'Planet in Peril' Poet Interview: Craig Santos Perez
In the run-up to the launch of the Planet in Peril anthology, we are excited to present the next interview with one of our poets and photographers. This week we would like to introduce you to Dr. Craig Santos Perez, whose touching and evocative poem "Echolocation" we absolutely love, and in which he reminds us that "we can communicate across species because we are all connected."
An indigenous Chamoru (Chamorro) from Guåhan (Guam), Craig Santos Perez is an associate professor of Pacific Literature and creative writing at the University of Hawai‘i, Mānoa. Furthermore, he is a poet, editor, publisher, essayist, critic, book reviewer, artist, environmentalist, and political activist. "from unincorporated territory [lukao]", the fourth installation in his ongoing series about Guåhan (Guam) and Hawai'i, was released by Omnidawn Publishing in 2017.
“J35, Tahlequah”, the subject and dedicatee of your poem “Echolocation”, is an orca in the northeastern Pacific Ocean that carried her dead calf for seventeen days in the summer of 2018. In the poem, you create a strong link between Tahlequah and the speaker through their roles as parents. The title of your poem is “Echolocation”, which you reference in the lines “What is mourning / but our shared echolocation?” Could you explain the role and definition of echolocation within the poem, particularly in the ways it connects the speaker to Tahlequah?
Both my wife and I were heartbroken when we saw the news of "J35." We live in Hawaiʻi, and we too are new parents. As parents, we felt her pain because children (human or more-than-human) are so loved and vulnerable in this world. I titled the poem "Echolocation" because whales communicate through echolocation, but also I feel that species are connected through our shared emotions, such as mourning. My point is that we can communicate across species because we are all connected.
You are an associate professor of Pacific literature and creative writing at the University of Hawai‘i, where you also teach ecopoetry. What is your approach to teaching ecopoetry? What are some of the trends you have seen in your students’ work the past years, particularly with regards to the growing awareness of climate change?
I have taught eco-poetry at the undergraduate and graduate level for several years now. My approach is to teach the course as literary studies, creative writing, and community/public engagement. We read, interpret, and discuss eco-poetry from an ethnically diverse range of authors who write in different styles. We then write our own poems inspired by our readings. I organize the course thematically (for example, we have units on "Water," "Trees," "Indigenous Eco-Poetry," "Black Nature," "Queer-Poetics," "Nuclearism and Militarism," "Animals," "Climate Change," "Disaster," and more). We will often conduct community, public, or political literary events related to the environment. One trend I have seen is that students have a deep connection to the environment and a deep concern about environmental justice and climate change.
As an indigenous Chamoru (Chamorro) from Guåhan (Guam) currently living in Hawai‘i, how do you feel your heritage has influenced your writing and your perspective on the environment and climate change?
My indigenous Pacific Islander heritage has indelibly shaped my perspective on nature and my eco-poetry. In my culture, we are taught that the land and waters are sacred and the source of all life and should be treated with reverence. We are also taught that flora and fauna are part of our kinship network and should be treated with respect and mutual care. Indigenous literature has always contained ecological lessons, values, and ethics, so I try to write eco-poetry that also embodies indigenous eco-ethics of sustainability. Additionally, being an indigenous writer means that I have a responsibility to expose and protest environmental injustice wrought by colonialism, militarism, and capitalism.
“Echolocation” ends with: “We promise to tell her / your story / so she’ll always remember: / love is our wildest / oceanic instinct.” These lines carry a sense of responsibility to inform and educate the next generation about the importance of nature and the severity of climate change. In doing so, what do you consider the importance and role of ecopoetry as well as academics within the climate change movement?
For me, "J35" showed a profound sense of not only mourning, but also of love for her daughter. That kind of oceanic love is, to me, the value that gives me hope in this precarious world. I want my daughter to remember that no matter how bad things get in this world, that this wild love still exists and that hopefully she will feel this love for all of nature. The importance of all the humanities (poetry, art, music, scholarship) within the climate movement is to educate, inspire, humanize, and empower people towards empathy and action. Moreover, I believe that in the face of destruction and dread we must continue to be creative and hopeful.
Planet in Peril is available for pre-order here. It will be released on the 7th of September, 2019.