Eco-poetry as environmental advocacy: A virtual lecture with Craig Santos Perez

The annual Shannon-Clark Lecture and retreat focused on indigenous and environmental issues


Craig Santos Perez said poetry can help us imagine a world without colonization during a virtual lecture on Oct. 8.

Perez discussed climate change and eco-poetics in his talk, focusing on examples of indigenous poetry. Perez is a native Chamorro from the Pacific island of Guam.

“Indigenous eco-poetry expresses interconnection and interrelatedness of humans, nature and other species,” Perez said. “[It] reconnects us to the sacredness of the earth.”

Perez, a professor of English at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa, was the featured speaker for the annual Shannon-Clark Lecture. The event usually includes an in-person talk followed by a weekend retreat workshop.

This year, both the talk and the workshop were via zoom.

He was introduced by English department chair, Holly Pickett, and Deborah Miranda, the Thomas H. Broadus Professor of English.

Miranda said that Perez’s writing includes a “kind of radical hope based on indigenous systems of relationship and reciprocity.” Miranda is an indigenous woman herself, as a descendent of the Esselen and Chumash tribes.

She called his representations of identity “layered and complex”, and he subsequently dedicated the presentation to her.

Perez said he began to study climate change and eco-poetry after moving to Hawai’i, where ocean warming and acidification, coral bleaching and rising sea levels are evident.

“It’s a scary time to live in the Pacific,” he said.

His study of eco-poetry has encompassed the last 10 years. Perez said that recently, there has been an “explosion of anthologies” of eco-poetry, which is useful because it is one of the core classes that he teaches at the University of Hawai’i.

Perez identified three foundations for eco-poetry: indigenous eco-poetry, post-colonial eco-poetry and trans-pacific or oceanic eco- poetry.

Indigenous eco-poetry relates to or originates from a Native American or global indigenous community. Post-colonial eco-poetry “reckons with devastations of ecological imperialism,” Perez said. And trans-pacific eco-poetry conveys a “deep sense of belonging to the sea.”

He shared three poems during the presentation. One, “Dear Matafele Peinem” was performed by the poet, Kathy Jentnil-Kijiner of the Marshall Islands, at the 2014 United Nations Climate Summit.

The poem is a letter to Jentnil- Kijiner’s daughter, Matafele Peinem, telling her of the beauty of the natural world, the devastation of climate change and a promise to make the world a better place.

Perez screenshared a Youtube video poem of her recitation. He said the poem always makes him emotional because he has two young daughters.

Children can be an inspiration for change, he said, and he is happy to see the younger generation advocating for a global response to climate change.

The two other poems that he shared, “Ocean Birth” by Robert Sullivan and “Water Remembers” by Brandy Nalami McDougall, involved the power of the Pacific.

“Water Remembers” describes Waikīkī, which used to be a “‘fertile marshland’” as a “‘miasma of concrete.’”

Perez took questions from students and professors after his talk.

Miranda asked Perez how he continues the taxing task of writing about the traumas of colonization. He said the answer is creativity and experimentation with form.

“It’s hard for me to write just elegies,” he said. “I could because there’s so much sadness and trauma. But that would only be allowing part of me to breathe.”

One questioner asked what a decolonized world looks like.

“A decolonized world is a safe world for our children to grow up,” Perez said, adding that they wouldn’t have to worry about guns in school, racism or other violences and “indigenous peoples have their self-determination and sovereignty.”