Craig Santos Perez is a native Chamoru from the Pacific Island of Guåhan/Guam. He is the co-founder of Ala Press, editor of two anthologies of Pacific literature, co-star of the spoken word album Undercurrent, and author of three collections of poetry, most recently, from unincorporated territory [guma’], which received the American Book Award in 2015. He is an Associated Professor in the English Department at the University of Hawai’i, Manoa, where he teaches Pacific literature and creative writing.
Inscape: Did you originally intend for your poetry to be a political medium?
Craig Santos Perez: Not at first. I started writing poetry when my family migrated, and it was a way for me to feel less homesick and to still feel connected to home. That led to my researching more about the history of my home islands, and history often leads to politics.
Inscape: Did it shift your drive in poetry — that politics drives your poetry now?
CSP: It’s definitely one of the strong drivers. The other driver would be cultural revitalization. I want to tell a lot of cultural stories in my work. I also want to weave these personal family stories with larger historical events. Environmentalism is also an important part of my work. I try to take more of a holistic approach.
Inscape: Your new Oceania Interview Series indicates that you are interested in the Pacific Island poetry community as a whole. Can you describe that community for us? How has it influenced you, and vice versa?
CSP: There are many contemporary Pacific writers but there aren’t a lot of publication opportunities. Thus, Pacific literature is often invisible within larger spheres of American and International poetry. So with the interview series, as well as with the editing and publishing I do, I try to create spaces for other Pacific writers.
Inscape: Your poetry often employs lots of white space as part of its form, and is unconventionally spaced on the page. How is this significant as you write about maps, colonialism, and other geographical topics?
CSP: Mapping can be a colonial practice as maps have been used to claim and exploit our islands. In my poetry, I try to create counter-mapping to subvert their maps. Part of that is telling family stories. Whereas the map is totally abstract, usually depicted from an aerial view, a story shows the human geographies of a place. So my work has a lot of family stories, stories of my grandparents and their experiences on Guam, and I arrange the stories with visual elements.
Inscape: What role does your poetry play in the Chamorro community, or what role do you hope it will play?
CSP: Because I don’t live on Guam anymore, my poetry gets into the community mainly through being taught in high school and college classrooms there. I’ve been able to go back home a couple times in the last few years to do public performances and visit the schools and students, as well as speak on the radio and television news. With Facebook and Twitter, I’m better able to interact with writers on Guam, and I continue to publish Chamorro writers in national and international literary venues.
Inscape: What is your hope on the high school level, or the non-writing community level? What do you want your writing to do for that community in Guam?
CSP: Definitely to inspire them. One of the classes I visited — it was an honors English class — had read my poetry. I performed for them, and afterwards one of the students was crying. I asked, “What’s wrong?” and she said it was the first time she saw our culture in a book. She said, “I just thought we weren’t worthy of literature.” I hope for the students to be able to feel that we’re human, too, and we’re worthy of literature. And maybe they will be inspired to write their own stories and poems.
Inscape: That is exciting! You’re playing a big part in it.
CSP: A small part! I’m like the crazy off-island Chamorro writer.
Inscape: What kinds of conversation does your poetry facilitate? Is facilitating conversation the goal of your poetry?
CSP: It’s one of the goals. In 2010, the Guam Humanities Council brought me home. They hosted events at the schools and in the community where people would come to hear me perform poetry related to militarization on Guam, and after the reading, there would be breakout groups and discussion about the topics of the poems. That was really cool because poetry led to civic dialogue in the community. And you don’t usually see that at poetry events.
Inscape: Do your readings and presentations often give time for you to interact and converse with students?
CSP: There’s usually a short Q&A session and a reception afterwards, and I get to talk to a few students. And sometimes students will find me on Facebook and send questions because they were too shy to ask in person.
Inscape: Guam has a sort of dual-identity: it’s an American territory with a military base, but it also has its own thriving island culture. How do these two mix? Is that something you express in your poetry?
CSP: They mix in different ways. The military took a lot of land from families to build the bases, so there’s anger. That includes my own family. The military is also a major polluter on the island, contaminating the land and the water, which has also caused high rates of cancer among our people. On the other side, many Chamorros have joined the military—we have very high enlistment rates. I myself come from a very militarized family. After high school, I almost joined the military as well. So despite everything, many Chamorros are very patriotic because of our ties to the military. So if you speak out against the military, it often causes conflict within your own family. It’s frustrating and complicated.
Inscape: Which community is more vocal? Are you representing the less vocal side of the community?
CSP: Those who are critical of the military are vocal with our concerns, but we are in the minority.
Inscape: How do you straddle that dynamic as a poet and as a writer? You have a very clear voice and a very clear stance, but you’re also aware of the other side. I mean, it’s family, too. How do you create that balance as an artist?
CSP: Poetry is the place where I can speak my truth. Even if you can’t talk about these difficult things in person, here’s a space where we can feel free to discuss it.
Inscape: Anything else? The reading this afternoon was amazing. Not very often do you have participation in poetry readings… at least for me as a writer, it’s not often that I’ve seen poets do that.
CSP: Thank you for taking the time to interview me. An important part of Pacific poetics is to include the audience and have the audience give you energy. Through call and response we’re creating a poetic space together. I want the audience to be a part of it and give back and create this poetic circle together.