Pacific poets imagine the future
David Buuck's pre-enactments, Craig Santos Perez's truncun nunu, and Jen Coleman's vivifying prophesies
“Even the reappearance of the sun over the horizon tomorrow morning can be reduced to a question of probability,” writes James Hogan in Climate Cover-Up, arguing that global warming deniers exploit scientific uncertainty. While a future that includes a sun over the horizon is not difficult to imagine, other yet-to-be-experienced future conditions tax our social imagination.
Sentences that predict the future are structured along particular grammars. Words like could, may, and might, tacked before other verbs, are “modals of probability” (or possibility, or speculation) and indicate a possible but always uncertain future: “some studies suggest that sea-level rise could lead to a reduction in island size, particularly in the Pacific.” The report from which this sentence is taken, issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, also qualifies its prediction of future conditions with phrases such as “are likely” and the more definitive “are virtually certain”:
“There is strong evidence that under most climate change scenarios, water resources in small islands are likely to be seriously compromised.”
“Mid- and high-latitude islands are virtually certain to be colonised by non-indigenous invasive species, previously limited by unfavourable temperature conditions.”
We already know what the sun looks like over the horizon, but we need more imagination to know what happens when that sun overheats the ocean until it swells above Pacific shores. The conditions of the future will remain uncertain until it is our present, too late to change. This uncertainty has grammatical forms, but what other forms, what poetic forms might reconfigure thinking and action, our relation to this future? I corresponded with poets Craig Santos Perez and Jen Coleman with this question in mind.
My conversations with Perez and Coleman were informed by the work of Oakland-based poet and performance artist David Buuck. Buuck envisions concertedly convoluted verb constructions to express present actions from a vantage point of imagined futures: “strange verb tenses must be enacted: these are those things that will have had to have been, that will have had to yet occur in order for such performatives to be able to imagine themselves into being today.” As an example, he offers this grammatical construction by Ursula K. Le Guin: “The people in this book might be going to have lived a long, long time from now.” The vantage point twists around, at once in the present looking to the future, and in the future looking back to the past that leads up to it.
Buuck coins the term “pre-enactments” to conjure a grammar for ardently wishful — not hopelessly wistful — micro-utopias: “rather than merely rehearse or recycle the past, as a repetition compulsion aimed towards somehow salvaging previous hopes,” Buuck writes in his Buried Treasure Island guidebook, “pre-enactments propose historical actions that have yet to occur. The knight’s move here is to imagine the future-past from its own vantage point, as if reenacting the battles yet to come.”
In addition to thinking about pre-enactments grammatically, Buuck works through the body as “vessel for acts of conceptual theater, site-specific performances that aim to have had liberated other futures from the husks of the present.” In his tour of the degraded Treasure Island in the San Francisco Bay, artists emerge in hazardous materials outfits, pre-enacting environmental cleanup at sites where naval testing compromised the soil to the extent that residents in nearby low-income housing are warned not to grow vegetable gardens.
While Buuck offers a grammar and a performance strategy for configuring thought toward the future, Craig Santos Perez does so through a formal arrangement that exceeds the book into a series that he says he’ll stop writing when “Guam is free from U.S. colonialism.” Santos Perez, who resides in Hawaii but recently lived in Berkeley and is native to Guam, has completed two books, from unincorporated territory [hacha] (Tinfish) and from unincorporated territory [saina] (Omnidawn), and arranges poems as excerpts so that they always have the possibility of a future: these are poems in a state of becoming. The books are part of a larger conceptualized form, i truncun nunu, the banyan tree. Reading his arrangements of these excerpts I confront limits in my own thinking: I default to the verb “weave,” tightly woven as I am to the “textile” in text. I am challenged to figure out a way to speak of poems arranged as a banyan tree: this poetic form shifts my patterns of thought.
Portland, Oregon-based poet Jen Coleman’s recent poems are concerned with the deep ocean, affected by but unknowable to humans. As with Buuck’s pre-enactments and Santos Perez’s i truncun nunu, these poems reconfigure thoughts about uncertain conditions. Coleman describes “trying not only to imagine, but also, to vivify” such spaces, coaxing both empirical details and imaginative ideas through various forms, often recasting prophecy: blending oil bigwig recklessness with Greek myth, fanciful policy requests with biblical anaphora, Coleman constructs whimsical, robust thought experiments.
These conversations — and the poems that appear elsewhere in this feature — demonstrate Craig Santos Perez’s and Jen Coleman’s imaginations of the future and grapplings with uncertainty. Santos Perez writes poems that are at once becoming new poems, books becoming new books. Coleman rallies whimsy, myth, and authoritative discourses to structure uncertainties into poems. If people will have had to have been living toward this, to borrow from David Buuck’s performative grammars, these poets help us see what “this” is, and how it is that we will have had to have been living to arrive there.
Email interview with Craig Santos Perez (May–August 2010)
Kaia Sand: Craig, I am interested in the form of i truncun nunu, the banyan tree. I wonder if you could describe the form?
Craig Santos Perez: I truncun nunu, or banyan tree, is an important tree in Chamoru culture because we believe that i taotaomona (the spirits of our ancestors) dwell within the space of the banyan. The tree itself creates a haunting form: seeds drop upon other trees and “strangle” the host tree (banyans are also referred to as “strangler figs”). The banyan envelops the host and grows around it, its roots taking root. Furthermore, the banyan produces “aerial roots” (or “prop roots”) that fall from the branches, weave, and root in the ground. Over time, these braided roots will form their own trunk — often indistinguishable from the main trunk. As a result, banyan trees can cover wide areas of land.
I imagine my own work as a space for the voices and presences of my ancestors to dwell. The form of my work thus reflects the form of truncun nunu. Each book is composed of a number of poems that weave together to form a trunk of the overall project of “unincorporated territory” (the place in which my people dwell). My first book is connected to my second book because some poems that appear in the first continue and take root in the second, braiding with the new poems to create a second trunk. At the same time, the second book refers back to and directly quotes from the first book, creating an aerial root between the books.
Sand: I am struck, Craig, by how this way of conceptualizing the book builds a future into it while coaxing its past forward. While I am reading any aerial root, I am reading its potential, its future. It’s almost as if, in addition to creating a space for your ancestors, you are also creating a space for the future. The future is so difficult to think about — so immaterial, unknowable. And yet it is urgent that we do relate to the future in how we act and live. I’m intrigued by poetic forms that think through the immateriality of the future, and take seriously our relation to it. I wonder how you think about all of this?
Santos Perez: I agree, the future is so difficult to think about in its immateriality; for the Chamoru people and for many indigenous peoples, the future is also difficult to think about because it’s always under threat. While there is no “fatal impact” — we will continue our survivance — there have been many fatalities, cultural, linguistic, geographic, and political. And in the case of Guahan and Chamorus, our future is not entirely in our hands as we are continually denied our right to self-determination, allowing our future to be controlled by the United States. That said, we continue to build possible futures for ourselves within this colonized space — ground roots that must navigate the occupied soil, aerial roots that must navigate the changing winds. From this excerpted space and this excerpted present, the past is summoned and haunts, and a self-determined future is always a possibility.
I hope the form itself embodies this idea: the word and the poem and the book and the project, all separate roots intertwined, create a vibrant tide where the past, present, and future spiral and braid, circle and root into the always moving “from.” I love what Patricia Grace says about this kind of storytelling in her novel Baby No Eyes: “a way where the beginning is not the beginning, the end is not the end. It starts from a centre and moves away from there in such widening circles that you don’t know how you will finally arrive at the point of understanding, which becomes itself another core, a new centre.” This is the form of i truncun nunu.
Sand: I am reading Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Space, and I just came across this passage: “in being, everything is circuitous, roundabout, recurrent, so much talk; a chaplet of sojournings, a refrain with endless verses.” The forms he lists, though, don’t have the new trees, the aerial roots, which seem to me to be less predictable than a circle, and which create a kind of exciting expectancy. I wonder if you might talk about one or two examples in the larger unincorporated territories project that in some way touch upon that which has not yet happened.
Santos Perez: I never know how or when another excerpt from a poem will appear. For example, I am currently working on the third booklength excerpt of “unincorporated territory,” and there are new excerpts of “aerial roots” that continue from [hacha] and [saina].“All with ocean views” continues from [saina] and “talaya” continues from [hacha]. Unsurprisingly, the new excerpts of these poems are thematically connected to their previous excerpts; however, their different forms will make them seem new, or be seen anew. One thing that shocked me is that the fifty-page poem “organic acts” from [saina] continues in my third book as a single sonnet. Strange. The poem “preterrain” becomes “postterrain” in the third book. Then, of course, there are new poems, new strands, new aerial roots reaching towards new poetic ground. I’m working on a series of monologues that are more humorous than my previous work. Also, I'm working on a long poem titled “sounding lines” that explores my childhood memories. I hope, overall, that the third book will feel both familiar and surprising.
Sand: Since these poems are always excerpts, always “from” something else, the selections we’ve chosen for this feature are in fact excerpts of excerpts. I am curious about your response to removing parts of this work from its truncun nunu form. I’m intrigued by how “aerial roots” appears in all three books. It coiled around the excerpt “tidelands” in [hacha] — the excerpts appeared in quick secession, back and forth. But then in [saina], “aerial roots” is less of a tight coil and appears in small patterns with other poems. What happens to excerpts such as these when they are simply grouped together?
Santos Perez: If the various excerpts were simply grouped together it would give the pieces more weight, more tightening. One thing I enjoy about weaving different poems together is that it gives the poems a more airy feel, more wind in their paper sails. Conversely, I believe it allows the narratives of the poems to unfold more slowly, giving the reader a sense of time passing.
Email interview with Jen Coleman (July–August 2010)
Kaia Sand: I’m intrigued by how you are dealing with a relationship that is, in many ways, impossible. We can’t know the undersea world, so how do we care about it? Or, maybe we can know about it? What kind of knowledge is that? How are you working with this in your poetry?
Jen Coleman: There’s no doubt that humans have a relationship with the undersea world — it’s all over our literature, myths, our children’s stories, religion, our national identity, from Moby Dick to The Little Mermaid to Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. It feeds the world a big chunk of our protein. There are a lot of reasons to care about it, and people do. But that care barely scratches the surface of our relationship to the ocean. We get 99 percent of our food from ocean waters within 200 miles of the coast, but even in that tiny span, there are vast, lively areas we know very little about. For example, until the last couple of decades we didn’t really know the full extent of the beauty and diversity of the deepwater coral wilderness off the Atlantic coast. Now that we have the technology to get there, every dive returns with new stories of species that no human has ever seen before.
So we care about the ocean we know and we care about the vast deep we don’t know (the sea monsters, giant squid, and unfathomable fathoms), but we have limited imagination for the ocean that knows we’re here even if we don't know it’s there. The ocean temperatures and currents, microscopic life, long-distance sea commuters, baby albatross on a tiny speck of an island — they can feel us. But we don’t have much occasion to feel them, so when the news reports that “the vast majority of oil has either evaporated or been burned, skimmed, recovered […] or dispersed,” people stop reading and breathe a sigh of relief. It’s much harder to imagine an ongoing life of “dispersed” oil, everywhere and nowhere.
How does it come out in poetry? I try to not only imagine, but to vivify, the relationship we have with the life and places that experience us, but that we don't experience.
Sand: Vivify! Can you describe the work of imagining and vivifying that takes place in your poems?
Coleman: “The Time is Ripe” and “Psalm” are insisting on a presence for sea creatures and, by conjuring them, reveal their very strangeness and vastness. “Psalm” asks for a relationship between creatures, even as it calls up the absurdity of such a relationship. Playful, but a bit mournful too.
“Plan D: Hot Tap” takes another tack, first calling up the lacunae between human life and ocean life, and then absurdly suggesting encounters between them. In my mind these encounters are an imagination or vivification of the unseen, unspoken relationships. There’s whimsy in these poems, and playfulness. Ultimately, I am not at all sure they “work” to help people imagine human impact on ocean life, but they are born out of this interest and desire.
Sand: These poems are delightful in their words and sounds and swerves. Each becomes a thought experiment in what happens if you import forms — whether the repetition of a psalm or the tallying of a census — and set certain conditions into motion. These poems help me think anew and speculate in ways that are pleasurable and challenging. Just as Craig Santos Perez’s i truncun nunu (banyan tree) reconfigures my expectations, your poems reconfigure my relationship to information and its limits.
“Plan D” instructs, provides information, serves up facts: I learn that, at a time when Deepwater Horizon is the oil rig name I know, that Thunderhorse is another deepwater rig. I learn that the oarfish is an animal that lives in those deep waters. And then, the poem announces that this is the realm of imagination because Poseidon enters. When you read this poem at Portland’s Spare Room reading series in the spring I was wooed by Poseidon, happy to be told myth, bits of story; I relaxed. While bureaucratic decisions might be easy to ignore, I pay more attention when you ask, “Did Poseidon have a cozy relationship with the minerals management service?” This writing — speculative, cutting, and playful — foregrounds the uncertainty that exists around deepwater drilling expeditions, and the ways in which powerful and fanciful decisions are made and defended.
“Census of the Fishes” asserts presente! for various species, familiar to unfamiliar, reminding me there are plenty of animals I don't recognize. I’m struck by how, in this poem and in “Plan D,” you bring in language that might come from policy, science, or bureaucracy. In this case, the poem calls for a “serious census of the fishes,” and charms me with its softly melancholic closure, “whether the wish exists.” This poem seems both lament and policy request!
With “Psalm,” you playfully create conditions for acceptance — the reader is beseeched to “let” the animals enjoy what they may. The play on “kind” at the end of the poem is striking; actually, this poem is very kind, it relishes life and insists on relishing what one might not understand. Any thoughts on the form of the psalm? Is there “work” that the bible does that is helpful to these themes?
Coleman: My dad was a Catholic priest as a young man. He’s also an artist and a poet. We talk together about the literary devices in the bible (including the Gnostic texts) and about how symbolism, double meanings, parallel construction, and incantation allow for a kind of meditative reinterpretation of what’s being said.
I love the meditation on the phrase “let there be.” God says let there be. The devotee in prayer asks god to let there be. The poet asks — who? — to let there be. It’s a meditation on the forces of the universe and the power to “let,” as if it were a call to something with a will. The psalm poem is also in defiance of the church using “accordance with nature” as the guiding principle for condemning sexuality. I’m reconfiguring that thought fer sure! I like to reuse literary constructions from other “instructions for life” texts such as Tao and Confucian sayings, because I like to play with this tone of authority, both to question it and to borrow it, and to conjure what the current moment has in common with other historical moments from which prophets emerge.
As for Poseidon, there’s a lot of Greek myth mixed in with Christianity in the stories that make up a culture of authority. In the case of “Plan D” I was thinking about how this oil spill is a moment that will accumulate myths, how it will be told in a way that simplifies complicated things. I was also thinking about how, at the very same time as the oil spilled, the space shuttle Atlantis was making its final flight. Atlantis, Poseidon, disaster, naming things, authority: Poseidon became the hero that embodies human folly, the folly of authority, of BP, of the fossil fuel economy, of government. So my reconfiguring plan here is to do that mythmaking work that will inevitably happen, but to do it my way, in a story that doesn’t have anybody coming out shining or stinking.
2. N. Mimura et al., “Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability,” in Contribution of Working Group II to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, M. L. Parry et al., eds. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 689. Italics mine.
5. David Buuck, Buried Treasure Island: A Detour of the Future (San Francisco: Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 2008), 8.