Listening to Craig Santos Perez perform his poetry last Thursday was not quite what I had expected. Perez was quite informal, often relying on audience participation and pausing frequently to provide background on his poems. One poem, “Understory,” consists of multiple shorter poems that all center around the themes which seem to influence Perez most: environmental concerns in Hawai’i, where he lives and works, and in his home country of Guam, military occupations and health problems stemming from these two issues. While reading “Understory,” Perez paused before each section to explain what he was about to read, telling us of his daughter (now 21 months old) and his wife and setting the mood for the poem itself. These snippets of background provided some interesting insights into Perez’s work. However, when he stopped and explained things in this way, I felt as though I was missing the flow of one poem to another; the interruptions seemed at odds with his apparent intention in making the poem a multi-sectioned whole in the first place.
Perez continually prompted the audience to take part in the reading. During one poem, we were asked to chant “Sp-Sp-Spam” while he read his poem dedicated to that food, and during another, we were asked to say “who” forcefully when he pointed at us. Participating in the reading this way was definitely unique and broke the barrier between poet and audience, but it also broke the cohesion and clarity of the performance.
Perez is a professor at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa where he teaches English and specializes in food poetry. The aforementioned poem about spam was only one in a series of poems about digestible (but not always appetizing) things; others included “Thanksgiving in the Anthropocene” and “Shoplifting Vienna Sausages.” “Thanksgiving” was at times grotesque in its depiction of what it takes to get the food on the table for us to enjoy, but the work also served as a reminder that there are people and lands who are being exploited for nothing more than a single feast – a necessary reminder, indeed, for such people and lands are all too often forgotten. We call the holiday “Thanksgiving,” but we are not giving thanks to all of the hard workers who made it possible (and I’m not just talking about whoever made the turkey). “Shoplifting Vienna Sausages” centered upon similar themes. Perez admitted his unending love for Vienna sausages, mentioning that in Guam, food is often canned or prepackaged, so being able to find these sausages anywhere made him feel at home. The poem reflects on this feeling, but also talks about what goes into making the sausage and how it gets packaged. Out of context, the poem is discomforting; one could even called it disgusting. Perez’s words were almost enough to make me want to stop eating Vienna sausages, except that I already eat them and old habits die hard.
To hear Perez talk about how militarized Guam is and the health issues they are facing there reminded me of what I don’t know – and this is the great triumph of his poetry. The reading confronted me with the reality that my knowledge of Hawai’i is no broader than that of a tourist. Turns out all I know about Hawai’i is only what the tourists do. Before Thursday afternoon, I did not know that the many countries, including the United States, test military weapons off of the islands. I did not know that 90 percent of food in Hawai’i is imported. I did not know that obesity is a major issue. It was frightening to hear such things for the first time. It made me wonder what else is hidden, what else is being kept from public knowledge, from national debate. What else is happening in my own country while I exist elsewhere and completely unaware?
Perez’s poems were alternatingly powerful, funny, gross and poignant, but they all hit home in some way. While at times, his presence in the room did not match the power of his poems, hearing a poet read his own works is always a treat. Perez was one of the first speakers to come as part of the American Studies program’s new “Indigenous Interventions: Rethinking Native America” speaker series, and Sherwin Bitsui will follow him on Feb. 17 at 4:30 p.m. in Griffin 3.