Bamboo Ridge Oral History Project
The following oral history transcript is the result of a recorded interview with Eric Chock (EC) in the summer of 2022. The interview took place via Zoom, and was conducted by Donald Carreira Ching (DCC) for the Bamboo Ridge Oral History Project. This interview is the second of five sessions.
Eric Chock and Donald Carreira Ching have reviewed the transcript. Their corrections and emendations appear below in brackets with initials. This transcript has been lightly edited for readability by the Bamboo Ridge Oral History Project. The reader should bear in mind that they are reading a transcript of spoken, rather than written, prose.
DCC: We left off talking a little about some of your past influences, and you had mentioned lyrics. Were there any other influences that you wanted to talk about?
EC: Yeah, I mentioned mostly songwriters and music, and then local songwriters and music, and I wanted to add Milton Murayama. All I Asking for Is My Body came out in the ’70s before Talk Story, and I believe Darrell introduced it to me. That would be the one main published local author that I remember clearly because when we read that, it was like a bomb going off in our minds because he had Pidgin in it, in a serious published short novel. It was people who sounded familiar. Characters that sounded familiar. It had the plantation history. I remember Darrell talking to me about it one night when we were going down to see Olomana. That would be well before Talk Story when I was still in grad school.
DCC: So, a lot of this was when you were in grad school?
EC: Sorry, I meant that I learned about Murayama before Talk Story, not in grad school. Talk Story planning began I think in 1977 around when I graduated from UH. The conference itself was in June 1978, though there were events leading up to it.
EC: Another local author I remember reading was Ozzie Bushnell. I had gotten a copy of Kaʻaʻawa. That also, it was like “Wow.” It’s about old Hawaiʻi. The language sounded a little dated to me, but it was clearly set in old Hawaiʻi and his Pidgin was a little hard to decipher, but he was writing about that time and place and in a Pidgin voice sometimes. I think this was just before Talk Story, and then we got to meet him there, and he was impressive to talk with.
DCC: Had you seen a lot of writing about Hawaiʻi?
EC: I think one other local writer I should mention is Joe Hadley and his Pidgin book chaloookyu eensai. I remember seeing that at Honolulu Book Shops down in the Ala Moana Shopping Center, but I think Darrell had already mentioned it to me or showed it to me. Again, this is before Talk Story, maybe early ’70s when I was in grad school. That was almost impossible for me to read because he took a standard black and white marble composition book and hand-wrote the lines across the pages in script in a totally phonetic spelling, and his Kaua‘i Pidgin was heavier than mine. But he had a small, thin vinyl record tucked into the back cover, and you could lay it over a regular record and play it on a record player. His readings were perfect Pidgin, and for us to hear Pidgin poetry on a record was amazing. His book is as important a classic in the local lit canon as any other, I think.
Other than that, I hadn’t seen a lot of other local lit up until that point. Again, my influences were more lyrics, words, not written words, local comedy from Booga Booga. In my mind, there’s a division for me between before Talk Story and Talk Story and later, and we’re making another earlier chronological division between college and grad school, which is another important division for me—both of those ended before the Talk Story conference itself began.
DCC: One thing I wanted to ask before we jump into that. Last time, you mentioned your work with Legal Aid Society and VISTA and your involvement with the various social movements of the time, is there anybody or anything about that time that stood out to you or that influenced your writing in any way?
EC: That period when I was a VISTA worker, that was right before grad school, and I was assigned to Legal Aid which assigned me to a group home for runaways in Waiʻanae. I worked there with this guy named Mel Takahara, who was a counselor there, and he was a poet, and he was also in the Poets in the Schools. I talked to him about poetry and showed him what I had written on my own up to that point, which was not a lot, and he was the one that recommended that I go to Phyllis Thompson and show her my writing, and that’s what I did. He encouraged me to join Poets in the Schools, which I did. So that was a crucial connection. I remember he told me I had a cinematic style with a lot of concrete images. I thought I was imitating T. S. Eliot’s rhythm. I didn’t really know anything about imagery, so that was important to me.
During that time period, I shifted away from the group homes assignment because the folks from Old Vineyard Street [who were being evicted to make way for a parking garage for the State -EC] came to Legal Aid and asked for legal advice, and the attorney that was helping them was the attorney I was working with, Clayton Ikei. So I decided I wanted to work with them in this local eviction struggle. It was actually not far from my home, maybe seven blocks away. I mentioned Chinatown and Kalama Valley and all of that because there were all these different land struggles or eviction struggles, and that’s how I got to know people in Ethnic Studies and different movements. But that didn’t apply directly to me as a writer at that time. I have written a few poems about that period, but I think it was just an important part of my personal development and somewhat related to politics of the anti-war movement. In college, I had participated in sit-ins inside our administration building and protested the development of weapons technology for use in Vietnam. I marched in the counter-inaugural protest in D.C. when Nixon was elected.
So, when I look back, I see that connection between political involvement in college and the anti-war movement and protest, then coming home and being kind of politically involved, a community organizer, then I make that connection to being a literary activist. I don’t hear that term too often, but that is how I used to think of myself, especially during that period. It’s kind of like all these different literary angles and changes which required a kind of activism. That’s why I think that period was important as a VISTA worker, not just with a direct connection to Phyllis and Poets in the Schools in grad school, but also just that political activism showed how you can make social change, political, literary, or whatever. Two of the catchwords of the day were “counterculture” and “relevance.” One of the ways you make a counterculture relevant to people is by acknowledging who they are and what they want, whether they’re a different ethnicity or social class. Obviously, the western literary canon wasn’t as relevant to local people as it could be, and that became my focus.
DCC: Do you think you always saw yourself as a poet and a literary activist or was that something that slowly became part of your sense of identity?
EC: A poet? Back then I thought that it was only me, but then I quickly realized that a lot of people had this insecurity about, am I a poet, am I a writer? Is this a real poem that I wrote, or is it just a song? If it is “just” a song, is that even close to something more literary, like a “real” poem? I had a lot of insecurity about that. And so, going to Phyllis, a lot of it had to do with, do you think I have it in me to keep going in that direction and to possibly someday being a real poet? And being asked by her to join Poets in the Schools, then in the second year, being asked to be coordinator of the program, that was a really big boost.
Another thing is that part of the national policies related to Poets in the Schools. We didn’t talk about that much, but Poets in the Schools here was seeded money from the National Endowment for the Arts to the State Foundation On Culture and the Arts, and then from the State Foundation to the Hawaiʻi Literary Arts Council [HLAC] as part of a whole national movement to start arts councils in literature, dance, music, theater, etc. That’s something I think happened in the ’70s nationwide. So part of that national policy was to have practicing artists go into the school so that students would have exposure to someone who was a “real artist” or a “real poet,” or a “real painter.” You had to have publications to qualify, so from early on there was this whole thing about well, are you good enough? Are you a “real poet,” a “practicing” poet, a published poet? So, I really appreciated having Phyllis supporting me and seeing that I could be helpful and could do good work. I’d meet with her every year and ask her to critique my poems and give me guidance.
I admired her a lot. To me she was a real poet, and it was not just that she was published or that she was a professor, but that when she talked about poetry or talked about writing poetry, you could just feel it. Her medium was language and inside language, and she was great that way. But where I was coming from was much more political at first. I was coming from the influence of different ethnic studies–land struggles and the eviction of generally poor people by rich people who wanted to develop certain areas of the state. So, when I was writing in the beginning, at first I thought I would become a better writer in order to continue doing something relevant to the kind of politics that I was connected with earlier on. And yet I was also interested in learning the so-called traditional Western canonical literature. I used to tell this to my Poets in the Schools classes all the time or my undergrad Creative Writing students. I’m of the belief that it’s best to learn the basics and whatever conventions are widespread, then learning to improvise but only after you have some basic knowledge. Like jazz musicians who studied music, but then improvise in new ways. So, there’s a certain level of basic knowledge that you must have about language and about history, and whatever the background of a topic is, and that all helps when you mine it and use it in this creative act of expression that you’re going to call artistic.
So, I look at that period of going to grad school as kind of stepping into that realm again and learning all the basics and who the great poets were, and immediately I got thrown back into the Romantics and a little bit of Shakespeare, which, frankly, a lot of it I didn’t like just because of the language. I always struggled with Old English and formal kinds of English from 150 years ago. I felt that I still needed to know why they were considered great writers. And I did learn to enjoy who the great writers were, and then I quickly moved on.
I started to focus on more 20th century/contemporary, and all along we had contemporary poets around us. Phyllis was not a major American poet, but she was a practicing, published poet. Then soon we had Jack Unterecker, who was nationally well known as a Hart Crane expert, and again, not a well published poet in his own right, but nationally known as a scholar and a critic. Then we had this whole stream of visiting writers, which brought all those well-known poets that I really enjoyed reading. People like James Wright and John Logan, W.S. Merwin, Galway Kinnell, and Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Not a lot of female names in there but that’s who were considered the so-called established white male poets. That to me was a great education, having a visiting writer every semester, having other visiting poets give readings, getting to know who all these people were while I was trying to get a background in what poetry was supposed to be in the old days, and what these guys were doing, a lot of which was rebelling against the previous generations’ rhymed verse. Up until the mid-20th century, you look at Merwin’s early poems, for example, they rhymed, then later he just became totally free verse. So, these guys had gone through that big transition themselves and had to work through it and had to fight to get recognition, and that was interesting, it helps you to see what they considered poetry when they were still rhyming and felt that it was necessary. And then what did they bring forward with them when they felt that it wasn’t necessary. And yet, for the most part, the ones I enjoyed still had some kind of connection to formal skills; if not for overall organization, then for sound patterns, and if not rhyme sound patterns, just other kinds of sound patterns. It’s like that Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetic Terms. It’s like 1,000 pages and [these poets] had learned many of these terms and forms and skills and they chose what they wanted to use in their own writing.
Like for instance, John Logan, he impressed me early on because he used to talk about creating his own syllabic poetry. He’d just make up a form like nine syllables and fifteen syllables and use that as a form, and he’d try to create a rhythm out of this repeated number of syllables, and maybe internal rhyming. And he was one of these people that really was great with sound, and I remember people really enjoyed hearing him read. I remember one time walking out of one of these readings with Wayne Westlake and he said, The man can sing. I really miss that kind of reading because there’s been such a shift toward intellectual irony and that kind of wit, and while that’s interesting, it doesn’t have the melodies that these guys had. And they’re there and they’re reciting things off the top of their head in class, and you can hear the sound in their voice. I think that’s really sensational. Now there’s hip hop rhyming, which is different.
DCC: I’m interested to know; you came to the program, and you were really interested in learning the formal aspects of poetry and getting a little more of that literary history, but it does sound like a lot of the writers were just white male writers and you’re not a white male. As you’re going through grad school and going through this experience, where did you feel like your own work was fitting in, were there moments where you were wondering, what am I going to do with my work? When Darrell gives you Milton Murayama, are you asking the question, why are we not talking about this?
EC: I do see Talk Story, which was a year after I graduated, as a big turning point, but at the same time I see my entire four years of graduate school as leading up to that Talk Story turning point. Maybe not consciously, but everything went together, and Talk Story was just the natural progression at that point.
First of all, I was all in with Phyllis and doing Poets in the Schools to be acceptable to the DOE, getting administrators to buy in to meet their conventional poetry standards. So I thought I had to know the literary history, and try to write sonnets in class, doing the whole master’s poetry thesis. Then at the same time, when I’m in Poets in the Schools [PITS], I’m going to fourth grade, fifth grade, sixth grade, seventh grade classes in Kalihi and Wai‘anae. A lot of the schools that we were assigned were low income. Those places often want more services, those teachers want more help. So my approach to kids whose first language was not standard English was always to kind of try to meet them halfway, and if they’re talking Pidgin, I didn’t see any problem with talking Pidgin back to them and explaining things that way. If it’s going to communicate best what I wanted, then why not do it that way? Then, soon, you find out there’s a lot of people in the Department of Education who don’t like that, so that became a controversy and local issues came up right away. It didn’t take long before that happened.
Usually for me it was not a problem. I took it as not important enough to prevent me from having a successful residency. If they said they didn’t want Pidgin poetry, I’d comply. There’s always something else I can do. From the beginning, we were just like four- or five-day residencies, that was our contract, then we’d go to another school. In the beginning, it was like three or four or five residencies per year until we built the program up. So, with only a limited amount of exposure likely, in my mind, there was so much that poetry could offer that if a school didn’t want something, like Pidgin, or poems about getting lickens, I wouldn’t do it.
Early on, Caroline Garrett, who was PITS coordinator at the time, and I got a student’s poem about divorce. In the early ’70s, people didn’t talk about divorce, so that was kind of weird to have someone nine years old write about that, just on her own, not assigned. Or, I have a section in the Small Kid Time collection called Getting the Belt, which was a big thing in my life and I found out it was a big thing in a lot of kids’ lives. But for some teachers and administrators, that was a problem, then that quickly became an issue related to local culture. And people coming from the mainland would come in saying, oh, no, everybody got “the switch,” or got taken out to the shed. It was like a universal thing, but there were some people that would talk about it like it was a local thing. So there were always ways in which issues, themes, images, even language, phrasing, would come up that was local, like you know, “gunnfunnit, you kid.” People would associate that with Pidgin and with local language. Gunnfunnit instead of goddamn kid, stuff like that.
So, on one hand, I would say I wanted to do a lot of catch up coursework in grad school because my major as an undergrad was Sociology, not English. And then at the same time, where I was coming from was this more politically focused period in my life. So, without having English as a major, I did need to read a bunch of stuff I didn’t know about. So, there was that kind of split, but then things started progressing. In HLAC, I was involved from early on, because HLAC took funds from the State Foundation on Culture and the Arts to help pay for the PITS program. And I’m not talking a lot of money, I’m talking like a $1,000 for the year for the coordinator and all the poets.
DCC: How were you paying the rent?
EC: At that time, I was living in the basement of my parents’ house. Until I graduated, I lived in the basement, and I mean underneath the house. My bed on the rocks. Darrell probably remembers that, with the centipede crawling up your leg. My dad and I, we screened it in, we chipped away at the boulders underneath the house and made two flat areas and made cement slabs just big enough for a little tiny mattress. And yeah, that was my room and when it rained heavy, there was water on the lower part because it leaked. But yeah, that was how I was living. Bicycling over Punchbowl to get to class all sweaty.
So there was Poets in the Schools and that HLAC influence, and so I was involved with meetings and with the people who were talking about readings and events, and after a while there were two committees for the readings funds. One was called Major Writers and one was called Local Writers, so right away you had this division. This is where Wayne Westlake started complaining about why the visiting writers were getting paid so much more than the local writers, if at all. You had to pay expenses for visiting writers, of course, but the amount budgeted for reading fees was way more. And of course, the visiting writers were more well-known people, so there were obvious considerations to make. They were published in America, whereas local readings were, at first, local professors, but then, with people like Wayne Westlake and people who were actually in the Poets in the Schools, which Wayne was, they began to say, “Hey, these other local people, they should be able to have readings too.” So that literary politics was happening already before Talk Story.
It was sort of separate from my graduate school curriculum, and yet it was also a strong presence. In my first year, following my non-literary political actions, I joined the Campus Center Forum Committee, maybe a spillover from my community organizing days, and I helped to program non-literary things like this one panel with Lieutenant Governor Nelson Doi called Preserve Local Lifestyle, because he had spoken about overpopulation, cultural imperialism, and trying to find ways to limit in-migration to the state. This was the time, post-statehood, when there was some kind of zoning thing going on, and there was a big wave of people who had applied for and got permits to build high-rises. There was a time when there was like a skyline of cranes. We used to say our state bird is a crane. So that was around that time when people were talking about limiting development, something we all talked about with the eviction struggles because people wanted to build on these places where they were clusters of old wooden plantation style homes and make a high-rise. So, I remember that was one of the kinds of panels that I programmed. That was when I had Owana Salazar come and she sang Hawaiian songs related to that, like “Kaulana Nā Pua.” And she talked to me about being a Wilcox and having ali‘i roots and claim to the throne. This was also when I programmed the Kaho‘olawe talk with Walter Ritte and Emmitt Aluli, but instead George Helm came. I already knew about Kaho‘olawe, but of course meeting him had a big impact on me.
That stuff really didn’t have much to do with literature, but then the year after that, I joined the Culture and the Arts committee. At that time, the only ongoing, recurring event that committee had every year was Homecoming, so I refocused that whole budget towards arts programming and literary readings, literary workshops, dance workshops, film series. Just more Arts focused things. I did poetry readings, open mics. At the same time, I had a Ka Leo column where we published student poems, I called it “Poems-in-Progress” taken from a title of a John Logan poem and because we’re students. You don’t expect the most finished, publishable poetry, but that’s okay, it’s in progress and we’re just sharing. I started a student writing contest. And then I had a KTUH radio show with Richard Hamasaki, and we called it Haku Mele o Hawaii, which actually was the name that Caroline had used for the Haku Mele o Hawaii Poets in the Schools annual publication of student poetry. Richard invited people like Wayne Westlake and “Black Dog,” and Doug Matsuoka, and I invited people like Jerry Santos, Liko Martin, Leon Siu of Leon and Malia, singer-songwriters, which is interesting when I look back, that I invited Hawaiian singer-songwriters, and I mean because that’s how I thought about local poetry at that time.
So that was all going on, being in Poets in the Schools, being on the HLAC committees, having HLAC events, all the UH activities and events, and then after Wayne made his views known, he was soon named chair of the Local Writers committee of HLAC. So, he got to revise the budget and refocus it with more focus on local writers. So that was all going on pre–Talk Story. A lot of things changed at Talk Story, but I think a lot of it we were already starting to do. All that stuff is why I called it literary activism, it was a lot of activity. People were starting to do their own magazines, and before Bamboo Ridge, Wayne, Michael, and Richard and couple of other guys. Kubo and Lamansky wanted to start another magazine, and Wayne invited me to their first meeting. I think that effort ended up with Richard and Wayne doing Seaweeds and Constructions. Leonard Kubo and Bob Lamansky did their own magazine. I didn’t become a part of those.
Around that time, too, before Talk Story, Darrell had tried to write a grant to SFCA to start his own magazine. Remember, he had made his own book. He was in that New College at UH, kind of like an experimental school, you know they were doing those things in the ’70s, make up your own curriculum and major, and that kind of thing. And so I think he was an Art-English major. He made his book by hand after he had written it, so he knew how to make books, and he created Sun and that was what he put on the copyright page of his handmade book. And Sun became the company inside of my book, listed inside the first issue of Bamboo Ridge.
So stuff like that was happening, publishing, putting on readings, radio shows, the student newspaper, working in the schools, publishing the local students anthologies every year, with not only kids’ poems but articles about what we did in the class, like Westlake’s article was about Kaho‘olawe one year, how he was trying to get the students on Maui to write about what they saw when they looked off and saw Kaho‘olawe. It wasn’t like Talk Story happened in a vacuum.
DCC: That movement was happening at the time. With your poem for George Helm, was that in your peripheral at the time?
EC: That was published after I graduated, right? 1980. After the initial occupation. Although I had been to rallies and stuff, I didn’t go to the island, but I had talked to other people who had, and I had been to their rallies. I think I went to Olomana when they were playing at Chuck’s more than anybody else besides them [joke! -EC]. They had this song, Mele o Kaho‘olawe, by Uncle Harry Mitchell. I had been to rallies where they had talked about it, they had sung, standing and holding hands in a circle, and Hawaiʻi Aloha at the end, at the Bishop Museum, at the capitol. I was involved in that kind of thing, but after I graduated, and I think after Talk Story, I was at one time, just on my own, listening to and then reading Gil Scott-Heron. He had different poem-rap-music combinations. I started hearing his musical raps, his records would be in the jazz section of Records Hawaii. He had one, the refrain was, “I said I wasn’t gonna write anymore poems like this,” and I used to listen to that a lot, and I just made the connection, reminded me of George Helm.
When I first heard George Helm speak that time I organized a forum at UH Campus Center Ballroom, it was so inspiring. And just to hear him talk, it’s not talking, it’s some other thing. You just want to listen to the sound of him talking. And that really, even though I had been aware of the movement and with what Wayne Westlake had written and published about it and had known about [Helm], that was important. That was like hearing a poet, even though he was he was not talking poetry. And then the music. He sang at Gold Coin, and I had his record, all that falsetto.
So in my grad school years, there was traditional studying, but there were all these other literary activist things going on. It was important to do both.
DCC: You’re becoming the literary activist, really. You’re getting this formal education, you’re in Poets in the Schools, then you have all these other things happening as well, too. And Hawaii Review was also coming out at that time and various books coming out.
EC: Oh yeah. So, before Hawaii Review at UH there was Kapa, and I think because Darrell went to school here, he first turned me on to that; it became Hawaii Literary Review, and then Hawaii Review. And when I was a student, I read poetry submissions for Hawaii Review, and then one year, I was listed as the poetry editor. There were little magazines, like I mentioned Leonard Kubo and Bob Lamansky earlier. They started something called Tantalus, just small staple-bound poetry zine. There was this period where, if you went to Berkeley or most major university bookstores in the country, maybe except here, there would be a poetry rack with these handmade poetry zines, stapled together, people had made, maybe hand-drawn graphics. Separate from the regular commercial books and magazines. At Berkeley there’d be like dozens of them. There was this woman, Julia Vinograd, the poetry street lady in Berkeley, she would go around just selling her poetry collections on the street. I bought a book from her. Just a couple of dollars and she would give you a stapled together, typed up Xerox collection of her poems. And so, there was this tradition already of that kind of thing and chapbooks, for if you couldn’t get into a big publishing and you’re just new and emerging. So, people also tried to make nice chapbooks. Frank Stewart was doing that, and he had two or three of those, a little nicer paper, artwork, and covers. So, it was around, and you could see it. It wasn’t that hard to do, and Darrell was already doing it with his own thesis book. We were doing it every Friday with our Poets in the Schools classes, mimeographed and stapled. Remember, this was before computers and printers. You had to go to a print shop to get Xerox copies, or maybe find access to the cheaper purple mimeograph machines.
Just about every aspect of literary development and activity was already being attempted in some way here, except maybe not a lot in terms of scholarship and the development of a criticism, but there wasn’t that much published yet, and that didn’t take too long to happen after Talk Story.
DCC: So, we’re in 1978, all these movements are happening, how do we get Talk Story? What is the lead up to that?
EC: I see it as the third Asian American writers’ conference. I mean that’s what some people think of it as because the first was I think in Oakland, somewhere around the Bay Area. Then there was another one in Washington, because that’s where Stephen Sumida was doing his PhD. Also, when he was there, Arnold Hiura was there, and they both worked on the second one. Now, these were mostly just writers’ conferences, I think, and not like a bunch of professors and scholars and critics talking about the work, but they felt need for that, and especially when you look at what people said since that time. There was a lot of focus on the need to have some serious critical theory to help advance the literature. If you don’t have that you really don’t generally get a serious literature. And a lot of this came from the introduction to Aiiieeeee!! And Frank Chin—Do your homework, know your tradition, cover all bases, make sure you’re doing it right. So, that’s the way I think of it as, the third hoping-to-be national Asian American writers’ conference, getting people from across the country. I think it was mostly Asian American, maybe some Chicano influence early on, and of course, when we came to Hawaiʻi it was Hawaiian panels as well.
So those guys, Steve and Arnold, they came home. I think they were both lecturing just a couple of classes, and Arnold was in American Studies. Dennis Ogawa was there creating scholarly and popular interest in Japanese American or local Japanese identity and issues. I think he was connected to American Studies then, and Stephen was in English, and they were starting to work on this thing at least a year before it happened, and that’s just when I graduated, and I remember towards the end of my last semester, sitting outside the elevator, outside Kuykendall, on that concrete bench, and Sumida came up to me, and he said something like, You wrote “Manoa Cemetery.” That was something that I had written and published in Hawaii Review. And he said something about how that meant that I was a local poet, and in those days that was still kind of an unusual thing to say. That’s how we met.
And it’s defining you in a way that, if there isn’t this generally acknowledged thing of Local Literature, and if most local writers are still not recognized, you wonder what that means to someone. He just sat down and started talking to me, and said that he was thinking about getting this thing together with these Asian American ethnic writers and some scholars who had written about it, and this big conference, and he invited me to get involved. He told me that Arnold Hiura and Marie Hara were co-organizers. I knew who Marie was just vaguely from being around the English department.
And so from that point on, I started going to meetings and the meetings got bigger and bigger as they invited more people to do different things, from having me try to spearhead a Talk Story anthology project and writing grants for that, and other people did fundraising and selling smoked marlin. I also organized a pre-Talk Story series of three readings that we called Talk Story Readings that were in Makiki Community Center, kind of like a part of the HLAC local readings. I can’t remember everyone involved: Darrell, Jody Manabe, Gail Harada, Elizabeth Shinoda, maybe Delaina Thomas, Deborah Thomas, Sheri Akamine, Wing Tek Lum, Wayne Westlake, Michael Among. Wayne was really into Chinese poetry at the time, and he did calligraphy. He made their poster with his calligraphy and called it Three Chinese Poets, for him, Wing Tek, and Michael Among. I think I still have it. They were all a part of that reading series. It’s a lot of work to put together a national weeklong conference. Stephen did most of it I think. Stephen and Arnold and Marie, but Stephen was the one who talked to me the most. When you guys talk with them, they can explain it.
DCC: I do want to backtrack and talk a little bit about a Frank Chin and that essay you mentioned. In your essay, you mentioned that once Aiiieeeee!! comes out, it’s like a direct contrast to what you’re learning about in the university. That they don’t feel like local literature is established and that this publication essentially changed that.
EC: So, I don’t want to make this too complicated, but I should add some things for that pre-Talk Story period, especially if we’re going to talk about the same kinds of things post-Talk Story. So, things that I remember from my graduate school years that are related to recognition of non-traditional, non-canonical approaches to creative writing and literature. One was I didn’t do a standard literature master’s program. Some people in the English Department at UH had been trying to establish an MFA or MFA-style degree, but when I was there, they were having a hybrid of coursework and then doing a creative [instead of a critical -EC] thesis, so I could say that my own poetry was my creative thesis. The people on my committee explicitly stated that I wanted to write for a mainstream audience. This was something that was going on at the time. In other words, they told me that I didn’t want to include Pidgin in my thesis. That’s how it was then. There were comments like, Booga Booga is great, I love to go and watch their show, but that’s comedy. You can’t have Pidgin in your poetry. I respected their judgment, and wanted to follow the rules, so to speak, to get my degree. So that was going on, and as time went by, it came up in different ways, like in class. Maybe that was my first year, second semester, maybe third. There was this story about how there was this hippie guy from the mainland, which there were many at the time, who submitted a poem about a white crane like in Buddhist literature. Except these white cranes in Hawaiʻi are what we used to call cowbirds, and they used to follow behind cows and pick stuff out of the cow patches, which is a different bird from the Buddhist icon, which was a comment made by the son of a Buddhist priest. He was a little upset that the two birds were confused. He made that comment and I learned from him. That imagery does have some resonance with people in certain ways and you can, number one, offend some people, or number two, just confuse some people by what you’re saying about a given concrete image. But that was one thing that I learned.
Later on, as I was doing programming, there was a time when I had Phyllis on one of the panels in a small conference. As Poets in the School’s coordinator, one of my duties was whenever we had a visiting writer, to ask whether that person would give a workshop for the poets in the Poets in the Schools, maybe a panel talk. And we had great workshops with most of these people, but there was one workshop where one famous guy looked at the stack of poems in his hand that he was given and he just threw it down and he said something about how he didn’t want to comment on everyone’s poems because it was usually a waste of time, and we should not worry about publishing our own poems at this stage. And he didn’t even read them. Then, it got to a point where I think people heard about this and other more sensitive people said things like, I can’t comment on this because I don’t know what this image means, I don’t know what his word means. You know, if someone used a local term or a Hawaiian word, or something like that.
And Phyllis made a comment like that in a workshop once. Like, I can’t say anything about this because I don’t really know, or this is not part of my background, and to her credit, she then took Hawaiian and she became a Hawaiian language speaker, so she was making that kind of adjustment. But when she said that it was also in the context of, oh, why is our curriculum still not really reflecting our community, or why can’t we have more of a local focus in our writing workshops. And that was her response at first, I can’t teach that kind of thing because I’m not really that familiar with local culture.
And of course, this reminds me of Darrell’s story which he probably will tell you about. How he learned in his fiction workshops that they didn’t want him to try to write about growing up in Chicago, writing in what he thought was standard Chicago English, when that was not his background. And that got him more focused on writing in Pidgin. Local characters, local voices. We didn’t exactly have that parallel in poetry class.
There were other incidents that were quite specific like that. Maybe the main one that sticks in my mind right now is when I went to the department to try to get support for Talk Story, and the old guys, many of them really didn’t like it. They seemed offended by the idea that Local Literature was something worth considering. And there was an older philosophy, that if it was written, it was literate. And if it was oral literature, it wasn’t literature. Literate meant written down. I think that was part of it, and the term “pot boiler” was used for some people’s writing, not real literature, and there was the confusion between Asian-American and Asian Literature and making them like they were the same thing. Actually, when I brought the proposal to the department, I was told they would fund it only if it were focused on Asian literature, Japanese literature from an older period, which was what some professors had studied. So, there were some really tense moments.
And at that time, Stephen was making it a point to say that Jack London and Michener, these people, they weren’t really representative of local culture at all, or definitely not a “view from the shore” as he called his book. So, there was that going on, and so I guess I was already aware of that difference. There were maybe less intentional but definitely local writers/visiting writers conflicts in HLAC scheduling. I remember once when I scheduled a local event, I got a complaint from someone, who was a friend, because he had scheduled Ashbery, and we didn’t coordinate our schedules so that kind of conflicted. As I talk about this, I realize more and more how much all of this was already in there well before Talk Story, which is probably why Stephen approached me because he knew I was doing all this stuff.
There was some conflict with who the poets were in the Poets in the Schools, and getting Westlake, Among, and Richard Hamasaki in was kind of a turning point; then they all left after a couple of years. They had more things that they wanted to do. But you couldn’t do Poets in the Schools full-time, really, and if you wanted to make a living, you had to look for something else for the most part. So there were these kinds of things going on and they were fairly explicit.
There were other incidents before Talk Story with the kinds of conferences that HLAC was putting on that brought out the conflict. I remember it was a challenge to say, I’m not just trying to promote myself, for one thing, I know that there are other more published writers, but there are good writers, and I would put Darrell Lum’s work up against anybody, and that’s how I always felt. Maybe it was because I was friends with Darrell that I was able to keep going forward because I had somebody local who was good that I knew existed. Also, in the readings, there was that point where I was trying to re-focus the Cultural Activities Committee, and then use it to influence the HLAC schedule by saying, well, if HLAC will bring so and so, I’ll contribute $500 or whatever from the UH Campus Center budget. The one that I remember was Etheridge Knight, who was a “toaster,” which was kind of pre-rap. They were like folk stories, except they were rhymed poems, like the famous one, was about Shine on the Titanic. It’s this long poem about this black guy who was a busboy or a steward on the Titanic and he got away because when it sank, he wouldn’t take anybody’s money to have his space on the lifeboat, and so he lives on. It’s about how you have to struggle and survive, and think for yourself, and not always be a servant to someone, that’s the kind of things that these guys would make up. Etheridge was a toaster and a prison poet, a wounded Korean war vet that had gotten hooked on opiates, and later became a literary activist. I wanted him to come. I couldn’t get HLAC to agree, so I said, well fine, I’m just going to use my UH student budget and just put it all into getting him to come. Then for some reason Jack Unterecker, who was President of HLAC, said he would support it. He actually put Etheridge up in his house, and he took him around. He took him to his methadone treatments. Took us out to dinner. It was great. So, I remember that he was just this black guy who was known, in part, for his conventional academic poetry publications, but he was also known in the community for his oral poetry and his book Poems from Prison. And though it was difficult to bring him at first, after a while we worked it out. At first, there was resistance, and then when I said I would just bring him myself, then they were very helpful. All of which is a long way of saying that while Aiiieeeee! did have a strong influence on my thinking after Talk Story, before I read it I was already involved in implementing their ideas in various ways. Also, I like that it’s an example of how we could still work things out together somehow.
Eric Chock: Poet, writer, editor, teacher, and co-founder of Bamboo Ridge Press (1978) along with Darrell Lum. He spent twenty years as a Poet in the Schools, visiting most of the public schools in the state. He taught in the University of Hawaiʻi system for sixteen years, retiring as an Associate Professor in Humanities at the University of Hawaiʻi West Oʻahu campus. He has received individual awards from the Hawaiʻi Literary Arts Council, the Hawaiʻi State Legislature, the Hawaiʻi Alliance for Arts Education, the Hawaiʻi Institute for Public Affairs, and the Association for Asian American Studies, as well as awards for Bamboo Ridge Press and Poets in the Schools from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Donald Carreira Ching was born and raised in Kahaluʻu, on the island of Oʻahu, Hawaiʻi. His poetry and fiction have appeared or are forthcoming in publications such as StoryQuarterly, Every Day Fiction, and RHINO. In 2015, his debut novel, Between Sky and Sea: A Family’s Struggle, was published by Bamboo Ridge Press. In 2018, he received the Elliot Cades Award for Literature, Emerging Writer, and in 2021 and 2022, he was a finalist in the Rick DeMarinis Short Story Contest. He is currently working on a short story collection, Blood Work and Other Stories.