Craig Santos’ Perez is best known for his multi-volume documentary poem from unincorporated territory, which deals with the history, culture, politics, and ecology of his home island, Guåhan (Guam). His new book, Habitat Threshold, pans out to reveal a network of concerns that affect the entire world. Perez reminds us of the ways in which racial injustice, homophobic violence, imperialism, neoliberal globalized capital, and ecocide are closely interrelated phenomena. The climate crisis is the direct subject of many of the poems, but it’s never entirely out of sight or mind in any of them. For instance, the poem “Teething Borders” flat-out tells us that
. . . by the end
of this year, 65 million will be uprooted,
and in the coming years, climate change
will displace millions more – half will be
But this isn’t a bloodless statistic for Perez. In another poem, “Care,” he tries to comfort his infant daughter – and can’t help thinking about those displaced persons:
“Daddy’s here, daddy’s here,” I whisper.
Would we reach the Mediterranean in time?
Am I strong enough to straighten my legs
into a mast, balanced with the pull and drift
of the currents? . . .
Writing Out of Time recently interviewed Craig Santos Perez via e-mail about (among other things) the relation between poetry and climate chaos. Hopefully, this will give you a better sense of the book.
Writing Out of Time: I believe this is your first poetry book that’s not part of (or from) the multi-volume “from unincorporated territory.” Habitat Threshold seems more like a collection, and the style(s) of writing and thematic focus(es) seem kind of different to me than your previous books. Is that a misperception, or do you think you’re going in a new direction here?
Craig Santos Perez: Yes, Habitat Threshold is a stand-alone collection that brings together the eco-poetry I have been writing the past several years. My "from unincorporated territory" series focuses on the history, politics, and ecologies of Guam, my home island. The series is still ongoing (the next linked volume is forthcoming in 2022), but I am also writing poems that are not related to Guam but moreso related to the pandemic and climate issues. So I would say they are parallel directions.
WOOT: Global heating is obviously a major concern of the book, and we think of Pacific-island nations as being among the most vulnerable. What would be the effects on Guam, in a couple/three decades, if things keep going like they’re going?
CSP: Guam is a mountainous island so it would not become completely submerged by rising sea levels like other low-lying islands and atolls. The shorelines of Guam would be inundated and impact homes, businesses, and roads. The tourism industry, which is the major economic industry, would be devastated. Our corals reefs will be bleached due to ocean warming and acidification, and fish stocks would collapse. Temperatures would become unbearably hot, typhoons will be more intense and frequent, drought will be more common and decrease agricultural production, and infectious diseases will be more prevalent. It would indeed be chaotic and frightening.
WOOT: Yeah, I guess Cyclone Harold gave us a taste of the kind of damage extreme weather can do in Oceania, beyond sea-level rise. I want to delve into how you go about addressing these issues in the poems. There is a devastating series of poems that looks at various U.S. holidays and their costs to humans and others; and each of them invokes a name that has been coined to describe the period we’re currently in. So, “Halloween in the Anthropocene,” “Thanksgiving in the Plantationcene,” and so on. How did you think of using holidays as a way to explore larger social and ecological issues?
CSP: Holidays are important because they give the impression of stability and predictability. Thanksgiving, for example, occurs at the same time every year and the meal is usually the same as well. However, in our times, even these seemingly unchanging holidays are changing. So I wanted to capture how the various epochal classifications (the "-cenes") help us see these changes and defamiliarize/destabilize the holidays.
WOOT: They certainly do that. In fact, the book never lets those of us in the global north forget that our comfortable way of life is at the expense of the well-being of people of the global south and at the expense of our common planet. But at the same time, it seems sometimes like there’s a feeling of being thoroughly interpellated in the culture-ideology of consumerism and the carbon economy. Were these poems a way for you to think through that tension?
CSP: Yes, I hoped to map my own entanglements within the capitalist, carbon economies. I eat meat. I drive. I travel on airplanes. I shop at the mall and on Amazon. I use plastic. Poetry is a space where I can express how it feels to live within (and be attentive/tensed to) the complex ecology of humans, animals, nature, and things. I wanted the book to "stay with the trouble," as Donna Haraway puts it, and whom I quote at the beginning of my book.
(to be continued Thursday July 2 . . .)
I'm a writer & teacher in Lawrence, Kansas who actually believes the scientists. I wrote a book of poems called Of Some Sky that seems to have something to do with all this.