On Tuesday, October 17th, Dr. Craig Santos Perez held a poetry reading in UCLA’s Kaplan Hall. The event began with an acknowledgement of the lands that UCLA stands upon and the Gabrielino-Tongva peoples indigenous to them.
Santos Perez is a professor of English at the University of Hawai’i, Manoa. His most recent monograph, a diverse collection of Chamorro scholarship titled “from unincorporated territory [åmot]”, was published in 2023. Prior to this, he published multiple spoken word collections and was named a finalist for the LA Times 2010 Book Prize for Poetry.
The poem “Age of Plastic” discusses the manifold ways in which plastic interacts with humanity; it supports birth in the form of baby bottles filled with breast milk, yet harms the child in the same process. Santos Perez describes the role of plastic in this poem, saying, “Plastic is the perfect creation because it never dies.” The poem then anthropomorphizes plastic, assigning emotions such as emptiness and freedom to human practices such as the disposal of plastics and their final resting place in the “paradise of the Pacific Ocean”. Santos Perez ties this back to the effects of plastic use on humanity and specifically human children with the image of the daughter falling asleep in a plastic crib while the narrator wishes she is composed of plastic to preserve her longevity.
“Halloween in the Anthropocene” is a necropastoral, a type of poetry which Joyelle McSweeney describes as “a place where the farcical and outrageous horrors of Anthopocenic ‘life’ are made visible as Death”. At the event, Santos Perez discussed how this poem places the “sacrifice” of young people of color in the broader context of global capitalism and environmental exploitation. His use of natural imagery is both lush and jarring as it tangles hyperproductivity and moral, environmental and physiological degradation in irrevocable designs.
Santos Perez colors many of his poems with a certain pointed irony, and “Thanksgiving in the Anthropocene” is no different. It juxtaposes the ritual of gratitude so often associated with the “holiday” with acerbic remarks that draw one’s eye to the unnatural structures that underlie it – processed instant mashed potatoes, canned cranberry sauce, tryptophan, and the presence of systems which exploit our most marginalized groups in order to reinforce the traditions associated with this holiday of giving thanks. By highlighting everyone from indigenous migrant workers harvesting beans in Mexico to incarcerated Americans “packing potatoes in Idaho”, Santos Perez illustrates how the groups most fundamental to producing the food traditional to Thanksgiving are often also the most often ignored and exploited. This was further emphasized in the reading through a “prayer” where the audience was invited to join hands with each other as a family would around the dinner table, giving thanks to those whose labor went into the trappings of Thanksgiving.
“The Last Safe Habitat” once again describes extinction and the human exploitation of indigenous wildlife through a uniquely human lens – that of the family, and particularly that of the child. The poem brings in similar themes to “Age of Plastic” in its construction of a post-mortem paradise in which death acts as yet another journey. This bliss is eerie, tinged with mourning, but speaks as well to ideas of renewal.
Dr. Ho’esta Mo’e’hahne, a UCLA professor in the English department, began the interview segment of the event by asking about the unique organization of Santos Perez’s work. The poet explained his approach, emphasizing the experimental, post-modern style of many of his works. The more “fragmented” nature and organization was explained as a way for Santos Perez and the reader to work together in weaving the fragments back together, “not into a whole or totality” but rather in a way that allows them both “to respond to history and colonialism”. Fred D’Aguiar, a professor of Advanced Creative Writing at UCLA, called back to the prayer that characterized the reading of “Thanksgiving in the Anthropocene“, likening it to a sermon: “As an audience, you’re kept separated from the speaker But [as a result of the prayer circle] you touched the people to your left and right.”
Discussing how the epoch of the anthropocene has influenced how he imagines kinship through his art, Santos Perez said, “Kinship and relationality is a major theme in that book. And [within] indigenous cultures, it is really an important ethics and methodology…. The challenge for these poems and a lot of eco-literature in general is how to articulate kinship [so] that readers can imagine it as well.”
Later in the event, Santos Perez reflected on his influences, recounting how everything from his Catholic upbringing to his experiences teaching creative writing have inspired his work and motivations. Traces of his Catholic upbringing can clearly be seen in the traditional prayer from the reading of “Thanksgiving in the Anthropocene” — however, this is not the only place where Santos Perez works tradition into his readings. Santos Perez discussed the importance of morality and orature in storytelling traditions of indigenous cultures, citing these as the inspiration for the call and response format he worked into “A Chant in the Waters”. Santos Perez stated that he is interested in “playing with the relationship between author and audience [because] when the audience participates, the poem is not complete without you.” Writing poetry in a time of great change has been very cathartic and healing for him, and he mentioned that he hopes his published work can connect with readers as well.
In a later segment, Santos Perez discussed how the violence of colonialism has been central to his work from the very beginning. Through his writing, he tries to reckon with the violences that indigenous peoples have faced; literature and poetry, he said, are a good medium to expose and critique these violences as well as a method to heal from it.
As these are violences that have occurred and reoccurred under colonial regimes across the world and history, literature is also an important method for the global community to come together and heal. Poetry has the capacity to “reckon with deeper emotions, politics, and ethics”, as Santos Perez put it, drawing up a deeper emotion within us all and charging the community with the past in pursuit of a better future.
Photo Credit: Candice Novak