Uncertain geographies: Caroline Sinavaiana & Hazel Smith in (imagined) conversation

Part of the "Hand Upon Hand" sculpture in Centennial Park, Sydney; poem by Adam Aitken

In her marvelous, odd textbook, The Writing Experiment: Strategies for Innovative Creative Writing, Hazel Smith devotes a late chapter to “Mapping worlds, moving cities.”  Composing in a kind of sociological sublime, she writes in the subsection, “The diasporic city,” of the sub-section, “Cities rather than city,” “As the concept of the nation-state breaks down, people migrate and borders shift.  The modern western city has become a mixture of nationalities and ethnicities: this has transformed food, clothing, customs, art and language” (260).  Cutting to the chase, she ends her paragraph on “the diasporic city” with this pithy sentence: “The diasporic city is as much about displacement as about place” (261).   The neatly structured description of this city hardly masks the layers of discomfort and exuberance to which Smith refers, inviting students to write their own city-selves.   Two writers published by Tinfish Press, one of them Hazel Smith and the other Caroline Sinavaiana (as Sinavaiana-Gabbard), explore that vein of dis-ease.  They have almost certainly never met, as their paths have covered different roads, followed different tides, but putting their work in conversation opens new possibilities for talking about poetries of diaspora. Hazel Smith was born in London, graduated from Cambridge, and played the violin professionally before she and her partner, Roger Dean, moved to Sydney, Australia in the late 1980s.  Caroline Sinavaiana was born to Samoan parents and grew up mostly in the American South, discovering odd affinities along the way with Bob Dylan, J.D. Salinger and other writers.  After attending Sonoma State in California, she moved to Sāmoa, where she taught briefly in high school and then — after earning her Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Hawai`i-Mānoa — for many years at the college in Tutuila.  She has been my colleague in the English department at UHM for over a decade now. 

Smith and Sinavaiana both gravitate toward “the poetics of uncertainty,” rather than attempting to get a fix on self and place. In her poem of that title (“The poetics of uncertainty” with “the” an ironic tag if ever there was one), Smith introduces herself this way: “I was born in Britain but I am not quite British, I have sojourned in Australia but I am not quite Australian. My grandparents left Lithuania in a  hurry, and I am often in a rush, but that doesn't make me Lithuanian. . . I am not an academic though I have a PhD, and I am not a poet though I am often held to ransom by the metonymic. But there have to be some putative commitments, some concessions to containment, some gatecrashing of normality. And so it seems I am Hazel Smith, British-Australian, a search term on the internet, a candidate for lunacy, no more, no less”  (The Erotics of Geography, 31).  More pointedly, she writes that, “You can smell me in the smoke at Auschwitz, hear me in the voices of the Taliban, find me amongst stolen Aboriginal children.  But I am as much predator as prey” (32).  When I looked for Hazel recently at her hotel in Auckland, I was told she was not there.  I insisted, then added perhaps she was there under the last name "Dean."  Again, she wasn't there.  When I mentioned that she was there for a symposium on the long poem, the clerk finally found her in that folder, her name Hazel Dean. As she notes in “The Poetics of Uncertainty,” “Sometimes when I'm buying a washing machine, or booking a hotel, I'm known fleetingly as Hazel Dean” (31).

Sinavaiana's genealogy runs through Sāmoa, Europe, southern United States of America; her experiences run much the same route, if in a different set of directions.  Like Smith, the central theme of her Tinfish Press book is geography, and like Smith, her “topic is the erotics of the inexact.”  Sinavaiana’s inexactitude is physical, yes, but also spiritual; she is a Buddhist.  Buddhists, like Pacific Islanders, claim long lineages, and hers joins them together in a poetry composed of Samoan stories, Buddhist wisdom, memoir, and yes, committee meetings.  (We get our spiritual educations where we can.)  Perhaps the most important living concept for Sinavaiana is that of vā.  “In Samoan epistemology, the space between things is called the ‘vā.’  Relationships are va, the space between I and thou. In friendship we cultivate the vā like a shared garden, that patch of ground between us we planted with bananas and strawberries. Teu le vā. Cultivate the space between us, our relationship” (20). Sinavaiana grew up on an American airbase in the South, her race ambiguous, as she was neither white nor black.  An airbase provides a semiotics of power.  Her later life in Sāmoa involved “A grand canyon of space between the American self and the holographic somebody I stepped into when I got off the plane in Tutuila,” between American power and the colonial nightmare (and its discontents) she found in Sāmoa. And so she cobbled together (in only the best sense of the phrase) a wisdom tradition for herself composed of Nafanua, the Samoan goddess of war, Bob Dylan, Allen Ginsberg, Rumi, and the Buddha. 

Both poets acknowledge that voice is more performative than fixed, more expressive than still.  Hazel Smith collaborates often with Roger Dean (the cd-rom that comes with The Erotics of Geography contains some of them; others you can find here and here).  None of her poetry readings are readings, per se, as they all enact the breath.  Sinavaiana points to Charles Olson's projective verse as a mainstay in her own poetics, citing his ideas as a “revelation” that poetry exists “in a direct link to one's heart” (18).  While Smith engages less in the voice/heart nexus, she can approach that space obliquely, as she does in “The Idea of Elegy,” which begins in lots of ideas, but ends here:

every time I saw Hilary
she added more weft to the warp
I don’t want to cram her into a story
William says that death forms
the outer limit of containment, categories and definition
yet it is also powerful and precise
the bull’s eye of destiny
though I am never in the centre when it hits
if it’s happening in Australia you can be sure I am in England
if it’s happening in England you can be sure I am in Australia

but after this witty diversion into the diasporic, Smith returns to her friend:

I must check first that Hilary is mentioned
in the major reference tomes on weaving
that Rory’s book is on the road
that Kate's photos are pasted up in albums
and then make a note of it in my diary     (51)

Peter Sacks wrote extensively of the interrelation between mourning and weaving; I remember that much from graduate school.  But it's the need to remember that strikes me here, to write down names, references, put down photos, take notes, lest the lost ones be lost.  To think about diaspora is, really, to think about dying.  And then about elegizing.  Sinavaiana notes in her prefatory essay that one of her students had recently died.  She moves from that note to thinking about a lament, to citing John Kneubuhl on the Polynesian lament (“a house ‘of words into which our dead can move and live again and speak to us . . . ’”) and then concludes her thoughts by quoting Rumi on grief.  It's a complicated response, and yet it is not. 

But death and diaspora also lend themselves to humor, and both Smith and Sinavaiana can be very funny, playful poets. Sinavaiana begins her “pilgrim's progress” with the exuberant and funny lines, “farewell, Expectations and False Hope! / on second thought, don't fare well. Fare badly. Fall / & break your wily neck” (38). Her commentary on committee meetings in our fair department, circa 2000, includes #2: “your wish to be right / no matter what—bullfrogs sing / to rotting grapefruit” (62). And in the years since she composed these poems, she has written funny and wise poems and non-fiction pieces on her experience of going through breast cancer treatments. This is writing that discomposes its audience, taking the ground out from under our chair legs, as we hear words read in Sinavaiana's characteristic breath-marked syncopations. Likewise, in “Ought to do,” Smith exuberantly piles words together into one longish procrastinary rant. “The ought-to-do becomes / not-want-do for reason-roam. / Cuty is as duty does she doubts. She will / dither while the do-ought-must berates / the want-ought-won't” (39).

Of course there are worlds of difference between Smith and Sinavaiana, as between other diasporic writers from Sarith Peou, on whom I've written here, to Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, and many many others.  Diaspora is rarely shared, or shared easily, because there are so many versions of it.  Yet, as Adam Aitken writes in lines cast in bronze (oh irony!) in Centennial Park, Sydney:

and from the mouths of the wise ones
custodians sing a Law of living
that writes us
yields its path

and gives us
message of repair
that says
'it’s fine, it’s clear
you are here
your homesickness
will not last
you're home
within us,
clear path to sweet water:

all spirits
be spoken for.  

Diaspora is an economic reality, a cultural tearing apart, often born of political turmoil.  The “message of repair” offered by the poetic custodians, Aitken, Smith, and Sinavaiana, is a spiritual path.  Its “Law of living” is worth the abiding.


You can hear Caroline Sinavaiana read here.  Sinavaiana’s book can be found here.  Unfortunately, it is nearly out of print, and is unavailable directly from Tinfish Press.  YouTube here.

You can hear Hazel Smith perform with Roger Dean here.  Smith’s book can be found here.  Very much in print.