Last week, alumnus Craig Santos Perez (’02) returned to the University of Redlands to talk about and read from his latest book of poetry: from unincorporated territory [guma’] (2015). The Johnston graduate made multiple appearances in the Redlands community, including sitting in on classes and a reading. He also was a speaker for the Kathryn Green Lecture Series.
“It’s great to have this opportunity to come speak at a university I attended,” Perez said. “I was feeling some crazy nostalgia.”
Currently an associate professor at the University of Hawai’i Manoa, Perez earned an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of San Francisco, and is completing his Ph.D. in Ethnic Studies at the University of California Berkeley.
Perez has received multiple awards for his writing, and recently won the 2015 American Book Award for his work in [guma’]. His poetry is being taught in universities around the world, including here at Redlands. Professor Daniel Kiefer made the book a large part of the curriculum for his Poetry Literature course.
“He’s like E.E. Cummings, only better,” said University of Redlands junior, Julia Day, during a discussion of one of his poems. Other students also responded positively to his unconventional writing style.
“One thing I love about poetry is working with the page,” Perez responded, addressing the class. “The page is like a map of the oceans; poems are archipelagos of words.”
Some of Perez’s poems even look like maps visually. Despite already having mastered the art of visual poetry, Perez is looking for new ways to write a poem.
“Each poem I write, I try to do something different,” Perez said “Poetry is just a way to tell a story, and there are many ways to do that.”
Perez never lacks for stories to tell, drawing inspiration from all aspects of his life. He writes about family, friends, Pacific Island culture, environmental activism, politics and even food. He has become notorious among his family for turning their stories into poems.
“There’s a downside to it as well,” Perez joked. “At family gatherings I get aunts and uncles that come up to me and say, ‘Hey I have a story to tell you, so that you can make it into a poem.’ C’mon man, I just want to relax and enjoy myself.”
Perez seemed to enjoy himself during the reading, making jokes about his life and his poems. He even got the audience involved with several participatory poems, asking the audience to chant a few words while he read the poem.
One of these was Shoplifting Vienna Sausage, where he had his listeners chanting “sausage… freedom…” while he made innuendos about sausages.
But his poems weren’t all so light hearted. One of the main themes of Perez’s poems is the United States’ militarization of his home island of Guam.
“The military is a daily reality for the Chamorro people. A third of our island is a military base.”
The military presence in Guam is so powerful that the island has earned the nickname “USS Guam, the Unsinkable Aircraft Carrier,” referring to its use as a launching base for U.S. airstrikes into Eastern Asia.
Guam has the highest enlistment rate to the military of any U.S. state or colony, and the funerals of Chamorro soldiers often become public events.
But Perez has difficulty understanding meaning in the deaths of Chamorro soldiers. In a poem, he lists the names of deceased soldiers, crossing out their causes of death.
“When I read their causes of death, I want to believe they died for some amazing cause, protecting freedom, but that’s not what it is,” Perez explains. “I can’t erase that truth, but I want to scratch it out. I want it to not be true.”
Another issue that Perez writes about is the racial stereotyping he receives whenever he travels, even within the United States. Some places, he is treated as Mexican, others Arabian, sometimes Italian. He cites lack of awareness and recognition as a key factor.
“They don’t know what to do with me [racially],” Perez said. “I’m not an American, but I’m a U.S citizen and I have a U.S passport. This confuses people a lot.”
Perez uses poetry as a platform to raise awareness for issues. Even when he testified alongside with some fellow Chamorros to the United Nations Fourth Committee for the decolonization, and against further development of the U.S. military on Guam, he didn’t feel as if he had a voice; before he made his speech, the U.S. ambassador walked out of the room before he spoke to avoid listening to what he had to say. While this is common practice among UN ambassadors, it made Perez feel as if his voice was being silenced.
Perez now uses poetry as a platform to raise awareness to the political and environmental issues he is passionate about.
[Image courtesy of Madison Ryan, Redlands Bulldog photographer]