New Pacific Islander Poetry
We belong to Oceania. We belong to a diverse sea of moving islands, peoples, cultures, languages, and ecologies. We belong to a legacy of navigation that teaches us how to read the stars, waves, currents, winds, and horizons.
Pacific Islanders peopled Oceania thousands of years ago and developed complex societies based on the values of interconnection, harmony, balance, sustainability, and respect. We named and recognized the sacredness of waters and lands. We storied our new homes with songs, poems, and chants.
We have many names, indigenous and imposed: Hawaiian, Samoan, Chamorro, Tongan, Fijian, Marshallese, Tahitian, Tokelauan, Māori, Palauan, Kosraean, Pohnpeian, Chuukese, Yapese, I-Kiribati, Papua New Guinean, Solomon Islander, Ni-Vanuatu, and more.
Beginning in the sixteenth century, the violent storms of imperialism conquered, missionized, claimed, diseased, and divided Oceania into Polynesia, Micronesia, and Melanesia (many islands, tiny islands, and black islands). Foreign militaries dispossessed islanders from ancestral lands and waters, and poisoned our environments through weapons testing, training, and storage. Tourism and urban development paved over once abundant green spaces and waterways to construct hotels, shopping malls, restaurants, skyscrapers, condominiums, and parking lots. Colonial governments, school systems, and media outlets privileged and mandated colonial languages, literatures, and cultures while suppressing and devaluing indigenous knowledges. Corporate agriculture and plantations (sugar, coffee, pineapple, and GMO seeds) replaced native agriculture and aquaculture so that Hawai‘i, for example, now imports 90 percent of its meats, produce, and products. As a result, Pacific customs have been pushed to the brink of extinction, and islanders endure high rates of poverty, disease, incarceration, depression, suicide, unemployment, and houselessness.
Fortunately, the story of Oceania is not simply a story about demise and endangerment. Our story also heralds native resilience and revitalization. Anti-colonial struggles have occurred since first contact, though the most fervent era of decolonization began in the sixties when many islands achieved political independence and islanders began to reclaim our indigenous identities. This sparked pan-Pacific movements for demilitarization, decolonization, denuclearization, and sovereignty, as well as movements for native rights to land, water, housing, education, and cultural practices.
For over a century, the United States has been — and continues to be — an imperial archipelago stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific. American whaling ships, missionaries, corporations, and soldiers infiltrated the Pacific in the nineteenth century. By the dawn of the twentieth century, the American empire expanded its territory, annexing the Hawaiian islands in the central Pacific, the island of Guam in the western Pacific, and the eastern Samoan islands in the south Pacific. These places were considered “strategic” because they possessed deep harbors for use as naval stations and enough land for use as airstrips and military bases. After the devastation of WWII, islands in the western Pacific that were previously controlled by Japan became the “Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands,” administered by the United States. Today, these places have various political relationships to the federal government. Hawai‘i is the fiftieth state of the union; Guam and American Samoa are unincorporated territories; the Northern Mariana Islands are a commonwealth; and the Republic of Palau and the Marshall Islands, as well as the Federated States of Micronesia, are freely associated states.
American imperialism also opened migration routes. In the nineteenth century, islanders joined whaling ships, settled along the West Coast, participated in the gold rush and the fur trade, and even fought in the American Civil War. In the twentieth century, many islanders were drafted or enlisted in the military, which continues to be a major vessel of Pacific migration. Others migrated for schools, jobs, health care, sports, religion, and affordable housing. Tragically, more and more islanders are migrating because climate change has made their islands uninhabitable. A new generation of islanders has been born away from their ancestral islands, learning about their histories through stories, books, or the internet. In many cases, diasporic populations outnumber their on-island kin.
The 2010 US census counted 1.2 million Pacific Islanders and noted that we are one of the fastest growing population groups. While 70 percent of us live in Hawai‘i and the western part of the US, you can find us in every state and territory. For example, at least thirteen thousand Pacific Islanders live in Illinois, the home state of Poetry magazine. No matter where we live, we carry stories of origins and destinations, arrivals and departures, loss and triumph.
We belong to a deep tradition of oral storytelling, chant, and song. Additionally, we belong to a vibrant legacy of visual arts and literatures, including tattooing, weaving, carving, petroglyphy, architecture, canoe building, fashion, and floral arts. Alphabetic writing, textual reading, and printing technologies were introduced by missionaries and colonial governments. Islanders appropriated these new technologies to produce early religious tracts and nonfiction texts (newspapers, histories, autobiographies, and ethnographies), as well as what we recognize as contemporary Pacific literature written in colonial, indigenous, and creole languages.
In the sixties and seventies, students and faculty at the newly established University of Papua New Guinea and the University of the South Pacific in Fiji studied, wrote, and published decolonial poetry and stories in broadsides, chapbooks, zines, anthologies, and full-length collections. Other centers of Pacific poetry emerged later around universities in Aotearoa (New Zealand), Australia, Hawai‘i, Samoa, Tahiti, Tonga, Guam, and other islands. Today, several Pacific writers, such as Albert Wendt, Witi Ihimaera, Patricia Grace, and Sia Figiel, have become internationally renowned, and their texts have been translated into multiple languages and media (including film). Pacific literature courses are taught in high schools and colleges throughout Oceania, and there are publishers and literary journals dedicated wholly to Pacific writing. Several dissertations, theses, essays, and monographs have focused on the history, theory, and aesthetics of Pacific literature. The founding of book festivals, reading series, open mics, spoken word slams, writing workshops, humanities councils, author retreats, and literary conferences have created a dynamic Pacific literary scene.
On one hand, a major thread of Pacific poetry documents, critiques, and laments the legacy and ongoing impacts of colonialism. Poems address issues related to social injustice, economic dispossession, militarization, nuclearism, plantationism, disease, tourism, urbanization, racism, homophobia, and environmental degradation. Conversely, another thread of Pacific poetry celebrates the decolonization and revitalization of native Pacific cultures, nations, customs, languages, kinship networks, histories, politics, and identities. In terms of form, Pacific poetry draws from a range of styles, including formalism, free verse, projectivism, ecopoetics, documentary, avant-garde, postmodernism, beat, confessionalism, surrealism, visual poetry, video poetry, protest poetics, spoken word, performance, conceptualism, queer poetics, multicultural poetics, multilingualism, and more. Pacific poetry is as diverse as the cultures of Oceania.
Representations of Oceania and Pacific Islanders in the American political, historical, and literary imagination have changed over time. The Pacific Ocean has been viewed as an empty, virgin space awaiting American exploitation and power. Our islands have been seen as tropical paradises, stepping stones, unsinkable military bases, Hollywood sets, or scientific and agricultural laboratories. Pacific Islanders have been represented as violent, primitive, hyper-sexual, exotic, childlike, cannibalistic, dependent, noble, athletic, hyper-masculine, uncivilized, and hospitable. Much of Pacific poetry aims to challenge these stereotypes and humanize our bodies.
As Pacific populations continue to grow, we have become more visible to the American mainstream. A number of islanders have achieved celebrity in the American film, television, music, restaurant, and sports industries. The federal government celebrates Asian Pacific American Heritage Month every May, facilitating a wide array of events that raise awareness about Pacific lives and experiences. Pacific cultural, educational, and advocacy groups have formed in many states.
More than ever before, the national news media has covered Pacific issues, partly because of the connection President Obama has to Hawai‘i, but also because of the current administration’s assertion that the twenty-first century is “America’s Pacific Century.” The cornerstone of this foreign policy “pivot” is the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a secretive trade agreement that aims to weaken unions, labor laws, environmental protections, product safety laws, and corporate taxes; expand multinational corporate investment in pharmaceuticals, GMOs, terrestrial and deep-sea mining, offshore oil drilling, fisheries, logging, defense contractors, tourism, and cyber security; and increase US militarization throughout the region. Global trade watch groups have described the TPP as “NAFTA on steroids.”
Relatedly, the Pacific is trending on various media because of the devastating effects of climate change, including rising sea levels and drought; intensified earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and hurricanes; coral reef bleaching; ocean acidification and warming; and increased disease, die-off, and extinction. All of which is dramatically changing habitability thresholds in Oceania and challenging our ability to mitigate change and adapt.
While these issues may not be familiar to many Americans, this forms the very context out of which Pacific poets write. Indeed, the interconnections between Oceania and the United States, and between Americans and Pacific Islanders, can no longer be ignored. I invite you to learn more about the histories and cultures of the Pacific by reading our literatures, listening to our voices, recognizing our strength and humanity, empathizing with our struggles, and supporting our fight.
This special folio aims to introduce readers to Pacific Islander poetry and poetics via a modest selection of new poems by a diverse range of poets from different parts of Oceania and the Pacific diaspora, as well as from different generations. Additionally, this folio includes a group of book reviews by graduate students at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa that examine several Pacific collections. For a more comprehensive survey of Pacific Islander poets, I worked with the Poetry Foundation to create an online resource that features a robust series of links to authors and essays. I am grateful to Don Share of Poetry magazine for his support and to the Poetry Foundation for the opportunity.
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),...