How might the world be transformed by honoring Pacific experiences? What can communal storytelling teach us about decolonial ways of knowing? How can poetry be a powerful force for social justice activism?

In episode 76 of the Imagine Otherwise podcast, host Cathy Hannabach talks with Chamoru poet and professor Craig Santos Perez about how creation stories, Spam, and the birth of his daughter inspired his most recent book of poetry; why poetry is such a powerful way into social justice activism; the future of Pacific Islander publishing; and how communal storytelling is one way Craig contributes to a decolonial and demilitarized Pacific.

Guest: Craig Santos Perez

Craig Santos Perez wearing a black shirt, in front of trees, text reads "Craig Santos Perez, Imagine Otherwise podcast episode 76"Craig Santos Perez is a native Chamoru from the Pacific Island of Guåhan (Guam). He is the author of four collections of poetry: from unincorporated territory [hacha] (2008), from unincorporated territory [saina] (2010), from unincorporated territory [guma’] (2014), and from unincorporated territory [lukao] (2017).

He is also the author of two spoken word albums (Undercurrent and Crosscurrent), editor of three anthologies, and co-founder of Ala Press, the only press in the United States dedicated to Pacific Islander poetry.

He has received the PEN Center USA Literary Award, the American Book Award, a Ford Foundation fellowship, and a Lannan Foundation literary fellowship.

Craig holds an MFA from the University of San Francisco and a PhD in Ethnic Studies from the University of California, Berkeley. Craig is an associate professor at the University of Hawai’i, Manoa and for more than a decade, he has been involved in decolonization, demilitarization, food sovereignty, and environmental justice movements in the Pacific.

We chatted about

  • Craig’s most recent book of poetry from unincorporated territory [lukao] (01:47)
  • The intertwining of art, academia, and social justice activism in Craig’s work (04:09)
  • Changes in Pacific and Indigenous publishing (05:07)
  • Community-building work through Ala Press (07:38)
  • Craig’s advice for taking on collaborative projects (08:50)
  • Imagining otherwise (11:44)

Sunset over the ocean. Text reads "Poetry is a powerful way to become involved in activism and it's a great creative outlet to express one's politics." Quote is from Craig Santos Perez on episode 76 of the Imagine Otherwise podcastTakeaways

Craig’s new book from unincorporated territory [lukao]

I was thinking about creation stories both from Guam and from Hawai‘i. I was thinking about my mother’s birth stories. I had the chance to interview her, to hear about her experiences. I started to think about other kinds of processions; the word “lukao” means procession. So there are other parts of the book that are about religious processions. I started also thinking about the procession of death in terms of extinction and endangerment, especially of species on Guam, and processions of food and eating.

Poetry as social justice activism

I started as an artist and poetry in particular became a way for me to explore various issues: political issues, family issues, and things like that. As I learned more about these issues through art, that became part of my activism. Poetry is a powerful way to become involved in activism and it’s a great creative outlet to express one’s politics….I teach students how poetry and activism can be powerful parts of our lives and can help us learn about different subjects in a more creative and community-engagement capacity.

The state of Pacific publishing

One of the reasons I became involved in publishing and editing is because there weren’t any spaces for Pacific Islander writers within the US….There’s not a lot of mainstream interest in Pacific stories. That’s something I’ve been trying to change through my engagement with university presses and staring my own small presses, creating publishing spaces for younger Pacific writers so that they don’t feel the same kind of invisibility or struggles that I felt as a young writer trying to figure out what is our space within the larger field of US publishing and US literature.

The power of collaboration

Literature, activism, and education are always collaborative projects. I always want to tap into that spirit, to think about other scholars, poets, activists, or students who I can work with on various projects. I feel like I have so much to learn from other people, so I want to be always in conversation, to continue to learn and listen to other writers and artists. In my own position as a publisher, editor, and academic, I have access to spaces and to resources and so I want to always make sure I’m able to work with other folks and to bring in the spirit of collaboration, which is very much at the core of Pacific culture and also Pacific studies.

Imagining otherwise

I want a world in which Pacific stories and Pacific cultures and Pacific lives matter. That’s something I’ve been working towards—creating spaces where our stories can be heard and validated and our people, our writers and artists and scholars, can be heard and can be nourished in powerful ways. Additionally, I dream of a world in which Pacific studies, Pacific knowledge, and Pacific scholars are honored for our wisdom and our long histories and the value of our research. And then beyond that, as an activist, I’ve been fighting for a decolonized world, a decolonized Pacific, as well as a demilitarized Pacific.

More from Craig

Projects and people discussed

About Imagine Otherwise

Imagine Otherwise is a podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice, and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining and creating more just worlds. Check out full podcast episodes and show notes at ideasonfire.net/imagine-otherwise-podcast. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency helping progressive, interdisciplinary scholars write and publish awesome texts, enliven public conversations, and create more just worlds.

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Episode transcript

Cathy Hannabach [00:03]: [upbeat music in background] Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining otherwise. I’m your host, Cathy Hannabach. [music fadeout]

[00:22] This is episode 76, and my guest today is Craig Santos Perez. Craig Santos Perez is a native Chamoru from the Pacific Island of Guåhan (Guam). He is the author of four collections of poetry: from unincorporated territory [hacha] (2008), from unincorporated territory [saina] (2010), from unincorporated territory [guma’] (2014), and from unincorporated territory [lukao] (2017).

He is also the author of two spoken word albums (Undercurrent and Crosscurrent), editor of three anthologies, and co-founder of Ala Press, the only press in the United States dedicated to Pacific Islander poetry.

He has received the PEN Center USA Literary Award, the American Book Award, a Ford Foundation fellowship, and a Lannan Foundation literary fellowship.

Craig holds an MFA from the University of San Francisco and a PhD in Ethnic Studies from the University of California, Berkeley.

Craig is an associate professor at the University of Hawai’i, Manoa and for more than a decade, he has been involved in decolonization, demilitarization, food sovereignty, and environmental justice movements in the Pacific.

In our interview, Craig and I discuss how creation stories, Spam, and the birth of his daughter inspired his most recent book of poetry; why poetry is such a powerful way into social justice activism; the future of Pacific Islander publishing; and how communal storytelling is one way Craig contributes to a decolonial and demilitarized Pacific.

[To Craig] Thank you for being with us today, Craig.

Craig Santos Perez: Thank you for having me.

Cathy: I would love to start our conversation off talking about your most recent book of poetry from unincorporated territory [lukao]. This is the fourth in your series about Guam and it takes us through time in some really interesting ways. It takes us backwards through the intertwine colonial histories of Guam and Hawai‘i. It takes us forward through the birth of your daughter. What was your inspiration for this book?

Craig [02:13]: My inspiration started with the wedding with my wife and I was inspired by her pregnancy and that experience and then our home birth. As we were going through that process, I was thinking about creation stories both from Guam and from Hawai‘i. I was thinking about my mother’s birth stories. I had the chance to interview her, to hear about her experiences.

I started to think about other kinds of processions; the word lukao means procession. So there are other parts of the book that are about religious processions. I started also thinking about the procession of death in terms of extinction and endangerment, especially of species on Guam, and processions of food and eating.

All these things started to intertwine as well with the historical movements of both Guam, which is my original homeland, and Hawai‘i, where I live now. Those were the various inspirations for the book.

Cathy [03:17  You talked a lot about Spam in it, among many other topics, but I’m curious because I noticed this. [Spam] is something that a lot of folks from Guam have really rich food histories and family histories of. I’m curious about your take on history of Spam in Guam.

Craig [03:33]: Well, Guam is famous for having the highest per-capita consumption rate of Spam. Growing up, you don’t really think about it; it is just like everyone’s favorite food. But as I got older and started to learn more about food history and food politics, I learned that the history of Spam in Guam is tied to US militarism and US colonialism.

Food politics became a large part of my writing both in this book as well as my previous works. I’m thinking about how we can as a people decolonize our diets and think more critically about the foods that we eat.

Cathy [04:09]: How do you see your work in your poetry, but also your other projects, combining your interest in academia or teaching with your interest in art and social justice activism?

Craig [04:21]: I started as an artist and poetry in particular became a way for me to explore various issues: political issues, family issues, and things like that. As I learned more about these issues through art, that became part of my activism. Poetry is a powerful way to become involved in activism and it’s a great creative outlet to express one’s politics.

I became a graduate student and then a professor and I teach students how poetry and activism can be powerful parts of our lives and can help us learn about different subjects in a more creative and community-engagement capacity.

Cathy [05:07]: A lot of your activism or your advocacy over the years has focused on publishing—specifically Pacific and Indigenous publishing. You work on the book series, well several books series actually: one with the University of Hawai‘i Press, the New Oceania series, and then Sun Tracks with the University of Arizona Press. You’ve also founded two presses yourself. What changes have you seen in Pacific publishing over the last decade?

Craig [05:31]: Well, in some ways there haven’t been a lot of changes. One of the reasons I became involved in publishing and editing is because there weren’t any spaces for Pacific Islander writers within the US.

As a writer myself, I took internships at editing and publishing houses so I could learn the ins and outs of publishing so that I could eventually start my own projects that would focus on Pacific Islanders.

Today, there still aren’t a lot of opportunities for [Pacific] writers. There’s not a lot of mainstream interest in Pacific stories. That’s something I’ve been trying to change through my engagement with university presses and staring my own small presses, creating publishing spaces for younger Pacific writers so that they don’t feel the same kind of invisibility or struggles that I felt as a young writer trying to figure out what is our space within the larger field of US publishing and US literature.

Cathy [06:29]: I’d love to hear a little bit more about that process of founding a press because that is no small feat and you’ve done this twice. Maybe we can start talking about Ala Press, the one that you co-founded. What was your journey into that?

Craig [06:41]: Sure. Well, a cofounder with a well-known Hawaiian poet and editor, Brandy Nalani McDougall. We had similar experiences where we earned our MFA in creative writing. We were some of the first Pacific Islanders to do that, but we also felt that there was an absence of spaces for Pacific writers.

So we came together and started Ala Press a couple of years ago. It’s the first press in the US to focus exclusively on Pacific Islander literature. So far, we’ve published about 12 books. These range from anthologies to single author collections. We’re a small press and we don’t have any outside funding, so we try to stay alive, basically. We haven’t made a profit. We just try to break even on our books and do our best to give Pacific writers opportunities to publish and Pacific Islander readers opportunities to connect with authors as well.

Cathy [07:37]: You do a lot of community work with that press, so not only publishing books but you also do a lot of workshops and author readings and live events where you bring the publishing world into the community or show how it emerged from the community itself. What draws you to that model?

Craig [07:54]: Well for us, Pacific literature has always been communal practice. So even though a lot of our time goes into editing and typesetting and publishing the books, in some ways the most important part is these community events in which we bring the authors together with the academic community as well as the larger community.

We have really fun events where we’ll have it catered so there’ll be food, of course. We often pair published writers with younger writers or have a whole intergenerational lineup. These are kid-friendly events. Sometimes we have music. We try to make it a space where we can celebrate our literature and celebrate our stories, [where] folks can eat, get to know each other, and then at the end of the event, hopefully they can buy the books as well. For us, that embodies the spirit of Pacific literature: the communal sharing of stories.

Cathy [08:50]: So many of the projects that you work on are collaborative. You do edited poetry anthologies, you do interview series with writers and artists, you do these community engagement events through the publishing houses, you produced speakers series. What draws you to that kind of collaboration?

Craig [09:08]: Literature, activism, and education are always collaborative projects. I always want to tap into that spirit, to think about other scholars, poets, activists, or students who I can work with on various projects. I feel like I have so much to learn from other people, so I want to be always in conversation, to continue to learn and listen to other writers and artists.

In my own position as a publisher, editor, and academic, I have access to spaces and to resources and so I want to always make sure I’m able to work with other folks and to bring in the spirit of collaboration, which is very much at the core of Pacific culture and also Pacific studies.

Cathy [09:54]: Do you have any tips or lessons learned or challenges that you’ve survived on doing these kinds of collaborative projects that you might want to give to some of the rest of us who are interested in doing these kinds of things?

Craig [10:07]: Well, definitely as I mentioned, the joy of collaboration is learning and working with others. Of course, some of the struggles are compromising and collaborating and making sure everyone has a voice, whether it’s for an event or in an anthology, making sure that everyone’s vision is expressed.

Sometimes the biggest challenge is just finding time for everyone to meet together in person. Writers and artists and academics are so busy that sometimes just scheduling meeting times can be difficult. Oftentimes, you work with people you’re friends with, so when you do finally find the time, it becomes more about socializing and not necessarily getting the work done

Cathy [10:47]: But that can be fun too, right? That’s that community-building element.

Craig [10:51]: Yeah. One of the lessons is that sometimes the projects take a lot longer.

Cathy: This is true.

Craig: So I think, just be patient and try to have fun with it.

Cathy [11:03]: What projects are you working on now?

Craig [11:05]: Well, right now I’m editing a few other anthologies, one of which is an anthology of Micronesian literature, which will come out next year. Another is an anthology of Pacific literature and the environment and that will probably come out in a couple of years.

I’m also working on my next book of poetry which will be out in 2020. And I’m trying to edit my first scholarly monograph, which if all works out will be out with the University of Arizona Press’s [Critical Issues in] Indigenous Studies series. So those are few of the different projects I’m working on now.

Cathy [11:36]: That’s quite a few!

Craig: Yeah. Be patient, be patient.

Cathy: You’ve given us so many wonderful examples about how you imagine and create different worlds in collaboration and community. This brings me to a question where we get to get really meta and big and hopefully fun about this. So what is that world that you’re working towards when you do these kinds of projects—when you edit poetry anthologies, when you do the work on the press, getting these specific stories out into the world. What kind of world do you want?

Craig [12:11]: I want a world in which Pacific stories and Pacific cultures and Pacific lives matter. That’s something I’ve been working towards—creating spaces where our stories can be heard and validated and our people, our writers and artists and scholars, can be heard and can be nourished in powerful ways.

Additionally, I dream of a world in which Pacific studies, Pacific knowledge, and Pacific scholars are honored for our wisdom and our long histories and the value of our research.

And then beyond that, as an activist, I’ve been fighting for a decolonized world, a decolonized Pacific, as well as a demilitarized Pacific.

I dream of a world where my family and my children can grow up, that is safe for them and that is a sovereign space where they can eat safe and healthy food, where the land and the waters are clean and not polluted. It’s a place where they can grow up proud of their cultures and where they come from.

Cathy [13:17]: Well, thank you so much for being with us and giving us so many ways that you imagine otherwise.

Craig [13:22]: Thank you so much, Cathy, for creating this space for us to do just that.

Cathy [13:31]: [upbeat music in background] Thanks for listening to another episode of Imagine Otherwise. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire and this episode was created by Christopher Persaud, Rebecca Reynolds, Michelle Velasquez-Potts, and myself, Cathy Hannabach.

You can check out the show notes for this episode on our website at ideasonfire.net where you can also read about our fabulous guest as well as find links to the people and projects we discuss on the show. [music fadeout]