Conversation between Craig Santos Perez & Donovan Kūkiō Colleps. Originally publishing in Tracking/Teaching: On Documentary Poetics (Essay Press, 2015).
CSP: How did you first learn about “documentary poetics”? Which authors/texts were early influences?
DKC: I first encountered docupoetics in a creative writing graduate course at UH Mānoa during my last year in the masters program. It was a pivotal course for me in terms of being surrounding by amazing poets and teachers and in terms of finding new expressive paths to explore. I think we were all trying to approach the form without really solidifying a definition for it (for me that was very exciting). When asked what I thought “documentary poetics” is in that class, I remember saying something like, “It’s an evolving dance between documents and poetic imagery that turns a subject inside out.” But even now, I feel that it is not a good enough definition. Some poets who were early influences on me were people like Allison Cobb, Muriel Rukyeser, William Carlos Williams, Mark Nowak, Kaia Sand, Claudine Rankine, too many to name them all! They, along with my amazing community of poets in that class, helped build a constellation of what is possible with the form.
DKC: Can you speak about how and when the form of “documentary poetics” became a key path for your poetics? Are there any authors or texts that really spoke to you while writing what was to become you first collection, from Unincorporated Territory [hacha]?
CSP: Many of the authors you mentioned have also influenced my own work, and I would add the influence of poets like Charles Reznikoff, Charles Olson, Ezra Pound, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Barbara Jane Reyes, Catalina Cariaga, Simon Ortiz, and Lisa Linn Kanae. Because I never had the opportunity to take a course dedicated to “documentary poetics,” I didn’t have a name for what drew me to certain poets and poems (I would only learn this name later when scholars started writing about and teaching my work in a “documentary” context). I continued to explore this path because I wanted to learn techniques that could help me write the history of Guam into my poetry. It is a similar question that Simon Ortiz asked in his book from Sand Creek: “How to deal with history?” And, as you know, history becomes much more complex in a colonial context.
CSP Q: Looking at our incomplete lists, there is such a diverse range of writers who have explored the documentary impulse. As a scholar of Pacific literature, do you feel that documentary poetics is evident and/or prevalent in Hawaiian and Pacific poetry?
DKC: Yes, for sure. I think that’s why I respond to it the way that I do. The word that resonates with me is braid. The form seems to lend itself to the ways stories have functioned and lived throughout Hawaiʻi, throughout the Pacific, all cultures, really. For me, documentary poetics–the act of weaving history, poetry, myths, legends, tradition, tale, record, anecdote (certainly more) into something that both amplifies each of them while it also contributes something new to a collective continuance–is such a abundant form to explore when a writer has the privilege to make the choice about writing for family, for communities, and for lāhui (nation). For me, the form feels like a way to humbly enter into this immensely deep tradition moʻolelo, today.
DKC Q: Because the term, the name given to describe this form wasn’t something known to you at the time you were writing about and for Guam, could you speak on why this path of poetics spoke to you, in terms of what and who you were writing about?
CSP: When I first starting writing about Guam and my family, I was living in California, which is where my family migrated to in 1995, and where I lived from when I was fifteen years old to when I was thirty. I struggled to write about Guam because it had become so distant, both in nautical miles and in memory. What helped me was was reading poets who explored documentary poetics. These poets were able to write the complex histories, politics, and cultures of places and peoples by braiding (as you put it) multiple voices, narratives, discourses, and documents into their poems. This might sound odd, but the polyvocality reminded me of being at family gatherings back home, listening to family and extended family talking story around the table or in a circle. It was a space of multiple voices, languages, and narrative styles. The documentary mode offered a model of how to textualize talk story, and thus how to write the immense depths of my homeland.
CSP Q: Your new collection of poems, Proposed Additions, was published by Hawai’i based Tinfish Press in 2014. How was the book influenced by documentary poetics?
DKC: Yes, you mention polyvocality; and I think the form of documentary poetics lent itself nicely to thinking about and writing Proposed Additions. The form feels like a kind of creative, inter-disciplinary methodology that can re-present (in our projects, primarily through the English language) the ways moʻolelo have, and still, function in Hawaiʻi. The multiplicity of voices (and I’d include the incorporation of various genres of English and Indigenous writing styles, too) seemed to amplify themselves when I was trying to find my grandfather through time and space, and in the land that raised us. In a similar way, too, with regards to the spacial struggles you express about writing about/for Guam, I first started thinking about writing about/for my grandfather when I was living in San Francisco; and when I returned to Oʻahu that distance was still there, taking on different internal forms, perhaps. Documentary poetry really helps me think constantly about moving from “I” to “we,” and I think this may be the sole reason I’m drawn towards it–besides the illuminating excavations it provides, too.
DKC Q: Obviously, there are definite connections that thread across your three books, but as you’ve moved through the composing processes for each of them, how has documentary poetics’ influence changed for you (if it has at all) from book to book?
CSP: For me, the influence of documentary poetics has not changed, only intensified. This poetic movement encouraged me to conceive of and activate documents in different ways, as well as to explore a plenitude of archives (real and symbolic, written and oral) in order to weave political, historical, religious, and cultural contexts into my poetry. Sometimes these documents are visible foregrounds and sometimes they are interwoven palimpsests. It has also drawn my poetry to a range of documents and their complex meanings, including The 1950 Organic Act of Guam, my US passport, a boarding pass, a customs declaration form, a United Nations testimony, a memorial of soldiers killed in action, a Guam history book, a tourism website, an old family photograph, the prayers of the rosary. Because of this influence, I think my poetry has become more deeply engaged in capturing the aura and limit of the documents that shape our lives–and perhaps of poetic documentation itself.
CSP Q: Oftentimes, documentary poetics is lauded for its ability to articulate social injustices and advocate for civil rights. For both of us, who write from Pacific literary traditions, do you also feel that documentary poetics is a powerful decolonial methodology?
DKC: Yes, definitely. Especially in the ways that documents can become juxtaposed with each other, and with other forms of Pacific storytelling. For Proposed Additions, I found myself moving beyond the documents of my grandfather’s file cabinet and reading moʻolelo (in Hawaiian and English), and a few environmental assessments drafts of the places in ʻEwa (where he and his wife raised their children and grandchildren) that supported various state and federal development plans. Documentary poetics has ways of inverting the colonial/imperial power of documents meant to provide support for those plans. For instance, setting archaeological surveys for a proposed biological laboratory in Kalaeloa next to moʻolelo of that wahi pana (storied place), next to interviews with community members who are outraged about their home becoming a dumping ground for hazardous materials, next to video clips showing the inabilities of project leaders’ to create transparency for those communities really amplifies the voices of those who–if we were to just listen to government officials (at all levels)–could never possibly be heard. Creating a temporal and spatial stratification of stories, for me, is just the beginning to what this form can do in terms of not only understanding the past(s), but also knowing how to change the ways we think about the present(s). To see the land as a kind of palimpsest of stories, and to have our work attempt to articulate that layering, that succession, is, I think, a very Pacific literary tradition in and of itself.
DKC Q: You mention decolonizing methodology. How has documentary poetics provided paths towards writing about/for Guam and about/for your family in ways that create recognition and/or action for the decolonial project?
CSP: Documentary poetics has given me a pathway to expose the documents—and thus the mechanisms and structures—of colonialism. This is a first step towards decolonizing those structures. Documentary poetics has also given me a pathway to expose the archives of colonial violence, bringing to light the forgotten memories of native trauma. Reckoning with our violent and traumatic history helps decolonize our memories and remember our indigenous identity. From there, we can begin to recover, inherit, and care for the unheard voices and the unofficial stories, which inspire us to envision—and struggle towards—a decolonial future. Haunani-Kay Trask, in “Writing in Captivity: Poetry in a Time of Decolonization” (1999), writes that decolonial poetry is “a continuing refusal to be silent.” Decolonial documentary poetry, then, is a refusal to remain silent, a refusal to be erased from the archive. Each of my books, archived in many libraries, is a documentary about Chamorro survival and resilience. Each book is proof of our humanity and dignity.
In my last two collections, [saina] and [guma’], I’ve also been exploring how decolonial activism can be documented in a poem. For example, in [saina], I weave a testimony I delivered to the Special Committee on Decolonization at the United Nations in 2008 into a poem. In [guma’], I wove public comments to an Environmental Impact Statement of a military buildup on Guam into a poem. Moreover, I have woven activist hashtags and websites into poems, hoping that a reader might go from the poem to a website and into a decolonial movement.
Q (for Donovan): In your new book, as well as in many collections of documentary poetry, there seems to be an engagement with visual poetry and poetics. Sometimes this involves replicating and manipulating visual documents into the poem, or sometimes it involves activating the entire space of the page. Can you describe your relationship with the visual elements of documentary poetry?
DKC: For me, the process of writing is more rewarding than any other stage, and getting to play with the various forms and genres of documents is incredibly fulfilling for a creative writer. In the poem “Daddy Sea Horse,” I use an instruction manual for the nebulizer machine that my grandfather used for his breathing treatments. In that poem I preserve the rigid, formal structure of the manual and imagine what it would be like to read it through my grandfather’s thoughts about his own mortality and his concerns for the family once he passed. Being able to cultivate a poetics for/of your kupuna out of something as dry and lifeless as an instruction manual, for me, really speaks to the malleability of documentary poetics, especially when poetics are visually composed within the structural limitations of something like an instruction manual. In “Kalapu (A Walking Poem for ʻEwa),” I braid excerpts from multiple documents (moʻolelo, archaeological surveys, environmental impact drafts, etc.) with memories of my grandfather in ʻEwa, to suggest the temporal layers that can exist in one place. In that poem, the page becomes a re-presentation of the land, in a way, with all the the positive and negative spaces, all the lines and their enjambments, simultaneously mapping specific moments in time that are not just significant to my grandfather or me, but also to the ones who were here before us. I think this stratification is important when trying to see beyond (or below, or before) the rapid residential, commercial, and military developments that have and still are occurring in Hawaiʻi. These visual replications and manipulations, I hope, serve these functions in my writing. I think I’ve grown more comfortable with thinking of my kuleana (responsibility, privilege) as a writer as someone who thinks about a blank page in similar ways that a farmer may think about a loʻi (an irrigated terrace for kalo), and what kind of strategies can be utilized to produce a specific kind of cultivation.
DKC Q (for Craig): Could you talk about the relationships between the visual elements of documentary poetics and your creative work? How do you decide when to replicate and when to manipulate the documents you choose? Or do the documents seem to choose their roles, themselves?
CSP: Visual poetry is one of my favorite genres (as you know, I’ve taught several undergraduate courses on visual poetics) because it activates a whole new realm of compositional and aesthetic possibilities. Even though I’ve been inspired by the international and historical Visual Poetry movement, for this interview I will just mention Pacific Islander visual poets who have influenced my work, including Albert Wendt, John Pule, Dan Taulapapa McMullin, Sia Figiel, Kapulani Landgraf, Wayne Kaumualii Westlake, Imaikalani Kalahele, Robert Sullivan, and Joe Balaz. Visual poetry feels deeply documentary (and vice versa). I use visual elements to map and navigate a rooted and storied sense of place; to remember and memorialize people or events; and to surf the waves of Pacific spiral time. These visual elements manifest in a wide variety of poetic technique, many of which you have discussed—juxtaposing documents, utilizing enjambment, and cultivating (your poignant verb) the entire page (I love the idea of the page as loʻi). In another interview, I’ve talked about how the page, for me, is an excerpt of an ocean, how words are islands, how the sound of words are wave signatures.
One route in Pacific literary studies that I find fascinating is the search for “literary antecedents” (think aesthetic genealogy) to contemporary Pacific literature. Obviously, the most common ancestor is Pacific orature; however, many scholars have articulated visual antecedents to contemporary Pacific literature. These “visual literacies” include tattooing, petroglyphy, dance (like hula), star compasses, stick maps, pottery, paper arts (kapa/tapa), architecture, canoe design, agricultural design (like loʻi), weaving, carving, floral arts (like lei), etc. So when I think about documentary poetics, I am also thinking about a Pacific visual documentary poetics rooted in indigenous cultural practices and decolonial methodologies.
But let me actually answer your question (lol): yes, I try to engage intuitively and emotionally with documents. For example, in [guma’], I include military reports on the death of soldiers from Micronesia during the wars in Iraq & Afghanistan. At first I changed the font color of this document to a light gray, barely visible, to comment on how the memory of these soldiers fades over time. As I revised the poem, I also felt mourning and anger at the loss of these sons and daughters of the Pacific, or the “fallen brave” as they were memorialized, so I decided to strikethrough all the words in the report, excerpt for their names.
Q for Donovan: Along those lines, can you talk the relationship between documents and memorials, and between the archive and memory, in your new book, or your work in general?
DCK: I forgot who said this, but there’s a kind of linguistic mystification inherent in the kinds of documents that seem to govern us, identify us, and claim knowledge of us (I’m thinking of documents like tax forms, land titles, medical bills, constitutions, petitions, etc.). For me, and especially within the contexts of my creative work, I can’t help but look for moments in those kinds of documents where life can be seen and felt and smelled and heard–even if only for brief moments. I think the memorializations of whatever subject one writes about occur at the seams of these moments, and being able to braid a multiplicity of perspectives and voices into something that’s maybe both familiar and new seems to demystify the various forms of power that language takes in our lives. Trying to simply re-member my grandfather and my family through my writing has brought me to the edge of this incredibly vast ocean of paper that is the archive, where more of my ancestors have been waiting for so long. Even that word–archive–lacks ability to truly define and explain the breadth and depth of knowledge it contains about Hawaiʻi (and the world!). But I think these relationships between documents and memorials, the archive and memory, lead to–at least for this docu-poet—memorials and memories that can be, for once, woven (or returned) into existence on our own terms.
Q for Craig: I just want to mahalo nui you, Craig, for this amazing conversation. I’m very much looking forward to continuing it! Here’s my final question to you: You mention literary antecedents or aesthetic genealogies (which I’ve been thinking about, a lot!). Can you talk about the relationship between these forms of knowledge keeping and the documents of a more colonial form in your work?
CSP: Yes, the various forms of Pacific orature and visual arts/literacies were the vehicles for Pacific genealogies, epistemologies, histories, values & protocols, politics, geographies, memories, etc. The practice and inheritance of these arts often involved communal situations, thus strengthening familial and community kinship networks. Stories and customary arts were crucial spaces for indigenous culture, identity, pride, and power. Of course, this meant that these aesthetic practices became primary targets for colonial regimes to destroy and replace in order to dispossess and disempower indigenous peoples. This made many of our cultures dependent on colonial aesthetics and forms of knowledge keeping. What is powerful to me about contemporary Pacific literature and arts is that many forms of customary Pacific orature and arts have survived centuries of colonialism and are being revitalized. Moreover, Pacific writers and artists are also re-articulating and indigenizing foreign languages and aesthetics for our own purposes and on our own terms. This testifies to the continuity, resilience, creativity, and vitality of Pacific cultures, identities, literatures, and arts.
In my own work, I try to destabilize, denaturalize, and critique colonial documents that have shaped Chamorro lives. Countering these documents, I have highlighted oral stories from my grandparents and parents to show that this everyday form of Pacific storytelling is a vital and necessary form of memory and knowledge keeping. While colonial documents often limit the possibilities of Chamorro existence, I envision my poetry (the poem itself as a document, and the book as a collection of documents) as opening new possibilities for Chamorro futures.
Saina Ma’ase to you, as well, for this wonderful conversation. I am excited to re-read your new book with this interview in mind, and I am looking forward to seeing how you engage with documentary poetics in your future work.