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The final collection by award-winning poet Reetika Vazirani, published by Drunken Boat.

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Annotations of contemporary poetry edited by Lisa Russ Spaar, published by Drunken Boat.

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Sally Oliver:

Collier, congratulations on your winning collection, The Ground I Stand On Is Not My Ground.

Collier Nogues:

Thank you!

I felt that the most rousing parts of the poems were those which ‘spoke’ of silence or pronounced absence and negation, such as with the title. Speaking of the title, what kinds of underlying messages do you feel such a statement evokes? I can’t help but think of the line from Yearbook of Patriotic Movements, one of the historical documents you erase; ‘the patriotic movements had reached their peak and were dying out.’ Is the title a reference to the poisonous nature of extreme nationalism? Does war displace one’s identity with the land they live on? Do you consider the Pacific War on Japan a kind of ‘divorce’ between the citizen and his home, no longer able to ‘marry [his] cold hands to the nation’?

The title is an erasure of one of General Douglas MacArthur’s strategy maps of the Pacific region, marked with troop deployment numbers and possible routes of attack. So in the most immediate sense, the ground of the map was not MacArthur’s, except to the extent that he laid claim to it visually.

Once American soldiers landed on Okinawa, they were actually standing (and fighting, and dying) on ground that was not theirs. They became part of a history of contested ground; Okinawa had been an independent kingdom claimed by both China and Japan, and the relationship between Okinawans and Japanese during the war was complicated. The modern-day U.S. bases are also literally built on someone else’s ground; they’re leased. But it’s hard to say the land belongs to the legal owners, since if they want to stand on the ground they own (for instance, to care for their ancestors’ graves), they have to ask permission to enter the base.

On the most personal level, the title resonates for me because I grew up on Okinawa as a transient military kid, however little I was paying attention to the larger context of my being there. I thought of my ground as being in Hunt, Texas, my hometown. And, further, though these poems are based on research about real people’s experiences, these speakers are not real. I’ve made them up. The whole book is ground which isn’t mine, ground I’m pretending to. It’s important to be clear about that in the title, to renounce any claim to strong footing.

I do think of that “marrying” line in the sense you’ve identified here—the speaker (to me she’s a woman, mostly) evinces a kind of necessary wariness. She’s alert to the dangers of subscribing fully to the nationalism she’s been offered, but I can’t say which nation she’s ‘divorcing’ or, rather, staying with out of practicality. She could be Japanese, or Okinawan, or American, facing what people in each of those places faced—giant-scale violences carried out in the name of the nation. We face it now, too.

 

Having grown up on Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, how has your own personal experience of the place shaped your poetry?

 

I visited Okinawa three years ago, for the first time since high school. I couldn’t get on base unless someone sponsored me and kept me company the whole time. One night I took leave of my sponsor and drove around illiicitly by myself. It was a very strange feeling—I passed my old house, my friends’ houses, my school. I drove past the first place I made out with someone in a car (on the flight line, very romantic, until security police shone a flashlight in our window).

I was surprised by how visceral my memories were, how much I missed the landscape, even the airplane hangars and the suburban tile roofs. But it was even less mine that it had ever been: I was sneaking around at night with a pass that had expired. And as I drove, I realized that the outposts of Okinawan life on the base were much barer, much less enclosed by trees and shrubs than I had remembered. Had the greenery been trimmed back, or had I simply not seen the shrine next to the base library I spent countless afternoons inside? The sense of dislocation I felt was so strong, and also so, so obvious.

Aside from writing this particular book of poems, I think my experience of dislocation growing up—moving back and forth between Okinawa and Texas—as well as the compounding return visit, has made me seek ways to handle fragmentation in language. It has also shaped my taste in poetry. I like experimental, politically anchored work: Craig Santos Perez, Dawn Lundy Martin, Claudia Rankine, Bhanu Kapil.

 

You have quite a varied selection of historical documents which form your ‘erasures’, from intelligence bulletins detailing the war effort in Japan, to Tarzan of the Apes. Were there certain documents which you particularly enjoyed erasing more than others? Was it more difficult to emancipate the human aspect from war related paraphernalia? Or could you always see the potentiality for poetic creation?

One of my favorites to erase was Ezra Pound’s radio speeches. When I came across them, early in the project, I noticed that he uses “she” repeatedly to refer to democracy, or France, or other abstractions. Maybe once he means an actual woman. That, in combination with the intense racism in the speeches, made me want to interfere. So I erased poems which describe scenes in the life of a single person, a woman at the other end of the radio, listening alone in her house with her child. It was immensely satisfying to make Pound talk about her.

Sometimes it was difficult to find the human in bureaucratic language. The Congressional report which became “Security” is full of familiar grandstanding by political factions in the House. Every so often one of them would use a metaphor for rhetorical emphasis, and I latched onto those. Or I’d alter a repeated phrase to suit the poem’s world: for example, each “cold” in “Security” came from mentions of “the cold war.”

 

 

It is incredible how you transform a historical document without adding to it, but by simply commanding the rest to withdraw. When choosing particular words to form your poems, did you always begin the process with a particular message or thematic focus each time and were looking for the right words to formulate that? Or did the poetic message materialize afterwards, once certain words stood out or ‘spoke’ to you from the page?

One reason the book is mostly first-person narratives is that words containing capitalized “I” and “We” show up an awful lot in the beginning of English prose sentences: prepositions like “In” and “Instead” and “Where” and “When.” Each poem’s crafting was a combination of finding pronouns to start with, finding particularly good concrete images (the ink in “Examination and Discovery,” or the soft-colored fields and the work in “An Interior”), and imagining a narrative setting: was this speaker a soldier? A civilian? When—and where? How placed did I want her to be? What perspective could she offer that rang true from my research on survivors’ narratives and histories?

Sometimes a poem’s shape would be governed by how a text’s style of writing would change, as in “Editor’s Introduction,” which moves from an account of the challenges of translating Japanese to a retelling of foundational Japanese national myths. The language shifts from officious and stolid to beautifully image-rich, and you can see that lift in the poem where the speaker begins to describe what “reproducing Empire” feels like.

Toward the end, I looked for a few particular speakers, as I began to see how the project might round out. In “Day Trip,” a former soldier returns to the south coast of Okinawa, where the fighting was particularly bad. It was one of the last poems I wrote, and I knew I wanted it to give the book a broader timespan, to be the reflection of someone returning to the scene.

 

I like how you never portray the event of death in war as a purely static event, rather bodies seem to pass into ever changing states, into ‘new colors, gold and silver, brassy gray or yellow’, generating spectacular but devastating energy. Do you feel that we continue to ‘speak’ beyond our decay? Are the truest orators of war those who no longer have any words left to share?

That sense of transformation is a central interest of this book: how bodies transform, how moral contexts transform, how the self transforms through performing and enduring unimaginable but entirely common war acts. I think the truest orators of war are those who have experienced the transformations of war and have chosen to share their experiences. The Himeyuri Peace Museum and the Okinawa Prefectural Peace Memorial Museum, both on Okinawa, are good sources for those stories. So is Japan At War: an Oral History, by Haruko Taya Cook and Theodore F. Cook, and E.B. Sledge’s With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa.

There were so many volunteers for the suicidal forces in the Pacific War on Japan, including kamikaze pilots, who thought their mission would be honourable. They were referred to as ‘a swarm of bees’, the metaphor alluding to the pilot dying just as he ‘stings’ the enemy. I feel this is effectively echoed in your poem for A Book of Patriotic Movements; ‘the sound running underneath was the close press of bees.’ Do you feel there is something more sinister about a soldier’s capacity for self-destruction as opposed to self-preservation in this way?

What’s most sinister to me is what’s commonly expected of a soldier in any war—that he or she imagine him- or herself as a vehicle, as an extension of the nation, doing violence as a representative of what is good and necessary. Elaine Scarry’s The Body In Pain explores how we metaphorize armies so that the concrete bodily costs become unreal, extrapolated. One of her examples is how we might say “our army bashed in the other army’s teeth,” when what actually has happened is that our army’s individual soldiers have killed or maimed many more of their army’s soldiers than they’ve killed of ours. In this transformation, each individual soldier becomes part of a much larger body: the army, because he or she is already part of an even larger body: the nation. I think here of one bee in a swarm of bees, and in “A Book” I was interested in how it might feel to be a single person meeting the expectation of becoming a soldier, becoming able to do the things soldiers do, taking his place in the swarm that made up the full body.

In the war years, Japanese citizens in particular were encouraged to imagine the nation as a body. For example, The Manual of Home Cuisine, published in 1941 by a civilian organization in colonized Korea, encouraged families to acquire “a noble, healthy body and mind that aim to achieve one goal, namely to build a sacred, cooperative, communal body that accords with His Majesty’s benevolent heart.” The degree to which the nation was a literal body was very seriously debated. In 1935, Professor Tatsukichi Minobe, a well-regarded academic in the House of Peers, was forced to resign after maintaining that the Emperor was the literal “head” of state. The problem was that this reduced the Emperor to an organ of the body, rather than a transcendent entity. The authors of “Yearbook of Patriotic Movements” describe his resignation (you can make their account reappear on page 5 of the poem).

 

I enjoyed the spaces in your poems in which nothing is happening as of yet, or the period in which everything has collapsed after battle: ‘After the tempest, the air is very still, the wind delayed.’ Do you feel the real pressure to be the ‘the suspension of time’, these troubled spaces before and after the immediacy of violence?

This is a hard question. I have not been a soldier in a war. The closest I’ve gotten was high school, when many of my friends’ parents were shipping off to the first Gulf War, Operation Desert Storm. Or you could say that the closest I’ve gotten is being a U.S. citizen in the age of the wars on drugs and terror, and wars in Iraq and Afganistan. That’s nowhere close to what happened on Okinawa. But my sense, from research and talking to people who have been in combat, is that combat is full of long spaces of nothing, of anticipation. David J. Morris’s recent book, The Evil Hours, gives an excellent account of this and its psychological effects. In his 1987 essay “The Bloodiest Battle of All,” William Manchester recounts his time fighting on Okinawa, noting that it poured rain the whole time and the soldiers laid on ponchos through the night to keep from drowning as they tried to sleep. He also points out that if you put thousands of men in a line for three weeks without a sewage system, those men end up fighting, eating, and sleeping in a cesspool. Those things, I think, are also a kind of violence—the person in the middle of them experiences them as violence. There is, in that sense, no part of war that is not violence.

Yearbook of Patriotic Movements emphatically urges ‘reform’ against the encroaching Western forces; ‘the sound underneath was still the marching trumpets toward reform.’ However, you poems seem to deconstruct the concept of ‘reform’ through war, hinting at negation and displacement instead; ‘I was the already formed approach of force/the nothing left but not.’ Would you say there is a nihilistic streak in your poetry that derides these ‘movements’?             There are so many ‘centres’ mentioned in your verses – ‘central positions’, a ‘centre[…]collected, was formed’ – does this centre deny human agency?

To some degree, yes, the “centre” does deny human agency. There are people behind and in charge of every war, and it goes without saying that their experience of war is usually quite far from the experiences of the people who fight and endure it. Ezra Pound was a famous, influential public figure, and it’s hard to say what kind of impact he had on the events of the war, but I do think it’s safe to say he had more agency than many people did. He was punished for it after the war, certainly. As for the authors of the “Yearbook,” they were probably concerned less with the West and more with what they perceived as insufficiently militaristic forms of nationalism in Japan’s elite power structure.

I wouldn’t say that the poems have a nihilistic streak. I think they’re very interested in what an individual person can do within the constraints of her circumstances, in individual movements against the backdrop of war, and woven into the fabric of war. The narrator of “Security,” for example, is very consciously choosing from a set of limited options, but she has agency. She’s making meaning, not renouncing it.

 

It seems that one of the most atrocious lies the natives of Okinawa were told by Japanese military was the impending barbarity of American troops once they had won the war, forcing them into suicide. Yet the American forces were relatively humane toward their prisoners. The Japanese government has since advised textbook publishers to alter this truth which caused controversy amongst the Okinawans. Were you mindful of these kinds of attempts to ‘whitewash’ the true nature of war whilst writing your poetry?

Yes, very. The textbook censorship has caused controversy elsewhere besides Okinawa, too, and is related to other censorships, chiefly the Japanese government’s inexcusable refusal to formally acknowledge and apologize for the policy of using Korean and other women as “comfort women” to sexually service the wartime military. And while the Americans were relatively humane, they were not wholly benificent liberators. They used the recovery centers for displaced Okinawans in much the same way Americans at home used the internment of Japanese citizens: by appropriating their land and other property. There were also incidents of rape, sometimes en masse.

I am skeptical of a ‘true nature’ of war. Whose aims are served by history textbooks? That’s always an interesting and dangerous question, and the whitewashing is myriad. One of the most under-discussed elements of the post-war era is how it has been in both Japanese and American political and economic interests to tell the story of the war and the post-war era in a certain way. For example, the U.S. released Japanese war criminals who had experimented on live prisoners of war, including Americans, in trade for the information those experiments yielded about the human body’s capacity to survive torture. The U.S. and Japan are great friends now; we do not talk much about the war crimes, or the firebombings of Tokyo, or the legacy of successive Japanese and American possession of other places like Guam and the Philippines. In whose interest is it to forget?

In your poem, ‘On Resuming’, you describe ‘peace/a weakness of mind in the house.’ Your final poem, ‘At Rest’, seems anything but restful with the weary history of violence still polluting the consciousness of the average citizen. Is this line a general comment on the illusion of peace beyond the aftermath of war? Having grown up on Kadena Air Base, which is held under a mutual security treaty between Japan and the US, have you witnessed any remaining tension between US forces and the Okinawans? Is there a difference between ‘security’ and ‘peace’?

“On Resuming” imagines “peace / a weakness of mind in the house” as the kind of indictment foreign policy hawks might make about a domestic resistance to war: the desire for peace is a weakness of mind which, like women themselves, is best kept in the house, where it can be dismissed.

I think many of the Americans on Okinawa feel at peace, or at least comfortable. Many Okinawans probably do too; people have widely varying opinions. One good source is Ruth Ann Keyso’s Women of Okinawa: Nine Voices from a Garrison Island, which interviews Okinawan women of three generations. One young woman explains she prefers working on the base because she has found it much less sexist than working in a conventional Japanese office in Tokyo. There are benefits to individuals, as I think there always are in any system of power which has gone on this long and this complicatedly.

Security is as charged a word as peace is. As long as the American bases have been on Okinawa, Okinawans’ health and well-being have been a little less secure. There’s noise pollution, and chemical runoff from heavy machinery, and the occasional helicopter or plane crash. And then there are the actions of servicemembers themselves. While I was growing up, there were rumors of bar fights, some airman my friend knew bashed an Okinawan guy over the head with a flowerpot, that kind of thing. Not particularly accurate news, but I think it was for the most part true.

The year after I graduated from high school, three servicemembers abducted and raped a twelve-year-old girl, which set off the largest protests on Okinawa since the reversion to Japanese sovereignty in 1972. The original document of “Security” mentions those protests obliquely, and is in part an attempt to determine policy accommodations to calm them. One of those accommodations was moving MCAS Futenma from the populous center of the island to the north, or outside Okinawa altogether, to Guam (which has its own anti-base movement). That hasn’t happened. When I visited in 2012, I attended a protest of 25,000 people against the Osprey, the Marine Corps’ new helicopter at Futenma. And just last November, a new governor was elected on a platform of shutting down Futenma altogether instead of relocating it. It is a continuous struggle for Okinawans to have their interests considered in the political negotiations between Japan and the U.S.

 

 

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Published May 04, 2015 - Comments Off on Drunken Boat interviews Poet Collier Nogues!

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