In 2022, the Academy of American Poets invited twelve poets to each curate a month of poems. In this short Q&A, Brandy Nālani McDougall discusses her curatorial approach and her own creative work. Welcome to the Guest Editor Q&A, hosted by the Academy of American Poets. My name is Mary Sutton, senior content editor at the Academy, and I’m here today with Poem-a-Day’s guest editor for May, Brandy Nālani McDougall. Brandy is the author of The Salt-Wind, Ka Makani Pa’Akai and ʻĀina Hānau, Birth Land. Brandy, welcome and thank you for joining us this month.

Brandy Nālani McDougall: Oh, mahalo, Mary. Wonderful to be here. Mahalo. All right, let’s jump right into it. How did you approach curating Poem-a-Day?

McDougall: Well, May is a month that has been dedicated to celebrating Asian and Pacific Islander heritages, but Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, though we’re often viewed as one group, there’s a great deal of cultural, historical, linguistic, class, political, and racial diversity within this group. And, for a while now, there have been discussions within our communities about dis-aggregating this grouping, because we aren’t really sure if this is actually serving any of us. So, from a Pacific Islander poetry perspective, this grouping has resulted in our issues and creative work being somewhat invisible within the American public sphere, because our work tends to be eclipsed by the really amazing work of Asian American poets. 

Within our home islands, there also tend to be fewer publishing opportunities and writing programs encouraging and fostering new writers. So, even though poetry is, by and large, the preferred genre of Pacific Islanders, and I would even venture to say there’s likely at least one poet or orator in every Pacific family, when judged in terms of publishing and distribution within the U.S., it may seem as though we just aren’t writing. This is definitely not the case, but this invisibility persists and is really rooted in American imperialism and colonialism in our region. The violent and ongoing displacement of our peoples, and the silencing and suppression of our languages, life-ways, and systems of governance. 

Anyway, all this is to say that I chose to highlight Pacific Islander poets for this month’s curation and use the Poem-a-Day platform to share just a small sampling of the poetry being written by Pacific Islanders today. In doing so, I’m hoping to work against the collective and invisibility and the silencing of our contemporary literature, and the cultural, environmental, and social justice issues we write and care about, just our life experiences as islanders. I’m especially honored to feature poems by so many Pacific poetry heroes of mine, Dana Naone Hall, Mahealani Perez-Wendt, Joe Balaz, Evelyn Flores, and Dan Taulapapa McMullin, just to name a few. If I’m not mistaken, you grew up in Kula, a town in Maui, is that correct?

McDougall: Yes, that’s right. Yeah, that’s my ina hanau. And you’ve written a bit about this in your 2016 book, Finding Meaning: Kaona and Contemporary Hawaiian Literature, which is how I know that. You also discussed some of the writers that you’ve just mentioned in that book, in what was essentially the first extensive study of contemporary Hawaiian literature and a critique of earlier criticism by Katherine Newman and Sheldon Hershinow. In the book, you talk a bit about kaona and kaona connectivity in literature. Can you talk a bit about that and how it may have guided your curation? Yes. Thank you so much for this wonderful question. Kaona definitely did play a role in my curation for this month. Kaona is essentially the practice of hiding, but also finding meaning in our literature. But, it could also extend even to everyday conversations or even private jokes between people. It’s really kind of drawing from shared cultural connections and references between people. Kaona is definitely present within quite a few of the pieces curated for this month. However, there will be different audiences created by virtue of that kaona, if that makes sense. 

There’ll be some folks who might have front-row seats because their life experiences, perhaps, brought them to the Pacific in some way, or maybe they’re from the Pacific or are from a culture of the Pacific. And so, they’ll have front-row seats to certain things, certain ways of speaking, certain cultural references that others may not have. Nevertheless, those kind of in-rows behind the front row would still be able to enjoy the imagery, enjoy the use of language, and the storytelling that’s a part of these poems, nevertheless. Wonderful. If you could direct readers to one poem in our collection at that you haven’t curated, what would it be and why?

McDougall: Oh, this is a really tough question because there are so many poets that come to mind, and so many of their poems that I return to and can get lost in. And so many that I teach regularly in my classes, even. First, I will always be grateful to the poet, Garrett Hongo for being a kumumelei, or teacher of song, to me. I studied under him during my MFA at the University of Oregon. His poem, “Her Makeup Face,” brings together so much of what he taught me about the power of poetry, how it can hold so much emotion, tenderness and beauty, but also how to craft with an ear to musicality and sound. 

I also love “Brown Love” by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha. Their book, Care Work, is absolutely phenomenal. I’ve had the pleasure of teaching it in classes. There’s also Allison Adelle Hedge Coke’s, “America, I Sing Back,” Laura Da’’s “Passive Voice,” Mahmoud Darwish’s “To Our Land” and Lucille Clifton’s “won’t you celebrate with me?” That’s another poem I’ve read over and over again, and then just cheer at the end. I love it. There are so many more. It’s impossible to choose one. I’m sorry, Mary. No, we certainly welcome multiple favorites. But I feel like that Lucille Clifton poem is everyone’s favorite.

McDougall: I can definitely see why, yeah. What or who, rather, are you reading right now?

McDougall: Well, I just had the immense pleasure of reading an advanced copy of No‘u Revilla’s Ask the Brindled, which will be out from Milkweed in fall ‘22 and was a winner of the 2021 National Poetry Series. It’s rich, deep, magical, and fierce and shape-shifts in form and storytelling in really compelling and exciting ways. Her collection is focused on Indigenous, queer, de-colonial feminist identity; it’s amazing. And it really enabled me to see Hawaii and our shared home island of Maui with new eyes and feel them with new skin. And, when you read it yourself, you’ll understand why I mention “feel them with new skin.” A poem of Revilla’s would definitely have been included in my curation for May, but the amazing Brenda Shaughnessy beat me to it and featured her work in March, so it’s all good, it’s all good, Brenda. I love that you celebrated No‘u Revilla, too. Yes. Some of our listeners may remember the No‘u Revilla poem, “Welcome to the Gut House,” which was featured in Poem-a-Day on March 11. And, if you haven't checked it out, certainly do, because it is a great poem. What are you currently working on in your writing, teaching, or publishing life?

McDougall: My next collection, ʻĀina Hānau, Birth Lands, is being published by the University of Arizona Press as part of their Sun Track series, which is focused on Indigenous poetry. It will be released in summer 2023, so a year or so from now. The title refers to the oeve, or native Hawaiian way of introducing oneself by the specific ina of one’s birth, which is to mean more than just where one is from, but the specific land and water to whom you belong, to whom you are connected genealogically, to whom you have kuliana, or a sense of responsibility, to serve those lands and waters because they raised you. I’m drawing from a couple of our creation histories—one that describes the birth of our islands from the gods Papahānaumokuākea and Wakea; and another, the Kumolipo, that traces the universe emerging out of darkness. Finally, I’m also reflecting on how, as a mother, my body was an inhanou, a birth land, for a time for both of my daughters, and the book is really for them. It’s completely dedicated to them. 

As far as teaching goes, I usually teach Indigenous studies-focused courses. But, this semester, I’m working on a really wonderful class called Approaches to American Studies. Of course, what makes it a wonderful class are the students. So, I have students who are majoring and minoring in American studies. I’ve been guiding them on how to conduct their own original research and design their capstone projects; and it’s been really beautiful to see students trusting and following their passions with regard to research, and finding and writing about something they really care about. So, I’ve been able to oversee projects—everything from the Red Hill water contamination issue in Hawaii, or on Oahu island in particular, to blood quantum’s impact on Hawaiian identity, to the rise of K-pop and BTS on the American music scene. So, it’s been really fun and really wonderful to see that spark of joy, if I may, actually being applied to student research. Yeah, you and I actually share a background in American studies. I got a graduate degree in American studies, not in the U.S., but in Europe. But, I think we can agree that, for decades, American studies have been dominated, not only by white men, but definitely by a certain lingering Eurocentric view.

McDougall: Absolutely, absolutely. Yeah. I’ve been thinking a lot about it because Leo Marx died very recently and, of course, he was a pioneer in the field, but was also someone who encouraged dissent and inclusion, despite, obviously, given his age, being someone who definitely came from that milieu that was so white male-dominated.

McDougall: Yes. What’s your hope for the future of this field of study, particularly as it relates to Hawaiian history and literature?

McDougall: Well, what I really appreciate about the recent turns in American studies is the move to really examine or to have the field really focus on the history and the rise and the ongoing maintenance of American empire, both domestically and in the rest of the world. And all of the different ways in which American empire is maintained through hierarchies, through systems of inequality, through ongoing dispossession, through suppression of histories of oppression, through stolen people and stolen lands. These are histories and ongoing issues that the United States needs to confront and really reflect on. So, aside from just confronting it and having that truth be known, it also really needs to be discussed and reflected upon, really for generations, to even begin to create a culture of healing from it and doing better. 

So, given all of that, I’m really excited to see the field really turning in that direction and really creating spaces for these kinds of conversations. With regard to Hawaiian and other Pacific literature, I see our literature, because American studies is an interdisciplinary field, I see our literature helping to intervene in that direction, in that same direction of sharing our stories, our experiences, our histories, especially with regard to ongoing colonialism in our region and part of that militarization, tourism, et cetera, et cetera, other social justice issues, environmental issues, that all impact us here. Our literature intervenes in sharing our perspectives and our experiences and making them more visible to people; so that, then, our experiences and our issues can also be a part of that larger conversation.

Yeah. And so, I’ve always kind of hoped that, from here on out, our literature could be viewed as something that, as it should, as something completely valuable and worthy of critique, of discussion, and of acknowledgement of its beauty and depth. And I want there to be a larger audience for it, especially for those reasons, because I’ve seen the detriment that comes with the silencing of our literature. And part of that detriment can include our kids and future generations thinking we don’t have a literature, or thinking our literature isn’t good enough, and that’s not right. That’s not right. It’s not right at all. We all, every person, every human being comes from a people who are literary people, who have been writing stories, who have been creating stories for thousands of years. And there should be space for all of our stories to be heard and to come together, and for all of us to learn from them, really, and move forward as humans. And, if I must say, the planet really depends on our stories being heard and listened to. So, yeah, mahalo, Mary. This has been so enriching. Thank you so much for joining me for this talk. I think it’s really been wonderful. I hope you feel the same way.

McDougall: Oh, I do. Mahalo. Yeah, this has been really wonderful. And mahalo nui to you, Mary, and to the Academy for creating the Poem-a-Day series and for helping make it happen amidst everything that the world is going through these days. We need poetry more than ever. So, I love, love, love, love the work that you folks do. And, yeah, nothing but gratitude. Mahalo. And mahalo to you for contributing in May.


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