Juliana Spahr

It’s been a great summer of reading so far, due to some great suggestions by my VONA classmates. Hanif Kureishi’s Buddha of Suburbia has been a highlight (now I am itching to see the BBC movie series), as well as Junot Diaz’s The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (I will never think of a footnote the same way again).

An exciting poetry find related to Hawai’i has been Juliana Spahr’s Fuck You-Aloha-I Love You (2001). These five poems are experimental but surprisingly accessible (while not at all simple), and I love how she subtly enters the ordinary, everyday messes of space in Hawai’i. She seems to translate the deeply ingrained colonialism of things like barriers to public access of Palolo Stream into beautifully radical, precocious children’s stories. She pulls cliched local catch phrases like da kine close to the chest again. From her poem things:

There are these things and they

are da kine to me. They are the tear.

The torn circle.

There are these things and they are

the circle malformed, pulled tight

in one place. These things are the

symbol of all not being right. They

are da kine for me.

Da kine for me is the moment when

things extend beyond you and me

and into the rest of the world. It is

the thing.

Like two who love each other

breaking eye contact and coming

out of that love and back into the


A quick internet search also took me across Spahr’s collection of essays and poems online here. It was her essay 2199 Kalia Road (with images by Candance Ah Nee) that made me think her style is like the best possible kind of children’s book: short, direct sentences that lead you by the hand into a familiar-unfamiliar world. Here she investigates the Halekulani hotel, one of the most expensive places to stay in Waikiki, and public access to the beach:

The beach is the subject of this essay. Or getting to the beach. To get to the beach from the Halekulani there are three ways.

One way is through the hotel. The hotel is restricted to guests. You can walk through it and if you look like a tourist or a shopper no one is likely to stop you. You might stop yourself. Access to the hotel is policed by a series of signs that constantly remind you that if you look a little funny- a little down on your luck say or a little ragged around the edges- then this isn’t the place for you.

Another essay in her online collection is called Dole Street, which documents her walks to work, the history behind all the streets she crosses, curious readings of the signs and bumper stickers she sees everywhere, and even her obsession with the night-blooming cereus outside her apartment window and along the walls of my high school, Punahou, whose history she also tells. I just can’t tell you how much I appreciate this work. Towards the end she reflects on her position as a “continental school teacher” (she was a professor at UH-Manoa, but seems to be at Mills College in Oakland now) and on syncretism:

But what I have learned from walking up and down Dole Street is that one cannot just celebrate syncretism. It comes with a complicated history. For syncretism to matter as a way out of all the separatisms that define us and their potential turns to absolutes, it can’t be simple. Simple syncretism has been used again and again in Hawai’i to erase the power dynamics that make it a colonial state. The fact that certain people had to meet the values, languages, and desires of certain others who suddenly arrived because they could not survive otherwise while those who arrived had a choice about whether they would meet the values, languages, and desires of those who were present often gets overlooked.

This is the kind of poetry and essay-writing that I crave, and I am so happy to have found it. I am hungry to read more of her work, including The Transformation (2007) and This Connection of Everyone With Lungs (2005).


2 thoughts on “Juliana Spahr

  1. Read _The Transformation_. My absolute favorite! I read that and Haunani-Kay Trask’s latest poetry colletion at the same time: that was quite interesting.

  2. thanks for sharing the enthusiasm on juliana’s work! i will definitely have to look at ‘the transformation,’ and return to some of haunani’s poetry too.

    thanks also for the blogroll add, and kudos to you for following your heart not just tenure.

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