Newest from Craig Santos Perez heavy & close to home

from unincorporated territory [lukao] (Omnidawn, 2017) is a collection rife with contemporary significance: critiques of military occupation, historical land theft, and poisonous farming practices. This collection also balances the responsibility of family and the birth of a new child in a community where these problems are active threats, unresolved and unimportant to politicians.

This book is deep and took me several months to finish, through several spaced-out sittings, computer on hand to research the many problems Craig brings to light. I recall a particularly upsetting night when I looked up the article mentioned in a poem subtitled “(the birth of SPAM)”. I don’t recommend doing so unless you’re already, like me, a vegetarian. I’d already been aware of the exploitation of undocumented immigrants (and the lower class in general) in the agricultural industry; now I have names and stories and medical diagnoses to lament over. One of the lines in Craig’s poem is this: “Guam is an acronym for ‘Give Us American / Meat.'”

The pieces that deal with loss and the problematic infatuation with the military and even police are also hard-hitting. The poem using the line “#prayfor” exposes the hypocrisy of Americans’ approval of violent means to achieve ‘peace.’

Other pieces in this collection carry a more tender tone: those about a grandmother struggling with memory loss (“grandma. / barely eats. / three bites. / is full. / legs barely. / as thick. / as arms. / veins protrude. / from paper. / thin skin.”

I’d describe the overall theme and request of this collection using a phrase from one of the poems; this book, like much, if not all, of Craig’s work, begs a “species survival plan”, implores the reader to question why we don’t care more, why we sit by as wars topple entire nations, as our oceans fill with plastic, why we gladly bring pesticide-covered food to our tables. How can this be all we’re capable of? Craig sees “the sacredness of this place”, wants us to change our societies “for all of our family”. Even so, the final poem is a celebratory (with moments of criticism) piece, thanking all the aspects of his wedding ceremony for coming into place: “Mahalo Whole Foods…  Mahalo Costco… Mahalo Lauralei, my mother-in-law… Mahalo My Pregnancy app… Mahalo to my homemade, no-waste, 100% local smoothie…”

I interviewed Craig a month or two ago about these poems.

Hi, Craig.

Aloha Kelsey.

Your style and form are unique; your poems seem to follow no consistent structure (i.e. section heading, blank page, poem title, poem, next page: poem title, poem and on and on), and though it makes for a bit of a gray area in terms of where each “poem” begins and ends, I think this habit feels right for the content of your work. These poems are political, personal, cultural, and wholly related.

How can we examine the self and the next generations if we do not think about where we come from and consider the context and environments in which we live? My question is, where did the themes for this work come from? Why are these poems and projects surfacing again and again? 

The poetic form I experiment with is what I describe as an “interwoven poetics.” Throughout my books, I weave excerpts of different poems so that the political, personal, environmental, and cultural materials become structurally interrelated, as you note. Moreover, the borders of each poem blends into the others so that beginnings and endings are always contingent. I often write about generations as well (my ancestors, my grandparents, parents, and children), which are linked genealogically.

The themes of my work come from my own experiences as an indigenous Pacific islander from Guam, which is a territory (colony) of the United States, but also as a migrant, activist, and educator. These themes and poems continue to surface for me because as I age I understand who I am and where I come from in different ways. It is a poetics that is always becoming, always navigating.

The interwovenness was never more apparent than when I began writing this article! You gave me a challenge! How to refer to poems that don’t seem to technically have titles? Lol.

Speaking of politics, I am a huge advocate for political poetry. I can trace this directly back to my attending the 2014 Split This Rock conference when I lived in D.C. Where did you first see the blend of politics and poetry, and what are your thoughts on why it’s necessary and influential? What can political poetry do that politics themselves can’t (or can’t yet)?

For me, I started to understand the relationship between poetry and politics when I started reading the literature by native authors and authors of color in high school. I thought that literature was a profound and poignant way to express struggle, witness, and resistance. Then, in college and graduate school, I began to get involved in social movements, and I was always inspired by poets who performed at protests and rallies. In general, I believe that the humanities can express a deeper, more truthful politics in a way that is also emotionally eloquent and aesthetically pleasing.

Several of the poems in this collection dwell on “belonging”; what does the pull of belonging feel like to you?

Belonging feels like rootedness, home, and family. Being an indigenous poet, my homeland is the source of my identity and genealogy. At the same time, my family migrated from our home island to California when I was in high school. So belonging, then, became a longing for home, a nostalgic route.

I’m curious if you could talk a bit about the mentions of Chamorro individuals and the diaspora, particularly inginen island of no birdsong“.

The experience of migration and diaspora have shaped my life, and the lives of many of my people, in profound ways. Today, there are more Chamorros living away from our ancestral home islands than ever before. We migrate for many reasons, such as military service, jobs, education, and health care. In the poem you mention, I write about the birds of Guam who became endangered and who now only live in US zoos. It made me start to think about migration as a kind of “species survival plan,” similar to our native birds.

I believe two poems center on your grandma, who is losing her memory. How has that journey affected your family? Do you have any advice for others who might be hurting in the midst of supporting aging loved ones?

It has been difficult to witness my grandma age. My parents are her main caretakers, so it has deeply affected their lives, whereas since I live Hawai’i and they live in California, I don’t see them as much as before. For poets, I would say to talk to your aging loved ones, listen to their stories, honor their stories, remember and inherit their stories.

The firing range poemap and its caption makes me so fucking angry. I don’t even…. Can you talk about the act of justice and how educating people is, in some ways, our only hope of change? Screen Shot 2018-03-24 at 11.11.15 PM.png

The environment of Guam has been, and continues to be, devastated by US military. As a literary activist, I hope my work will educate people who don’t know what the military is doing on Guam, even though Guam is a US territory.

I just read that Mother Jones article about the SPAM processing plant… oh my god. Oh my god, Craig. 

I KNOW. The violence through which so much of our food is created is devastating. Especially troubling since my people eat a lot of SPAM.

I’m a little confused about the people in the interview poem on pages 62 and 63; (I might include lines from here, but my question is just for my own curiosity): Who are Helen and Craig? The ‘me’ is you, and the ‘you’ is Brandy, according to the note at the beginning of the book.

In that poem, I interweave two interviews. One is an interview of Brandy and I, which was conducted by a Hawaiian birthing group from which we took a class from. They interviewed us about our home birthing story. Helen is my mom, and her words are from my interview with her because I wanted to know her birth stories of me, my older brother, Brian, and my younger sister, Marla. [This poem retells our] intergenerational birth stories, with some commentary on the politics of indigenous and Western birthing practices.

Do you work with youth poets? What’s the best memory you have from organizing and teaching youth poetry?

Yes, I have worked with high school poets in workshops, and I often visit high school classrooms. The best memory I have was teaching a youth poetry workshop on Guam because I had the chance to affirm to the youth of my culture that their stories matter.

Special thanks to Craig for conducting this interview with me (and patiently waiting for me to publish the review) and to Omnidawn for an advance reviewer’s copy. The interview contains minor edits for grammar and clarity.

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