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.

Nancy Huang’s masterful “Favorite Daughter”

Favorite Daughter is easily in my top three favorite books of poetry, thanks to its honest, relatable poems, sharp cultural and racial critiques, and achingly haunting language. Lines like “i wish for the moon to swallow me” and “19 and I know what love is: a house on fire…” contain movement, both in emotion and meaning. Nancy’s references place this collection in conversation with history, psychology, linguistics and sociology, and media, creating a personal bridge to aspects of society that are often (and detrimentally so) only discussed as curiosities. These poems remind us that it is people who should be considered and prioritized, that when colonialism and Western ideologies are dismantled, it is for the benefit of all of us.

One poem I want to mention is “Old White Guy”, a rewriting of a problematic (as is so much of his work) poem by Marc Kelly Smith. By stripping the poem down to a handful of words, Nancy starkly unveils just how ugly Marc’s work is.

Another poem, “Aperture”, compares the effects of washing out an image in photography to the erasure of Asian people from history textbooks and media. “Chinese New Year, 2017” is a collection of images from everyday life: the speaker’s mother braiding her hair; writing poems “until dawn edges around the sky”; bingeing on TV shows while eating popcorn. This poem ends with the beautiful revelation: “Maybe love / is just becoming more of someone.”

I interviewed Nancy [in 2017!!!] about this collection and her life, curious to find out more about the author behind the marvel that is Favorite Daughter.

How have you forged your identity? What are obstacles you’ve overcome and – in hindsight – were they worth it?

I used to think about identity as something that other people call you. It took me a long time to reframe this, and of course it was worth it, but I still slip back into that mindset of “you are what they say you are,” which is always so diminishing.  

I remember I was talking to the unconquerable poet Ariana Brown, and she told me that she made a conscious decision to stop explaining things to white people in her poems. It was taking up too much space. I credit her for my own reworking; I started saying to myself, you don’t have time to explain this to them. They’ve got to figure this out on their own. And, this is only partially about the way language is used in poetry, or the way I use language in poetry. This is more about what I think of myself, navigating through a reality that more often than not doesn’t center me. I shouldn’t have to translate my existence to people. 

“Tipping Scale” was a really important poem for me personally; as of last November, I learned that I have generalized anxiety, and I’ve been working to improve my mental health using traditional and non-traditional methods. It can be really difficult at times, but it pays off.

How does mental healthy play a role in your day-to-day life, and why should people talk about it (publicly and privately) more?  

Thank you for this question. I wish you luck with your own mental health journey, and I hope that you have community around you to help you.

“Tipping Scale” was a poem I wrote because I was trying to balance (forgive the pun) the fact that certain ways of healing work for me, but also have a terrible history of working against people like me. Western medicine has a horrible history, yet my entire life, people have disparaged traditional Chinese medicine in favor of it. 

It’s made its impact; I see therapists, I use birth control. But it’s so much more complicated than that. There’s a line in the poem that refers to that complication, the one about how my therapist at the time, as a white woman, was also my oppressor. I can’t separate those things. 

As for mental health, my depression and anxiety are low-grade and I’m high-functioning, which initially prevented me from reaching out. But talking about it openly counteracts the stigma. That’s the other weight on the scale, in the poem, how even though Western medicine is a corrupt industry and historically terrible, there is less mental health stigma in it than there is in Chinese American communities. And stigma grows from silence. 

Do you want to share advice for other queer women or take us through your coming-out story or just talk a little about your journey?

I don’t know about advice, haha; there are so many incredible queer women and femmes out there and I don’t think they need advice from me. But even though there are plenty of bi/pan women/nonbinary poets to read (June Jordan comes to mind), you’re right that either word really isn’t getting around, or (more likely) we’re unintentionally overlooking people. As an example, the Lambda Literary Awards don’t have a Bisexual Poetry Award category. I know that there have been steps made this year to change that (by amazing people), so it’s getting better. But if someone were to nominate my book for a Lammy right now, I’ve been informed that they wouldn’t be able to. There isn’t a category for it. And it’s not like Favorite Daughter defies categorization, or that its author does. There’s just this overlook of certain people. And judges/reviewers that give literature awards especially need to pay attention to that.

As for my journey, I started writing all these stories about being bi/pan when I was in high school, and it got to the point where reality was hindering that expression. I spent a lot of time confused—as a lot of queer kids do—and it was worse because I was keeping it a secret. I kept putting off thinking about it because I would look at a (cis) guy and feel the way everybody was telling me was “normal,” so like a lot of people who are attracted to multiple genders, I initially thought I was straight. Every time I was attracted to or emotionally connected to a woman I would blame it on fluky hormones. But I wised up eventually. And when I started to come out to people, they took it well. I’ve been lucky with that. 

What is your family’s relationship to China while living in the U.S.? What aspects of culture do you / your family still retain?

My parents are both very connected to their families in China; my mom visits her family periodically and my dad’s family is split between here in America and in Beijing. When we lived in China they were totally comfortable. I’m very jealous of that easy familiarity with both countries. And as far as assimilation goes—there’s only so much you can “adjust” when you immigrate. You can learn English, and be afforded privileges in that way. You can choose not to do that, and people have. Specifically, because I have a closer proximity to whiteness than other POC, that gives me a different level of privilege. 

How has assimilation affected you and your family? 

Whatever the opposite of assimilation is (exclusion? mistranslation?), that’s the aspect of existence I think a lot of AAPI poets talk about more. Of course, that doesn’t mean that assimilation isn’t happening, and that it doesn’t have consequences; my forgotten language (Mandarin), my forgotten histories, the fact that I don’t know any of my ancestors’ names. These are all real. But who wouldn’t have an easier time writing about the things they know are happening versus the things they’ve forgotten have happened? That’s why, for me, assimilation represents privilege, and in a certain sense, amnesia. There are poems in my collection (like “Aperture”) that are about both. 

On “Colonial Conquest” in particular, how has your appearance affected your dating life? 

Oh, “Colonial Conquest”. Oh, Tinder. Navigating the dating realm in an Asian body has been an experience in perspective. When I date/talk with men of color on Tinder, they obviously understand racial navigation more than white men. Messaging white men who don’t have the same awareness can lead to awkward times. Colonial Conquest was just a compilation of times when that awkwardness turned hostile.

Could you talk about the process of publishing and putting together Favorite Daughter? Are you touring to promote the book? What’s it like being in the Write Bloody family?

I am touring! Soon! It’s a lot of work and I had so many nerves initially that were soothed by a variety of different amazing people. But anyway. Being a part of Write Bloody is surreal. The other day I was looking at Clint Smith’s Twitter and I just thought, we have the same publisher. Cue my hyperventilation. It’s incredible. I keep thinking I’m just living in my own fantasy and I’m about to wake up any second. 

When I’m promoting the book, it’s easy to forget that behind me there’s been a team of people helping me bring it to life. My experience working with all of them has been really eye-opening; all the editors and the commissioned graphic designers and sales representatives and social media contacts. There are layers and layers when it comes to this kind of work that I previously had not been aware of. What a privileged education. 


Interview edited for clarity and grammar. Special thanks to Nancy for infinite patience while I sat on this interview for far too long! I’m so excited to finally publish this article and loan out my copy.