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 2010 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Poetry and the winner of the 2011 PEN Center USA Literary Award for Poetry. Perez received his MFA from the University of San Francisco. He is an Assistant Professor in the English Department at the University of Hawai’i, Manoa, where he teaches Pacific Literature and Creative Writing.
SJF: Guam suffered under colinial rule for around 500 years, do you see your work as fundamentally anticolonial in the spirit of the present day?
CSP: Guåhan (Guam) continues to suffer under the slings and arrows of colonial rule, the thousand unnatural shocks that the Chamoru body has become heir to. Our ancestral home island continues to be a non-self governing territory (colony) of the United States.
Yes, my work is fundamentally anticolonial. The continuing survival of the Chamoru spirit is fundamentally anticolonial. Every breath we take is fundamentally anticolonial. To breathe, to dream: to dream, perchance to be free.
SJF: The cosmopolitan nature of modern Guam must pose challenges for Chamorros struggling to preserve their culture in the face of tourism and emigration and globalisation. Do you also see your work as engaging with the concerns of the indigenous peoples of Guam?
CSP: Yes, the voices of my ancestors and my kin echo in my voice, just as my voice echoes in theirs. I can feel their flesh, bones, and blood, just as they can feel mine through my words.
In the face of past and present colonizers (fuck Spain, fuck Japan, fuck the United States) and past and present traumas (war, disease, Catholicism, militarization, tourism, neoliberalism), Chamorus continue to strengthen our living culture. My poetry holds, as 'twere, the mirror up to our strength.
SJF: Is there a sense that the indigenous poetry of Guam can find its voice again in new, young poets from the island after such a melting pot of cultures and religion and occupation must have altered the islands culture in so many radical ways?
CSP: All cultures change in radical ways, such as the culture of England, which used to be far more imperial; and the culture of the United States, which has radically grown in its imperial occupation.
Even though the indigenous Chamoru culture of Guåhan has changed, the voice of our indigenous poetry has never been lost. The new, young voices of our poets are able to sing both forward and backwards. Thus, we sing our ancestors and we invent new songs.
SJF: One would hope it is occasions such as Poetry Parnassus which provide the best evidence that poetry from beyond ‘the West’ and its dominant mode is being recognised and given its proper place and standing. Poets from a truly global range of traditions will read alongside each other as equals, no matter their language, ethnicity or style. Do you think progress has made been made in this regard, or is your experience that there is some way to go, or the problems are fundamental?
CSP: Poetry from beyond 'the West' has been recognized and treasured in many non-Western countries for centuries. My ancestors, for example, lived poetry as a communal act. They sang poetry while working, fishing, planting, harvesting, partying, flirting, mourning, weaving, etc. It wasn't until 'the West' violently colonized us that our poetry and language were forcefully marginalized and oppressed.
Even though I think Poetry Parnassus will be an amazing showcase of global talent, there are many traditions and nations that will not be represented. Are any of the Native American nations within the United States represented? Is there a poet representing Hawai'i, which is illegally occupied by the United States? What color is the poet who is representing the United States?
The fundamental problem is with the nature of imperial nationalism. Only when Guåhan enters the undiscovered country of sovereignty will progress be made.
SJF: What epoch, or style, or individual poet has had the greatest influence on your own work?
CSP: The 20th century international epoch. Pasifika, indigenizing style. So many poets from around the world have influenced my work. If I were to choose one Chamoru poet, I choose Siñot Peter Onedera.
SJF: Something not often mentioned about Poetry Parnassus is the fact that the participants, beyond 200 of them, will vary greatly not only in nation and style, but in age. Do you think projects like this, which allow such a specific opportunity for dialogue between poets from around the world can play a significant part in inspiring and shaping new generations of poets as they come to prominence?
CSP: Yes, the most profound learning experiences for me as a poet have been engaging with poets who have come before me. I am honored to be a part of Poetry Parnassus, not only to represent the sovereign spirit of the Chamoru people, but also to learn from and connect with the other poets from around the world.
SJF: Do you think, at this time of flux in the world, that an event the size and scope off Poetry Parnassus might provide a real forum for leading poets to begin a dialogue about the political implications poetry might have in the future, and vitally, how this might come about?
I don't see this time as a time of flux; I see this as a time of predatory capitalism and militarized nationalism. For Poetry Parnassus to become a genuine forum for political change, then poets must question nationalism itself, as opposed to simply commemorating nations and their flags. There is a sea of trouble rising (quite literally rising throughout the Pacific due to climate destruction caused by medal-winning nations), and if we fail to link our arms together to oppose the rising seas, our future will come to an end.
SJ Fowler (1983) is the author of four poetry collections. He has had poetry commissioned by the Tate Britain and the London Sinfonietta, and has featured in over 100 poetry publications. He is poetry editor of 3am magazine, Lyrikline and the Maintenant interview series.