Andrew Wessels: unincorporated territory is a project that now spans two books. Do you see this larger project being at some point in the future being assembled into a single, 'completed' form? Or is the fracturing of both the entire project as well as the poem-threads something integral to the project itself? Any idea or knowledge of how far you are planning on taking the project?
Craig Santos Perez: I will continue this project as long as Guahan, my homeland, continues to be a colony of the United States--as long as I continue to be "from unincorporated territory." Sadly, I may continue this project as long as I live. Yes, I can foresee the books being collected into a single book--but never a 'completed form' as the excerpting and poem-threads are indeed integral to both the making of the project and the project itself.
AW: You have mentioned Paterson as a touchstone for your writing, but when I initially posited a connection, your response made me think that you did not actively and overtly look to Paterson during the writing of this book. The book, though, uses found language as well as epigraphs, so intertextuality is overtly at work here. I'm curious to know more about your various approaches to using texts and what you see as, perhaps, active and passive 'uses' of text?
CSP: You're right, I did not actively look to Paterson during the writing of my books; yet having studied Paterson as an undergraduate left an impression on me. Like Williams, I also interweave lyric poems, historical & political documents, individual speech, and discursive information as a statement not only about a place, but also about how the roots and routes of a place can highlight the experience of colonialism. Research is an important part of our projects--as well as the problematics (and rewards) of finding ways to incorporate that research into the flow of the poetic text. In the same way that the Passaic falls and its river flow through the books of Paterson, water (hanom) also flows through my own books. In terms of how I use text: as you mention, I use many kinds of documents in my work--such as sources from history, politics, anthropology, journalism, popular culture, cultural studies, etc. Almost always I will purposefully manipulate a text's syntax, punctuation, and typography to defamiliarize it--a kind of ritual cleansing of a text before it enters the poetic tide. Often, I will place these shifted texts in new contexts, giving the text new meanings and resonances. Sometimes, texts will be disbursed across an entire thematic trajectory, putting the text in conversation with personal, familial, or cultural memory. So I think my use of documents--of the inter-, pre-, and post-textual--as active in a variety of ways.
AW: I was able to hear you read some poems in Denver at AWP. However, this is before I had read the book. I wish that I could switch that order or be in attendance for this upcoming reading. Now, having read your book, it is apparent that the page as a space or field of composition is vitally important to the existence of the poems. Additionally, you utilize typographical conventions such as bolded words, crossed out words, and italicized words. As this interview is in preparation for another reading, I'm curious to know: How do you translate these physical representations of the word on the page into your live reading?
CSP: I wish you could be in attendance too! In terms of space, I try to embody the space by pausing during my reading, by creating waves of silence that wash over the aural text. Larger spaces require longer silences--in the same way that a larger period in Robert Duncan's work requires a longer pause (tho I am not as mathematical in my pauses as Duncan was). In terms of other typographical conventions, I haven't yet found a way to embody bold or crossed out words in a live reading--so I just read them and hope that it provides a nice surprise to the reader who takes the book home with them.
AW: I'm interested in particular about the conversation in your work between land and the sea. I see the sea as a space where history vanishes nearly instantaneously. Ruins and archaeological remains exist on land. The sea swallows this past, is a continuously blank surface. Like an Etch-a-Sketch in a way, maybe. Your work attempts to navigate this space, I guess these islands, in which this constant-present of the sea is juxtaposed by the history of land and, particularly, of documents. Or, maybe, the difference is a difference between tradition and history?
CSP: I see the ocean (or tasi, in Chamoru) as overflowing with signification, history, politics, transit, story, life and death. Ruins exist in the ocean as well--especially around Guam. For example, there is a "dive site" where you can actually dive into two ships from World War I and World War II (the SMS Cormoran & the Tokai Maru) in the same place. And as we know, the ocean does not swallow the past completely. It hovers or plumes and washes ashore. We can think of the oil spill in the Gulf or the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch," the floating island of toxic plastic waste growing exponentially in the Pacific. If only we could Etch-a-Sketch these things ways. If only we could Etch-a-Sketch the fact that in 2009 George W. Bush signed three declarations—under authority of the u.s. 1906 antiquities act—placing the Marianas Trench and the waters around three islands of the CNMI (Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands) and 21 undersea volcanoes, as the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument in the Central Pacific Ocean and the Rose Atoll Marine National Monument in American Samoa, under the jurisdiction of the u.s. government. These new Pacific Monuments measure about 200,000 square miles, and are managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Department of Commerce, Department of the Interior in consultation with the Department of Defense. Among other things, the declaration quotes (and yes, this is going in my next book): "to protect the training readiness and global mobility of u.s. armed forces and ensure protection of navigation rights and high seas freedoms under the law of the sea which are essential to the peace and prosperity of civilized nation." Just as the land is never truly terra nulls, the ocean--the Pacific--is never truly a blank surface. It is mapped--sometimes visibly, sometimes invisibly--by imperialism, colonialism, geopolitics, tourism, and militarism. So to me, my work hopes to navigate (and de-navigate) the constant-present-past-future of both ocean and land (as land, too, is an ever-changing tidal surface that bears the scars of colonialism. Both land and ocean have history. Both are part of my tradition. The land (tano) and sea (tasi) are interwoven. Tano' tasi: land of the sea. Tasi tano': sea of the land.
AW: The part of your life we are talking about right now is your poetry life. But you have another life as a graduate student in ethnic studies at Berkeley. I'm curious to know more about the push and pull between these two pursuits. How does one inform, encourage, or at times possibly get in the way of the other?
CSP: Don't remind me about the darker, seedier part of my life! Actually, being a graduate student in ethnic studies has been a real blessing for me. I received funding for my first two years through the university, which gave me plenty of time to continue writing poetry while doing my academic coursework. When that funding ran out, I received a Ford Foundation Predoctoral Diversity Fellowship, which gave me plenty of time to finish writing my second book while working on the written portion of my oral examinations. Basically, when I get bored with my poetry I switch to the academic work; when I get bored with the academic work I turn to poetry. That's the push and pull. Because my current academic work is focusing on Native American and Native Pacific Islander Literature and Literary Theory, I am always thinking about how my own poetry fits into these indigenous literary traditions and how certain scholars might interpret / critique my own work. So it keeps me on my toes.
Craig Santos Perez, a native Chamoru from the Pacific Island of Guahan Guam), is the co-founder of Achiote Press and author of two poetry books: from unincorporated territory [hacha] (Tinfish Press, 2008) and from unincorporated territory [saina](Omnidawn Publishing, 2010). He received an MFA from the University of San Francisco and is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Comparative Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.
Andrew Wessels has lived in Houston, Los Angeles, and Cambridge. He now splits his time between Istanbul and Las Vegas, where he is pursuing an MFA in poetry at UNLV. He is editor in chief of the literary journal The Offending Adam and co-edited with Mark Irwin the anthology 13 Younger Contemporary American Poets (Proem Press). Currently, he is a Cobain Fellow at Black Mountain Institute.