“Moving Islands”: An Interview with Craig Santos Perez

Candice Amich

Craig Santos Perez’s ongoing poetry series from unincorporated territory explores the complex history, ecology, and politics of his native island Guåhan (Guam). Charting a decolonial course, these non-linear poems shuttle between English and Chamorro, urging us to forsake amnesia for the deep, shimmering waters of cultural memory. The series has garnered significant critical attention, and the second volume, from unincorporated territory [saina], was awarded the 2011 PEN Center USA Literary Award for Poetry. Making use of the open field or sea of the page, Perez employs documentary, testimonial, ritual, and etymological methods among others. In his interview with Waxwing, Perez discusses the formal structuring and cultural work of his unfinished series.

Candice Amich: It’s been just over a year since [guma’], the third installation in your from unincorporated territory series, was published. How do you conceptualize the difference between an individual volume or book and a series? Is there something about the history and/or ongoing situation of Guåhan (Guam) that necessitates such a form?

Craig Santos Perez: To me, an individual book is an island with a unique linguistic geography and ecology, as well as a unique poetic landscape and seascape. The book-island is inhabited by the living and the dead, the human and the non-human, multiple voices and silences. The book-island vibrates with the complexity of the present moment and the depths of history and genealogy, culture and politics, scars and bone and blood.

A book series is an archipelago, a birthing and formation of book-islands. Like an archipelago, the books in an ongoing series are related and woven to the other islands, yet unique and different. Reading the books in a series is akin to traveling and listening across the archipelago.

Because Guåhan is part of an archipelago, the geography inspired the form of my from unincorporated territory series. Additionally, the unfolding nature of memory, learning, listening, sharing, and storytelling informed the serial nature of the work. To me, the complexity of the story of Guåhan and the Chamorro people — entangled in the complications of ongoing colonialism and militarism — inspired the ongoing serial form.

CA: I just read a very interesting review essay in Transmotion, a new journal devoted to the study of experimental Native American and First Nations writing, in which Michael Lujan Bevacqua argues that from unincorporated territory recovers the Chamorro tradition of “song maps.” What do you understand to be the key features of this tradition?

CSP: “Song maps” refer to the songs, chants, and oral stories that were created to help seafarers navigate oceanic and archipelagic spaces. Pacific navigational techniques are often understood as a “visual literacy,” in the sense that a navigator has to be able to “read” the natural world in order to make safe landfall. The key features include reading the stars, ocean efflorescence, wave currents, and fish and bird migrations.

Scholars and navigators describe this technique as “moving islands” because in these songs, the canoe is conceptualized as remaining still, while the stars, islands, birds, fish, and waves all move in concert. Islands not only move, but islands also expand and contract. For example, if you see an offshore bird associated with a certain island, then you know that island is nearby (thus, it has figuratively, expanded).

With this in mind, I imagine that poems are song maps of my own journey to find Guåhan across historical and diasporic distances. I imagine the reader is in a still canoe, reading the songs in order to navigate the archipelago of memory and story. In this way, books and words become moving islands, expanding and contracting, inhaling and exhaling.

CA: What do the Chamorro subtitles of your books: [hacha], [saina] and [guma’] refer to? What are they intended to mark?

CSP: The titles are meant to mark and name different books in the same series. Just as an archipelago has a name, such as the Marianas Archipelago, each island of the archipelago has its own unique name. The names can be translated as [one], [elder], and [home]. My first book was given the name, [hacha], to mark it as the first book, first island, first voice. While one might expect the second book to be named, second, I chose the name, [elder], to resist that linearity and instead highlight genealogy, or the past. The third book, which means house or home, was an attempt to weave together time and space (the house or book as spatial and temporal).

CA: In the Preface to from unincorporated territory [hacha], the first book in the series, you write, “These poems are an attempt to begin re-territorializing the Chamorro language in relation to my own body, by way of the page” (12). How do you think about the relationship between language, body, and place?

CSP: To me, our bodies are the sites of blood, skin, pulse, scars, dreams, hair, eyes, ears, sensations, breath, spit, mouth, consciousness, pain, fear, tongue, hope, and voice. The body is a canoe shaped by the ocean currents of experience.

To me, place is origin, birth, death, burial, land, water, shelter, departure, return, longing, parent, ancestor, food, home, family, interconnection, and belonging. Which is to say, every place is sacred.

To me, language is the vessel — the canoe — of thought and expression. The hull of language carries memory, history, genealogy, myths, wonders, culture, politics, morals, and spirits. Language is also a fishing net that catches meaning. The alphabet is a collection of fish bone hooks. The word is an island. The sentence is an archipelago. The page is an ocean; all pages are sacred.

Put another way, the body is a canoe, the ocean and lands are sacred and storied places, and language is the song map.

CA: Hmm, language as “fishing net” — in the most recent book, you incorporate the names of dead soldiers in the “ta(la)ya” poems. We learn that talaya means fishing net. How does this series “catch” the meaning of these soldiers’ deaths? I’m interested in the cross-out technique you use in these poems — striking out, yet leaving the trace of, these soldiers’ lives: their age, military title, cause of death. Is this a form of memorialization? of protest? The book tracks the ongoing history of US military recruitment and build-up in Guåhan along several vectors — what part do these dead soldiers play?

CSP: Yes, talaya means fishing net, and “taya” (the other word in the title) means nothing. The “ta(la)ya” series attempts to catch, as you poignantly phrase it, the meaning of the soldiers’ death; the reasons why Chamorros and other Pacific Islanders enlist in the US military at the highest rates in the nation; the historical, political, cultural, and environmental impacts of militarization; my family’s experience living militarized lives; and the possibilities of demilitarization. The poem, however, only casts the net; it is up to the reader to pull the net and harvest the meaning.

Your reading of the strike-through is very powerful. To me, the effect of crossing something out while leaving visible its traces captures trauma. This is a form of memorialization — though a very different kind of memorial than you often see. Usually, militarized commemorations celebrate patriotism, freedom, sacrifice, and nationalism. This poetic memorial is more raw, messy, truthful, and grief-stricken. It is a kind of protest, I suppose — but more a protest against the sons and daughters of the Pacific dying far from home as exploited soldiers of empire.

The possibility of being killed in action must be commemorated as a valiant sacrifice in order to continue to recruit new soldiers. Dead soldiers become emblems of pride. However, what happens when these commemorations are questioned and deconstructed? What happens when we learn how they die? When we realize that they are never coming back? When we learn that they died not for freedom, but for corporate profits and political power? Poetry lays bare these vectors.

CA: You also incorporate public comments from a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) site in [guma’]. What situation were these comments responding to? How then did you select and arrange comments for the “fatal impact statements” series?

CSP: In 2006, the US and Japan agreed on a military realignment: thousands of US marines stationed in Okinawa would be transferred to Guam, thus necessitating a massive military buildup on Guam that would include the dredging of the island’s main harbor to berth nuclear carriers, the establishment of a live firing range complex and a missile defense system, and the construction of military facilities and laborer barracks. US law requires an environmental impact statement to analyze and possibly mitigate any adverse impacts that the project will have on the cultural, social, political, and natural environments.

The first draft of the EIS was released in 2009; it was eleven thousand pages long. The public had ninety days to read, decipher, and comment upon the highly technical and specialized document. Public hearings were held throughout the island, during which residents could share their opinions about the buildup (comments could also be submitted online and by mail). These comments were published as part of the Final EIS.

I read the volume of public comments from the Final EIS. I found many of the comments to be quite poetic in their rhetoric and honesty. I started sharing choice comments on Facebook, and then others on Facebook started commenting on the comments. To circulate these comments further, I decided to include the Facebook threads in my newest book. The process was very intuitive as I included comments that spoke about the issues in unique and poetic language. A kind of political, decolonial, conceptual, documentary, social media poetics.

CA: Are you working on a fourth installment of from unincorporated territory? I know you have a number of different writing projects — when can we expect your next book to come out? What will it be?

CSP: Yes, I am working on the fourth installment, which I hope to be finished this year and published in 2017. As happens throughout the previous three books, some poems and stories will continue to be threaded in the new book, but retold in different ways. The main themes include birth, creation, parenthood, money, climate colonialism, militarization, migration, and extinction. The Chamorro name of the book is lukao, which means procession.

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