Walter E. Washington Convention Center | February 10, 2017
(Chris Santiago, Aimee Suzara, Heid E. Erdrich, Brandon Som) The US has 121 protected areas known as national monuments, many of which can be found in Washington, DC. A distinguished panel of poets considers these natural and man-made landmarks as conservation sites, as poetic subjects, and as contested spaces of living Native American, Mexican American, Asian American, and Pacific Islander cultures. The panel will also consider national monuments in the broader sense of the myth-making of nation states and ongoing struggles over canon formation.
Published Date: May 31, 2017
Welcome to the AWP Podcast Series. This event was recorded at the 2017 AWP Conference in Washington, DC. The recording features Chris Santiago, Aimee Suzara, Heid E. Erdrich, and Brandon Som. You will now hear Chris Santiago provide introductions.
I landed on a Wednesday and um... I drove past the Washington Monument and the cab driver, I said to the cab, actually it was a Lyft, and I said to the Lyft driver, I said, “It’s 72 degrees. It’s really hot.” And she said, “You know why it’s hot, don’t you?” And I said, “Why?” and she said, “Because we’re all going to Hell.”
So when we first conceived of this panel, we’re thinking about the fact that the outgoing president, Barack Obama, had designated more national monuments and national parks than any president before him. He actually had...there were over 121 protected areas, known as the national monuments, which is not necessarily what you typically think. You think of the Washington Monument as one example of a national monument, but there’s a lot of open public spaces, too, that are important: historically, culturally, that are… indigenous native sites that are sacred as well. Towards the end of his tenure, for example, President Obama designated the Stonewall Inn in New York City as the very, the country’s first national monument to commemorate lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights. And also, in December he designated a site in Utah, the Bears Ears Monument, which I believe Heid will discuss later own, and 300,000 acres of land that’s important historically, and culturally, that I believe Senator Chaffetz was trying to sell more recently but that bill was taken off when his Instagram feed was overwhelmed by people, including hunters, who wanted to tell him to shove that idea somewhere else. But the reason why I wanted to bring up that anecdote about the cab driver is that our priorities, our concerns have shifted. Here’s the Washington Monument and here is Trump Tower in New York, which is... god forbid that that becomes a national monument but who knows what will happen. But we have a wonderful panel of poets to talk about this. The reason why we want to talk about national monuments is because we’re talking about spaces—public spaces, cultural spaces, spaces that capture our imaginations, and we literally are struggling and physically risking, people risking their own lives over these spaces. I should mention that Craig Santos Perez who originally was gonna be part of our panel, but he could not travel to Washington, DC, and we’re very, very grateful and fortunate to have Kevin Prufer join us, as well. So I’ll introduce him towards the end of the panel when he’ll speak, but thank you, Kevin, for joining us.
So without further ado we’ll move on to our first speaker, I will introduce...here’s Stonewall Inn by the way, I will introduce Brandon Som, and Brandon is the author of Babel’s Moon and The Tribute Horse, and the winner of the 2015 Kate Tufts Discovery Award, a former fellow at the Provincetown Fine Arts Works Center, he’s an assistant professor in the literature department at the University of California, San Diego. Thank you, Brandon, for joining us.
Hi, everyone. Thanks so much for being here. I’m excited to be on the panel. Thanks, Chris for organizing things, um... (pause)
(away from the microphone) ... is that possible. Yeah, that’d be great. Sorry.
(sounds like adjustments are being made to the microphone)
(to the microphone) ...Alright. Thanks everyone. In 1965, uh... can everyone hear me alright? Awesome. In 1965 President Lyndon Johnson used executive powers afforded to him by the controversial 1906 Antiquities Act to name Ellis Island part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument. At the signing on May 11, 1965, Johnson celebrated the island as a beacon of opportunity, a symbol of freedom for millions. He went on to state that the 16 million immigrants that entered through the island enriched the American melting pot, and made us not merely a nation, but a nation of nations. Earlier in the fall of that same year, Johnson had used the Statue of Liberty for the site of the signing of the 1965 Immigration Act. One in a series of historic acts, including the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act—and the Voting Rights Act, that work to prohibit discrimination. Johnson’s decision to use the Statue of Liberty, a national monument since 1924, demonstrates the ways in which monuments have been used symbolically to establish, declare and proliferate national narratives that purport ideals of democratic inclusion. Monument, from the Latin monere, to remind, suggests that such symbolic actions will be memorialized, remembered, and so, with monumentalizing comes to the acts of national memory and national memorizing. With Donald Trump’s recent ban on immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries, an executive order that has now been blocked by the federal courts and that block was upheld yesterday with a unanimous three to zero decision (applause) absolutely, for sure. We see in Trump’s ban, a complete disregard for memory, history, and the 1965 Immigration Act. In an op-ed for the New York Times, immigration policy analyst David J. Breyer explains, “The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 banned all discrimination of immigrants on the basis of national origin.” He goes on to argue, “If Mr. Trump can legally ban an entire region of the world, he would render Congress’s vision of unbiased legal immigration a dead letter.” Here, at a conference of writers, Breyer’s legal term, “dead letter,” should have significant, if not chilling, resonance. What good is a monument if it does not remind? Perhaps a monument’s flaw is that it does not remind enough. Perhaps a problem with monuments is, as Dan Avera argued last night at AWP’s Latino Caucus, that monuments are “frozen history,” or perhaps the issue is that monuments like Ellis Island celebrate inclusionary acts, rather than honestly and critically remembering a much more complicated history of discriminatory and exclusionary practices set in place by our US immigration policy. Indeed perhaps our immigration monuments should really celebrate the resistance to such immigration policy. The need for the 1965 Immigration Act suggest that such ideals of inclusion are far from universal givens, but rather rights that are fought for and won because of transgression. Immigration historian Erika Lee explains that the 1965 Immigration Act overturned close to a century of discriminatory immigration policy. That policy began with the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, barring all Chinese immigration except for the exempted classes of students, teachers, diplomats, merchants and travelers. The law also prohibited Chinese immigrants from naturalized citizenship. That’s the act aimed to exclude Chinese laborers and keep out Chinese immigrants with intentions of staying on and settling within the US. The law reinforced the earlier Page Act of 1875, stipulating exclusion of not only contract laborers or ‘coolies,’ but all Chinese laborers, skilled and unskilled. Originally instituted for a ten-year period, the act was renewed in 1892 and passed again in 1902 without a terminating date. With it’s passing, the act began what would be six decades of exclusion, until the law was finally repealed with the passing of the Magnuson Act in 1943. Turning our attentions west and across the country, from Ellis Island toward the San Francisco Bay, we encounter another island and immigration narrative entirely. Despite the fact that it was once referred to as the Ellis Island of the west, Angel Island, an immigration station that operated from 1910 until 1940, was built specifically to detain and deter Chinese attempting to enter under the strict Chinese Exclusion Laws. Curiously, while Angel Island is a national landmark, it is not a national monument, and yet its narrative should be remembered for the racism and bigotry at the very foundations of our immigration policy history, and for the resistance to that history. Specifically, in regard to our panel and this writer’s conference, Angel Island should be remembered for two collaborative acts of written resistance. The first are the poems etched into the walls of Angel Island by the detainees. First found in 1970, thirty years after the closing of the immigration station by park ranger Alexander Weiss, over two hundred Chinese poems, carved into the walls at Angel Island, chronicle the difficult voyage across the Pacific, and reflect on the rift of the promises of social and economic inclusion and the realities of racial exclusion. A hundred and thirty-five of these poems are collected and translated in the vital anthology Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910-1940, edited by Him Mark Lai, Genny Lim, and Judy Yung. The transgressive power of writing on walls is in part due to the fact that the reader must stand in the very position the writer stood. Reading the Angel Island poems, one continually finds poems that comment on other poems, and thus point to the radical empathy and the radical call to memory within the wall poetics at Angel Island.
“My fellow villagers, seeing this should take heed and remember,” one poem begins. “I write my wild words to let those after me know.” Within these poems we find that the detainees have much to say to each other and those coming after them, thus testifying to a solidarity constructed in response of their shared experience of exclusion and alienation. Far from dead letters, the walls themselves become a kind of forum by which immigrants shared their experiences and ultimately constructed community. The second written act of resistance is deeply resonant with my own experience because it has to do with my own name. An estimated 90% of Chinese immigrants entering the US during the exclusion period were using false papers. The most popular method was the using of a paper name, claiming to be the foreign-born children of Chinese immigrants who were already US citizens, these individuals assumed a false identity and became paper sons or daughters. Discussing the significance of paper identities in her book Paper Families: Identity, Immigration Administration, and Chinese Exclusion the scholar Estelle T. Lau explains, “Adoption of these techniques was not without long term consequences for the Chinese. They were forced to change their names, adopt fictitious family histories and maintain their deceptions over time until these fictions themselves became inescapable elements of the stories the Chinese told about themselves.” My grandfather, Yao Si Som, crossed the Pacific and Immigrated to this country in 1928. It was during the period of Chinese Exclusion Laws so my grandfather, like many other Chinese, used a false last name, an identity, to claim he was the son of a US citizen. He exchanged his last name Ong for the name Som, the name we use today. Neither dead letter, nor an obsolete monument, my last name, Som, a paper name, an act of survival under and resistance to the exclusion acts, is to me a reminder of the unjust precarity, the uncertainty, citizen, not citizen, belong, don’t belong, that some are continually forced to live solely because of their race, religion, gender, sexuality, and/or nationality. Identities that have been and should continue to be protected from discriminatory legislation and execution...excuse me...I’m sorry...I’m gonna take a drink of water...discriminatory legislation and executive action is what I meant to say. Forgive me. Paper sons and daughters, as they cross the ocean, had coaching papers to help them memorize their new names and identities. These papers were tossed overboard before entering port and facing immigration officials. I’m gonna close today with a poem from my book, The Tribute Horse, a book that engages with the history of Angel Island and paper sons, and a book which, I hope, continues the tradition of written acts, immigrant acts, of resistance under this current administration and its unjust discriminatory practices. The poem I’ll read attempts to recover those coaching papers—kind of in an imaginative recovery and listening in the ocean’s waves for my grandfather practicing his new name.
(Reads “Coaching Papers”)
Thank you very much.
Thank you, Brandon. I think that many of you will probably have questions and wanna ask more about all these wonderful panelists, so what we’ll do is have each panelist present, and then hopefully we’ll have a few minutes at the end of the panel to ask questions and have a little discussion. Our next panelist is Aimee Suzara and she’s a Filipino-American poet, playwright and performing artist based in Oakland, California. Her accomplishments include a Willow Award finalist book of poems Souvenir, a YBCAway Award and AROHO Spirited Woman award. She’s currently on the faculty of language arts at De Anza College. Please welcome Aimee Suzara.
Hi everybody. So, I’ve called my remarks, “Thingification in Contested Places.” My focus will be on the contested space of the archipelago nation of the Philippines, its colonization by the United States after the colonization by Spain and the reification or thingification of place or people. So just to kind of put those vocabulary words up. I had come across the word thingification and looked it up and it led me to these three definitions that I’ll let you hear.
Thingification is the action or process of turning something into a thing. Equals reification. Reification is to consider an abstract concept to be real. And then one that we’re more familiar with—objectification, which is very related, the action of degrading someone to the status of a mere object. When people treat others like objects or as nothing more than their physical bodies.
So, I’m gonna share a couple images and some poetry so this will be sort of a woven poetry-essay-talk, and this first image I’ve projected, I just want you to kind of take it in. There’s some text at the bottom that you may not see that says, “The Filipino’s first bath.” And it says, “President McKinley, Oh you dirty boy.” And the water... along the curve of the water, it says, “Civilization.” I’m not sure if you’ve seen this image before. Actually, raise your hand if you’ve seen this image before. So, this was on a popular magazine cover, of Judge Magazine, and I’ll explain a little bit of the history in a moment. The next image is from the 1904 World’s Fair, of which a lot of my poetry is centered. I’ll come back to this one. And this is one of the tickets that describes the different tribes and villages, and I’ll stop here for a moment.
This poem is called “With Compliment” and it was written to this image, which, at the bottom it says “Information wanted. Uncle Sam, now that I’ve got it, what am I going to do with it?” This is June 11, 1898.
(Reads “With Compliment”)
So, I picked this one as the first poem because it exemplifies the reification of the idea of the helpless child or subject needing colonization. It shows a recycling of racist-tropes and the conflation of place with person. And this is from my actual researched trip to the World’s Fair Exhibit in St. Louis, and there’s a short poem that I’ll accompany this. It’s call “Philippines Souvenir Card Number One,” and it’s based on this card.
In 1898, the United States purchased the territory of over 7,000 islands of the Philippines from Spain in the famed Treaty of Paris after the Spanish-American War. The often-overshadowed Philippine-American War of 1899-1902 with continued fighting many years later, and in 1904 the Louisiana Purchase Exposition commemorated the Louis and Clark Expedition and the westward expansion in the United States, opened its doors, the Louisiana Purchase Exposition opened its doors in St. Louis. This largest exhibit of living people and their replicated habitat was a Philippine reservation, a 47-acre land, including at least 1200 Filipinos taken from their tribal lands and arranged into ethnological types, such Igorots, Negritos, and Moros. Dog eating became a very popular show performed by Igorot tribes, winning many exhibits—many awards. The curation of people and their artifacts goes further back. There were other World’s Fairs, that you may have heard of and also Philippine Expositions, specifically one in 1887 in Madrid that was also showing Filipinos to be savage-like, in need of colonial rule by Spain. We can look in an interesting feature of the preparation of the fair, the Bilibid Prison in 1903, where anthropologist Daniel Folkmar produced plaster busts of those imprisoned, that the Spanish had imprisoned as heretics and rebels. US curators were sent to collect casts of skulls and the objects taken from warfare. In studying the various concerns of the curation of the objects and people for the fair, one can find that there were disputes over things like this, whether they were too civilized, too savage, whether they should be mixed or separated, and what kinds of messages would come out to the visiting American public.
This is just a section of examples of some listings that I gathered from the museum.
“Catalog of objects:
One beaded bag
Two beaded necklaces
Three carved statues of the rice god
One set of Filipino playing cards
Two Bontoc head-hunters
One Visayan girl
One geisha girl
One eskimo family
One hoochie coochie girl”
Bones and casts of heads became equivalent to objects of war. When brought to the USA they were representative of these islands, which were also thingified on their own—grouped artificially, and culturally codified. We could see the ideas of representation of a nation, so, for example, one of the reasons they could not appear too savage was that then they wouldn’t appear to be fit for being given rights. They must be malleable, they can become assimilated, but not so assimilated so as not to represent a helpless population—not too smart or educated, and then of course, they had to consider the spectacle of the fair. The popularity of the exhibit demonstrated that spectacle and profit became more important than the subtler ideas originally conceived.
This is a poem that I won’t read right now, but just to show you, it’s called “In the Laboratory of the St. Louis World’s Fair,” and shows, it’s about, basically the measurement of the people that were displayed. Considering the various groups from around the world, there was also the interest of keeping people from different parts of the world separated behind the scene so that they wouldn’t ruin the illusion of authenticity. So, I’m interested in how do bodies become contested spaces as well, when they are thingified. So, my closure, or my last portion is actually a poem that I wrote as part of the essay based on this topic and it’s called, “The Thingification Poem.”
So, I leave you with an image of Tagmena. This is a souya girl, whom I felt was, when I was coming through the pictures of people who were displayed on the World’s Fair, I felt she was returning the gaze, and she became a part of the image of my book cover, and so she’s very special to me. How can we, or are we, able to restore humanity to a person objectified? Can I even imagine her actual humanity? Am I only imposing just as others have imposed? Am I repeating the past by re-visiting the monuments of history? Or can I create a new narrative? Thank you.
Santiago (away from the microphone):
Thank you, Aimee, I’m gonna take out your flash drive, if that’s alright, actually...
Actually, it’s okay, we’ll do it later...
Poet Heid Erdrich is author of seven books including Curator of Ephemera at the New Museum for Archaic Media
There. And then if you want to use the other image, just tell me when, okay?
Hello. Good morning. I’m the one who comes and does the informal stuff between the smart people (laughs). And I’m also proof that you can go to AWP and wake-up shaky and dehydrated without having a single drink. So, I’m not feeling my greatest today. Part of me thinks it’s because of the vague, you know, almost mythic goo that is so close, I feel like, you know, one of the elves... that I’m diminishing... my light is diminishing by proximity to evil. So, forgive me for swigging in between things, but I’m super dehydrated. I’m gonna start by talking about something I don’t know a lot about, which is, if anybody knows me, is not uncommon. I’m a scam and a dilettante, but I... a charlatan by trade, but I want to say that it was really great to hear Brandon and Aimee, who I’ve been able to present with before, and I want to at some point touch a little bit on the commonalities. I had immigrant grandparents who I never knew, but they came through Ellis Island and it’s often amazed me that there is this national awareness of the actual place my biology-in-half started from, and the other half was all just rag tag folks who came over the border or who were here originally, uh, indigenous people—Ojibwe and other people who were here. And I’ll talk eventually about a poem I wrote for a state park, rather than a national monument, and the relationship between state parks and national monuments. I’m gonna begin by reading from my book, National Monuments, which came about when I was looking at the country and wondering about the obliteration of the people who were here, the millions of people who were here in this hemisphere before European contact and before European colonization and contest, and how little is left, physically. And it made me wonder, “Did all these vast diverse cultures simply not create monuments? Was there an aesthetic against it? Was there something about us that made us not create this sort of monuments? Or was everything, you know, erased?” How little was left was a curiosity to me, and it turns out it was a curiosity to others. As I began to research I realized our bodies were our monuments, our nationhood is built in our bodies, our bodies are our national monuments, something I have a lot in common with Aimee’s treatise about... and I began to look at bodies and bones and how European based cultures tend to display indigenous bodies and bones, so a lot of poems in here are about that. But when I got done with the book, I realized I never wrote a title poem called National Monuments, so I went back, wrote the poem, and it’s about, sort of like, the anti-monument.
(Reads National Monuments)
So that’s a different concept of national markers that comes into my thinking. Bears Ears National Monument is a new monument that Barack Obama signed into being, and it is under assault of course, as anything that Obama did. The language around Bears Ears is very interesting to me because it took part in an anthology that’s just come out called edge of morning, which includes poets and artists in support of Bears Ears National Monument. We got letters from Torrey House, where our publisher is, about how we can use Bears Ears and Edge of Morning to support what is happening, and it was like a forty-eight-page letter, but... she asked us to look at the resolution that asks the current president to rescind the monument, and it’s loaded with falsehoods and racism from the Utah state legislature. So, one thing started happening in Utah last night—I was amused. Those, you know, like I said, there’s twenty-eight pages to it, but I’m gonna just read you some little things that I find of interest.
(Reads regarding the passage of Bears Ears monument as a national monument and dissent)
So, there are also democratic opponents to the legislation that say it fails to uphold the public lands initiative, to gain traction, and the basis of their argument is that they feel that not enough people were consulted, and here’s a quote from one of the folks...
(Reads passage regarding people who felt they should have been consulted regarding the creation of the national monument)
The reason they think they weren’t consulted is because they are not the five-native nation led coalition that lobbied for this monument. It was not state, it was a tribal coalition of many people, which apparently doesn’t count as part of Utah. One of the last things they said was that when the proposal came in seven years ago to the president, it came at the behest of the local elders. The language around what is happening with the monument now claims that land management and other planning organizations were shut out or ignored. Critics say that the Native American tribal movement behind the Bear’s Ears campaign support was co-opted by Environmental Observation and other conservation organizations, wrapped with a distinct cultural bow. So, I bet there were paid protesters there somewhere too, but that is what’s happening around Bear’s Ears and it’s happening very quickly and then we’ll see what’s happening, but one of the things that’s in the vast memo that we’re looking at and trying to educate ourselves on was the fact that there is no language in the Antiquities Act which helps the president proclaim national monuments, there’s no language for any way to undo them. There is no undoing as far as anybody can tell, so there’s more hopeful that there is not, at present, any undoing of these monuments, because they do protect us, but I have a complex relationship to these national monuments and the national park system too, for the reason that I’ll tell you in a little bit. There’s a picture of Bears Ears, which I’ve never seen. I’ll see it in October.
(pause and background speaking as the image is displayed)
And I’ll tell you a little about a project that I was given, and I’ll final... I’ll read a poem in the end. Sometime about the same time that Aimee or Chris in this group started talking about this panel I was asked to add my poem, commissioned poem to a project called Imagine Our Parks with Poems from the Academy of American Poets and the National Parks System, and at first, I objected. I said, “You know, I don’t know what this is gonna be like. There’s this weird relationship between native people and parks.” And they said, “Well several other indigenous and native writers have agreed to write poems.” I said, “Well, a poem might be a little, you know, contesty.” And they said, “Yeah, that’s fine.” You know. So, I started to try to explain how I look at... parks—not just in the state that I live in, or the state I grew up in, not just by my national lands, my reservation, but the whole map of the national park system, which follows in almost exact mapping, the recession of lands by treaty and the removal of native nations. If you look at where the parks are, it’s where my people were, and pushed further west. So, I began to think about how would I express that, how would I map the parks? How would I look at them? How would I read this as a map of removal, and in looking at it, I saw that there are parks that are not parks, which we already talked about. There are bodies of water that you can’t really walk on, but that are part of national designations, and there’s a trail, which really, literally, does cover the treaties—the treaty path of the Ojibwe people that I am descended from, and that I am a member of the nation. And I thought I would look at that trail. And as I was looking at that trail, I discovered an image and it looked familiar, so I asked my sister, Lise Erdrich, who a historian of the family. “Why is this image important to me.” And she said, “Look at the priest.” Almost in the middle there’s a man in a black robe, next to a minister with a white beard—I don’t know if you can quite see it—and behind him is a young boy, the only boy in the picture. He’s wearing white and that person is my great grandfather as a young boy in 1870. And he had left home with this priest to serve as his alter boy, but family legend is that he just wanted adventure. He was a good hunter, and a good helper with the hunt. He’d been bison hunting since he was five years old. And he, Kishkamanishu was his name, Joseph Corno was his English and Catholic name wanted to be the standard bearer, to carry the flag, for this priest. For him, it was a designation like carrying an honor staff in a native culture, and in the Plains Ojibwe culture of my people, so he was able to this. I put this note with this image on the Native American poets’ page with the National Parks System, and this is what I said, “The North Country Trail leaves Minnesota and heads towards Fort Abercrombie, just above my hometown Wahpeton, North Dakota. This poem envisions the tall grass prairie as I have seen the last remaining swaths of it in areas of the trail. The poem depicts events that took place when the grassland was unbroken, and when our great grandfather Kishkamanishu, Joseph Corno, serving as an altar boy and standard bearer for a Catholic priest was photographed in 1870. The path of the North Country Trail traces from Lake Superior shore to the North Dakota grassland, maps the migration of my Ojibwe ancestors as they moved and were removed from their territories as treaties decreed. For me and for other Native Americans, the map of the trail tells a specific story—one of tribal history. The grassland stands as an emblem of peace for me, the hush of wind and tall grasses, the surprise of wild roses and rare lilies, the open faces of sunflowers and fields, the prairie potholes where water is life and the home of thousands of birds. This peace, like the weathered, wooden structures of previous centuries remains for everyone to walk along in this western section of the North Country Trail.” So, I’m gonna read Peace Path real quick.
Thank you, Heid. Kevin Prufer is the author of six books of poetry and the editor of numerous anthologies, the most recent of which are Churches, In a Beautiful Country, National Anthem, New European Poets, and Literary Publishing in the 21st Century. His forthcoming book of poems, which I’m looking forward to, How He Loved Them, will be published by Four Way Books in 2018. Prufer is also editor-at-large of Pleiades, co-curator of the Unsung Master Series, and a professor in the creative writing program at the University of Houston, and a low residency MFA at Lesley University. Thank you, Kevin, for joining us.
Santiago (talking in the background):
Go back to either Trump Tower or...
Prufer (talking in the background):
Oh, please not Trump Tower.
Prufer (to audience):
I’m going to back into the subject. I’m the last-minute replacement for Craig Santos Perez, so I should have also heard...
You were originally part of the discussion so...
Oh! So, I’m gonna enter this backwards a little bit, and then conclude with a poem, so... sometime ago at an AWP in the distant past, I had been asked to talk a little bit about what sentimentality meant, and so I went home and looked it up in the dictionary, and what I found in the dictionary, and in my Dictionary of Literary Terms, is that sentimentality is the overabundance of emotion applied inappropriately to a contrived situation. Just about every definition I found had some version of that in it, and somehow that seemed off to me. And I finally discover why that seemed off to me, when I encountered a really sentimental Victorian ditty called “Come Home, Daddy.” Some of you might know it. It was a song, one could sing it, so it also presented itself as a poem frequently, in which Little Billy, I think is his name, is at home in London, dying of consumption while his daddy is off drinking. And every verse ends with Little Billy growing increasingly sick, saying “Oh, Daddy, Daddy, please come home.” This goes on for some time while Billy’s mother cries and Billy’s sister cries, and eventually of course, Billy dies, and Billy’s dying words are, you guessed it probably, “Daddy, daddy, please come home.” It was an unapologetically sentimental poem, but the more I thought about that poem, the more I thought that it didn’t really fit the dictionary definition of what sentimentality really was. There was, for instance, I believe there can be no such thing as an overabundance of emotion about a dying child. I think a dying child contains within it as much emotion as I could summon. I also do not believe that that situation is necessarily contrived. I think everybody knows of situations like this, where a parent, for instance, is negligent, or where a society allows a child to die of consumption. For instance, in situations that might otherwise be averted. So, there’s no contrivance. There’s no overabundance, and there’s certainly nothing inappropriate about the emotions, so I had to ask myself what a better definition of sentimentality might be, and the definition I came upon for myself was that there’s...the thing that makes a sentimental poem, or a sentimental situation sentimental, is that it reduces a very complex situation into a single channel of simplicity. The sentimental poem doesn’t ask, for instance, what the complex political circumstances are that lead us to a situation in which children might die of treatable causes, and it doesn’t ask us what the social situation is in which a father might be out drinking, or what the familial complexities might be that bring us to this end. And as I reframed sentimentality for myself that way, the simplification of a very complex situation into a single channel of emotion, I began to realize for myself at least that sentimentality is a very dangerous thing. Sentimentality is, for instance, what allows us to look at pictures in the... American pictures in the 1850s, for instance, of happy slaves singing and dancing, or it allows us to keep women in the kitchen. I was initially reluctant to be on this panel about national monuments, because that’s often been our response to national monuments, that, um, to paraphrase, I think, what Brandon said, they offer us situations of frozen history, or maybe what Aimee said, they allow for thingification, that is, they reduce deeply complex American, in this case, situations to... they reduce them into very simple presentations. That doesn’t mean I’m opposed to national monuments, or that I’m gonna go out and protest national monuments, but that the idea of national monuments seems to be one that is simultaneously dangerous, but also an opportunity for complex thought. When I was invited to be on this panel, I started reading through as many poems that had national monuments as I could find, and I found that the ones that most interested me were those that work in the opposite direction, that is, that do what I believe poetry does best. I was asked to write an essay pretty recently about politics and poetry for a book that just came out on that subject. What I decided was that the political poetry that I admire the most is a poetry that has at its center, ambivalence, and by ambivalence what I mean is a poem that feels and thinks strongly in multiple, conflicting, poly-valent directions—that that is, perhaps, the kind of thing poetry can do best, that other art forms can never do quite as well as poetry can do. Poetry has within it, for instance, music that can move us in one direction, images that can move us in another direction, and ideas that can move us in a third direction, asking us always to hold in our mind this sort of multiple conflicting ideas that any really sort of complicated political situation probably inspires in any thoughtful person. And when I read, for instance, Yusef Komunyakaa’s poem “Facing It,” which I think everybody must know, that’s what I felt like I encountered, that opening line, “My black face fades,” is a line that I think contains in it, such polyvalence of thinking. I found that also in the poems of Martha Collins, and Tony Hoagland, and I wanted to read one poem, not by myself, that I think contains that, then leave my remarks there at the ten-minute point. It’s a poem by Ann Killough. I don’t know if anybody knows her work, I think she’s completely brilliant and, unfortunately, I haven’t seen her get the kind of recognition that I think she deserves, but this is her poem, “Statue of Liberty.” I have to take off my classes to read it, rendering everybody invisible.
I just asked Kevin if I could keep this copy of that poem that was...
Um...so we have some time for questions. Would anyone like to ask any questions of our panelists, or we could just sort of have a freeform discussion or we could also just call it quits and drink all this water, because I think that Heid and I both could probably... (voice in background) ...yeah.
(to audience) Yes, up here.
(Voice coming from the audience)
Um...general do we...it was uh...Philippines...well, it’s basically the child was a symbol of the acquired Philippines.
(Same voice from audience)
Yeah. I guess I mean, I’m not an expert on Dewey, I’ll just admit, but yeah, I mean, it was basically the acquirement of... it was representing the acquirement of the Philippines.
Any other questions? TJ can we turn this microphone on?
Yes, right in the front.
(New audience member asks question that is mostly inaudible about national parks)
Um, there is a great book called Native Americans and National Parks. I think I’ve got it. I’ll get the exact note for you, but what it explains... federal relationship to lands is very, very complicated and I will try to nutshell it. With native peoples, sometimes when treaties were signed, some land was retained not for the use of native people and as parks and railroads, especially began to be designated, it just follows the boundaries of lands that tribes reserve by treaty. So, it’s like, you think of it like receding, almost like receding mappings—the whole of the continental US as native nations, and then bits of it receding, often along natural geographic lines, parts of it being reserved, and then you usually see a reservation right next to that national park or really close by, and it’s because that was that chunk of the land that even though it was in the treaty negotiations, the federal government hadn’t quite relinquished. And some of it by legal means, but most of it by pretty sketchy means, so that that land of course had remained untouched, was not purchased or homesteaded by non-natives, so then it was open federal land, sometimes parkland was leased in ninety-nine year leases from tribes, and it still is, so it’s really scary when you hear these calls to open public lands—lands that native people have a stake in, sometimes a legal stake, oftentimes a cultural stake, because they are close to their own remaining, our own remaining homelands. Was that helpful a little bit?
(Same audience member speaks inaudibly mentioning Bears Ears and Native Americans’ ability/inability to use parkland)
Well, yeah, I mean there’s, you know, some little sound bite that Jared Kushner likes to hunt and that’s why, but I don’t know. I don’t know how you get all that. Yeah, there is a connection. Some state parks have a compact with native nations or native nations have asserted their treaty rights so they can hunt, gather, fish on parklands, it just it’s a case by case thing, and there’s a thousand cases, and so, you know, it’s really hard to say, but there is a relationship. There’s a cultural relationship, there’s a physical relationship and it’s really complex.
(New audience member speaks nearly inaudibly):
So I sensed that...[inaudible]...but then there is also a symbology that ends up being reductionist, and I’m wondering if at the end of the day you feel that national monuments end up being sort of this sentimental element that you mentioned, and thingification…yet the awareness raising element makes them valuable and critical in the way that...[inaudible]...
Brandon do you want to field this one?
Sure. Yeah, I think the awareness is great. I think if you take all of our comments together, I think the argument is that that’s only the starting point, though, right? That it has to go further, and I think that in my argument, and my point, is that Angel Island isn’t an actual national monument, it’s a national landmark, but it’s not a monument, and you know that led me to kind of reflect on the ways in which it might be kind of a counter narrative—the resistance and transgression that’s happening again. The poems on the wall, but also the act of paper sons and daughters to transgress those racist exclusion laws...suggest to me that we have to as writers, have to memorialize and write about these maybe lesser known narratives or race narratives and have to celebrate these acts of resistance and transgression.
Can I say something? So I... it’s interesting because on a very personal level, when I thought about the topic of national monuments, my first response was to think about how my parents when they immigrated here in 1969, their first narratives of arriving were about going to national parks and national monuments, and it was like the American Dream embodied for them, and something that they didn’t have in the Philippines. I mean land is utilized in different manners and the protected parks and all of that was, like, part of their story, and then it became part of my story, so I actually, my sister and I, sisters—two of us only, our imagination about the United States was flavored by being able to visit these natural pla--a lot of them are natural places, and the idea that they are different and separate from usable places that you either live in or work in, or do stuff in. So I have... there’s like a positive affiliation with more national parks than national monuments, but then I looked at Grand Cany... the Grand Canyon was actually designated first in 1908 as a national monument and I thought, what if the Grand Canyon was not preserved the way it is...I mean if anyone’s been there—the idea that humans are naturally going to ruin everything—you know, especially right now, the fear that we know things are going to get ruined and destroyed and you know, industry would just damage, so that’s my kind of basic thing, but I think that the question is tying it in with the thingification and with all of this stuff, is that who’s at the table, who’s making those decisions. Even when I researched the World’s Fair, of course the first thought was like, “Ah! That’s horrible,” and it did turn out to be horrible, but in the earlier discussions, there were some complex discussions that even involved Filipinos at the table that were about, like, the fear that it would become too much spectacle, and people would be, you know, overly savaged and all of this stuff, but then at the end of the day, capitalism and exhibitionism and all of that won over, and those people didn’t end up making those decisions. At the same time, we always can look back at times in history like that and say, “what was the agency of the people that we can’t really know because they weren’t documented.” When I did my informal poetic research, I had a hard time finding the voices of the people, the Filipinos who were part of it. So again, it’s about who’s at the table I think.
I’m so sorry, we actually have run out of time, but I think we’d be, I think we’d be happy to talk with you further in front if you have any questions. And I apologize, I’m gonna do a shameless plug. My name is Chris Santiago, and I’m signing books at 12:30...
Voice from panel: At which table?
Thank you all.
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