The students in my graduate poetry course on documentary poetry worry about voices. Some of them are writing about persons at risk: a homeless woman who loves to dance, inmates sent to prisons in other states — or locked up here at home. They're also writing about themselves and what they’ve lost, be it a grandfather or a culture or the tangled combination of both. Whose voices can they use? How do they cite what they quote of these voices? Are they potentially causing harm to those whose voices they use? Should they use names? Specify places? Beneath all these questions are worries about themselves, the possibility for self-harm involved in act of speaking out. Surely to put someone else’s words to paper is to implicate yourself. So the question is, how to write voices without superintending them; how to be author without presuming an authority that puts others in psychic or physical danger.
It was one of those days when everything random converged. The evening before, our friend who devoted a long career working with youth at risk talked to us about another friend, a Khmer Rouge survivor, who has spoken to several of my classes. The first time he told his story, he traumatized my freshmen by telling them about a woman bludgeoned to death before her colleagues for asking for more food. He finished the story with a laugh. My students couldn't get over his laugh. It assumed more importance to them, it seemed, than the story itself. “He shouldn't have laughed,” more than one told me. That day things converged, call it last Thursday, I awakened to an on-line citation of a memory card of my own, plucked at random by Joseph Harrington from my new book, based on a story told to me by a man who works as a prison psychologist, whose mother was in the same Alzheimer's home as mine. “He tells me about a [Cambodian] prisoner, 72 years old, stuffed inside a suicide shirt, who screams in Khmer that someone is beheading him.” And at noon, I attended a talk at the Biography Center at my university by Sydney L. Iaukea, whose new book is The Queen and I: A Story of Dispossessions and Reconnections in Hawai`i.Iaukea is a political scientist writing about the trauma of Hawaiian history, the effects of those traumas on extended families like her own.
This past Thursday, March 1, 2012, I attended two poetry events in Honolulu. The first was an English department colloquium presented by four University of Hawai`i at Mānoa graduate students, Lyz Soto, No`u Revilla, Aiko Yamashiro, and Jaimie Gusman, entitled “Place, Space, and Performance in Poetry.” The second was “A Conversation with W.S. Merwin” at Kennedy Theater on the UHM campus. As luck would have it, Merwin also wanted to talk about place. After receiving an honorary doctorate and the gift of a poi pounder, he noted that the honor was especially meaningful to him because it came from the place he'd “adopted as [his] homeland.” Throughout both presentations, the conflict between home as a chosen place and home as a place “clutched to bone” resonated; it resonated very close to that bone.
Jaimie Gusman opened the afternoon colloquium by reading part of an essay on “white space” in poetry. She began a meditation with the word “open,” which is one meaning of white space. But another meaning of “white space” came quickly after in Aiko Yamashiro's singing of the hapa haole song “Haole Hula,” which you can listen to here.
As editor of Tinfish Press, which publishes experimental poetry from the Pacific region, I try to put different Pacific poets and poetries in conversation with each other. After 15 years of editing, I no longer think of myself as someone who simply publishes books. Instead, I offer up fields of books, islands of them. The point is to move between these islands, not to stay fixed in one place. In The Radicant, Nicholas Bourriaud (on whom I’ve blogged elsewhere) describes such a poetics this way: “It is a matter of replacing the question of origin with that of destination.” He writes of the importance of the “itinerary, the path” (55), and of the need for movement. I would like to use this space on Jacket2 to get some of these conversations moving. Many, but not all, will involve Tinfish authors; webs of connection attract across time and space and small press offices.