'Is there anyone out there?'

Kaona / koan: Jamaica Osorio and Norman Fischer voice the conflicts

Photo: Courtesy of the White House by Chuck Kennedy

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.


Poetic strategies are more than techniques; they’re ethical choices. I’ve been thinking about two very different approaches to voice this week. The first, by slam poet Jamaica Osorio, takes voice as an outlet for activism. Osorio, who (at 21 years of age) gave the Marjorie Putnam Sinclair Edel annual reading in my department this past Thursday, uses Hawaiian mo`olelo to re-member Hawaiian culture and history. Osorio was introduced by her mentor, Lyz Soto, head of Youth Speaks Hawai`i, as a young woman whose poetry includes “scathing indictments of American imperialism” and equally passionate pleas for “world peace.” Her work was included in the HBO series, Brave New Voices; she performed at the White House in 2009. [See the video of "Kumulipo" here.] Osorio braids together old stories with new ones. She uses spoken word as her form, locating a “potential to be a fluid extension of our literature" there. This is no unambitious project.


The second project using voices is Norman Fischer's Conflict, recently published by Chax PressWriting groups for veterans of recent (and not so recent) American wars provided the laboratory for this book. Fischer's ambition is more muted than Osorio's. Where Osorio spoke movingly of “feeling transformed” by the act of writing a poem, of “growing” through its many drafts, Fischer's veterans are less transformed than relieved:


     “I've been here before    ,

                                                          breathing this poison”


says a Vietnam vet (52). At the end of the book, Fischer acknowledges that we await “the one not yet here / whom we fear.” For Fischer, the work of witness is crucial, but witnessing still cannot clear the historical path. Yes, “this is sacred work,” as one of the poem's voices tells it, but is perhaps less effective as secular work. Wars will continue; veterans will return, in need of a place to speak their pain.


So how do these poets work with voices? Osorio uses the charisma of the “I” to bind many voices together.  One of the most important stories to tell, one she didn't share in her solo performance on Thursday, is about the Hawaiian language. It's the story of a language whose orature and literature use the technique of “kaona,” or layers of meaning, punning, hiddenness. Kaona can be used against authority; authority might understand the literal, but not the hidden meanings of the words. In the following clip she and Ittai Wong perform in two languages, English and Hawaiian, expanding the “I” to “we," both inside the performance and outside of it.  This does not signify a happy "we," necessarily, but it is certainly multi-vocal.  (Welcome to Hawai`i.)  . Here is that video, taken in 2009. Osorio's discussion of the poem can be found here, as well.  (Wong's mother was my dentist's receptionist for many years, which is perhaps neither here nor there, but evidence of how closely linked are Hawai`i's many communities.)


As she spoke on Thursday, it became clear that Osorio's work is shifting from stark resistance to a tender (but still pointed) approach.  Her more recent poems tell love stories by way of the Pele, Hi`iaka and Hopoe mo`olelo, and work to create images and spaces for queer Hawaiians like Osorio by finding (and amplifying) them in an orature that already exists.  The poet does not have to be like her ancestors to be authentic, Osorio argued; a flourishing culture requires change. 


Norman Fischer's poetic voice is more written than spoken, more subdued than Osorio's. He eschews the performative. (Listen to him here. Conflict has a lot of white space in it; words scatter across pages like scraps of conversation teased out of silences. His book develops a meditation on the pain of veterans of American wars. It is also, like Osorio's work, poetry that ultimately takes on American imperialism for the pain it inflicts on "its own," as well as others. (Among those killed in America's most recent wars are a dozen men from Hawai`i, as well as many more who were stationed here.) On page 28, a page on which we find a “glass house / below green hills / beneath the tree a shadow,” a quoted voice ends the passage, “you are the others.” Fischer uses these scraps of conversation in altered contexts; only once or twice does he name a speaker by dedicating a section of the poem to him. Voices are both quoted and anonymous, then. Anonymity cloaks the speakers, but their words are revelatory, stark. (The anonymity of voices is to Fischer's work what the kaona are to Osorio's, perhaps, the undercurrent of culture without a named speaker.)  Most of these voices are italicized, so we know that Fischer imported them into his field of words. But then there's this:


place name




land I love from the mountains

to the prairies

to the oceans white with foam



under the flag

I imagine you are feeling


send you off on your way

try to stay with themselves



Kill them for their own good


Kill them for mine (74)


and we find ourselves in a tangle of patriotic song lyrics, a therapist's intervention, and the mangled voice of American culture, the military, the veteran, the poem itself: “Kill them for their own good,” is “naturalized” bitterly into this text. To read it is to de-naturalizes it, but some of the shock I felt in my reading came of that plain font, as if this were a statement to be believed, a "true fact."


Toward the end of her talk/performance, Jamaica Osorio talked about how spoken word poetry offers the poet more control over audience reception than written word poetry can.  She also spoke of how native Hawaiians lack trust, close themselves off from the outside.  It was the outside that did so much damage. If her spoken word enacts this lack of trust, even in “Legacy” where every line includes something “she's tried to hide" without quite naming it, then Fischer's written words and unwritten spaces seem to trust the reader's response. His traditions and experiences are of course very different, as he is a Zen priest and much older than Osorio.


So I say to my students that, while we can protect the speakers of such words from immediate harm, we can't protect them against those conflicts that are "engraved on the tongue" (Fischer, 46).  We can't shield them from the “pain” that “comes in waves,” or from the discomforts that even not-writing doesn't ease, as Osorio put it aptly. These voices need to be heard, whether or not we assign names to their speakers, whether they speak directly or by way of the kaona. There's too much at stake for the rest of us not to hear them.