Juliana Spahr: T/heres: What Pacific Poetries Might Add to the Teaching of Creative Writing

Fall '05 TOC

When they first moved to Hawai'i what struck them the most was how while they were newcomers to the island, they were part of a long history of arrival to the island. Basically, people had lived on the island for many years and they had their own culture and their own language and their own government. In the 1800s, whaling ships from afar begin to arrive and eventually these ships brought people who took over and imposed their culture and their language and their government. So the island was contested land. And their presence in this land was repeatedly called into question. Shortly after they arrived, they heard the student association president of the university where they taught, a student who had genealogical ties to the island from before the whaling ships arrived, give a speech against budget cuts and she concluded her speech by offering to buy any haole professor who wanted one a one way ticket off the island. When they heard this speech at first they cringed. They cringed not in anger but in recognition. They cringed with an awareness that the university did not hire fairly, an awareness that they themselves had gotten their job because of the unfair hiring practices of the university. They cringed because they agreed and because they agreed they longed to follow after her and ask for their ticket back to someplace. But then they wondered to what place? What would be the proper destination for the ticket? Did they belong on the continent, where they had been born? But they were in some sense new to the continent. They and their parents had been born on the continent, but none of their parents' parents had been born there and the continent too had a history of arrival by people from afar who came and acted as if the place was theirs. So they wondered often, did they belong on the continent nearest to the island in the middle of the Pacific or on the islands and the continents across the Atlantic? And if there was an answer to that question, was there a more specific place because the island and continent across the Atlantic had many different cultures and nations?

This issue of where they should be on the globe, of belonging, felt often like it hit them in the gut by which they meant it hit them where it mattered, it hit them in the palm of their writing hand, in that space that their little and ring fingers made when they held a pen, the space that when they were learning to write in first grade they had been forced to fill with a small cool marble so as to learn the proper way of holding a pencil. They were unsure if it was more ethical to just make one's writing and teaching smaller and quieter or whether one should speak out loudly about how wrong the history of the place was and risk getting told to sit down and shut up because their place of birth made them part of the problem no matter what. This was a constant question for them because they were all writers and teachers of some sort.

At times they felt as if they could chart out the options for writers and teachers who like them had arrived from afar. The chart would begin with two categories: writers and teachers from afar who dealt with the island in their writing and teaching and writers and teachers from afar who did not. Then each of these two categories could be further broken into two other categories. The writers and teachers from afar who did not deal with the island category would become split into writers and teachers from afar who did not deal with the island in their work because they thought the island and its culture were small and uninteresting and writers and teachers from afar who did not deal with the island in their work because they felt that anything they might say as someone who came from afar would just further cultural appropriation. So in other words the neutral category of dealing with the island or not in their writing and teaching would become split into those who did this out of disregard and those who did this out of respect. Similarly, among those who were from afar and who dealt with the island in their writing and teaching, there would also be two other sub-categories: those from afar who felt they could just deal with the island because they were there, that when they moved to the island from afar they gained the right to talk about it, and those from afar who felt they had no right but the responsible thing to do in their writing and teaching was to talk about the island, especially to write and teach about how the island was colonized in order to keep stating this thing because so many people on the continent overlooked this colonization. This last sub-category, the category first of writers and teachers from afar who wrote and taught about the island and then the sub-category of those who felt that they had a responsibility to write and teach about how the island was colonized in their writing and teaching and yet also they had to constantly position themselves as not from the island, was often accompanied by an endless self-reflection in which those that held this position felt they had to constantly position themselves in their writing and teaching as from afar. They themselves were in this last category. But they did not think that their position on this chart was necessarily the correct position. If they knew anything at all, they knew they could never fully avoid the many problems of being a writer and teacher from afar in a place so colonized. But they also felt that they had to act as if it might be possible to write or teach something that was not the wrong thing because to not act as if that might be possible was to risk being even more a part of the problem. They did not want to be like those who had a dismissive lack of interest in the island, or like those who were filled with anger at the island because the island induced in them funny feelings of being out of place and strange or made them think about things they would rather not think about such as how they were seen as colonizers in this place.

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On top of all this anxiety, they added more. They also knew that they were not only writers and teachers from afar, but they were writers who wrote and teachers who taught in the language that had had a long colonial history, an expansionist language that was spreading to more and more places every day. The resonances of this expansion were especially felt in their time, a time in which more and more languages were disappearing every day, disappearing so quickly that some predicted that at least ninety percent of the languages in the world would disappear in the next hundred years. They themselves knew this expansionist language as their first language because of its expansionism. They had learned this language from birth and their parents had learned it from birth, but their grandparents had learned other languages at birth and came later to the expansionist language, except for one grandmother who had learned the expansionist language because the island on which she had been born had been coerced to give up its language in 1801 by a nation that spoke the expansionist language.

On the island in the middle of the Pacific, this expansionist language had arrived on the whaling ships. Many of the people who lived on the island, not only those from afar but also those born on the island but with parents or grandparents from afar and also those with genealogical ties to the island from before the whaling ships arrived, spoke this language. Many people told one another that they loved one other in this language. And many wrote their grocery lists in this language. And many called out to one another in this language when they saw one another on the street and got angry and screamed out their anger with each other in this language. And when they worked fifteen hour days in the service industry they worked them most often in this language. And even when they chatted with one another in a creole as they sat around talking, drinking beers, and eating plates of meat and rice on their lanais at night, the creole they spoke, while it was undeniably its own language, was very close to this expansionist language. They did this even though there had been a perfectly good language on the island for many years before the whaling ships arrived, a language that most human ears heard as unusually beautiful.

Some called this expansionist language a cultural bomb. And they could see all the ways this might be true on the island. The expansionist language was so good at circumference that it often absorbed in order to kill out the local languages. And it also slowly expanded over the languages that were often created by its arrival, the pidgins and creoles, the burrowing languages, the negotiated languages. For instance, the creole that many people born on the island spoke when talking to other people also born on the island was so close to this expansionist language because the expansionist language was slowly taking over the mix of different languages that had originally formed the creole. The expansionist language expanded regularly and steadily. This expansion was not innocent. The expansionist language had become the language that most people spoke not because it was more beautiful and not because it was easier and not because it had more literature but because of a law that from 1896–1970 had banned the language that had been spoken on the island for many years before the whaling ships arrived. But the expansionist language continued to expand so well not only because of these laws, but also because of the legacies of nineteenth century imperialism: the coercive economic dominance of the nations who spoke the expansionist language, the military might of the nations who spoke the expansionist language, and the technology industry and its alliances with the entertainment industry both of which conducted almost all of their business in the expansionist language and offered up tepid and narrative based stories about modernity that most humans found somewhat pleasant.

And yet, despite the expansionist language and all its tools, all the laws and all the imperialism, all the economic dominance, all the military might, all the technologies, and all the entertainments, the language politics of the island remained endlessly complicated. The expansion did not happen overnight and one could point for many years to how the local languages and the languages that were often created by the arrival of the expansionist language to some place new, the pidgins and creoles, the burrowing languages, the negotiated languages refused to go away as evidence of how the expansionist language might not be as good at expansion as one might think. Undeniably, the expansion took some time, some generations. It was often contested. Often it would expand and manage almost to kill a local language and then the local language would rise up again and reassert itself. But despite the resurgence of the local languages on the island, the expansionist language continued to expand and at its best it allowed an uneasy peace with the local language and allowed the local language to exist beside it, claiming the business of the technology industry and the entertainment industry for itself and yet allowing some songs to be sung and some poems and stories to be written in either or both the local language and the languages that were often created by the arrival of the expansionist language, the pidgins and creoles, the burrowing languages, the negotiated languages; on the island, it even allowed a few classrooms to be taught in the local language.

They knew that the problem with the expansionist language was not just the cultural bomb problem. It was not just the expansionist language that was the problem. After all, culture happened even in the expansionist language. They themselves were fine with how the language they had learned from birth was the expansionist language even though they had no geological ties to the people who had felt that this language was their own. They had not wished that their lullabies were in another, truer language when they were a child. They had never felt that they could not love their mothers or each other enough because the various names by which they called their mothers and each other were in the expansionist language. And if they looked at the histories of any location they saw poems and songs surviving and thriving any change of language. The cultural might change, the poems and songs might rhyme differently or form different patterns to better meet the sounds of the language, but no matter what any language was fully capable of expressing the special emotions that tended to come with having to negotiate an oppressive and foreign government on one's own land, an intense anger towards those from afar combined with a love of those near, plus a love of the land and a love of the things on the land, a love say of how the kukui clustered in vein-like streams down the crevice of a ravine. But they understood still how this did not mean that they wanted someone to come from afar and make them train their children in a language from afar so that their children would whisper in their lovers' ears in a language that was the language of those from afar. They understood that no one wanted this.

Nor was it that the local languages and the languages that were often created by the arrival of the expansionist language to some place new, the pidgins and creoles, the burrowing languages, the negotiated languages were necessarily libratory. They heard too many homophobic and racist poems in those languages to think this was only about language. Yet despite this, they realized that when they wrote their poems, their essays, their software programs, their notes in the expansionist language, when they taught the literature of the expansionist language and when they discussed how people write in the expansionist language, they immediately became not only a part of the expansionism by the accident of birth but they became willful agents of expansionism. When they wrote and taught, they wrote and taught as war machine. When they wrote and taught, they wrote and taught as ideological apparatus. When they wrote and taught, they wrote and taught as military industrial complex. This list went on and on. They wrote and taught as colonial educational system. They wrote and taught as the bulldozing of the land and the building of unnecessary roads. They wrote and taught as the filling in of wetlands with imported sand to build beaches. And they wrote and taught as the ever expanding tourist industry. And while all of them were well schooled in the avant-garde, an avant-garde that used fragmentation, quotation, disruption, disjunction, agrammatical syntax, and so on to make them like a foreigner in their own language, they were finally not all that sure that using fragmentation, quotation, disruption, disjunction, agrammatical syntax, and so on escaped any of the expansionism. They wanted to believe the avant-garde claim that they could write and teach so as to move between the borders of languages, that they could write and teach beyond the duality of metaphors if they kept piling them up, one on top of another, that they could write and teach from third spaces, that they could write and teach so as to abolish the colonialism if they did not use narrative continuity. And yet they also felt that this was somewhat absurd.

The teaching issue was even more complicated than the writing issue. To a certain extent they could justify their writing in the expansionist language as something they were doing on their own and in many ways it was absurd to think that enough people read their writing to make it into an exploding cultural bomb. But when teaching, they soon realized, they were essentially recruiting people to recognize the expansionist language and literature as the right language and literature for the island. Creative writing departments, whether on the island or on the continent, rarely addressed what it might mean to be training people to write only in the expansionist language and to assign as example almost exclusively writing written in the expansionist language. Further it had to be no coincidence that the huge growth in creative writing departments which began in the late seventies and early eighties, a growth that the program at the university was a part of, happened at the exact same moment as the rise of community poetries. On the island, the program in creative writing was created at the same time as two parallel literary and cultural renaissances happened, the Hawaiian renaissance and the pidgin literary renaissance. So as more and more communities took back poetry, creative writing programs tried to pretend more and more as if the universities still owned poetry.

Further, most of those who taught in the creative writing part of the expansionist language departments used a craft based approach. This craft based approach was one other universities adopted from a university in the middle of the continent. They themselves did not pay much allegiance to this craft based approach. Or they believed in craft but they did not believe in the same craft values as those taught by the university in the middle of continent. They declared allegiance to the craft values of the avant garde, to fragmentation, quotation, disruption, disjunction, agrammatical syntax, and so on. And yet this did not feel any more helpful finally.

Trying to figure all this out they looked at the poetry around them. They looked in particular at the poetry written by those who had genealogical ties to the island from before the whaling ships arrived. It slowly dawned on them, but it was so obvious that they could not understand how they had managed to not think on it before, that poetry had a different resonance, a different importance in places of activist anticolonialism. All sorts of poetry. Both radical and not so radical. Both poems written in the expansionist language and poems written in the language that had been on the island before the whaling ships arrived and poems written in the pidgins and creoles, the burrowing languages, the negotiated languages. Many people involved in various political movements on the island were also poets. Poems were read at protests with great regularity. The genre's assumed shortness, its lack of rules and structures, and its links to orality, made it a genre of populist protest. This poetry used all different tools. It used tools from the continent and tools from other islands. It used the expansionist language and it used the local language and it used the languages that were often created by the arrival of the expansionist language to some place new, the pidgins and creoles, the burrowing languages, the negotiated languages. It used fragmentation, quotation, disruption, disjunction, agrammatical syntax. It used confession and epiphany. It used localism and internationalism. It used insult and anger. It used sentiment. But no matter what, the poetry used all these tools for an anticolonial message. It was so extreme that they guessed that seventy to eighty percent of all the poetry written by those who had genealogical ties to the island from before the whaling ships arrived was at this time anticolonial in content and written so as to educate or provoke others to action around sovereignty issues. And yet they could say almost nothing about the craft that was done consistently by seventy to eighty percent of all the poetry written by those who had genealogical ties to the island from before the whaling ships. It was not that this poetry was innocent. It, for instance, had an unfortunate tendency to use homophobia in its relentless anticolonialism. But it was uniquely driven by community concerns and assumed activist readers of poetry. It had taken them so long to see this because when they looked at poetry they tended to look at how it was made, not what it made, not its resonances in the world. But suddenly seeing the resonances of poetry on the island it this way focused their vision. Where before they had seen amateurish chaos and a lack of formal allegiance, they now saw a concentrated trying out of all the tools to one end. They had been looking, they realized, looking through the wrong end of the telescope. They had been looking at the Pacific as an expanse of disconnected salt water. But this salt water they realized could also be a connective fluid when they thought of travel, trade, and migration, when they thought of canoes and of jets. They did not think these things up on their own. They thought of them because they learned them from other people. A novelist from another small island in this ocean, for instance, pointed out at a conference the difference between seeing the ocean that surrounded them and its various islands as "islands in a far sea," which implied tiny dots of land separated by wide expanses of ocean, and "a sea of islands," which implied a more holistic perspective in which the ocean and the islands are joined.

What had happened when they looked at the poetry that surrounded them was that the map of poetry that they had been taught in graduate school, a map that had the avant-garde squaring off at the borders against various national literary conventions, no longer made sense. This recognition changed their teaching and from it they made new maps. Where they had before made a map that showed only a horizon line where the avant-garde's use of fragmentation, quotation, disruption, disjunction, agrammatical syntax, and so on squared off against the national literature's conventional language use, they now added a vertical axis where one end represented community exploration and the other end self-exploration. Further, the poetry that was attentive to the sovereignty movement demanded not only that they see their writing and their teaching positions as ones that carried expansionist histories and thus responsibility, but it also switched the questions. They found themselves asking questions of who they wrote with and why. They found themselves questioning the neutral in their work. They found themselves questioning what this writing might give and take from the communities around them. They remained attentive to craft but still the questions shifted. They wondered how best to craft an acknowledgement of who they wrote with rather than the well turned phrase. They attempted to articulate a craft of pronouns of disclosure and discomfort rather than a craft of pronouns of shorthanded reference. They thought about how best to craft an admission of privilege, one that might persuade others to think about their own privilege also, rather than a complicated conceit.

They brought these questions into their classroom messily. They paused and stuttered a lot as they brought them in. They contradicted themselves and they got confused. They are not heroes in this story. But they did learn some things and begin to start the thinking about them by looking at the poetries around them. They learned through muddling and they trudged through these issues with others.

Eventually they came to feel that creative writing programs, like the expansionist language, could be both a place of expansion and a place of resistance to this expansion. Undeniably the institution had a tendency to refuse change. Those in control of creative writing at the university on the island in the Pacific acted as if their craft values were innocent yet they were not at all innocent when it came to defending them. When some on the faculty suggested that the department should hire a writer who wrote in one of the local languages, one of the languages that were often created by its arrival of the expansionist language to some place new, the pidgins and creoles, the burrowing languages, the negotiated languages, others on the faculty were so upset that they insisted that this position which had been called the "Visiting Distinguished Writer" now be called the "Visiting Writer" because one could not really be distinguished if one was writing in one of the local languages. When other departments, such as Hawaiian studies, wanted to teach creative writing and literature because they saw literature as part of their political and cultural renaissance, some on the faculty voted against allowing courses like this to be a part of the expansionist language major. When another visiting writer was hired and they wanted to teach a writing workshop about how to write in the arrival of the expansionist language to some place new, the pidgins and creoles, the burrowing languages, the negotiated languages, some faculty told their students not to take it, especially their students from the continent because they said that these students would have nothing to learn from a writing workshop about writing in the languages that were often created by the arrival of the expansionist language to some place new, the pidgins and creoles, the burrowing languages, the negotiated languages. In this way the creative writing department attempted to build a bunker.

And yet the bunker kept not holding. It kept not holding because the people that came to study creative writing at the university often brought their community poetries with them and refused to give them up when they got to the university. And then once there they began to agitate to change the university. For instance, the workshop in the local languages, the languages that were often created by the arrival of the expansionist language to some place new, the pidgins and creoles, the burrowing languages, the negotiated languages was fully enrolled when it was eventually offered and it even had a number of students from the continent in it.

So they felt optimistic at moments that because creative writing was a fairly new institute that it might still be a place where poetries of community activism are acknowledged, strengthened, challenged. A place where poetry, in the words of one poet and sovereignty activist, was seen as "both de-colonization and re-creation"; as "expose and celebration at one and the same time"; as "a furious, but nurturing aloha for Hawai'i." Their optimism was small and tiny. And yet it was there.

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