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.
When I turn left on Kahekili Highway near my house on the windward side of O`ahu, I turn toward my son’s baseball practice and many of his games in Kahalu`u. I also turn toward a community of coaches and parents who, for the most part, speak Pidgin English. (The language is actually Hawaiian Creole English or HCE, but people in Hawai`i call it Pidgin.) Many dads come from work in the bright green shirts of construction and road-workers; the moms, who speak less Pidgin, still live in its surround. If I turn right on Kahekili Highway, in the direction of Kāne`ohe Town and highways to Honolulu, toward my daughter’s soccer practices, I drive into a world of local people who, for the most part, do not speak Pidgin to each other. Kāne`ohe is the suburbs; Kahalu`u is still country. Baseball has a working class history in Hawai`i, especially among AJA, or Americans of Japanese ancestry; soccer is played in a suburban middle class present untethered to plantation or war histories. While the local bumpersticker that reads “Keep the Country Country” is in standard English, its sentiment is Pidgin. The response, or “Keep Town Town,” might be read with a local accent, but it’s hardly da kine.
A few years ago I was teaching a class on poetry and politics when my students got angry with me. I had just laughed at their stated ambition to make money writing poetry. My laughter, they informed me — in no uncertain terms — meant that I did not take them or their work seriously. That day’s lesson plan fell aside as I told them about the (im)balance sheet of Tinfish Press, about doing one’s life’s work while losing buckets of money at it. And, hardest of all to fathom, why such a thing might be worthwhile.
One summer I talked my way onto a panel at the Hawai`i Book and Music Festival in Honolulu. I was under a tent, up on stage with some other publishers, one of whom began talking about how he’d done a print run of 60,000 books. I heard myself responding that at Tinfish we do print runs of 100 to 300 chapbooks and consider that what we’re doing is pretty important.
The new president of the University of Missouri, Timothy Wolfe, is a businessman by trade (though his parents were college professors, which surely qualifies him for something). Recently, he made one of his first decisions. He is closing the University of Missouri Press. On firing ten employees, who had heard nothing of it beforehand, President Wolfe was quoted as saying that administrators “take seriously our role to be good stewards of public funds, to use those funds to achieve our strategic priorities and re-evaluate those activities that are not central to our core mission.”
Among recent notices on my Facebook feed was one for the new issue of Big Bridge, in particular a feature on “Neo-surrealism,” edited by Adam Cornford. Cornford’s expansive introduction to the feature, which looks back to the history of surrealism and forward to his selection of living poets, includes this definition of his subject: “What defines a Surrealist poetry today, then, is what has defined it from the outset . . . Surrealist poetry can only be ‘a cry of the mind determined to break apart its fetters.’ It must contribute, intentionally or otherwise, to the liberation of the mind ‘and all that resembles it.’” I’m not here to argue against the mind’s liberation, rather to suggest that newer forms of surrealism can be used effectively to record what occurs before the imagined line break in Cornford’s phrase, “the mind determined to break apart / its fetters.” The breaking apart of a mind, most familiar to me as a product (or anti-product) of dementia and Alzheimer’s, can be tracked through what I’ve elsewhere called “documentary surrealism.”
I’ve just finished a semester of teaching documentary poetry to a group of graduate students. This mixed form proved extremely generative. Student projects focused on women in prison, a homeless woman, a forgotten city, a planned town and its secrets, tourism, food and activism, and a lost grandfather. All of these projects (chapbooks and one on-line text) worked like accordians, moving back and forth between material and abstraction, between persons and communities. If a drawer can said to be an accordian, then Donovan Kūhiō Colleps’s project, which takes as its central artifact a filing cabinet containing his late grandfather’s papers, breathes its histories in and out. (See the project above: “from The Files of Curtis P. Ah You.") Another of the central images in his chapbook, made out of file folders, is the Pulmo-Aide Respirator, whose instruction guide he uses in the central poem. As the respirator is put together, according to the instructions, we learn about his grandfather’s links (broken and sustained) to his past, and of his love for — among other things — University of Hawai`i women’s volleyball. (A cultural marker if there ever was one.)