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Poetry, Politics, and Letters to the Empire

It's always exciting to me when poets actively engage in politics. I respect poets who are finding new and creative ways to address politics in their poetry (symbolic engagement); and I honor poets who sacrifice their writing time to work within their respective communities or within political institutions (activist engagement), even if their poetry is not necessarily political. Most of all, I am inspired by (and aspire towards) those poets who are able to do both.

For myself, I am always asking: how can poetry effectively address political issues (particularly related to the decolonization of my home island of Guåhan)? At the same time, I ask: how can poetry and poets engage with the public and political sphere beyond the page/book?

Since I live in Hawai'i and not in my home island, I am not able to be physically public in the way I would like to be. Fortunately, there are many passionate poets in Guåhan who are actively engaged in the public sphere. So for me, I need to find other non-physical ways of being public.

Beginning last November, I've experimented with writing political prose poems and submitting them as "Letters to the Editor" to one of the two major newspapers in Guåhan: The Marianas Variety (Marianas is the colonial name of the archipelago of which Guåhan is a part). This is not new as many poets in the Pacific, the U.S., and internationally have realized the importance of the media in shaping public opinion. I see my prose poems in that tradition.

In many ways, I also see these prose poems as "Letters to the Empire," since The Marianas Variety, and the other island newspaper, The Pacific Daily News, are both edited by White-American settlers. Both papers have a long and proud tradition of supporting the continued colonization and militarization of Guåhan. While I know I don't have to convince the readers of this blog about the power of the media to shape public opinion, you can imagine that this power is more pronounced on a small, colonized island where the media becomes an important colonizing agent.

So far, six of these prose poems have been published and are available to read for free online. The subject matter ranges depending on what might have been happening at the time. The most frustrating thing about publishing with The Marianas Variety is that the editor often edited the content--and even the paragraph structure--without permission. For those who work in the prose poem form, you know that changing the paragraph structure is like changing line breaks in a free verse poem! Which is to say, it completely changes the rhythm and pacing.

One thing I like about The Marianas Variety is that their online site actually shows how many people accessed the Letters. The most read letter was accessed by about 900 readers, while the least read letter still reached about 450 readers. To be honest, I haven't read the comments because the comment section in the Marianas Variety is notorious for being trolled by other White-American settlers.

While I can't measure the political efficacy of these prose-poems-disguised-as-Letters-to-the-Editor-of-the-Empire, I think what's most important is that I continue to believe that poetry can make a symbolic difference and that poets can creatively, actively, and publicly engage in politics.

Here are the titles, links, and dates of the published letters for those who are interested:

1) "All Our Generations" 2/2/12

2) "The Promise of Latte Stones" 1/13/12

3) "The Invasion of Guahan" 1/4/12

4) "Our Sea of Voices" 12/19/11

5) "The Winds of Trade" 12/8/11

6) "Hate Speech Sanctioned?" 10/14/11

Originally Published: April 30th, 2012

Craig Santos Perez is a native Chamoru (Chamorro) 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 three collections of poetry: from unincorporated territory [hacha] (Tinfish Press, 2008), from unincorporated territory [saina](Omnidawn, 2010),...