Imagining a More “Tender Country”: A Conversation with Craig Santos Perez

Always remember:
if you can write the ocean,
we will never be silenced.

– Craig Santos Perez, @craigsperez

The momentum and voice of Craig Santos Perez flame with the opposite of silence. His poems are built with deep intellect, burn with purpose and feeling, and move with the power and speed of riptides.

A native Chamoru (Chamorro) from the Pacific Island of Guåhan (Guam), Dr. Perez is co-founder of Ala Press—the only US publisher dedicated to Pacific literature—and author of four books of poetry. His most recent Omnidawn Publishing title, from unincorporated territory [lukao], was nominated for a Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. (Previous winners have included such poets as Patricia Smith, Vievee Francis, Ross Gay, D. A. Powell, and Yusef Komunyakaa.)

Poet Camille Dungy recently wrote of Perez, When I think about Perez’s work, I often think about metonymy: ‘the substitution of the name of an attribute or adjunct for that of the thing meant.’ Think garden as home, think home as nation, think nation as identity. Now think what happens when any of these specifics, these details, these small things are compromised.”

Writing for The Poetry Project, literary critic Timothy Otte describes Perez’s connected work as “complex, layered, and shifting. It’s a work of activism, history, and archiving, and through it all, a carefully composed work sensitive to a poetic history.”

Reflecting on his own work in a 2018 Train interview, Perez cited influences ranging from William Carlos Williams, Allison Hedge Coke, and Leslie Marmon Silko to Pacific writers such as Albert Wendt, Hone Tuwhare, and Haunani-Kay Trask.

The recipient of numerous top-shelf awards, including the American Book Award, Perez serves as series editor for the New Oceania Literary Series with the University of Hawaiʻi Press and teaches creative writing, eco-poetry, and Pacific literature at the University of Hawaiʻi, Mānoa.

On an Imagine Otherwise podcast with Cathy Hannabach, Perez noted, “I want a world in which Pacific stories and Pacific cultures and Pacific lives matter. That’s something I’ve been working towards—creating spaces where our stories can be heard and validated and our people, our writers and artists and scholars, can be heard and can be nourished in powerful ways” (Nov. 2018).

In 2016 Perez curated a special feature on Pacific Islander poetry for Poetry magazine. Speaking with Don Share and Lindsay Garbutt, Perez considered the folio a “historic moment.” “There’s a long history of colonialism, missionization, plantations, tourism, extraction,” Perez said of Pacific history. “So that’s actually a major theme in Pacific Islander literature in general: Islanders from the region speaking back, exposing, critiquing, protesting these injustices.”

He continued, “We’re brushing up against a desperate precarity. Poets, as a people and culture . . . We feel it’s our responsibility to help raise the alarm and advocate for environmental changes, as well as a return to seeing the environment as our ancestor, as something we need to care for.”

In our recent exchange, Perez reflected on the history of language, activism, mentorship, and what a poem can do.

Emily Vizzo: You recently wrote:

Let us bridge each other
across the wounded borderlands,
until those once forbidden are now
family, and those once prohibited
are now protected. In this tender
country, may dreams of sanctuary
be the only documents needed
to become citizens.

It looks like a poem and has a poem’s music. Does poetry make “a tender / country” more possible?

Craig Santos Perez: Yes, that passage is the end of a longer poem, entitled “Teething Borders,” about the global refugee crisis and the global construction of national border walls since 2001. The poem highlights the violent reasons why people are driven from their homes and points to the fact that half of the refugee population are children. As a father of young children, I feel deeply for the parents and children who are seeking sanctuary. The poem ends with a call to bridge the borders between peoples through empathy and empathetic action, which I believe helps us imagine—and perhaps create—a more “tender country.”

As a father of young children, I feel deeply for the parents and children who are seeking sanctuary.

Vizzo: In those words, I’m reminded of the beautiful final lines of your poem, “from aerial roots.” The poem concludes with the words “they can’t bury light / even if they burn / our words for light— / even if we have / no nation—.”

Something I deeply admire about this poem, and many of the poems from your collection from unincorporated territory [saina], is the inclusion of untranslated language, even while poetically excavating etymology. For example,

[pecho: prayers flay
            wood treated
                                    to strengthen—

hunggan hunggan hunggan magahet

                                    of crossing—

What can you share about the multilingual landscape of this poem?

Perez: The first passage is a reference to the history of language colonialism on Guam, during which the American administration banned and suppressed our native language of Chamorro. Today, our language is endangered. Throughout my own poetry, I aim to re-territorialize the Chamorro language on the page, such as in the poem “from aerial roots.” That particular poem is about migration and canoe-building, and many of the Chamorro words in the poem relate to the body and the canoe. “Pecho,” for example, is a word for “chest.” And the “hunggan magahet” is a line from a navigational chant. For me, the multilingual landscape of my poetry is an act of native language reclamation—my tongue migrating across the time and space of multiple languages, the multilingual poem as “signs of crossing.”

Vizzo: In thinking about the powerful acts described here—re-territorializing, reclamation, and “migrating across the time and space of multiple languages” in service and celebration of an endangered language—I’m reminded of the great poet Ilya Kaminsky’s November 2018 thread about poetry and activism in a historical perspective: he writes of Auden driving ambulances in the Spanish Civil War, Langston Hughes in exile, Anna Swir working as a nurse, and others. How do you see your own poetry and activism as extensions of one another, if at all?

Perez: I’ve been involved in activism for over a decade, mainly related to the decolonization and demilitarization movements in the Pacific, though I have engaged with solidarity activism related to indigenous, civil, immigrant, and refugee rights. Poetry, for me, has been an extension of this activism, a creative outlet through which to express and circulate my politics, and to inspire others to become involved. Beyond this, I believe it’s important for poets to engage in “literary activism,” such as reading your poetry at a protest/rally, hosting a literary fundraiser for a cause, or teaching a poetry workshop for community groups to help them uplift their own voices. I teach a course here in Hawaiʻi called “Community-Engaged Poetry and Literary Activism,” and I have written a blog post [“Are You a Real Literary Activist?”] about the topic as well. 

Vizzo: You’ll serve as faculty at the 2019 Kundiman Asian American Creative Writing Retreat. In your view, what role does an organization like Kundiman play for poets and poems, and how do you understand/envision your presence and poems supporting a space such as this?

Perez: Kundiman and similar organizations play a crucial role in nourishing poets and poetry because they offer mentoring and learning opportunities outside of academic institutions. As such, they are essential in creating and maintaining literary community. The emergence of groups that serve specific ethnic communities (such as Kundiman, Cave Canem, and CantoMundo) has been an important development in terms of supporting writers of color, who have traditionally been marginalized by the American literary world. Moreover, ethnic writers face different questions and issues in terms of both craft and publication, so it is good that there are spaces where we can discuss these issues. Personally, I aim to mentor and inspire the students, support the organization in its mission, and to share my knowledge of Pacific poetry and poetics.

Vizzo: “Are You a Real Literary Activist?” contains the wonderful idea, “Poets can change minds, capture hearts, and humanize others.” It reminds me of your poem “Praise Song for Oceania,” as it appears in the film by/with Justyn Ah Chong, and opens with the line, “Praise your capacity for birth.” What can you share about the experience of a poem becoming a film? What about “Praise Song for Oceania” made it especially adaptable to film, do you think?

Perez: I teach a course on “eco-poetry,” and I have been involved with environmentalism for many years. “Praise Song for Oceania” was written for World Oceans Day to raise awareness about ocean issues and to increase ocean literacy. The ocean is such a visual space, so I felt a film could enhance the poem. I teamed up with Hawaiian filmmaker Justyn Ah Chong because I knew he had done filming on the famous Hawaiian ocean voyaging canoe, the Hōkūleʻa. I recorded myself reading the poem, and he worked his magic to transform it into a powerful film, which has screened at film festivals around the world.

Vizzo: It’s beautiful that you embrace teaching and mentorship. During your earliest years as a poet, which poems, poets, or collections of poems helped to form and inform the poet you have become? 

Perez: My family migrated from Guam to California when I was in high school, and I had one inspiring high school teacher who was also a poet, Thomas Seaton. His encouragement made me continue literary studies as an undergraduate, where I studied with the amazing poet Joy Manesiotis. Her mentorship led me to apply to an MFA program. I attended the University of San Francisco, where I learned from Aaron Shurin, D. A. Powell, Truong Tran, Rob Halpern, Paul Hoover, and Rusty Morrison. Rusty is the editor of Omnidawn Publishing, and she has been my main mentor and editor for the last ten years as Omnidawn has published four of my collections.

Vizzo: Omnidawn is an incredible press. What titles do you love from their catalog? And, more generally, what poems, poets, and/or collections are you reading right now that you can recommend? 

Perez: From Omnidawn’s catalog, I love Aaron Shurin’s Involuntary Lyrics, Myung Mi Kim’s Penury, and Brian Teare’s Companion Grasses, among many others. I’m mostly reading for anthologies that I’m editing at the moment, but in general I’d recommend three books by Pacific poets: Brandy Nalani McDougall’s The Salt Wind, Dan Taulapapa McMullin’s Coconut Milk, and Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner’s Iep Jaltok

Poetry is prayer and elegy, protest and critique, truth and manifesto.

Vizzo: Your body of work is varied, complex, and so intelligent as well as beautiful. For me, the poems have a formality to their soul that allows a reader to encounter their insistent singularity and deep registers of meaning as if for the first time, even on multiple readings. As we conclude here, I hoped to create a little space for a philosophical riff; a brief ars poetica sighting. From where you stand, what can a poem do; where does a poem leave off?

Perez: For me, poetry is a vessel—a canoe—that carries our stories, myths, creation stories, genealogies, histories, memories, kin, foods, traumas, hopes, and dreams. Poetry is navigational chant, song map, constellation of words, and wave patterns that help us journey through our past, present, and future. Poetry is prayer and elegy, protest and critique, truth and manifesto. Poetry is a love letter and mahalo circle. Poetry is an archive, document(ary), and library of voices. Poetry is place-based and planetary, migratory and rooted, archipelagic and oceanic. Poetry is hybrid, polyphonic, and multispecies. Poetry is laughter and trickster. Poetry is like the ocean: it has no end, only unknown depths, contracting waves, and dilating horizons.

January 2019

Read Craig Santos Perez's essay, “Guam and Literary Activism," and his poem, "Family Trees," from this same issue.

Editorial note: The editors of WLT nominated Perez’s poem “Ode (Ending with a Confession) to the First Mango I Ate on Guam After Decades Away,” which appeared in the May 2017 “New Native Writing” issue, for a 2017 Pushcart Prize, and his essay “Guam and Literary Activism” appears in the Autumn 2019 “After Alcatraz” cover feature.

Journalist and poet Emily Vizzo is the author of the verse collection Giantess (YesYes Books, 2018). She actively volunteers with Writers Resist Los Angeles.