Noʻu Revilla, Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian), on the power of ecopoetry
PEN Transmissions is English PEN’s magazine for international and translated voices. PEN’s members are the backbone of our work, helping us to support international literature, campaign for writers at risk, and advocate for the freedom to write and read. If you are able, please consider becoming an English PEN member and joining our community of over 1,000 readers and writers. Join now.
Dunya Mikhail argues: ‘Poetry is not medicine; it’s an X-ray’. Mikhail points to what lies beneath, to the insides of what people can see and so often accept as the origin story. As in, this is where the problem starts. Or, this is where we begin. But what about the bones?
In ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi, bones are expressed by the word iwi. In addition to the term Kanaka Maoli, Native Hawaiians also identify as ʻŌiwi. Unsurprisingly, both names emphasise the genealogical relationship we have to our lands and waters.
E ōla nā iwi.
Long live the bones.
Our bones matter.
As an ʻŌiwi poet and educator in Hawaiʻi nei, I am often faced with the question of poetry’s value. This spring, I monitored the number of Covid-19 cases alongside the growing number of tourists flocking to our island nation. What had been an opportunity for ʻŌiwi to regenerate and enjoy our cherished lands and waters, without the excess of extractive capitalism, was slowly relapsing into Pay-to-Play Paradise. I was teaching two poetry courses at the University of Hawaiʻi-Mānoa. Like many educators, I wanted to use my classroom as a safe and brave place to activate conversations that mattered to my students, beyond academia.
During the spring semester, I tested Mikhail’s argument with 25 undergraduate students, who, faced with Covid-19 and the shift to online learning with its despairing isolation, decided to enroll in a creative writing course. During our unit on ecopoetry, we explored how poems can help us as individuals and writing communities to speak back to global crises like climate change. I was especially attentive to the ways in which my ʻŌiwi students used blackout poetry to channel their frustration for a tourism economy that peddles our ʻāina (land) as a playground, even during a pandemic. I designed the Waikīkī Blackout Poetry Project, a short unit that combined ecopoetry, erasure poetry, and spoken word.
Erasure poetry proved to be spectacularly propulsive – especially for my creative writing students who wanted to enter conversations about climate change, but did not know where or how to begin. First, students were assigned Mindy Pennybacker’s article on the effect of rising seas on Waikīkī’s shoreline, ‘As rising seas invade Waikiki resorts, state proposes adding more groins’, which was published on the front page of the Honolulu Star-Advertiser on 8 March 2021 and continued on pages A6 and A7. My blackout poem of the article’s first page served as a mentor text. The students were asked tocompose original blackout poems of Pennybacker’s article and to practice reciting their poems for a collective reading in class. To maintain dialogue with both the Star-Advertiser article and my blackout poem, each of us used the article’s jumpline as our title: ‘EROSION, A6’.
On 14 April, we performed our collective reading in class. Students shared their screens on Zoom to present their poems, and recited their work in turns. One student commented that the repetition of the title was not unlike the repetition of waves along a shore. Erosion, they also remarked, was performed not only by the refrain of ‘EROSION, A6’, but also by the blackout process itself.
With blackout poetry, writers can enter civic discourse by taking a text – a newspaper article, a testimony, some draft legislation – and mapping it anew. What different perspective can you offer? How do your ideas relate to the arguments originally established in the pre-exisiting text? Are you amplifying a well-rehearsed narrative or giving voice to an unheard or lesser known story? Those were the key questions for the writing process.
Some students used the blackout poem to focus on the relationship between global and local. Some investigated the idea of the Bottom Line, and how this could relate to their approaches to the poetic line or the frontlines of activism. One used the blackout poem to explore the word ‘erosion’, specifically the erosion of human dignity. While most used black-tip pens or Sharpies to compose their work, one student experiemented with colour, signifying different interests – Kanaka Maoli, corporations, tourists.
In the Waikīkī Blackout Poetry Project, many students used Pennybacker’s article as a first step toward understanding mass corporate tourism in Hawaiʻi. Mar Aiu, for example, was concerned with the absence of healing in conversations about economic recovery in Waikīkī. Others, like Kamryn Curammeng, centered Indigenous resistance and the dignity of lands, waters, and animals as living entities with agency. In her blackout poem, Kamryn drew a set of humpback whales in varying stages of desiccation. Humpback whales are already an endagered species, and with rising sea levels and the rapid warming of the planet, climate change is expected to be a leading cause of their extinction.
Of course, with environmental degradation comes spirtual trauma. Another ʻŌiwi student, Isabella Pasa, used her blackout poem as a kāhea, or call to action, describing the refrain ‘EROSION, A6’ as a calling out to ʻŌiwi and malihini alike to care for Waikīkī and other sacred places in Hawaiʻi. Marley Perreira wanted to center the theme of hope. In her reflection post, she wrote: ‘We should all know that the ocean and her creatures will not back down’.
I agree, we will not back down. Our lands and waters are ancestors. E ola nā iwi.
Noʻu Revilla is a queer ʻŌiwi poet, educator & aloha ʻāina. Born and raised in Waiʻehu on the island of Maui, Noʻu currently lives and loves in in Pālolo valley on the island of Oʻahu. She is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at UH-Mānoa. Her poetry has been featured in Poetry,Lit Hub, ANMLY, the Honolulu Museum of Art, and most recently the Library of Congress. Her second chapbook Permission to Make Digging Sounds was published in Effigies III in 2019, and she has performed throughout Hawaiʻi as well as Canada, Papua New Guinea, and the United Nations. In the summer 2019, she taught poetry at Puʻuhuluhulu University while standing to protect Maunakea with her lāhui.