Lani Wendt Young, a prolific and dynamic Pacific writer, came to visit us at UH Mānoa on Monday.
(I call her a Pacific writer rather than a Samoan writer because she also has whakapapa to Aotearoa if memory serves correctly.)
It was lovely to host her, lovely to hear her talk, and especially lovely to have such a strong Pacific presence in the English Dept lounge... a room packed full of Pacific people, listening to a Pacific writer talk about Pacific literature... yes, this is what my dreams are made of.
Lani is a bit of a publishing phenomenon, partly because she has brought the marvels of electronic publishing into our watery region... literally tens of thousands of people have downloaded her 'Telesa' novels, and as she points out, that's only counting the people who have accessed them legally. So, far and away the biggest hit in Pacific lit in terms of access and distribution.
This makes me think a lot of things about publishing in the region. We've been talking about the politics of publishing in classes and other conversations for a while - ever since Papa Ron Crocombe wrote in the 1980s that publishing and distribution was an especially important factor in the world of Pacific literature, scholars have tried either to ignore the problems of 'traditional' publishing or to overstate them to the point that we spend all our time talking about the existence or mobility of Pacific books and not enough time talking about what's between the Pacific book covers.
I've been rampaging about for a while about what I keep calling 'a crisis in Māori poetry,' which is to say that far fewer Māori poets in English are coming to publication in the 21st century than we might expect given the range and sheer number of Māori poets. The upshot is that there is no tangible record of the diversity and vitality of the Māori poetry scene if the place you look for such a record is a bookshelf (especially a bookshelf at an ordinary bookstore).
I had a conversation with a good friend who's a Pasifika poet about my own journey with poetry, and when she asked me about my own poetry I gave her two honest answers: one, I am sick of trying to get published and sick of the 'scene' side of things; and two, it feels a bit disingenuous to rush about proclaiming the racism and narrowness of publishers given the number of amazing Māori poets whoa re writing, and in the same breath providing my own unpublished manuscript as some kind of evidence of the fact.
So, I now write poetry in an uncommitted way. I have a secret blog where I write poems about infertility; this is 'therapy poetry' in which I write through the anguish of finding it difficult to conceive a baby in the context of a community which is more concerned about a perceived problem of our inability or unwillingness to prevent pregnancy rather than any inability to achieve pregnancy in the first place. I have a manuscript of poems that I submit on occasion to publishers or prizes, and each time I do so I update it, sub in and out a few poems, wriggle it around, all the time (if I'm honest) knowing that it's probably not going to be published anyway. I agree to read poetry when asked, usually, but I try to avoid being asked.
When Lani was on campus she asked if I had a blog, and I replied truthfully that I do. Although, the real truth, when she asked if I write on it regularly, is that I don't.
I'm an infrequent blogger - so infrequent, in fact, that my blog has barely had a pulse. I haven't blogged since I was outraged about faculty housing, and that was back in February. I think about blogging all the time. When I was on sabbatical, I kept a blog (www.tetauokioki.blogspot.com) and I posted two days out of three for the entire year. It was an astoundingly productive year in terms of writing, and I found I had many things I wanted to write about. I miss blogging and I often find myself composing sentences, phrases and titles for posts I don't go on to write. I miss blogging like I miss knitting: I love it, I miss it, I seem to have not found time in married life for it to happen. I'm not blaming married life - I'm blaming myself. But it strikes me that maybe blame isn't the way to get back to the blog.
So here I am, an uncommitted poet and an infrequent blogger. If I had to pick one over the other, I confess it would be the blog. Why? I love poetry, I love writing it, I love reading it, and I often (although not always) enjoy hearing it performed. But when I kept my sabbatical blog I felt like I was saying something - really saying something - that people were reading. I found in my blog an outlet for doing one of the things I believe is part of my role as a scholar: using my education and exposure to a range of experiences etc in order to contribute thoughtful ideas into a wider conversation. One of my favourite quotes about academia comes from William Germano, an academic publisher, who says "a scholar's life is a writing life." My job (my vocation, really) is not to be 'the expert' but it is to use my expertise to the best of my ability in order to make - through writing as well as through other means - a contribution.
I set up this blog when I first arrived in Hawaii, thinking I'd blog every day or at least a few times a week. When Lani asked if I blog frequently I gave her an honest answer. Next time she asks me I want to give her another honest answer, and I want that answer to be 'yes.' Why?
Not for me and not to please Lani. But because - and this was my 'take home' message from Lani's visit - Pacific Lit needs to stop waiting for publishers to get the words out there to our communities. We give them too much power. It's time to take control of our stories back, and the way to do that is not to wait for someone to publish them or even to busy ourselves with trying to replicate the same old models of publishing them but simply to tell them: urgently, passionately, widely, truthfully, and - in 2013 more than ever - electronically.