Craig Santos Perez with H.L. Hix

Image of Craig Santos Perez
Craig Santos Perez

This interview by H.L. Hix is one of a series, many of which will be collected in Alter Nation: America in Recent Poetry, Recent Poetry in Americafrom Ugly Duckling Presse (fall 2012). Hix loves the interview form as a way of thinking together (itself a condition of democracy, justice, philosophy, and other ideals and practices he values), and as one element in a community poetics. The subject of this interview is Craig Santos Perez’s  from unincorporated territory [hacha] (TinFish Press, 2008).

H. L. Hix: In the book’s preface, you give a clear statement of your ambitions in/for the work.  The statement seems addressed to me most explicitly in my role as a citizen, but I take the creation of a strategic site for resisting the reductive tendencies of a deformed democracy also as a challenge to me as a poet, by activating poetry not primarily in relation to tradition and literary history but in relation to its (and my) contemporary responsibilities and effects.  Is that one appropriate way to begin absorbing the parenthetical “(and other voices)” on p. 11?

Craig Santos Perez: As I mention in the preface of my book, ‘Guam’ as geographic location and linguistic signifier has often been reduced to only mean a strategic site of the U.S. military (the ‘USS Guam’), which occupies about a third of my homeland and currently plans to transfer 8,000 marines from Okinawa to Guam. The hope for my work is that ‘Guam’ becomes a site of resistance for my own voice “(and other voices)” to resist the reductive and destructive tendencies of America’s colonial democracy. By “(other voices),” I hope that my work will inspire other native Chamorus (whether they live on Guam or in the diaspora) to express their own voices through poetry. In addition, I hope that my work makes Guam visible to American poet-citizens who speak out against the deformities of U.S. democracy.

HH: Pages 28-30 and page 85 present maps, or map-like texts, an act for which the reader is prepared by the first paragraph of the preface.  What is the value (strategic or otherwise) of including maps within (as part of) this work?  More generally, what is the role of information and facts in this work?

CSP: I’ve been living in the U.S. for 14 years now, and I’ve been asked countless times to point out on a map where I’m from to people I meet. More often than not, Guam doesn’t exist on maps presented to me. My work attempts to map this feeling of invisibility, this feeling of inarticulateness. The maps in the book (which were designed by Sumet (Ben) Viwatmanitsakul based on actual maps included in my original manuscript) are maps in which Guam is located as the center of various forces: contemporary airline routes, the Spanish Galleon Acapulco-Manila trade route, and the routes of military activity during World War II in the Pacific. French theorist Michel de Certaeu has written (in translation): “What the map cuts up, the story cuts across.” The poems in my book are meant to articulate voices rising from Guam—to make Guam visible. The stories of my family in the book are meant to cut across the abstractions of all maps of Guam. The historical information and facts are other kinds of maps—a way of mapping the story of a people and place. I place this kind of historical mapping within the stories of my family (my grandparents in particular) because so many voices are made invisible by certain kinds of historical mapping. My grandfather’s voice, his experience growing up with U.S. colonialism and as a forced laborer during Japanese Occupation, is a central map in the personal history of my people.

HH: I want to quote three passages that are themselves quoted within from unincorporated territory: “edge closer to the illegible borders” (24; presented in the text with only opening but not closing quotation marks), the epigraph from Charles Olson advising the reader “let them not make you as the nation is” (54), and “my job was to preserve things that i wasn’t willing to build” (82).  In each case, is the quoted passage a way of thinking about what your poetry is doing?  Of thinking generally about what poetry ought to be doing?

I definitely think those three passages articulate the aesthetics of my work. Poetry to me is a kind of edging towards what I don’t understand, what is not yet spoken, what is on the verge of being forgotten—all the ‘illegible borders’ that frame my personal, historical, psychological, and cultural experiences. Olson has been a very influential poet to me—both his theory and his praxis (particularly his Maximus poems). The passage I quote from his work is an important lesson in resistance, in aesthetic activism, in defining the tension between poet and citizen (or colonial citizen, in my case). The final passage is a direct quote from my grandfather describing his job as a Superintendent of the National Park War Memorial Service on Guam; his job was to preserve the structures that he helped build as a forced laborer. He said this as matter of fact, but I knew he said this to teach me a lesson. I can’t change the terrible tragedies forced unto my people by three centuries of colonialism. I can’t change what happened to my own family. I can’t bring back my grandfather’s brother who was beheaded by the Japanese military during the Occupation. I can’t bring back the child my grandmother miscarried during the Manengon Death March (would have been her first child). I can’t take back the land that was stolen by the U.S. military from my great-grandfather. What I can do as a poet is to tell these stories—stories that would be forgotten otherwise (as N. Scott Momaday once said, the oral tradition is always one generation from being lost).  And the hope that these stories might bring about change.

Craig Santos Perez is a native Chamoru from the Pacific Island of Guåhan/Guam. He is the co-founder of Ala Press, co-star of the poetry album Undercurrent (Hawai’i Dub Machine, 2011), and author of two collections of poetry: from unincorporated territory [hacha] (Tinfish Press, 2008) and from unincorporated territory [saina] (Omnidawn Publishing, 2010), a finalist for the LA Times 2010 Book Prize for Poetry and the winner of the 2011 PEN Center USA Literary Award for Poetry. He is an Assistant Professor in the English Department at the University of Hawai’i, Manoa, where he teaches Pacific literature and creative writing.

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