'North of the Equator'

'A TransPacific Poetics'

Photo from cover of 'A TransPacific Poetics.'

A TransPacific Poetics

A TransPacific Poetics

Lisa Samuels and Sawako Nakayasu

Litmus Press 2017, 200 pages, $24.00 ISBN 978-1933959320

Coedited by Lisa Samuels and Sawako Nakayasu, A TransPacific Poetics is a unique anthology of essays and experimental poetry by sixteen writers who live in or between different Pacific Rim countries. As the “trans” in the collection’s title suggests, this is a regional trans-Pacific anthology — the first of its kind — that privileges the work of writers defined by the Pacific Ocean. To take a few examples: author and translator Don Mee Choi was born in Korea, moved to the US via Hong Kong, and now lives in Seattle. Barbara Jane Reyes was born in the Philippines and grew up in the United States. But the migratory patterns are not unidirectional; Lisa Samuels, originally from the US, now calls Aotearoa/New Zealand home, and Craig Santos Perez, who was born in Guam but raised in San Francisco, now lives in Hawai’i. It is writers such as these who epitomize what Samuels describes in her editorial essay as producing “a poetics of transitivity and transnationalism.”[1]

As a collection framed around such a poetics, Samuels and Nakayasu deploy the “trans” of transitivity, transnationalism, and TransPacific to go beyond geography, using the “betweenness” of the term to explore language, cultural identity, sexuality, and formal poetic techniques. The editors persuasively exploit the becoming- properties of “trans” to highlight a number of themes running throughout the anthology: identity politics, colonialism and neocolonialism, dislocation, and ecological crisis. Given such generative parameters, the hallmarks of this anthology are diversity and eclecticism. 

Following Samuels’s editorial essay is “Freely Frayed,” a prose workby Korean American poet and translator Don Mee Choi. In this work, adapted from a 2014 AWP talk, Choi draws on the radical Korean poet Kim Hyesoon’s work to delve into identity in the “neocolonial context of South Korea and the US.”[2] Invoking Hyesoon, Choi writes, “[m]y translation takes orders from Kim Hyesoon’s hell that defies neocolonial orders,”[3] and acknowledges in pithy prose paragraphs that “radical failfail”[4] in the face of neocolonialism is always a possibility. Indeed, as the doubling failfail suggests, failure is an act of multiples.

A similar precarity, although of a different order, is evident in the work of Thai American writer and dancer Jai Arun Ravine. Ravine, who self-describes as mixed gender, has explored aspects of tom and transgender identities in Thai and Thai American contexts, in short film and writing. In the following excerpt from “Under Erasure,” included in the anthology, Ravine battles with the difficulty of communicating transmasculinity between cultures.

As Thai American transmasculine folk, we live with separation, dissonance, ambivalence, and constant negotiation. I read tom identity as transmasculine, but translating transmasculinity as a concept or an experience to other tom-identified folk is maybe impossible. However, the discovery of the existence of @tom act and Zee have helped me uncover a space for my own embodiment of genderqueer-ness and Thai-ness — they opened the gate.[5]

Alongside trans identity issues, Ravine, like Choi, is alert to the inequities between the global North and global South as they manifest in this instance as homogenizing globalization, Western tourism, and commodity pollution.

Thailand is made out of plastic bags and 7-Eleven. White people love it here. White people never want to leave. I’ll miss the soya bean milk/fruit shake stall boy and the kao mun gai stall and the kanom si grok from Warorot Market. But I’m Thai and I’m White and I’m ready to go.[6]

In this excerpt from the same work, Ravine leaves Thai words untranslated; the two languages exist companionably, if unequally, throughout “Under Erasure.” Choi, by comparison, restricts linguistic expression and experimentation to English.

In an analogous chronicling form as Ravine, Filipino American writer Eileen Tabios narrates her invention of the hay(na)ku as a “Filipino as well as Diasporic Poetic”[7] in her essay aptly titled “The History of the Hay(na)ku.” The sonic resemblance of hay(na)ku to the Japanese haiku is intentional as the hay(na)ku is a similarly economic form. Comprising three lines, with one word in the first, two in the second, and three in the third (this order can be reversed), the term hay(na)ku also plays on the Filipino expression “hay naku,” which functions much like the English “oh” and is widely used (as my #haynaku search on Twitter revealed). As a new poetic form combining Japanese and Filipino influences, Tabios’s hay(na)ku embodies Samuels’s and Nakayasu’s emphasis on transitivity and transnationalism.

A comparable détournement of form is evident in contributions from Chamoru writers Craig Santos Perez and Lehua M. Taitano, who use found official documents from the military (Perez) and the Guam visitor’s bureau (Taitano) to underscore the ways in which power operates in the US territory of Guam. Identifying the operations of power by the act of naming functions is an example of Samuels’s “discomforted cultural imaginaries”[8] active in the condition of North Pacific colonialism. 

Where Taitano’s tightly compacted, almost overlapping typewritten lines push the text close to illegibility, Perez utilizes the “strikethrough” lexical tool to show the local species that have become extinct as a result of excessive consumerism in the global North. In a mode that evokes comparison with the list ecopoetics of Juliana Spahr, Perez’s extinguished species are juxtaposed with definitions of the Latin verb “exstirpare,” or extirpation in English, where the most compelling definition is perhaps “to destroy completely as if down to the roots.”[9

            from exstirpare “root out” from ex- “out” and stirps “a root trunk of a tree”

            extirpation [n] extirpative [adj] extirpator [n] 


extirpate [v] : to pull

            up by the roots                                               mariana fruit bat | fanihi


            to undo

            as if from the roots                             mariana crow | aga


            to destroy completely as if

            down to the roots                               guam mirconesian kingfisher | sihek


            to cause to move

            into a new                                           guam rail | koko


            position or place —                           

            ‘removal’ —                                        micronesian starling | sali [10]

In this excerpt Perez deftly juxtaposes the colonial imperative to root out indigenous “resources” and culture (left) with the native species (right) that have become extinct as a result of settler (Spanish, Japanese, US) actions.

An ecological thread is continued in essays by Australian writers Corey Wakeling (living in Japan) and Stuart Cooke (living in Australia). Wakeling, in an essay that travels between the volcanic soils of Japan (recent, black, and rich) and Australia (ancient, red, and dry), comes closest to articulating an ontological subjectivity rooted in the earth (and ocean) by drawing on Jed Rasula’s ultimate composition/decomposition: compost. 

… every self, now a particular set of membranes and not at all a genius, is constituted by the cross-communication of self-fertilising entities. Composts. Soils. The human, we might then revise, is uniquely the compost for which compost is a concern.[11]

From ecological crisis to colonialism, the breadth of thematic concern evident in A TransPacific Poetics is amply matched by genre range and formal experimentation. And Samuels and Nakayasu handle the pace, flow, and transition between the different pieces superbly. This is an exciting anthology. It is also — and this would be my only critique — a predominantly US-centered anthology. That is, to varying extents, most of the writers are either based in the United States (including Hawai’i and Guam), have attended schools and universities there, or were born in the States, but have relocated to the (predominately American) Pacific. A TransPacific Poetics could perhaps be most accurately described as an Asian American trans-Pacific anthology. Most of the contributors are based north of the equator.

While A TransPacific Poetics can be described to some extent as a migratory poetics, migrants or immigrants frequently become settlers, and in so doing they necessarily encounter the settler culture (often colonizers) and the indigenous culture. As an American living in Aotearoa/New Zealand (a settler colony with an indigenous Māori population), Samuels is acutely aware of this dynamic. “Settlementopia” is the term she coins to describe a “discomfited cultural imaginary” of new migrant, settler (of colonial ancestry), and indigenous culture.[12] Samuels knows that a migratory poetics frequently becomes, or must become, a poetics of indigeneity, because the migrant cannot ignore the indigenous culture. It is the historic colonization of the indigenous culture that enables subsequent migrants-become-settlers to also take up residence. This point is compelling for the anthology’s absence of indigenous Māori and Aboriginal writers in favour of European writers in New Zealand and Australia respectively. While both Murray Edmonds (New Zealand) and Stuart Cooke (Australia) write excoriating indictments of colonialism and include or discuss the work of indigenous Māori and Aboriginal (Murri people, Australia) in their essays in this anthology,[13] Māori and Aboriginal voices from Aotearoa/New Zealand and Australia are themselves absent. This absence cannot be mitigated by the editorial insistence on “transivity and transnationalism,” as neither Edmonds nor Cooke, from the biographic data I consulted, holds dual nationality or citizenship. 

There are three indigenous writers in the anthology: Melanie Rands of Hawaiian, Fijian, and Scottish descent who lives in Aotearoa/New Zealand, and Craig Santos Perez and Lehua M. Taitano, both of whom identify as indigenous Chamoru from Guam and live in Hawai’i and the Pacific Northwest (of the US) respectively. 

As a predominately Asian American anthology of trans-Pacific poetics, with the near absence of indigenous South Pacific voices noted, Samuels and Nakayasu have nevertheless assembled a wide array of exciting writers, amongst whom Jai Arun Ravine, Craig Santos Perez, Don Mee Choi, and Lehua M. Taitano are exceptional standouts, both for the material they tackle and the experimental nature of their exposition, where “experimental” is not the privileging of formal difficulty or novelty over obscure content, but an integrated mode of articulation.

1. Lisa Samuels, “Introduction: What Do We Mean When We Say TransPacific,” in A TransPacific Poetics, ed. Lisa Samuels and Sawako Nakayasu (Brooklyn: Litmus Press, 2017), 3.

2. Don Mee Choi, “Freely Frayed,” in A TransPacific Poetics, 13.

3. Choi, 12.

4. Choi, 13.

5. Jai Arun Ravine, “Under Erasure,” in A TransPacific Poetics, 51.

6. Ravine, 48.

7. Eileen Tabios, “History of the Hay(na)ku,” in A TransPacific Poetics, 104.

8. Samuels, 4.

9. Craig Santos Perez, “From Unincorporated Territory [Guma’],” in A TransPacific Poetics, 112.

10. Perez, 112.

11. Corey Wakeling, “Indifferent Pastoralism,” in A TransPacific Poetics, 118.

12. Samuels, 4.

13. Murray Edmonds, “Tattooed Rocks at Whāingaroa: A Personal Archaeology of Knowledge Through Poetry,” 64–87, and Stuart Cooke, “Non-local Localities: Trans-Pacific Connections Between Aboriginal and Mapuche Poetry,” 133–53, in A TransPacific Poetics.