alter so as to make more efficient, apposite, or effective.
—Oxford English Dictionary

This exchange between Tom and Tim was the second such that I heard during the Book & Music Festival this Spring. The first, at a Bamboo Ridge panel, featured writers praising revision as the most important part of the writing process. I had begun to get ornery, so I spoke up during the Tinfish event, defending (my own) lack of revision. Tim's remark is truer, perhaps, insofar as it takes a lifetime to write any of our lines of poetry and prose.

Now, this isn't to say I never revise; when I write an essay I approach, avoid, return, and rewrite often. When I write a poem, I intervene, adjust, erase, and then await the ending. If revision is a kind of thought, then it's not to be dismissed utterly. But when I write a poem, I want to inhabit the moment of writing the poem asthe poem. To revise is to alter, and what I want is the unalterable moment, insofar as such a thing exists. This is the fruit of my meditation practice, but also of my years of observing my mother in her Alzheimer's. Alzheimer's is a disease that cannot be revised, let alone cured. It is the nearly pure de-construction of a life. To revise one's record of that process of losing--memory, speech, the ability to walk and take care of oneself--is to suggest it can be altered. The person with Alzheimer's is being altered, but not revised. The writer, if anything, is being revised, but her words remain faithful to the process (or unraveling of), however horrible it seems.

And so I wrote what I saw into my blog. When I prepared the blog posts for publication as books, I did a lot of editing. Editing is certainly a part of revision, but less complete. As I noted when I was editing my manuscripts, grieving seems to be a form of editing, and vice versa. I took out what I thought was not of interest to potential readers. I fixed sentences so that they scanned better (yes, prose needs to scan, too). I tried for an absolute economy of thought and feeling. But I did not ever add anything to the blog posts. Nor did I re-arrange their elements. To add or re-arrange would have been to suggest that alteration was possible, that the moment was not complete in and of itself. To add would have been to create a narrative (probably), one that works toward making sense. What I wanted to do was to record non-sense, not to make a false front.

In the memory cards that have preceded and followed the two books on Alzheimer's I've tried to be true to the process of making sense of the world, without fixing it in place. Hence, each day I write an entry is a day in which I arrive at--or stumble onto--meaning. Meaning is not edifice but mandala, or sand castle. To revise is to hold onto meaning, try to make it permanent, accessible to others as container not as hourglass.

John Ashbery says that he learned to revise as he wrote. Write long enough and you know what moves to make (which is why I still encourage my young poets to revise), which will work and which not. You know which serves to spin and which to hit flat. Which balls to hit to right and which to left field. When to dunk and when to lay-up. How to change key at the right moment to keep the improvisation conversational, rather than petroglyphic (though the unreadability of the petroglyph re-introduces interpretation as a kind of improv into the equation).

So yes, on the level of the sentence, you revise, even if the computer allows you to erase the memory of those shifts and tacks across the page. The ability to move back and forth in a document on the computer means a constant forgetting exists at the center of the memory cards I write. That's part of it, perhaps what joins my obsession with memory with my obsession about forgetting. To revise inside the poem/meditation/memory card, however, is not to alter the moment, but usually to replace it with another one, more apt for the occasion (and its quick flickering away). It is not to create a "good poem," though one hopes they're good enough, like many mothers. It is to make sure that the record of the moment works. Not a question of efficiency, but of haphazard stumbling into a meaning that will cohere, even as it's let go. The shifting ground of questions and answers, of difficulties and temporary solutions. Burke's situation strategy without a clear situation or strategy.

But more important to me is the sentence I wrote just up the page from here: "The writer . . . is being revised." That old visionary company of love might have tanked in the 19th century, along with the sublime ambitions of poetry. But a re-visionary company comes after Objectivism (in a poetic sense) and after disappointment, brutality, and age in the "real life" sense. When I write, I do not re-shape the world under the tremendous power of my pixellated thoughts; rather, I am re-shaped by it. As my experiences wear away at my expectations and ambitions and desire to alter the text that is my life, my writing records the process. And this may be why I find myself writing more and more lately. As my ambition to write poems wears down, my delight in recording the process of being lived (if I can put it that way) increases. Robert Frost's adage about form, that without it you're playing tennis without a net, transposes for me into a sense that without writing my life would have no form. No net to catch me. I can mend a net, but I cannot re-vise it. It alters me. Where alteration finds.

this essay originally appeared on the author's blog

Susan M. Schultz is author of several books of poetry and poetic prose, most recently Memory Cards: Thomas Traherne Series (Talisman), "She's Welcome to Her Disease": Dementia Blog, Vol 2 and Dementia Blog (both form Singing Horse Press), and volumes of memory cards from Potes & Poets, Singing Horse and Vagabond (Australia). She founded Tinfish Press in 1995, publishing experimental poetry from the Pacific region. She blogs, and she cheers for the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team from her home in Kāne'ohe, Hawai'i.

Friday, November 04, 2016

On Writing #112 : Jenna Butler

To the Woodlot
Jenna Butler

If it’s been stacked well, air-dried through a prairie summer, the round you place on the chopping block will be smooth and slightly fissured. It’ll have the resonance in your hand that forecasts a clean break: pop, down comes the splitter, and the wood sockets apart. If there’s spruce sawyer or carpenter ant in there, you’ll feel that, too—a lightness in the guts, something punky at the core.

I work with my hands, sounding, listening for what kicks back. It’s a skill I’ve learnt behind the splitting axe in the northern Alberta bush, and one I’ve found useful as a writer and woman of colour who is also a professor. Lots of hats. Lots of knocking, listening, navigating what comes back. Just as you develop an ear for the wood, how it’s weathered and what it carries, you develop an ear for the classroom, for the meeting room, the page. What you can and cannot say.

Writing opens like this for me, too. Sometimes I set a poem on the block and I know there’s something rattling around in there. Telltale entry wounds. I’m keyed to suss out whether it’s worth keeping, whether the edges are salvageable. The worst hits are the ones where you know too much is going on beneath the surface and the whole piece chaffs out on impact. It’s rotted for one reason or another. You hadn’t noticed at the time.

I listen for where the poem splits, line breaks opening, pinging apart like poplar. There’s not enough time in the day to get done the writing that I crave—I teach full-time because I support our family, and I love the work, but there is nothing left in me after nine classes a year. Out at the farm, I come at the woodpile with the splitter, a mission, and a -35C winter beating down the fence. At my desk, I greet the work as someone who has little to spare and needs to make each move count. Measure. Heft. Strike where you know the lines will be clean.

Jenna Butler is the author of three critically acclaimed books of poetry, Seldom Seen Road, Wells, and Aphelion, and a collection of ecological essays, A Profession of Hope: Farming on the Edge the of Grizzly Trail. Her current work includes Magnetic North, a collection of prose poems linking the Norwegian Arctic and the northern Canadian boreal, and Revery: A Year of Bees, essays about women, beekeeping, and international community-building.

Butler’s research into endangered environments has taken her from America’s Deep South to Ireland’s Ring of Kerry, and from Tenerife to the Arctic Circle onboard a masted sailing vessel, exploring the ways in which we navigate the landscapes we call home. A professor of creative writing and ecocriticism at Red Deer College, Butler lives with three resident moose and a den of coyotes on an off-grid organic farm in Alberta’s North Country.