Inscriptions of Power Upon the Land: Craig Santos Perez and Eric Magrane in Conversation
Poetry is a powerful form through which to uncover and recover the ecological layers of a given place. This kind of decolonial and ecological imagination opens up radical possibilities for change.
Race often determines who lives in polluted, impoverished, and vulnerable places. That has become clearer in recent years as movements for climate, environmental, racial, and migrant justice have gained momentum, intersected with one another, and earned national and international attention. These movements highlight how race shapes our experience with place, and how the places where we live in turn shape our sense of identity and belonging.
Questions of this complex relationship between race and place are implicitly and explicitly woven through a number of the essays in a recent anthology, Geopoetics in Practice, which brings together the insights of both geographers and poets. Craig Santos Perez and Eric Magrane, two of the editors of Geopoetics in Practice, continued that conversation in Terrain.org and spoke about their experiences as two writers and teachers coming from different racial and ethnic backgrounds and living in two very different places—the Pacific Islands of Guam for Perez, an Indigenous Chamoru author, and the American Southwest for Magrane, a White author. What they share is the insight that race and place cannot be separated: and that these intertwined conceptions are essential to the existence of culture, resistance, and creativity.
Craig Santos Perez is the author of five books of poetry, most recently Habitat Threshold(Omnidawn, 2020). He’s also the co-editor of five anthologies and a professor in the Department of English at the University of Hawaiʻi, Mānoa.
It’s important for people who have white skin to examine how and why systems of white supremacy are internalized and (re)produced.
Eric Magrane: I acknowledge my positionality and privilege: as a white cisgender straight male, I have benefited from a societal system that explicitly and implicitly entitles people of my race, gender, and sexual identity and that was set up to do just that. I feel some inhibitions beginning this conversation, because from my positionality, I feel like it’s more important to listen than to speak. On the other hand, it’s important for people who have white skin to examine how and why systems of white supremacy are internalized and (re)produced. As a cultural geographer, I often think about these questions in relationship to place and environmental justice, so I’m really looking forward to this conversation on race and place with you, Craig.
Craig Santos Perez: Thanks for initiating this conversation, Eric, and for starting with an acknowledgement of your positionality and privilege. I, too, have benefited from my gender and sexual identity, and as an Indigenous person, I have thought about questions of place and environmental justice, especially in relation to the Pacific Islands, where I am from. I currently live in Hawaiʻi, so I also acknowledge that I live and work on unceded native Hawaiian lands. As a poet, scholar, and activist, I have written about and engaged with issues of race and place, alongside how the forces of colonialism, militarism, and tourism have shaped Pacific ecologies and my own experiences.
If we understand place as a verb that is constantly in composition, perhaps there is a radical possibility for making a better world.
Eric Magrane: As a teacher, one of the basic things that I try to do in classes such as world regional geography or cultural geography is to make the distinction between two important grounding points: 1) that race is not biological, but is a social construct with a particular history; and 2) that race—as a social construct—has real and clear impacts on how the world is ordered. As individuals and groups, we then (re)produce or resist those orderings through our actions, in particular places. I also like to think about and teach place as a verb rather than as a noun—Robin Wall Kimmerer’s work on the “grammar of animacy” is great for this. Also connected with this are place names, which “encode meaning and memory,” as Lauret Savoy writes in her book Trace. I try to instill this idea that places—as verbs—are contested and are constantly and always being (re)made and (re)produced at every moment. Power is inscribed on and written into the landscape. This idea seems to be coming to the forefront of broad consciousness in the U.S., through debates about removal of confederate monuments, for example. And if we understand place as a verb that is constantly in composition, perhaps there is a radical possibility for making a better world.
Craig Santos Perez: Thinking about place as a verb and how power and race are inscribed on the landscape are important insights for students to engage with because it helps them understand geography in a more complex way. Yes, it has been powerful to witness the removal and debate over monuments and to see people radically re-imaging public space and, in turn, society at large. I teach ecopoetics and creative writing, and we have very similar discussions. I have several units organized around how race influences how we experience and thus write about the environment. For example, we will read Hawaiian, Pacific Islander, African American, Asian American, Native American, and Latinx ecopoetry to map racialized ecologies. Since I teach in Hawaiʻi, we study how Hawaiian writers honor and explore the encoded meanings in place names and critique colonial place names. In the Pacific, there are many “storied places” with historical, cultural, and political palimpsests of meaning. I try to teach my students that poetry is a powerful form through which to uncover and recover the ecological layers of a given place. As you mention, this kind of decolonial and ecological imagination opens up radical possibilities for change.
Eric Magrane: I really appreciate your expression of poetry as a form to “uncover and recover the ecological layers of a given place.” Your work certainly is an exemplar of that. I think that’s also what a number of the contributor chapters in the Geopoetics in Practice edited book that we worked on together do. Here in New Mexico, where I teach, I think about the marks that the U.S.-Mexico border makes on the land and on people, and about the complicated relationships that have been layered and inscribed on Indigenous lands by Spanish colonial power, and then by U.S. power. To pick up what you said earlier about the forces of colonialism, militarism, and tourism, I’m struck by how we can approach this discussion across different scales. In particular, I’m thinking about geopolitical—state and economic—power, and its intertwining with those forces you mention, and how those forces affect the individual local scale of the body. These forces have direct impacts on racialized bodies and how bodies interact in space and place.
When we re-emerge, I definitely think that our understanding of place will be profoundly altered.
Craig Santos Perez: I appreciate how your poetry, scholarship, and editorial work have also engaged with the complex inscriptions of power upon the land. Yes, the question of scale is so important. In the Pacific (especially Guam and Hawaiʻi), the impact of geopolitical power on our bodies has manifested in the form of high rates of cancers, diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and more. These sicknesses have been caused by exposure to military contamination and waste, nuclear testing and radiation, GMO agriculture and pesticide drift, and even the consumption of unhealthy imported foods. So many of my relatives have died from cancer and diabetes that I have lost count. There are places that we can no longer enter or live on because they are now occupied by military bases. There are other places that we can no longer farm or fish because the soil and water have been poisoned. Sadly, geopolitical forces have indelibly toxified Pacific bodies and foreclosed our habitats. At the same time, Pacific Islanders (with our whole bodies and breath) are standing up to protect and defend our sacred lands and waters from further desecration. How do you see scale operating in New Mexico (and/or the desert and the “Southwest” region) and in your own life and work?
Eric Magrane: Craig, I’m very sorry for all of the relatives you have lost. Here in New Mexico, we’re geopolitically linked to you in the Pacific Islands through our atomic and nuclear landscapes. From where I write this, I am about 120 miles away from the “Trinity Site,” where the first atomic bomb was detonated in 1945. People in the community are still fighting for the U.S. government to recognize the cancers caused by the fallout. I’ve lived in the Southwestern U.S. region for a little over 20 years, most of it in Southern Arizona, and the last few years in Southern New Mexico. The ongoing militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border is something else that clearly stands out in terms of how systemic forces have tragic and deadly effects—thousands of people have died trying to cross the border, and wall-building is destroying desert environments. The border cuts right through the Tohono O’odham Nation, which spans both sides of what is now Arizona, U.S. and Sonora, Mexico. These are just a few examples of how what we might call the systemic/geopolitical scale is embedded in and affects the scale of particular bodies in this region—the list could go on and on, now including the disproportionate effects of COVID-19 on Brown, Black, and Indigenous communities here in the Southwest and throughout the U.S. Regarding your second question, about my own life and work: I grew up in an overwhelmingly white community in rural western Maine. We had mostly clean water, food, and air, and I grew up learning that my body belonged and that it was, for the most part, safe. I recognize this as part of white privilege. In my work I try to acknowledge this and then serve as an ally to those on the frontlines of fights for environmental and social justice through my teaching and writing.
Craig Santos Perez: Yes, the history of nuclear testing here in the Pacific is so deeply violent and tragic. I have been thinking about the connection between atomic geopolitics recently since the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki just occurred. Guam itself was “downwind” from the nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands, and our people are still suffering from its impacts and advocating for justice and compensation. I have only witnessed the migration and refugee crises from afar, but I feel troubled by the inhumane response to build borders, detention centers, and deportation regimes not only in the U.S. but in many nations around the world. Of all the Pacific Islands, Hawaiʻi has been most affected by the pandemic. Partly this has to do with our location as an international hub for tourism, but also because it is home to many U.S. military bases, which have become super-spreaders. Pacific Islanders in the diaspora (especially in places like Utah, Arkansas, Washington, and California) have been infected disproportionately because they often work “essential” jobs and live in intergenerational households.
Since March, I have been privileged enough to “shelter in place” with my family. I have been teaching online, my kids’ schools and daycares have been shut down, and I only leave my apartment for “essential” errands, like groceries and pharmacy. My wife and oldest daughter have asthma so we are being very cautious. Place and space seem so much more local, domestic, and insular, but at the same time, I feel much more interconnected with other places through the national/international news broadcasts, as well as through the endless streams of social media and digital platforms like Zoom. What has your life looked/felt like during the pandemic? How has it changed the way you think about place?
Eric Magrane: The collapsing of distance in the virtual/digital world (which had been ongoing before the pandemic, but which is now heightened), combined with the intense localization at the level of the home and domestic realm, brings with it a dichotomy. On the one hand, the difference between the home/domestic realm and the national/global realm are collapsed: the global takes place within the localness of the home. On the other hand, I think this experience may be encouraging folks to re-think their connections to place and their own communities. I also have been “sheltering in place” with my family. We have a two-year old child, and there is never a dull moment with a toddler at home! I am teaching online as well, and primarily only leaving our apartment for essentials or for neighborhood walks.
On those walks, I note how we, as well as others in our neighborhood, have a different sense of personal space. Where in the past I wouldn’t have thought twice about passing someone on the sidewalk, it’s a whole different negotiation of space now, each adjusting so as to give at least six feet of distance. How do we do this without turning into people who are fearful of physical interactions with others? I wonder how this experience might shape our toddler’s idea of place and distance; since March, he hasn’t been able to see his grandparents in person, but interacts with them regularly through Zoom, Skype, or FaceTime. Even though our family is spread out across the country, we had planned on visits over the past half-year that had to be cancelled.
I agree that we are lucky and privileged, as university faculty, to be able to largely work virtually from home. I am also cognizant that a lot of our students may not have access to the same technology resources that I do. NMSU, where I teach, is a designated Hispanic-Serving Institution and, like New Mexico’s demographics as a state, has a minority majority student population with many first-generation college students. The institution, like many other educational settings, has been grappling with how to bridge this unequal access to the technology needed—an inequality which often maps directly onto racial disparities.
One thing that I wonder is what the world will look like once we more fully re-emerge from the sheltering at home, presuming that there is an effective vaccine or cure or treatment for the pandemic. Will our understanding of place be permanently altered through this experience? What do you think?
Craig Santos Perez: Yes, indeed, it has been inspiring to witness people supporting their communities during this time and initiating mutual aid groups, whether related to health supplies, food, rent, and general care. My daughters are six and three years old, so I can relate both to the lack of boredom and quiet, but also to interacting with people differently when we walk around our neighborhood. Sadly, we too had to cancel our trips to visit grandparents and relatives in Maui and California. As important as it is to keep a safe distance, I also deeply miss being with extended family. Yes, my institution calls itself an Indigenous-Serving Institution and a Hawaiian Place of Learning, but it too is wrestling with various racial disparities, inequalities, and even betrayals of its mission.
When we re-emerge, I definitely think that our understanding of place will be profoundly altered. But as we have been discussing, our experience of place is so contingent on our own positionalities, subjectivities, geographies, and privileges. For me personally, I would like to re-connect with the ecologies of the island on which I live, and to re-connect with all the environmental organizations that are working hard to protect the lands and waters here. I would also like to just spend more time with my kids at the beach or walking mountain trails, and I plan to spend far less time traveling. In general, though, I hope that people will value more the places we live, and to spend more time learning about the layers of histories and stories. This pandemic was partly caused by the destruction of place in terms of deforestation, habitat destruction, urbanization, and globalization—so I also hope that we will pivot towards more sustainable and renewable practices and economies. How do you think our sense of place will change?
Eric Magrane: I agree and hope likewise that this is an opportunity to move toward more sustainable and just practices and economies grounded in place. A group of scholars recently published an open letter called “An Environmental Humanities Response to Coronavirus,” which makes similar connections between the pandemic and environmental destruction and social justice, and which makes a call for reviewing one’s diet and limiting flying, among other actions. I was raised as a vegetarian and we are raising our son on a vegetarian diet as well. The big one for me is to limit my flying, particularly for conferences. The personal is political, of course, and I am all for individual actions that taken together build collectively toward a better future; I think one of the tricks, though, is to both work on individual actions and keep an eye on the systemic issues.
As far as how “our” sense of place may change, I want to return to your point about sense of place being contingent on who the “our” is in that construction. I have been thinking about your prose poem “This Changes Everything” in your new book Habitat Threshold, in which you narrate your experience at the first Hawaiʻi screening of Naomi Klein’s documentary. You write: “When the documentary shows polluted native lands, the white people gasp extra-loudly. I hate it when white people gasp extra-loudly. ‘Stop gasping so loudly!’ I shout in my head. ‘Everything already changed for native peoples centuries ago!”
As a white person, I’ve been thinking about how those extra-loud gasps in your poem might be understood as a kind of performance of white fragility (to use Robin DiAngelo’s term), particularly in the moment in late summer 2020, when many individuals, groups, and organizations have made statements of solidarity with Black Lives Matter. These statements are important; however, I also recognize that public statements can be a kind of performance as well as about effecting change. In some cases those statements might be like the extra-loud gasps in that theater in your poem. As a white person, I need to develop and practice a willingness to engage in often uncomfortable critical reflexivity—to “stay with the trouble” to use Haraway’s idea—and to move past any extra-loud gasps into actions and practices.
Like climate change, the coronavirus and the Black Lives Matter movement are changing everything, and we ourselves must change our lives and the systems we live within.
Craig Santos Perez: I have been inspired by all the moving visions that people have articulated in response to the pandemic, and I’m glad you shared the open letter by environmental humanities scholars. Like climate change, the coronavirus and the Black Lives Matter movement are changing everything, and we ourselves must change our lives and the systems we live within. Thanks for mentioning my poem, which is interesting to think about in our current movement, highlighting how we all differently experience racial and environmental injustice. Yes, so many aspects of solidarity statements, activism, politics, and social change is performative, and this performativity feels amplified in our social media era—a kind of “value signaling.” I agree with you, it is so important for white people in particular, but everyone in general, to maintain a “critical reflexivity” when confronting discomfort and trying to initiate personal and systemic change. As a final question, I am curious to how our current moment is changing your poetry? What are you working on now/next?
Eric Magrane: I continue working on a series of climate geopoetics poems, in which I write in response to quotes on climate change. I wrote the most recent one in response to a quote by Inger Anderson, executive director of the UN Environment Programme, for Joseph Harrington’s climate blog, “Writing out of Time.” I saw that you had a conversation there too, about Habitat Threshold. The current moment is pushing me to not turn away from the intertwining of racialized violence with planetary and ecological violence as I add new poems to this series. My spouse Wendy and I have also been writing personal letters to our toddler. We’re trying to align how we raise him with our convictions, at the same time trying to live our lives with play, experimentation, imagination, love, and care. As I write that, I know that it may sound corny, simplistic, or naïve, but it’s also what I am trying to bring into all my writing, teaching, and research. How about you? What are you working on?
We’re trying to align how we raise our son with our convictions, at the same time trying to live our lives with play, experimentation, imagination, love, and care.
Craig Santos Perez: Your climate geopoetics poems sound powerful, and I look forward to reading how they confront racial and ecological violence. And your letters to your toddler sound so beautiful (and will no doubt be meaningful to him when he is older). I hope that we can create a world in which our kids will be surrounded by play, imagination, and love. For me, I am writing a few poems about the pandemic, as well as co-editing an anthology of Pacific Islander environmental literature. I was fortunate to receive a Mellon/ACLS Scholars and Society Fellowship, in which I will be working on a community-engagement project, “Climate Change, Environmental Poetry, and the Public Humanities in Hawaiʻi,” in collaboration with the local nonprofit Pacific Writers Connection. It seems like all our projects, along with all that we have discussed here, are different ways to connect to places, honor our interconnections, and cultivate mutual care. I wish you the best of luck in your writing and teaching during these troubling times, and I hope you and your family stay safe and well.
Eric Magrane: Congrats on the Mellon/ACLS Fellowship, Craig! That sounds like a fabulous project. Likewise, best of luck in all your projects, and safe and healthy wishes to you and your family.