An interview with Susan Schultz

Susan Schultz is Associate Professor of English at the University of Hawai’i-Manoa and the editor of the new magazine Tinfish. The Tribe of John: Ashbery and Contemproary Poetry, which she edited, was published in 1995 by the University of Alabama Press. In March 1996 she visited Hobart where she was a guest at the Salamanca Writers’ Festival.

 The question of a distinct and independent Tasmanian literature is one that receives increasing attention. Interestingly, there are parallels with the Hawaiian literary experience; as Susan Schultz explains.

‘The strong local writing community in Hawai’i is careful to separate itself from the "mainstream" writing done on the mainland. Hawai’i’s culture is very different from that on the continent - which is not to say that it’s homogenous there, either. There’s a greater Asian influence for one - and here Asians are the majority, as they are not on the mainland. There’s also more of a mix of ethnicities and cultural heritages as people intermarry - I wonder if this happens most on islands - and begin to create hybrid traditions. Thus there is, generally speaking, a greater emphasis on community here than elsewhere; the famous American reliance on self-reliance comes under intense scrutiny here. What interests me at the moment is what the effect of the tremendous success of local writing - Lois-Ann Yamanaka, for example, just published a novel with Farrar, Straus & Giroux, a New York publishing house - will be on future work; and on the perception of Hawai’i on the mainland. (The state is seen as a large vacation beach, for the most part). I especially wonder how this will affect the strong sense of place in local writing; there’s a very strong attachment to the landscape and to the languages of the place, including pidgin and Hawaiian. Nowhere is this sense of place stronger than in writing or in music by Hawaiians themselves. I’d be really interested to hear more about the Tasmanian take on island literature, and I’ve always loved Gertrude Stein’s notion that English literature is the way it is because England is an island.’

Schultz says she is ‘woefully ignorant’ of Pacific writing outside of Hawai’i, but hopes her work on the magazine Tinfish will change that.

‘In what is perhaps on instance of backward logic, I began the journal to learn about a community of experimental writers in the Pacific; this is backwards only because I started from a position of ignorance more than anything. Hawai’i has a very lively literary community, but there hasn’t been much of an outlet for the kind of writing found in Tinfish; on the one hand there are members of the creative writing faculty at the university where I teach, and on the other there are "local" writers. The university writers, for the most part, participate in what Charles Altieri calls "the scenic mode" of writing; their poetry is free verse, based on a belief in organic form. Local writers, who in the last 15 or so years have incresingly written in Hawaiian Creole English, tell the necessary stories of place and family. I don’t mean to criticize either mode, or the many variations on each, but, interested as I am in Language writing especially, I wanted both to find and to encourage that kind of writing here - and to discover it elsewhere in the Pacific "neighborhood". One of the great virtues in living in Hawai’i has been to discover the many languages that meet here: standard English, pidgin, and Hawaiian foremost among them. The Hawai’i writing in the first issue of Tinfish explored the possibilities inherent in experimenting with these languages: Joe Balax’s concrete poems explored the meanings of Hawaiian words, and Barry Masuda used pidgin and literary theory jargon to write about his own departure from Hawai’i to study in California. Kathy Banggo played with the material language - by placing different letters on different levels on the page - in her lyric poem about her mother. What delighted me most about putting the first issue together was to see these Hawai’i poems complemented by work from Australia, New Zealand, and California. The second issue includes several poems about anthropology, including a satiric mini-epic by Joe Balaz about being the subject of the anthropologist’s gaze, and Joan Retallack’s "notes from the specific rim" - of Maryland, USA, in her case - and a poem by Richard Hamasaki about Hawaiian "artifacts" locked up in museums.’

Im March, Schultz was a guest at the Salamanca Writers’ Festival. She says her time in Hobart made her realize how little she knew about Australian poetry, and how much, by way of contrast, her fellow panel members - Philip Mead, John Kinsella, Joanne Burns and Hazel Smith - had read of American poetry.

‘The name "Frank O’Hara" kept coming up like a mantra, at Salamanca and elsewhere, and it struck me that his importance to Australian poets was perhaps very similar to his importance for Americans. Namely, O’Hara wrote poems marked by spontaneity, and in an informal language that gave him access to the "ordinary", even as he layered them with references to "high art"". I’m remembering here his obsession with Rachmaninov. I was also struck by the presence in the air of the American movement of "Language poetry", which foregrounds the material with which poems are made and calls into question traditional poetic forms, including O’Hara’s free verse (though Language poets link free verse to a more nature-oriented organicism in poetry of the 1960s and 1970s). John Kinsella linked the Language poetry movement with his own work, while insisting that Australain poetry must remain grounded in its own place; this interest in place alone distinguishes him from most American language poets. I believe that Charles Bernstein, for example, claims that his place is where his language is, something I can’t imagine John Kinsella saying. Hazel Smith alluded less favorably to Language poetry, but her own performative style reminded me more of Bernstein’s - though she adds a musical element - than of any other poet I could think of.’

Like us all, Schultz was unprepared for the tragedy of Port Arthur.

‘After I left Hobart, I drove - nervously, on the left side of the road - to Port Arthur, a place obviously much in all our minds of late. I was struck by the intense strangeness of the place - the awful history, the stunning beauty of the landscape, the oddity of placing a bakery beside the flogging field. I could little imagine, however, what would happen a month later.’

Susan’s stay in Oz concluded with a visit to Melbourne and Sydney before her return to Honolulu.

‘I delivered talks about Hawai’i’s literature at both the Universities of Tasmania and Melbourne, in which I discussed the importance of "pidgin" - actually Hawaiian Creole English - to recent writing by Asian American writers in Hawai’i. The language is used by other writers here, too, but I limited my papers to a certain few writers whose work I know well. I had a hard time ascertaining what, if any similarities to this "local literature" there are in Australia, though I gathered that there is not any literature in a non-standard English; this is certainly a subject that I’d like to look into further in the future.’

‘In Sydney I met up with other poets including John and Lyn Tranter, who were kind enough to not only put me up, but who also introduced me to some of their friends. Once again, I was impressed by the interest in American poets, including my own favorite, John Ashbery, who was a friend of Frank O’Hara’s in New York. By this time I had filled a suitcase with books of Australian poetry, to which I will devote a healthy chunk of my summer.’

Like many an enthusiastic editor, Schultz works hard to promote her magazine. For the record,Tinfish ...

‘... is a journal of experimental poetry which emphasizes work from the Pacific region. Thus far we’ve published work by John Kinsella, John Tranter, and Alison Georgeson, with more to follow in Tinfish # 3 at the end of (our) summer, as well as poetry by Hawai’i, California, and mainland USA writers. I’m most excited, in editing the journal, by the new combinations of poets from very different locations, all of those working out of a set of assumptions that could be termed - loosely - postmodern.’

(Interview first appeared in Famous Reporter 13, June 1996).