Poetry and Chamorro Culture

Author: Craig Santos Perez

How did you first discover poetry?  What influences from the Chamorro culture did you discover that your colleagues in other parts of the world would be less familiar with?

Western and Eastern forms of poetry were introduced to me in the colonial school system in Guam. In middle school, I remember one of our assignments was to memorize and recite a poem in our Language Arts class. All of the choices were either American or European poets. I chose to recite Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “If.” If you can keep your culture when all about you / Are losing theirs…

Poetry has always been an important part of customary Chamorro culture. Poetry was a way to share, pass down and inherit cultural beliefs, values, histories, genealogies, navigations, romances, stories, and humors. I’ve been influenced by a specific Chamorro poetic form known as tsamorita, an oral form in which one poet will sing/chant a stanza verse and another poet will respond by rhyming with and adding to the first poet’s verse. This dialogue will continue until one poet can no longer improvise new verses. Sometimes whole groups and families would join into the collaborative compositions. This form would be sung while fishing, planting, harvesting, weaving, cooking, working, or any other communal project. A contemporary practitioner described this form as “being able to sing forwards and backwards.” I try to embody this in my own poetry.

What do you see as the intersection between Chamorro culture and poetry?  How has the intersection of these two elements changed over time in your work?

To me, Chamorro culture and poetry are interwoven. Without culture there is no poetry, and without poetry there is no culture. Yes, the intersection of these two elements have changed in my work because culture is not a static object but it is dynamic and changes over time—especially indigenous cultures within colonial contexts. Poetry has been a way for me to attempt to articulate the changing currents of my culture, as well as its enduring and essential values.

What is an audio poetry album?   How did you decide on this as a project?

An audio poetry album is a collection of poems translated into an audio realm. Hawaiian poet Brandy Nalani McDougall and I wanted to work with two music and audio poetry producers Richard Hamasaki and Doug Matsuoka of Hawai’i Dub Machine, famous for their various albums of Pacific “amplified” poetry. The resulting album, Undercurrent, is more than a recording of us reading or performing poems; the album is “amplified” through digital technology to amplify the aural experience. This album is a provocative complement to our poetry books.

Looking at the racial demographics of writers, it’s clear that minorities are underrepresented.  What steps do you think can be taken to improve these present realities?  Where should our focus as writing community be?

If you know where to look, there is a healthy and robust number of minority writers being published in minority focused literary journals and publishers. I lived for a year purposely reading only writers of color and I never ran out of reading material (I am working on a memoir about that year titled My Year of Not Reading White Literature). Minority writers are only “underrepresented” in the White-American controlled literary industry—and this only matters if you accept an assimilative position towards the American publishing industry. Our focus as a writing community should be to buy and read books by minority writers and to support minority controlled and operated journals and publishers.

What’s the best piece of advice you have for young writers who want to represent their culture? 

Don’t. You can never “represent” your culture fully because cultures are like islands: they are always moving. Instead, imagine that each poem you write is a navigational chant so that each poem will help guide you towards a better understanding of the currents and stars of your culture. Sing your culture, forwards and backwards, in all our complexities.

What’s the next big project on your horizon?  What are you most looking forward to in 2013?

Besides my aforementioned memoir, I am finishing my next collection of poetry, titled from unincorporated territory [guma], to be published by Omnidawn Publishing next year. This work is a continuation of the series of books I have been working on since 2004. I will be presenting my poetry and scholarship at several conferences and universities this year, so I am looking forward to engaging with new audiences.