“Diaspora, not simply as dispersal, but as a formation”
GEORGE ABRAHAM & CRAIG SANTOS PEREZ
Interviewed By: Bradley Trumpfheller
Maybe we can just start with both of you talking about how these books came to be, the processes and time that they took to arrive at these forms?
George Abraham: Birthright was the conglomeration of about seven years of poetry in total, but I also don’t think that’s a great way to measure it: I don’t think years and time are useful measurements for poetry always, and I think that especially for first books that fails. I’m 26 years old, so really this book took me 26 years to write. This book lived its way through me. Even the poems that aren’t physically present in Birthright, those angsty, shitty, emo high school poems I had to write to literally survive--that is also Birthright, even though they’ll never see the light of day. It was just so interesting seeing one of the funniest examples of this was, me and a friend of mine were looking at early poems of ours, back from first year undergrad. I had written this poem - a tumblr love poem that got me through A Time - and noticed the traces and echoes in that poem of “To All the Ghosts I’ve Loved Before,” which is one of the later poems I put into Birthright. Seeing the energy, some of the images, even some of the formal questions I wanted to ask; the inklings were all there in my early poetry, and it made me rethink this whole idea. Logistically, Birthright is a seven year project, but it’s more than that in a lot of ways.
Craig Santos Perez: So for me the first poem I wrote in this book was dated back to 2014, when my wife was pregnant with our first child, and captures that in the moment of her pregnancy and then of our daughter’s birth, those early months in the poem “The Age of Plastic.” At the time, around the world, everyone was talking about climate change, so those themes of pregnancy, childbirth, being a new parent, compounded with the anxieties and concerns I felt for my daughter growing up in a time of climate change. That sparked that first poem, and all the other poems came since 2014, over six years, and there are different parts written at different parts of my daughter’s life, so you see her grow up in certain ways, and there are environmental issues that creep into various poems. I love what George said about books gestating our whole lives and finding their forms, and coming together when they’re ready to launch into the world.
Yeah, absolutely. And I’m so into how, both in these new books but also more generally, you’re doing what seems to me to be really amazing and cool work with, like, the possibilities and limits of the book as a form. George, for your book I’m thinking about the “Map of Home” at the end of the book; and Craig, in your from unincorporated territory sequence it feels ever-present, but also in Habitat Threshold, y’know, like its “Web of Contents,” and the ways your work invites me to think about a book’s ecological architecture. Can you both speak to how you conceive of the book, and maybe what you see as the book’s relationship to a discrete “project”?
George Abraham: That’s such a good question. I’m really interested in hearing Craig’s response to this, the way your first four books are almost like a continuous body, or, I think of those books as one body that’s been sort of fragmented by the book process.
For Birthright, I don’t know -- it’s a gargantuan book, it’s a thick boy. It looks like a novel on the shelf, and I kind of love that for this project. There’s something to be said for the physicality of a book literally taking up a lot of space on the shelf: a book that’s Palestinian, a book that’s messy as in purposefully trying to distort a Western reader’s perception of it and dare I say reflect a little bit of their own energy back at them. I really like that it’s this complicated, difficult, and long book and it needed to be like that. I got to the end of the process and said, wow, sure, the initial draft -- a lot of those poems didn't make it into the final cut. I overwrote it by like 100%: if you look at the day one draft of it against what was published, I would say 50% of those poems were cut and/or rewritten. Part of that is sort of trusting the book process, letting the work generate itself and go where it needs to go. All of the most interesting work came from letting the spirit of the project sort of take over and talk for itself, even if that meant introducing a new section, or seeing new larger structural questions because a poem raised questions that undercut other poems in the book. Not in a bad way: I’m always arriving, always reaching. I wanted Birthright to be the embodiment of that always reaching and returning that’s within my poetry.
Craig Santos Perez: Yeah, I love how Birthright explores so many different compelling forms, and for me it really spoke to diaspora, displacement, and fragmentation via colonialism. But then also, George has a way of regathering and rearticulating, remapping these fragments back together to celebrate the complexities of both the self and the resilience of Palestinian and Palestinian-American people. A lot of that is at play in my work as well, similar themes. Being from Guam, you know, a place kind of ravaged by settler colonialism, being myself part of a large diaspora. And, you know, for the last 25 years of my life living away from my home island. I grew up in Guam until I was 15 years old, and then my parents decided to migrate to California-- that was that first, you know, diasporic experience. The first fracturing and fragmentation, and what became to feel like a sort of excerpted existence. People always ask me where I'm from. Thinking about the word “from,” as connoting origin and fragmentation; thinking about a part of me being in one place and the part of me being another place and feeling like I'm an excerpt of something that is supposed to be whole but that is not. That's kind of how I started to think about my from unincorporated territory series of books.
The first book was actually my MFA thesis. So I had two years and my idea was, you know, I wanted to write a book about my homeland and my culture. And after two years, I'm like, I'm not done. There's not enough room in this book or during this time to write about, you know, all those experiences. And so that's what I first conceived of That idea to let you know to let it be a series. Let this be a life project because I think, you know, writing about my people and my homeland deserves that commitment and dedication. The practice of decolonization and literary revitalization: this is a lifetime project. I started seeing each book as an island and the series as an unfolding archipelago, to use oceanic metaphors. Of course I was influenced by, you know, these long form multi-book project that we see both in the modern and postmodern period. And even today, Nate Mackey is one example of a writer -- not necessarily all the books are continuous, but he has a series of poems that continue across his books. Also previous projects like William Carlos Williams’ Paterson, Pound’s Cantos, thinking about Charles Olson’s Maximus poems, and other long projects that were really interesting to me in grad school. Seeing beyond the book as a space really felt like a kind of liberating gesture in some way: I don't have to write about everything in this book. You know, I have experience of George too, where I have so many poems that didn't fit in this book that I still have in the file that I could use in future books. I tell a lot of family stories as well. So it's been nice over the course of work on this project for 15 years to tell family stories, you know, my grandparents aging and sadly passing away, my own kind of coming of age, getting married and having kids and all that. That's, to me, one of the joys of the book, too, is that it moves across time, following my whole life and growing with me as well.
George Abraham While Birthright had that kind of self-generation (e.g. the book itself was a generative model for the book), what Craig was saying about giving myself permission to exist outside of the book was equally if not even more important. Letting work happen without even thinking about a book. Some of the best surprises, ironically, were when I just wrote a poem, because I needed to write that poem. And in the process of writing that poem, I told myself, “don't think about Birthright, don't think about what's coming after! Your allegiance is only to this one poem!” And that was really liberating for a lot of pieces. The previously mentioned, “To All the Ghosts I've Loved Before,” was one of the harder decisions of whether or not to put it in the book, or to not because I think that in some ways, it was a catch-22. It serves a nice little different textural aesthetic in the book, as a poem that's quite different from a lot of the work in there. It also, in that same way, begs some new questions that I don't think Birthright, dared to ask yet, and highlights a lot of the limiting conceptions of love present in the book and the book’s mythos. And so I thought that to insert this into my book is also to critique the book--to also say what isn't it doing, and for that reason, I ended up keeping it in the book, despite its aesthetic difference from a lot of those poems. Especially given that that poem is in a palinode form: a form that is implicit in the concept of apology and taking back.
A lot of what Craig was saying about the book just living with you and you as a human with a complex experience that no one can understand as well as you, moving through the world -- yeah I mean, shit happens. At the time I wrote that poem, my world felt like it was ending. The world brought that poem to me and I would have never, ever imagined a poem like that existing within Birthright, especially from this narrower, “letting the project grow itself,” type of view. Birthright is very much a project manuscript that generated itself, but at the same time it's most surprising and interesting, arguably, work came from breaking out of that, not thinking about it as a book and just letting my poems be poems, as basic as that answer might sound.
Craig Santos Perez: I wanted to just comment on that quickly, I love what George said about capturing difference throughout a book, and I think that’s really exciting because we know many books can maybe move along a singular trajectory and, you know, for good reason usually. But in Birthright. I love that there is so much celebration of difference, you know, both cultural difference that George explores but also the difference that is within the self, our many selves. I feel that in Habitat Threshold, even though it's a single contained book, as you mentioned, Bradley, does have a gesture towards ecological consciousness with the web of contents. So in that book I also include many different forms to embody and celebrate diversity. Aesthetic diversity, but also, you know, relating to ecological diversity because that's what's being lost in our, in our current era. To me it was important to have a book that was not one form, but many forms, because that to me is what's beautiful about the world itself, that there is so much diversity. And that's something we need to celebrate.
George, there's a real formal range in Birthright I don’t know that I could succinctly list all the different forms, both visual and rhetorical, that the book is playing with. And invented forms! The Markov Sonnet, the double Golden Shovel Arabic--it's so many things, you’re doing, all the time.
George Abraham: This is one of the reasons I’ve been looking forward to this conversation, I think, because in rereading Habitat Threshold the elements that really stood out to me were the recycling poems, “Recycling Wallace Stevens,” “Recycling Maggie Smith,” etc, etc. I don’t want to speak for Craig, of course, and this could be me asserting my own interpretation onto it, but I think of form and lineage as two intrinsically intertwined things. It was really validating to read a collection like Craig’s that had such a strong notion of lineage that was implicit in the way the book navigates form. That’s something we maybe hear talked about quite a bit, but actually seeing that honored and uplifted within a manuscript--and not even just in Habitat Threshold, but also thinking about from Unincorporated Territory--is something I’m really obsessed with, and something I tried to emulate within Birthright. Sure, we can talk about invented forms like we can talk about existing forms such as the sonnet. But maybe the most simple “form” one can write is the “after” poem, the recycled poem. The after poem as a way of saying thank you; form as a way of saying thank you, to everyone who got us here. Birthright wouldn’t exist without Tarfia Faizullah, without Vievee Francis, without Jan-Henry Gray and the conversations we had at Kundiman. This entire book could just be titled “A tribute to Marwa Helal.” And Hala Alyan, and Danez Smith, and Safia Elhillo. These are all people I’m indebted to, that my poetics is indebted to. And not debt in a gross capitalistic way, but debt as, I am who I am because of these poets. In non-Western, anti-imperialist, and anti-colonial poets, I see a poetics whose notion is to build among, to build horizontally together. And form can be a great way of doing that. But also when we take and reinvent and subvert (neo)classical form, it’s like the biggest fuck you. It’s like saying, “Hi, we’re taking your shit and we’re doing it better.” Sorry to be crass but I think that people like Craig and everyone I listed before have given me so many models of how to do that.
Craig Santos Perez: I can relate to that. I too see form as well as, you know, uses of epigraphs, notes, acknowledgments as kind of kinship building, as a naming of our large diverse genealogies, and as a way to honor our contemporaries that have influenced us. But of course, also those who have come before our, our literary ancestors, so to speak. To me that's been important throughout my work. I use a lot of epigraphs, sometimes I get teased for it. You know, to me it's shout outs, but it's also, you know, you gotta honor your genealogy in that way and that's that's been really important to me. I love what George said about subverting the canon; I too was trained in the Western canon, and that’s been a major influence, you know, American and European poetry and poetics. But I also studied so many anti-colonial and decolonial writers, writers of color, indigenous writers, poets from the Pacific, and we all write against empire. We reclaim our own language and also master and turn back their languages toward them as critique. We beat them at their own genres, just like we beat them at their own sports. I take great pride in that. I’m not a competitive person but it does feel good.
I love both of those answers a lot, this is great. I wonder, too, if this anti or decolonial gesture of recycling, reusing, on the level of form might also tie back to what we were talking about with the book, the form of the book? Which isn’t to say, like, the book is itself the product of that colonial, imperial so-called canon, but I think there’s a way maybe that both of your books are kind of moving against a certain kind of disciplined reading of the book that does seem to me linked to your work’s larger anti-colonial imaginaries, if that makes sense? George, I think this is something I read in “Map of Home,” where you talk about the difference between reading and Reading.
George Abraham: Funnily enough, the two people responsible for “Map of Home” are in this conversation right now! So synthesizing something Craig told us at our last Kundiman master class, which was the last chance I was able to make substantive edits before I turned the book in. I was grateful to have met Craig in person for the first time in that capacity. Something he emphasized was, in indigenous poetics and also in a lot of non-Western and diasporic poetics, there are these long traditions of nonlinear time. We talked a lot about this in relation to single poems: I’m thinking about Hala Alyan’s "Wife in Reverse," and creating reverse and cyclical chronologies in the spacetime of the poem. Something about that was resonating with me in a little bit of a deeper way that I just didn't quite have language for.
Fast forward a few months later - a week or two before I had to submit Birthright - I was sitting in a coffee shop with you, Bradley. They had read a draft of the book at that point, and I think they said something about seeing the poems being read non-linearly? That they read with or among each other. And I was like, “I have to go!” and I left, and went to the chalkboard in my lab and just literally mapped the whole book out.
Sure, I’ve already assembled a linear ordering by that point, reading from front to back, but how should it be Read, capital-R? How were the poems failed by linearity? That’s when the Map for Home came in, a two-dimensional array where you can enter the book at any point. Thereafter, you can choose to continue on a linear path, or you can choose to exit that lineage into another. No matter where you start or end, you’re either going to cycle forever in an infinite traumatic loop, or you're going to converge unto one of the alternate mythologies of exile. I've kind of constructed that map that way so that that's how the book is supposed to be Read. You can either remain kind of stuck and fixated on certain cycles within the book, or you can exit to an alternate myth, a reimagining where the book opens up and says no. All of those poems are palinodes in the sense that their spirit is trying to resist what a lot of the book is trying to do in its infinite cycles and traumatic loops. These poems are saying let's try to imagine something else, even if we fail, even if we can't imagine that. I don't expect a reader to literally cycle infinitely through the poems forever, obviously, but in an ideal world that would be an interesting way to experience the book. The map comes at the end of the book, so it's like, one of the other keys to this is that not all the poems are represented on it. One or two don’t appear on it. And there’s no way to recreate the linear ordering of the book on the map. So presumably the reader got to this point reading it from front to back -- that’s the colonial, the expected outcome, and it’s nowhere on this map. I wanted to turn a mirror back on the reader in that way. I wanted to reward nonlinear reading, above all.
Craig Santos Perez: I love how Birthright moves cyclically through time, and also through space, through geographies. And also this cyclical movement from self to other, among this multiple self, selves. Language, too, George moves across all these languages, and all this creates a really engaging reading experience that embodies so many of these themes. In my first four books, I’m trying to craft a similar sense of cyclical, spiraling, narrative time. And it’s been fun because it’s a multi-book project, and I’ve actually been able to revise poems from earlier collections, and update them and bring them into the newer collections, and then write them in a different way. So if a reader has actually read all my books they’ll see how one poem appears in my first book and then seven years later, how it is appearing in the different version, a different form in my third book.
It’s almost like revision itself becomes cyclical in a strange way, and that’s been a fun path of discovery in terms of craft. But definitely that's been my method as George mentioned to kind of root the book and my work within indigenous Pacific conceptions of time and space. And then, of course, how a lot of Pacific cultures talk about facing the future with our backs, in the sense where we're looking towards the past and our ancestors to understand where we are, to orient ourselves to move into the future as well. I try to embody that in the form, both in individual poems and in the book itself.
I’m curious, Craig, if you might speak to how you see Habitat Threshold belonging to this larger context of your body of work? I guess I’m thinking about how the multi-bookness of from unincorporated territory can feel like a gesture at this possibility of relationality that, you know, maybe all poets have to some degree, the interactions of the language and poems over these cycles of time we’re talking about, if that makes any sense at all.
Craig Santos Perez: Well thank you for that question. For the first fifteen years of my writing life, I was working on this one continuous series and at the same time I was always writing these other separate poems that weren't about Guam, or weren’t about my Chamorro identity and you know I published them in anthologies but never collected them in a book. After my fourth book came out, I decided, I have a lot of material, and I gave myself permission to just step outside of the unincorporated territory series, and to put together a stand-alone book. The poems are all related to each other as environmental poems. That was really where it started, I just had all these other poems I was writing and wanted to challenge myself to do something different. And then of course, to challenge folks who read my work to realize, here’s the other things I write about too. This point in my career is a lot of challenging myself to make something different. This book is a compilation, and lots of the poems are short, which is new for readers of my other books, which use longer forms. It was nice to have those single serve sonnets and short haiku and so on. I wanted to show a bit more range as a poet, both thematically and formally. It was a way to keep myself more engaged and challenged. A lot of the poems are set here in Hawai’i, which I don’t explore as much in my other work, but I wanted to have the space to write about this place I’ve been living for ten years. A lot of the poems scale from the local to the global so I wanted to also allow myself space to to make those connections and to discuss those issues.
I’m now back on the from unincorporated territory path once again, so trying to finish up the fifth in that series and my sixth book overall. It was fun to bring together Habitat Threshold, and maybe in the future as well I’ll write another standalone.
George Abraham: It’s really interesting hearing that because, anyone who knows my work knows I love long poems. On one hand, on my first read, the Praise Song for Oceania and Chanting the Waters were some of my favorite poems in the book, which are both longer; on reread though, I see more of what these haikus are doing, what the -- it was a conundrum, I couldn’t decide between short form Craig and long form Craig, you know? Again, this intersection of formal and ecopoetic innovation, and in tandem to that there’s this broader transnational solidarity in the work. And it just got me thinking about like, within ecopoetics, what room is there for solidarity in the transnational sense? I was reminded of Khaled Mattawa’s Fugitive Atlas, which is very it's very interested in both ecopoetics and these stories of refugees, even the occupation of Palestine at one point in the book, and Khaled’s home in Michigan -- there’s a sense that all these geographies are connected through this ecological gesture. I have the inkling of a critical essay on these two books -- they’re not the only examples, of course, but I’m really interested in this conversation emerging in that work right now, and perhaps where my own work is heading.
Craig Santos Perez: Yeah, that's a great point. So much of ecopoetry is invested in writing rooted in place and locality. You know, so getting to know where you live, where your water comes from, your own watershed, the local and indigenous histories of the place that we live on. And so, you know, a lot of poetry is like Ultra local. But then of course there's another branch as you mentioned that makes the connections between the local and the global which of course leads or can lead to expressions of transnational solidarities. We see this in the climate and environmental justice movements making connections between, let's say, water issues in Flint, Michigan, and in Palestine, Right? Cultivating an ecological consciousness is both. Training ourselves to see what's local, to know the names of the trees and plants around their houses, but also to see the connections to other places around the world that might be experiencing similar issues. Because, you know, being eco is all about your understanding of how we are all interconnected, how all places and ecosystems are interconnected. How humans, the self and others are also interconnected. In my work, I tried to explore all those elements, to really articulate those interconnections in a poetic, creative way, that can hopefully lead the reader to see and develop an ethics and empathy based on them.
And this reminds me of a word you’ve written about, archipelago, or archipelagic thinking, to describe a series of emergences linked to this underlying whole. Which seems to me very related to ecological consciousness as you’re talking about, a sense of real belonging between maybe disparate or distant things? George, I think you’re turning towards ecopoetry in a really intentional way in newer work, and Craig I think that’s been a major aspect of all your books so far, so I really see this idea or frame speaking to something you both do so well, working with a quality of entangled life on so many different formal levels, work that the poems and books do to point to or insist on their own archipelagic-ness, if that makes sense at all.
Craig Santos Perez: Definitely, I totally agree. That’s what the archipelago has come to stand for, partly within this thinking, and thinking also about diaspora, not simply as dispersal, but as a formation, in the sense that we’re still connected. You can see fragments, and they appear to be fragments, but what if this is the top of the island? What if it’s connected to other fragments, but just submerged, and we can’t see them right away? You’ve got to look deeper, that’s what poetry allows us to do.
George Abraham I’m also thinking about something Valzhyna Mort said in an event recently, that people are probably going to look back on this current era of poetry and find that the “ecopoem” is like, the Big Poetic Form of Today in a lot of ways. Which is of course unsurprising in the impending climate catastrophe and also the emerging conversations of climate catastrophe intersecting with colonialism intersecting with so many different forms of oppression in America and abroad. I’ve been thinking about Palestine within the Anthropocene and Palestine in the emerging traditions of Anthropocene writing, and I wanted to say that I really think ecopoetic work has kind of always been going on in the undercurrent of my poetry. It’s always been the implicit assumption, even as this more general ecological thinking as a practice. So where is my poetic work headed to right now? Actually the hook for me was the Necropastoral. Morbid as it sounds, but like it’s easier to imagine a Palestinian diasporic landscape that acknowledges and writes into death more than life. That core issue is a problem of imagination, and it’s the problem behind the problem behind the problem behind the poem. A part of is thinking about how I don’t actually have archival access to what Palestinian life before 1948 was, or at least the possibility of memory of that landscape has been irreversibly tainted and erased. The Necropastoral is one way I can access this disembodied memory: through a lens where I am connected to this erased, suppressed memory through the none-ness of death? So I’m thinking not only of the Necropastoral, but the contradictions it is: why is it that my speakers are connecting to the homeland in death more than life? Where can we maybe find a path forward, a path for capital-L Life in that interrogation? Can such a path exist?
I’m so glad you brought the necropastoral into the conversation, it was something I was excited to talk to y'all about. I feel like I’m still figuring out what it means to me, as a way of thinking about poems. One way that Joyelle McSweeney defined it, just to bring that in as well, is as “a political-aesthetic zone in which the fact of mankind’s depredations cannot be separated from an experience of "nature" which is poisoned, mutated, aberrant, spectacular, full of ill effects and affects...It does not subscribe to humanism but is interested in non-human modalities, like those of bugs, viruses, weeds and mold”. In Habitat Threshold, there’s the poem “Halloween in the Anthropocene,” that’s called a necropastoral, Craig, and I’m wondering if maybe you can speak to how you move with that idea and what it means to you?
Craig Santos Perez: I’ve studied and taught McSweeney’s work in my own ecopoetics courses, and to me, the necropastoral was a concept that was really powerful to think about in the context of the Pacific, of Native literatures in general, in places that have experienced so much death and so much loss, whether from disease or war, and so you know, the form is really compelling. It’s not a form or a genre that I like to write in all that much because it is so dark and sometimes writing about that kind of toxicity and pain and death is personally and physically very difficult for me. That said, it is important to confront. That’s what that poem tries to do through the guise of Halloween, thinking about all the people and places that are hurt and damaged by just this one event, basically. Of course we can see the necropastoral everywhere. And it’s getting worse, you know, if we think about just climate induced disasters, creating even more landscapes of death that if we don’t see firsthand, we probably will see on the news. Joyelle’s goes really deep to the microbiotic level as well. These landscapes of death are being caused by human action--whether in genocide or the climate change of our present moment--that has to be confronted and reckoned with. And ultimately, resisted, protested, and stopped, to the best of our ability.
George Abraham: Poetry is just part of the equation. It can be very difficult work, and work at reaching towards and arriving at language is always difficult if it's done with a very rigorous anti-colonial framework. I don’t want to de-legitimize that. But how does that translate to action? Not just for ourselves, but on a broader scale. How can we actually facilitate conversation with family members, for instance, about why they keep buying Styrofoam? Then how do we actually take action with our people on a broader national level to combat climate change, as a mirror and intersection of some of these globally catastrophic events that continue to traumatize us? I’m just thinking a lot about poetry’s role in that, and how important these conversations of form are, building this work as modes of self-accountability. Anything that says, no, I need this to move outside of my poetry life and into my life, and my actions. How can poetry facilitate that? I don’t have a perfect answer. I’m thinking about that conversation that conversation between Rickey Laurentiis and Solmaz Sharif - how they talk about empathy as an endpoint, and discuss how a poetics that inspires rage and action should be our goal. Whereas empathy isn’t a vehicle towards that, but instead moves toward stasis. It goes back to the question from earlier: how are people reading us? How are they reading our books, sure, but how are they reading us?
I don’t think I’m interested in making people empathize with the Palestinian cause, because, I don’t know, I was talking with a bunch of Palestinians about how white people want to come up and hug us after we read our poems. And I’m just so uninterested in that. There’s no white person on Earth that could empathize with a Palestinian living in Palestine. I want my poems to make you angry, to make you protest, to talk to your family members, who don’t know or do know and actively repress it. What does your alleged empathy do for Palestine writ large? It’s something I’ve become really critical of. And maybe I mean not the construction of empathy itself, but people’s weird consumption of empathy? Empathy when it’s arriving with the stain of colonialism, because I don’t think I’ve ever gotten a reaction like that from Black, Indigenous, or other poets of color - the typical reaction from other marginalized groups is solidarity moreso than empathy. People saying, “I as an oppressed person want to help and show up for you.” That isn’t empathy, that’s just being a decent human being who Listens. That’s something that Palestinians need to do, too, to the best of our capacity.
Fargo Tbakhi came up earlier in the conversation, and there’s this bit in an essay of his at the Poetry Project I think that feels really resonant here: “Maps, too, are performances, and a liberal colonialist audience requires certain performances of Palestine, Palestinians, and Israelis in order to be moved— and more importantly, in order to sell copies. Those performances must perpetuate empire’s images of Palestinians; they must provoke responses from their audiences which are understanding, but disengaged; empathetic, but not in solidarity; moved to tears, perhaps, but never to action, for the empire’s performance of colonization must be that it is an intractable project which no person can undo”.
Craig Santos Perez: It’s an amazingly important conversation to have. Poetry has so many different powers, I believe--it can educate us, make us feel sympathy or empathy, empower us. It can allow us to reckon with our traumas that perhaps, you know, we’ve suppressed. It can revitalize lost languages, and suffering or oppressed cultures. It could allow us to see the world from a different perspective. And you know, the ultimate hope, especially in political poetry, is to be disturbed towards action. And sometimes those actions might be small, like, you know, just getting someone to donate money to a cause, or getting someone out in the streets to protest when the time comes. I definitely feel that there are so many...the poetry has so many different powers, and speaks to people in different ways, and personally for me, writing about a lot of issues related to colonialism and environmental justice, crimes against Indigenous peoples--the hope is that we bring people in, bring readers into not only solidarity, but action. It can be another form of activism. Unfortunately, as George and others have mentioned, there’s also readers who are only interested in, you know, our trauma as a commodity, and simply consuming the images of the oppressed. And by doing so, they feel perhaps relieved of some guilt or absolved of their own complicity or the complicities of their peoples, and so it’s tricky. You can’t control how a reader responds, obviously. But the hope is really to bring them into the larger movement, to be genuinely committed to it.
George Abraham And I love specifically with Habitat Threshold like, the capacity for poetry to serve as education, in a literal sense? For folks who haven’t read the book yet, you do leave this book knowing more about climate change. In a humanized way, not just the graphs and depersonalized facts that are underlying the poems. In inspiring action, I think perhaps maybe narrative, maybe, again history, and human narrative does have a role in this context. I’ve been thinking a lot about that, and how to inspire my own students in reading ecopoetry. This poem makes you upset? Great, here’s some organizations you can get involved in, here are your representatives you can call, etcetera! Especially in the ecopoetic case and any attempt at intersectionality here is really key to that educational work. I just hate sometimes that this work is sterilized in academia. I absolutely think that questions of form and aesthetic, what lit scholars are interested in, is of course valid, and there’s so much brilliant formal work in this book, Craig. But those conversations can also undercut the actually important political work if they aren’t sharpened and in sync with the ecopoetic politic of the collection? It’s a disservice not just to the project as a whole, in Habitat Threshold, but a disservice to the form, to what the ecopoetic tradition I think stands for and moves us to do. I’ve been trying to encourage my students to do in their analyses, to confront the politic of the poem simultaneous to a rigorous aesthetic engagement, because these things are super related, and are intrinsic to each other, especially for Black, Indigenous, and non-Western writers. How can we build an academic discourse that resists sterilization, apoliticization, of the work?
Craig Santos Perez: Yeah, I’ve written before about how ecopoetry to me is a creative form that can help develop and nurture environmental literacy. I've been fortunate, since this book has come out, it's been taught in a couple of high schools. And the students read the poem the teachers give them, and they do research on the issue, let’s say plastic. And so they’re learning about this through poetry. It’s more creative to them, as opposed to just reading a scientific report about plastic pollution. Then of course, they learn all these things and they’re certain to feel and think about plastic in a different way. And that's when you give them the writing prompt right, so then they can write their own poetry response to help process these feelings and thoughts creatively, which allows them to see the world differently.
I think that's true really for most poetry, you know? Like when I first started studying Native American poetry, I didn't know a lot about Native American history. But I learned it, you know, through the novels and the poems that spurred me to do research, which was much more interesting to me than just reading a history book. I think as George just said, this applies to so much literature that is not directly related to your own experiences, where you just learn so much about other people, other cultures, the diversity of the human experience, and I truly think that's one of the core values of the humanities. It gives us a creative way to experience what it’s like to be human and all the diversity of that experience. It’s important to talk about that pedagogical element of our work in addition to the craft elements and the individual themes.
Yeah, both Birthright and Habitat Threshold feel instructive for what building with or among can look like, or how we can hold ourselves to its imperative in the language we’re using, like, all the time. I feel such ambivalence about the question of “usefulness” but how y’alls work concerns itself with kinship does feel useful to me, in a way that maybe reorients what that word means. Which is so much the domain of poetic speech. Craig, as you write in the poem "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Glacier," “Humans and animals and glaciers / are kin.” George, I think about “I cousin you.” I’m grateful to you both for the ways you draw out entanglement.
For time’s sake, I think this will be the last question, but we haven’t really talked much about the strangeness that has sorta lurked behind all this thinking in the past year, both in the form of the pandemic of course, and also the ongoingness and intensification of a lot of state violence, racism, and fascism. And I don’t, I guess, want to ask the now boilerplate interview question of like, how you’re moving within all the new brands of antagonism or whatever, but I’m kind of selfishly curious how both of you are sustaining yourselves, finding or reaching for joy in the midst of the shit? If that resonates with you at all.
Craig Santos Perez: Definitely this conversation with both of you has been giving me joy, and both of your work as well. All the important poetry being written now and that has been written gives me hope. Of course I’ve been quarantined for about 8 months now with my wife and two daughters, and they on the daily give me joy. Counterbalanced with how much my kids drive me crazy, but joy nonetheless. It is a very scary time, and what really cultivates hope within me is witnessing all the inspiring and empowering acts, both creative and political, that folks are involved in. So many gestures of mutual aid, solidarity and love, support for various movements, that are really a celebration of each other, of what makes us human-- a celebration of each of our breath. So that gives me a lot. Poetry is a space where I can express my gratitude for that hope. One of the poems in my book, “Chanting the Waters,” is a kind of chant of hope, the waters and the ocean being symbolic of something that flows through all of us and connects all of us and every place on this planet. The flowing river of hope within me that I try to cultivate.
George Abraham: Definitely want to echo that, and for me, teaching poetry lately has really revitalized me in a way that I have never experienced before. I’ve always loved teaching poetry, but teaching it right now, and seeing poetry move through my students, not just at Emerson and in the academic circles, but through Kundiman and Speakeasy and more communal spaces, too. It’s been labor, but it’s been a real source of joy: a chance to re-fall in love with my favorite poems all over again. Reading a poem is always great, but teaching a poem gives you an entirely new relationship to it in my experience. Before the interview I was talking to Craig about rereading Habitat Threshold for teaching just made me fall in love all over again. At the same time, though, and not be the emo person that I am, but something about weight is really important to joy. This might be my Scorpio sun / Capricorn moon talking, but I don’t think that it’s realistic for me living in my body and my mind to artificially engineer joy out of thin air. Part of the unpacking of grief, the acknowledgement of grief, living in and through the weight of it, is a path to a more restorative joy than like, the superficial “I’m gonna do a bath bomb” brand of self-care. And there are days when that simple thing, a glass of wine, whatever, will get me through the day, and that's great. But I’ve been thinking about sitting with grieving as a path to joy. Like we were talking about with the necropastoral, wading through that weight. We’re living with so much heaviness right now. If we don’t learn to exist with it, I fear (for me, at least) it might consume me. It gives me a lot of joy to go in and face that.
Interview Posted: July 13, 2021
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