Monday, April 11, 2011

Chamorro poet is finalist in LA Times Book Prize

A CHAMORRO writer’s collection of poetry that evokes nostalgia and appreciation for local culture has been accorded recognition by the Los Angeles Times.

Craig Santos Perez’s “from unincorporated territory [saina]” was chosen as finalist in the poetry category of the LA Times Book Prize. The winners will be announced on April 29 at the LA Times headquarters.

Perez, who recently accepted a tenure-track assistant professor position in creative writing in the English Department of the University of Hawaii at Manoa, expressed elation over his nomination.

In an email to Variety, Perez said, “I feel honored and humbled by the nomination. I also hope that this will encourage the Los Angeles Times to cover issues facing Chamorros and all Pacific Islanders in our home islands and in the states.”

Central to the theme of Perez’ poetry is the sakman — the ancient Chamorro canoe — named “Saina” or elder in Chamorro.

“My book is 130 pages long and contains many poems with titles such as ‘all with ocean view,’ ‘organic acts,’ aerial roots,’ and ‘tidelands.’ The poems explore themes of Chamorro culture, history, and identity, as well as darker themes of militarism, tourism, and colonialism.”

The poet was born and raised in Mongmong, Guam until the age of 15 when his family relocated to California. The longing for Guahan and the Chamorro culture prompted the then 15-year-old Perez to start writing poems. He said, “Poetry kept me connected to home.”

Asked by Variety to whom he dedicates his recent achievement, Perez said, “I dedicate this nomination to my parents, Tom and Helen Perez, my ninu and nina, Diego and Angie Mendiola, and to my grandparents.”

It is Perez’s second book of poems written between 2006 and 2009 and published in 2010 by Omnidawn Publishing. His first was “unincorporated territory [hacha]” published by Tinfish Press in 2008.

Several writers and editors reviewed and expressed appreciation for Perez’ second collection.

On his blog,, Perez included transcripts from previous interviews in which discussed his two major collections of poetry.

He said the two books are part of a multi-book project formed through his study of “long poems.” His work, he noted, eludes closure or completion.

There are diagrams, maps, and illustrations in his work which Perez said he used to foreground the relationship between storytelling, mapping, and navigation. “I believe poetry can both enhance and disrupt our visual literacy,” said Perez.

In his interview with the Lantern Review, the poet explained the “intriguing” uses of tilde [~] in his work and how the symbol resembles ocean current. He said he uses tilde to indicate shift in discourse and how he wants to show personal and familial narratives have an equivalent importance to official historical and political discourses.

He said “Saina” continues the themes of culture, language, memory, family, and history replicating the themes he introduced in “Hacha,” but directly tackling the themes of militarization and tourism.

It also contains a 10-part poem that addresses navigation as well as his 50-page verse that narrates his grandmother’s experience during the war, her migration to the mainland, and her aging in relation to the themes of religion and citizenship.

Perez, who earlier received the 2010 Poets & Writers Exchange Award, as well as the Ford Foundation Fellowship, has a bachelor’s degree in art, literature and creative writing from University of Redlands and an MFA in creative writing from the University of San Francisco. He is currently working on his doctorate in ethnic studies at UCLA Berkley.

“I hope younger Chamorro writers will believe that our voices are important to the world. If any Chamorro or other Micronesians want to study creative writing, they should contact me (via email or Facebook) because I recently accepted a position as professor of creative writing at the University of Hawaii, Manoa,” he said.

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