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“Living Nations, Living Words” at the Hawai’i Book and Music Festival

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Last November, Poet Laureate Joy Harjo launched her signature project, “Living Nations, Living Words,” which features the voices of 47 contemporary Native American poets. Since then, we have been working closely with Joy and many of the contributing poets on building community-based outreach across the country. Through book groups, workshops, classroom discussions, readings, and other targeted programs, the poets are inviting their own Native and non-Native communities to engage with “Living Nations, Living Words” and explore the project’s thematic touchpoints of visibility, persistence, resistance, and acknowledgement. During Joy’s third term, we are dedicating space on this blog for poets to reflect on their outreach. 

The following guest post is by Craig Santos Perez, a featured poet in Poet Laureate Joy Harjo’s signature project, “Living Nations, Living Words.”

On October 23, 2021, several Pacific Islander poets featured in “Living Nations, Living Words” participated in an event at the Hawai‘i Book and Music Festival to promote the project and anthology.

On October 23, 2021, Living Nations, Living Words: An Anthology of First People’s Poetry was launched into the Pacific through a featured event at the Hawai‘i Book and Music Festival, co-sponsored by the University of Hawai‘i Better Tomorrow Speaker Series. You can now watch the event on YouTube.

Joy Harjo, U.S. Poet Laureate and editor of the anthology, graced us with her presence. To open the event, I interviewed Joy about the origins and development, subject matter and themes, and overall concept and organization of the anthology—which is a companion to her “Living Nations, Living Words” signature laureate project. Joy then read her incredible poem, “Exile of Memory,” included in the project and anthology. Here is how the poem begins:

Do not return,
we were warned by one who knows things
You will only upset the dead.
They will emerge from the spiral of little houses
Lined up in the furrows of marrow
And walk the land.
There will be no place in memory
For what they see
The highways, the houses, the stores of interlopers
Perched over the blood fields
Where the dead last stood.
And then what, you with your words
In the enemy’s language,
Do you know how to make a peaceful road
Through human memory?
And what of angry ghosts of history?
Then what?

Don’t look back.

Living Nations, Living Words: An Anthology of First Peoples Poetry, published by W. W. Norton  in association with the Library of Congress.

Living Nations, Living Words” includes several indigenous Pacific Islander authors. Four of these contributors were able to participate and read aloud from their poems in the project and anthology. Three are Hawaiian (No‘u Revilla, Brandy Nālani McDougall, and Mahealani Perez-Wendt) and one is Chamoru (Lehua M. Taitano). The poems that they performed addressed the themes of cultural identity, political history, gender and sexuality, and environmental knowledge.

Brandy Nālani McDougall’s poem, “This Island on Which I Love You,” ends with this stanza:

This island is alive with love,
its storms, the cough of alchemy
expelling every parasitic thing,
teaching me to love you with
the intricacies of island knowing,
to depend on the archipelagic
spelling of you lying next to me,
our blue-screen flares their own
floating islands after our daughters
have finally fallen asleep,
to trust in the shape and curve
of your hand reaching out to hold mine
making and remaking an island our own.

After the readings, Joy and I continued our conversation, and shared about her own personal and cultural connections to Hawai‘i and the larger Pacific.

It was important for me to organize and moderate this event at the Hawai‘i Book and Music Festival because I wanted to honor Joy’s work and her inclusion of Pacific authors in this anthology and the broader “Living Nations, Living Words” project. Since the anthology is a national publication, I also aimed to present it to the local literary community of Hawai‘i. Doing this kind of outreach was important to me because I wanted to honor our own Pacific writers and to create a space for the Pacific community to connect with the Native American literary community.

Around 200 people attended the virtual event and streamed/viewed it online via YouTube and social media. Judging by the comments and messages I received during and after the event, audience members were deeply moved (some moved to tears) by the poetry. They also felt that they learned about connections between Native American and Pacific Islander poetry. Overall, it was a profound and beautiful gathering of living indigenous voices.

Performer bios:

No‘u Revilla is a queer ‘Oiwi poet and educator. She is an assistant professor of creative writing at UH-Mānoa and is proud to have taught poetry at Pu‘uhuluhulu University in the summer 2019. Her first book of poetry, Ask the Brindled, is forthcoming from Milkweed Editions in Fall 2022.

Lehua M. Taitano, familian Kabesa yan Kuetu, is a queer Chamoru writer and interdisciplinary artist from Yigu, Guåhan (Guam) and co-founder of Art 25: Art in the 25th Century. She is the author of Inside Me an Island and A Bell Made of Stones.

Brandy Nālani McDougall is a Kanaka ‘Oiwi poet raised on Maui. She is the author of The Salt-Wind Ka Makani Pa‘akai and Finding Meaning: Kaona and Contemporary Hawaiian Literature. She is an associate professor of American Studies at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa.

Mahealani Perez-Wendt is the author of the poetry book Uluhaimālama and the co-editor of Ho‘olaule‘a: Celebrating 10 Years of Pacific Writing. She has been published in numerous literary journals and anthologies. For over three decades, she directed an indigenous rights law firm in Hawai‘i.

Craig Santos Perez is a Chamoru from Guam. He is the author of five books of poetry and the co-editor of five anthologies. He is a professor of English at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa.