When the author is dead: posthumous collections of poetry from Hawai`i

(with love & rage in equal measure)

Painting by Reuban Tam (1916-1991)

Just over a week ago, I put this request up on the Tinfish Press facebook page: “I’m looking for good models of books published posthumously, especially by poets who are not well known already. In what ways are these books same/different from books by living authors? How, in the end, does one work up interest in such poetry after the very literal death of the author?” Some 35 substantive comments later, I realized that there was probably a book to be researched and written in response to those questions.  Instead of writing one, I’ll be looking at two recent posthumous volumes from Hawai`i in this commentary, namely, Westlake: Poems by Wayne Kaumualii Westlake (1947-1984) (University of Hawai`i Press, 2009), edited by Mei-Li M. Siy and Richard Hamasaki, and Language Matters: Tony Quagliano, Selected Poetry (New York Quarterly Books, 2012), put together by Quagliano’s widow, Laura Ruby, although no one is credited as editor on the title page. There’s a lot to remark upon: the way the poetry is presented, contextualized, edited, but also the odd, unremarked upon affinities between the two poets.  They both revered Kerouac, knew their Pound and his Imagism, adopted William Carlos Williams’s obsession with the local language, place. Their tone was often acidic, provocative. Both were idealistic and profoundly angry poets.

The more recent of these volumes, Language Matters, offers a collection of Tony Quagliano’s poetry. Tony, whose life spanned the years 1941 through 2007, was someone I knew; he was a complicated character, full of love for jazz (he used to send typed poems to Tinfish in envelopes with Charles Mingus stamps on them), enthusiasm for his and his partner Laura’s work, promotional energies for Kaimana, the organ of the Hawaii Literary Arts Council, HLAC, which he edited for many years. He made infrequent, friendly, phone calls. But he was also angry, as poems in this collection make acidly clear. Because the book is not organized chronologically and has no back notes, comes with neither an introduction nor an afterword, the reader gets no real sense of a trajectory in his writing.  Instead, the organization is thematic, making sections out of “Hawaii"; poems with science in them; poems about poetry and the po-biz; jazz poems; poems based on listening to voices, and others. What we have seems to be an entirely new book, one composed of previous chapbooks and other miscellaneous poems. When I asked her, Laura Ruby said as much; the book was not organized chronologically, but in ways that placed poems in conversation with one another in the present. It's a loving memorial more than it is a scholarly tome. I can't imagine Tony wanting it any other way. It's provocatively anti-historical, another act of resistance.

As an editor who published some of his work in the 1990s and early 2000s, including the chapbook Snail Mail Poems, and read his earlier work published by Petronium Press in Honolulu, my hunch is that he wrote Imagist lyrics early, satirical screeds later on.  The Imagist lyrics in this book are more compelling to me as poetry than are the bitter attacks on creative writing workshops, individual poets, and writing communities in Hawai`i, but those last poems fascinate (and horrify) me.  For they’re poems written by a white male poet who knows he’s one, who knows he’s inevitably thought of as one, and who is angry at the local community (Asian/Hawaiian) that he perceives as blocking his entry.  Unlike the late Steve Shrader, who wrote without publishing for decades, Tony tried hard to participate in the local writing community; the sounds of hurt echo throughout this book, and many of them are not pretty. Take this “primal scene” poem on the subject, “The Teeth of the Mask,” which transcribes a conversation Quagliano had with a poet from Papua New Guinea who asked why American poets wear primitive masks at readings, and then, how many kinds of cars there are in America.

I stood there in the Pali wind
American, and local guide
despairing of cross-cultural understanding —
I had just recently learned
that I’m a haole

The line “American, and local guide,” which might carry little weight in many other locations, is heavy with contextual baggage here in Hawai`i. Quagliano is discovering within himself the oddly-angled white “double consciousness” of a white poet called upon to explain the strange ways of “his people.” That he drives a 1965 Dodge Dart sedan lets us know that he’s not really one of them. But he is, and that’s that. The “cross-cultural understanding,” like the cross-cultural rift he’s just experienced, happens within him, not just between him and the other poet, Jack Lahui.  Lahui was at Iowa in 1977, says that link, so this poem likely comes from that decade, Tony’s first in Hawai`i. That decade culminated with 1978's Talk Story conference, the ascendency of Bamboo Ridge and local literature. To be "local" was, for the most part, to have roots on the plantation, to be related to workers brought from Asia to work the sugar cane and pineapple fields. To be "local" was not to be a Brooklyn guy with a degree from the University of Chicago and a friendship with Charles Bukowski under his belt. Ironic that he became something of a local poet anyway, using the energy of his anger at being excluded by Bamboo Ridge, which published his work only once in the mid-1980s in Malama: Land and Water.

Permit me a brief digression on dating the poems, which I want to do in spite of the book’s refusals.  Chronology is not everything, for sure, but histories matter in poetry, as in the daily life of the poet. One poem, “Feed the Hungry, or Do Something Better: (On H.L. Hix in H.R. Six)” accuses Hix of “neo-beatific / sermons.”  I assumed Quagliano referred to Hawaii Review (my own localism is showing), but when I emailed Harvey Hix about it, he responded that the reference was to Harvard Review #6, likely published in 1995 or so.  (Hix can’t remember what he wrote, but suspects it might well have been “stupid,” as he was young). The anti-Hix poem begins from the truism about giving a man a fish or teaching a man how to fish, and notes that “the actual / starving wander the actual / world out // of earshot / of neo-beatific / sermons” (161). As a poet in Hawai`i, these fish — Tony knew — could be fried in many ways, sometimes as food, often as literary politics. The group of writers in the Bamboo Ridge study group whose journal goes into its 100th issue this year, took their name from the place where fishermen station themselves on east O`ahu.  Quagliano is not the only poet to write an anti-Bamboo Ridge fishing poem (see Barry Masuda’s here), but he writes as a haole speaking Pidgin  (a “local” language, hence one that excludes him):

A Haole Writes One Local Poem

My granmoddah wen fish
catch one trout
trout?
haole fish, dat
she trow back

catch one snappa den
hapa fish
bitta
she trow back

granmoddah den
catch one ***
a local fish
pure you know
good fo eat
good fo da soul
granny keep em  (27)

The moral of this story is clear; whites and hapa (mixed race) writers are not welcome; only “local fish” will do.  While this poem, angry as it is, presents itself obliquely to the akamai reader, Quagliano wrote other, more overtly hostile poems about Bamboo Ridge, like “Last Chance Poem for Wing Tek Lum.” In this bitter poem he begs Lum to leave Bamboo Ridge, the “puerile whining  / of small keed timers Eril and Darrek,” Eric Chock and Darrell Lum (162).  Quagliano then oddly positions himself as “colonial Tony, luna on horseback / herding all the sad slaves” (163), perhaps because he knows his advice will not be wanted. He understands anger as a muse: “hate me, if necessary, /ask, demand, who the hell am I / to tell you what to write[?]” (162). Not to restrict himself to the local poetry community’s problems, Quagliano also penned attacks on UH creative writers, and on anyone who taught creative writing. He's got one about a Language poet at a baseball game (no, the game makes no sense). Most successful among these attack poems is one on W.S. Merwin, because Quagliano, with some wit, takes on the form of Merwin’s poems rather than the author himself (“What To Do With Scenery”). What he does is write a recipe to a Merwin poem, rather than point out Merwin’s personal idiosyncracies.

Wayne Westlake, on whom I’ve written elsewhere, died before Bamboo Ridge became the dominant force in Hawai`i’s 1980s and 1990s literary world.  But he, too, had a bone to pick with Merwin.

after the poetry reading
                                                (for W.S. Merwin)

Shaking hands
     with “The Poet”
I held my tongue . . . (236)

The argument that Westlake (the book) makes is for an indigenous poetry that comes out of Modernism (Pound, Williams) and Chinese poetry. Hamasaki further argues that Hawaiian language orature is crucial to an understanding of Hawai`i. Westlake uses Hawaiian most effectively in his concrete poems; he didn’t speak Hawaiian, coming from a generation that did not remember, or learn, the language, which had been banned for much of the last century. The book is marked by an eponymous title, suggesting that the man himself is what matters, even more than the poems; I wonder if Westlake’s status as a representative Hawaiian artist doesn’t suffer a bit from this attention to him. Editor Richard Hamasaki, himself a poet, frames the Westlake volume with an introduction that chronicles Westlake’s life, and an afterword on the poems themselves.  There are detailed notes at the back that draw the poems out into the world of Westlake’s reading and history.  For example, note 8 on page 260 lists authors Westlake was reading in the 1960s and 1970s.  That all 40 of them are men, from Catullus through Albert Wendt, is symptomatic of another issue in Hawai`i’s literature at the time (even, to a large extent, now).  But the notes are thorough, as is the Bibliography and Publications at the very back, which provides a timeline of Westlake’s publications. It's a beautifully executed editorial work. Let me grind my axe for a moment. This is the kind of book that comes from a University Press.  This is the kind of book that we will not see published if university presses like the one at the University of Missouri get cut. The University of Hawai`i Press is suffering its own severe bout of economic asthma, as well. 

The most powerful sequence in this book of mostly short lyrics is “Poems from Down on the Sidewalk in Waikiki (1972 to 1973).” Throughout, Westlake employs a method of turn-about familiar to readers of Quagliano in poems like “The Condo Marxist” : a woman lectures about land and water in Hawai`i, while standing on duck swamps that were drained to make Waikiki a concrete jungle. Gotcha poetry, in other words. In that poem, Quagliano’s anger is local, not that of an outsider’s; to the local community he was a haole poet, while to the outsider he was a local. Westlake was writing as a well educated man working as a janitor in Waīkīki, bearing a working class rage whose weaponry included classical Chinese and High Modernist allusiveness. In the title poem of this sequence, Westlake writes:

No need feel sorry
     for the crippled man
     down on the sidewalk
         — in Waikiki

There are a lot more crippled
     minds
        limping around,
feel sorry for them!  (139)

Many of these are hate or insult poems, as Ron Padgett would define them, in which the speaker (a janitor in Waikiki, like Westlake) enacts mostly verbal violence on tourists. There are lots of references to “PIGS” (not to be confused with kamapu`a`a), and to eating shit and dying. One tourist is imagined silenced by a breadfruit stuck in her mouth; that poem prefigures Haunani-Kay Trask’s “racist white woman poem.” As Richard Hamasaki notes in the afterword: “Westlake was no social equivocator” (248).  Like Quagliano, who excoriates Major League Baseball for putting Enos Slaughter in the Hall of Fame — Slaughter who tried to cut Jackie Robinson’s Achilles tendon with his spikes — while banning Pete Rose for gambling, Westlake cuts through layers of hypocrisy. The violence of his anger sometimes overwhelms his poems as they lurch from small to upper case letters, from ellipses and dashes to exclamations. In that way, too, Westlake and Quagliano seem well matched.

Hamasaki puts Westlake’s rage poems in the context of the 1970s movement to stop the bombing on Kaho`olawe, reclaim Hawaiian lands, and give voice to the poor on Waikiki’s streets.  For Hamasaki, Westlake is a native Hawaiian writer.  But Westlake knew his own complications: his poem “Realizing I’m a German,” gets at the complexity of mixed race identity. Quagliano used to tell me that he was Irish and Italian; like many white people in Hawai`i, he discovered his own ethnic roots more after he moved here.  But of course “haole” trumped these "nationalities" for Quagliano as a writer in Hawai`i.  That we might read Westlake’s anger as righteous and Quagliano’s as pitiable is as inevitable in the Hawai`i context as it is, to some extent, unfair. Anger is an equal opportunity employer, I’m afraid. Quagliano’s laments were personal, but they were not his alone. There is no community of white writers that dare speak its name (for historical, arguably worn-out reasons). The lack of coalitions between writers — as between members of interest groups more generally — is lamentable. Quagliano could not express native Hawaiian or Asian immigrant anger; that was not his to feel. The sadness comes in for me when he directs local anger against himself, as in the Wing Tek Lum poem.

I most appreciate the poems of Westlake and Quagliano when they find their enterprise in walking naked, as Yeats (who was not without his anger!) put it. Here’s a riff by Quagliano off William Carlos Williams:

the way the wagon runs
down the rain
here
if you use the word
color
it ruins the word blue   (17)

To which I hear Westlake respond, in his own moment of unguardedness:

the rains are warm
                 here in Kalalau
     green everywhere  (50)

 

Notes

Reuben Tam was an artist from the island of Kaua`i and a friend of Tony Quagliano's.

You can find details on Hawai`i’s demography here.

Wikipedia (which includes the Hawaiian word "wiki"--fast, quick--in it) defines "haole."

Here's a cartoon about haole, based on the insult "f-ing haole."

After writing this commentary, I found an essay by Tony Quagliano in the December 22, 1976 Hawaii Observer entitled, "Some Haole Notes on Ethnicity" (page 27). A playful piece, it gets at his own difficulties in finding his place, either physically or racially, and also intervenes obliquely in a controversy over the founding of the Ethnic Studies department at UHM at the time.  The Hawaii Observer, which was published from 1973(?) until 1978, contained amazing writing on local politics and the arts.  Its managing editor for its last few years was Steve Shrader, poet.