July 17, 2004

Today Chris Nealon's The Joyous Age. I am going to a Joyous Age party this afternoon. It is a fun read. Prose poems and poems. Somewhat Ashbery style. Or maybe larger than that, somewhat New York School style. I like reading work by friends because you end up getting to think about how the work intersects with the person you know. I love the lines that begin the poem "Ecstasy Shield": "No it's not a condom / Just the second person."
Then was caught by this line in "Yours Alone": "To be fair, years of training got me here, long days flexing my thighs atop a worthy steed, and nights repeating the 'u'-sound in 'aucune idee' to give the firmest shape to my confusion--no, nothing in this moment was got for free, not in America, whose children link their arms just once a generation to call their elders fools and then subside into a collective isolation so untraceable in origin, so emulsified, you have to wonder how we made it to the barricades to start with." I think this struck me because I'm feeling stuck in my collective isolation all the time this summer. 
Maybe it isn't Ashbery but I'm reading it like I read Ashbery. Mark Wallace used to say that whenever you look at someone's copy of Three Poems you see into someone's soul (ok; he probably didn't say that but that is my read of it). What he said was something more like everyone this profound relationship to it but everyone underlines different parts of it and so each person has a different profound relationship to it and you can see someone's profound relationship to the poem if you just look at how they've underlined it. It is a different profound poem for each different person. I thought this was also in Joyous Age.
Then C. called and suggested that maybe I was being too harsh about Pacific Places, Pacific Histories (we'd been discussing it via email). She hasn't read the book yet. But I usually listen to her when she says I'm being too harsh. And I want to look at the book again but I have already taken it back to the library because I had to get it out via ILL. But this set me to thinking about what it means to talk about being closely identified to a place you are not from. And I thought about what sorts of guidelines I would set for myself. And I came up with the usual sorts of things... make it clear you are not from the place; admit you learned from the place but also that your knowledge is different (and thus not necessarily deeper or better) than someone who has been a part of a place from birth and immersed in a family who has been there for generations; don't claim a special ownership knowledge of unique religious and cultural practices; don't speak for the other culture or claim to be an authorized spokesperson; make politics of arrival clear (because most people arrive in these places with a whole colonial apparatus supporting them and shaping their vision; I went to Hawai`i carrying the US's colonial educational apparatus). I think it was this last one that I felt was missing from so many of the essays in the collection.
I was also thinking of all this because I was requested to submit a personal essay for a collection of essays coming out on Penguin. I sent in an essay that was about my domestic relationship and also about living in Hawai`i and the complicated politics of that. The editor wrote back first that the essay was too abstract. And then when I asked her what abstract meant she said that she wanted me to remove the political stuff from the essay (she also didn't like the tense in the essay; I had refused to use first person). I don't think I want to do remove the political stuff (the tense change I will entertain) but I'll decide this later.
But this also made me wonder some about when writing about places that are not one's own but have changed one in dramatic ways what one has to do and does one have to do it again and again? Does every essay by every haole in the Pacific have to investigate once again how they are necessarily aligned with colonialism or can one just assume this and then get one with the more optimistic story of how the place changed one? My first reaction when the editor asked me to take out the politics of the story of arriving in Hawai`i with my partners was that I would be so embarrassed to write that essay, to write the essay that talks about arriving in Hawai`i and doesn't admit all the problems of arriving in Hawai`i. It would just make Hawai`i into the tropical background of a romance. But that doesn't mean everyone has to make the same decision.
So I don't know. Also thought some not only about what sorts of guidelines I would make for myself but also what sort of things I valued about this writing (otherwise why do it if it doesn't matter). And I thought well I really think everyone should be writing/talking to/thinking about everyone else, every place else. So I value the project of cultures engaging with other cultures (one form of which is anthropology). And I say this even as I know this is risky and full of inequalities that make this engagement difficult. But it is never an answer for me to just say, well no one should talk about any other culture, even if the path is fraught with troubles.

Anyway, still lost on this issue. I had hoped it would go away when I left Hawai`i and maybe it will yet. Perhaps if I stop reading about Hawai`i it will go away. Perhaps I keep salting the wound.

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