by M. F. Simone Roberts
Craig Santos Perez is one of the poets we are honored to feature at Split This Rock Poetry Festival: Poems of Provocation & Witness 2016, April 14-17, 2016. In addition to participating in the nightly reading series we make free and open to public in the National Geographic Auditorium, Perez will participate in a handful of workshop and discussion sessions during the festival. Registration is now open!
Craig’s most recent book from UNINCORPORATED TERRITORY [guma’] is the third in a likely perpetual series of books about the unincorporated territories of the US’s Pacific presence. The first [hatcha], and the second [saina] both consider colonial experience. But, much of [guma’] (Guam) circles around community testimony on the environmental impact statement for a project to develop a US military weapons testing range on what is, for the Chamoru people, the most sacred place on their islands (listen to an interview at Against the Grain).
Perez works in a poetics of the documentary, the collage or intertext, and use of blackouts of existing texts. He creates effects of both textual fragment and historical immediacy. His methods owe a lot to literary Modernism, but Guam is a more post-modern sort of thing. It’s a colony once of Spain, then of Japan, and now of the United States. It’s the origin of a huge diaspora, a place of incredible importance to US military and foreign policy -- and it’s mostly invisible to our sense of what the US is, as well as being very, very small on a map. It is a place that lives mostly in state of what Derrida called erasure (sous rature).
An unincorporated territory is a no man’s land, which is not to say that no man is running the place -- it belongs to the machinery of empire. Perez’s poetics comes organically from the problem of place and what place means in a region of the world that was integral and whole, and is now other to itself twice over. Surnames pass through colonizer languages. Farmland becomes air strip. Native language becomes economic liability. Imported, processed food replaces traditional diet and culinary practice. Eventually everything revolves around this dominant stranger who won’t become part of the place -- and won’t leave.
One of the tensions running through these poems of unincorporated territories is that they’re written from and about places that are still colonies that, in a post-colonial era, exist to further another's colonial ambitions.
Simone Roberts: I want to start with a very personal question. It’s not nosiness, but acquaintance-making. Many in the Split This Rock community know very well what it feels like to live as (post)colonial or marginalized persons. But, being Chamoru, and being from Guam, is qualitatively different from these other ways of being and experiences of oppression. What do you understand as the unique qualities of Guam’s colonial status and the Chamoru who live there?
Craig Santos Perez: Chamorus are one of the most invisible peoples of US empire, partly because we are a small population, partly because Guam is the furthest territory from the US continent, partly because we don’t fit into popular images of Pacific Islanders, and partly because we speak English and carry US passports. Being from an “unincorporated territory” has taught us that we are a possession of the US but we are not fully part of the nation. The Chamoru experience is, in some ways, a confluence of other experiences of oppression. For example, Chamorus have experienced a similar history to Native Americans in terms of genocide and missionization and decolonial struggles. Chamorus are similar to other island peoples within US empire (such as Hawaiians and Puerto Ricans) in terms of how we have been shaped by colonization, militarization, and tourism. Chamorus are similar to other immigrant groups in terms of our experience of diaspora, cultural assimilation, and civil rights struggles.
MFSR: Many in the Split This Rock community are not academics, and we put a high value on intellectual accessibility. For readers in and out of the academy, and taking advantage of your talents as a teacher, would you mind describing documentary poetics and how you think it contributes to a poetry of protest and provocation?
CSP: Documentary poetics is a poetry that documents history, culture, politics, etc (think of a documentary film). Often, documentary poetry uses actual documents to tell the story (such as photographs, historical texts, archival material, political tracts, etc). Potentially, documentary poetics contributes to a poetry of protest by giving deeper and broader contexts to whatever the poet might be protesting. For example, if you were writing a poem protesting racist representations of Muslims in the media, you can include actual quotes from the articles (the documents), or you can tell a larger documentary story about Muslims in America.
MFSR: I suppose we could ask the same question about experimental poetics (to use a huge umbrella term into which I am jamming many of the modern and postmodern practices). To expand: Experimental poetry gets labeled as apolitical, or insufficiently engaged, because its poetics (indeterminate, collage, ambiguous, juxtaposed, etc) delays and refracts meaning. Rather than experiencing it as allowing meaning to emerge, many readers (and critics) experience it as fractured, chaotic, inert. But, your poetics puts the lie to this dismissive stance. Why write in this tradition, rather than the more lyric and narrative tradition of poetry of witness and intervention?
CSP: Yes, experimental or avant-garde poetic traditions have a deep history of political engagement (often radical engagements with anarchism, socialism, decolonization, and communism). I write in this tradition because I consider myself a radical poet who is interested in decolonizing and deconstructing empire. That said, I also write in lyric and narrative traditions of witness and intervention, as I believe these poetic traditions have something valuable to offer poets interested in sharing stories of trauma and poems of protest.
MFSR: Beyond some familiar methods of documentary poetics, your books make many gestures outside of themselves that become textured experiences for the reader. Some of your titles are geographic coordinates. We can look those up on maps on the internet, discover a place, rather than be told what it is or how it’s symbolic in your poem. the book focuses so much on destruction wrought in Guam, but each section of the book is named for a tool used to build the latte, or stones that either mark sacred places or were foundations for buildings that elevated them above storm surge. In the lists of Chamoru military dead, you strike out everything but their name, making this person more present than their function for the colonizer. In your recent poems, you’re using more hashtags -- sometimes as links to real internet campaigns, sometimes as words, sometimes as fragments that go nowhere. I want first to compliment you on this. It’s a kind of profuse minimalism. For me, much of the considerable emotional force of the poems is conveyed this way. These techniques also put the experience of strangeness and dislocation in the foreground for the reader.
So, to turn this into a question: what is the value or strategy of strangeness (which is also discovery) in your poetry? What are the political registers of these techniques?
CSP: Thanks for this close reading, and for your compliment. Yes, I am interested in different poetic techniques that can express, capture, and embody emotions in ways that invite the reader into the meaning making process. This strangeness is defamiliarizing and—I hope—creates opportunities for interpretation. Throughout my books, I have referenced urls, Facebook statuses, Google search engine results, and now hashtags to speak to the virtuality of poetry and protest, or how poetry and protest have become so deeply intertwined with the virtual world. To me, this takes the poem from the page to the web, so to speak.
MFSR: In your interview at The Colorado Review, Megan Wilson asks you a brilliant question about the power of poetry. Your response was:
“Poetry cannot bring back the dead, nor can it bring back dying languages or cultures. However, I think poetry, and literature in general, is an important site of memory, recovery, resistance, revitalization, resilience, and resurgence–especially in response to historical, cultural, ecological, and personal trauma. Because the literary is a symbolic space, poetry can inspire and empower us towards real change. There is no guarantee or direct correlation to action, but instead poetry opens up a space of possibility and promise. In this way, poetry is like a prayer that believes in resurrection.”
Let me extend this idea a little. So many of your interviews touch on what we call “Split This Rock issues,” that I’m working hard to take this conversation into areas that you haven’t often been asked to tread. Let’s replace “resurrection” with “imagination” and “world making.” We want poetry to move us to real change, but I wonder how you feel about its role in imagining what those changes are: what might the other side of the postcolonial moment look like; or, for example, what kind of city will Detroit or Baltimore become as they evolve out of post-industrial wreckage; or, should poetry be a medium in which positive visions are imagined?
In short, is there a vision of a post-colonial Guam, and how does poetry figure in or support that vision?
CSP: As you note, an important aspect of the anti-colonial project is to expose and critique the ravages of colonialism. The decolonial then comes in to recover and revitalize what was lost in terms of native culture, language, history, arts, ecologies, etc. The vision for a post-colonial Guam is one in which Guam is a free, sovereign state, in which the US military de-occupies our land (and that land is once again cared-for and rehabilitated), and the Chamoru people can finally determine our future in terms of governance, natural resource management, education, etc. Poetry can articulate and inspire visions of a sustainable future.
MFSR: I ask because the modes of critique, complaint, protest, or intervention are deeply necessary answers to the sleights-of-hand and commercializing of imperial and domestic forms of state and economic control. The System, for shorthand, needs dismantling, but I worry that we are not also working on ideas and plans and dreams and negotiations of the world and social forms that come next. It’s a difficult question, I know, because part of the immigrant and the colonial imagination or mindset is to look back to before -- before the colonizer arrived, before the homeland was left -- it’s historical. And some of the customs, habits, strategies, attitudes, poetics and artistic forms that we will need in whatever’s coming from us do come from these ancestral and even ancient cultures. For you, though, how or should poetry be more than interventionist?
CSP: In many Pacific and indigenous cultures, time is viewed as a spiral so that we face the futures with our backs, which means we look to the past to teach us how to move forward. This is practical as well, in the sense that ancestral practices will help us deal with modern problems. In this way, the past, present, and future are intertwined. That being said, indigenous futurist writing (such as science-fi, climate-fiction, digital games etc) are becoming more popular because they take our imaginations into the future, which of course is imbued with the ancestral past. While I havent written much futurist poetry, I hope to do so in the future!
MFSR: We are primarily a community of poets, so I want to ask a handful of questions about your process, broadly understood. How do you interweave (or balance) your roles as a father, a husband, a professor, and a poet? What’s your go-to snack or beverage when you write the early drafts? Where do you write? And lastly, what’s the most difficult part of revision for you?
CSP: I am struggling with how to fulfill all my responsibilities as a father, husband, professor, poet, activist, editor, publisher, scholar, performer, etc. Obviously, being a father and husband come first, then a professor since that pays the rent, and everything else I try to do a little bit each day so that over time projects actually gets done, even though individual projects take me a long time. Green smoothies and probiotic drinks for poem drafts. These days, I write mostly in bed, while waiting for my daughter to fall asleep. The most difficult part of revision is letting go.
MFSR: What's most lasting in its impression on me is how much power, how much confrontation, and celebration, you include in a poetics of decentering and displacement. There's a kind of self you've developed in these poems who is, of terrible necessity, grounded differently than many other kinds of selves we've seen in history. As poets, we delight in that for you; and as justice activists, we applaud and admire your focused and powerful voice for decolonization and cultural memory on your island and for your people. Thank you.
Craig Santos Perez is a native Chamoru (Chamorro) from the Pacific Island of Guåhan (Guam). He is the co-founder of Ala Press, co-star of the poetry album Undercurrent (2011), and author of three collections of poetry, most recently from unincorporated territory [guma’] (2014), which received the American Book Award. His writing explores themes of indigenous identity, militarism, decolonization, food sovereignty, ecological imperialism, migration, and citizenship. He is an Associate Professor in the English Department, and affiliate faculty with the Center for Pacific Islands Studies and the Indigenous Politics Program at the University of Hawaii, Manoa, where he teaches Pacific literature and creative writing.
Perez lists a number of his interviews on his website: craigsantosperez.com. Of them, I was particularly impressed with these:
■ Post-Colonial Text (2015)
■ Prism Review Literary Journal (see 2010)
At Perez’s site, you can also hear some of his poems and see video of him reading.
M. F. Simone Roberts is the Poetry & Social Justice Fellow for Split This Rock. Roberts is an independent scholar of poetics and feminist phenomenology, a poet, editor, and activist. She is co-editor of the anthology Iris Murdoch and the Moral Imagination: Essays and author of the critical monograph A Poetics of Being-Two: Irigaray's Ethics and Post-Symbolist Poetics. Her poems are coming soon to a journal near you. Descendant of both aristocrats and serfs, she adventures this world with her consort, Adam Silverman.