Craig Santos Perez, a native Chamoru (Chamarro) from the Pacific Island of Guam, is a poet, scholar, editor, environmentalist and activist. The author of two spoken word poetry albums, four books of poetry and the editor of three anthologies of Pacific literature, Perez is also an Associate Professor in the English Department at the University of Hawai’i, Manoa where he teaches creative writing, eco-poetry and Pacific literature. It was clear when I spoke to him by phone recently that Perez is a devoted advocate for environmental justice and for the inclusion of indigenous voices in the climate change conversation.
Growing up on Guam, a small island where the ocean and the rainforest are an ever-visible presence, the environment was always an important part of Perez’s life. Indigenous values and wisdom infused him with a belief that “the environment was sacred and should be revered and because all living beings, all the dead and all the future generations, are all related, we should act as if all of our actions affect everyone else.” It was only when Perez was older that he became aware of the impact that climate change was having on the environment of his homeland: an increase in severe storms, rising seas, and temperatures, plastic and waste pollution, die-off of marine species, military testing and training in the waters off the island, coral bleaching and ocean acidification.
Perez’s poetry, which he began writing in college, became his means of personal and political expression about these growing, existential threats. His powerful Praise Song for Oceaniais an example of his lyrical use of words and his ability to combine personal, political and ecological references and emotions in one poem, which is both an ode to the past, present and future of the ocean and a prayer for forgiveness and mercy on behalf of us all. Praise Song for Oceaniawas written for World Water Day 2016, then adapted into a video by Hawaiian filmmaker, Justyn Ah Chong in 2017. It was screened at film and eco-film festivals in Australia, Barbados, Germany, the United Kingdom and across the United States and was also featured on the United Nations World Oceans Day online portal, sponsored by the Intergovernmental Oceanic Commission.
In an interview for the portal, Perez stated that his inspiration for Praise Song for Oceaniawas “my deep respect for the ‘blue continent.’ In my native culture, the ocean is our origin, our source, our ancestor. I also wrote the poem because as an environmentalist I am deeply concerned about the current crises facing the ocean.”
To support the Standing Rock protest (April 2016 – February 2017), which was conducted by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and others to fight the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, Perez wrote Chanting the Waters: In solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe & all peoples protecting the sacred waters of the earth (2016). The pipeline was to pass under the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers and Lake Oahe in the Standing Rock Reservation. The thousands of participants who protested knew the pipeline would contaminate the region’s waters and damage ancient burial grounds.
As climate activist and hip-hop artist Xiuhtezcatl Martinez described the gathering, it was the largest mobilization of Indigenous peoples ever held. For that reason alone, even though they ultimately failed in halting the construction of the pipeline, the event was an enormous success An audio version of Perez’s poem can be found below, followed by an excerpt from the poem, which reflects the author’s frustration and anger with corporate greed, his personal associations with water and his mesmerizing, rhythmic language.
Chanting the Waters (excerpt)
water is life because we can’t drink oilbecuz water is the next oil
becuz we wage war over gods & water & oil
water is life becuz only 3 percent of global water is freshwater
becuz the water footprint of an average american is 2000 gallons a day
becuz it takes 660 gallons of water to make one hamburger
becuz more than a billion people lack access to clean drinking water
becuz in some countries women & children walk 4 miles every day to gather clean water
& carry it home
becuz we can’t desalinate the entire ocean
water is life becuz if you lose 5 percent of your body’s water you will become feverish
becuz if you lose 10 percent of your body’s water you will become immobile
becuz we can survive a month without food but less than a week without water
water is life becuz we proclaim water a human right
becuz we grant bodies of water rights to personhood
becuz some countries signed the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea
becuz my wife says the Hawaiian word for wealth, waiwai, comes from their word for water, wai
water is life becuz corporations steal, privatize, dam, & bottle our waters
becuz sugar, pineapple, corn, soy, & gmo plantations divert our waters
becuz concentrated animal feeding operations consume our waters
becuz pesticides, chemicals, oil, weapons, & waste poison our waters
water is life becuz we say stop, you are hurting our ancestors
becuz they say we thought this was a wasteland
becuz we say stop, keep the oil in the ground
becuz they say we thought these bones were fuel
becuz we say stop, water is sacred
becuz they say we thought water is a commodity
becuz we say we are not leaving
During our conversation, Perez and I discussed the difference between eco-poetry and poetry on nature in general. He explained that eco-poetry, a relative new poetry subgenre, addresses the natural world but is also suffused with a sense of environmental justice, responsibility, ethics and urgency about climate change. Perez acknowledged that undergraduate classes on eco-poetry are “not too common” but that his students connect to it because they are “noticing the changes happening around them as they enjoy the outdoor life in Hawai’i and they feel anxiety.” He ends his class each semester on a hopeful note. He asks students to write their own visions for a sustainable future and emphasizes the fact that poetry can be a form of activism. What gives Perez enormous satisfaction is when he sees his students and former students showing up at climate marches and other environmental events.
Much of the power and accessibility of Perez’s poems on climate change and its impact on the waters is due to the fact that he often uses poignant moments from his personal life to gently help the reader connect to what can be an overwhelming topic (see Without a Barrier Reef printed in full below). Artists of all genres who choose to address climate change in their work know that it is always a struggle to create a balance between a message they want to convey and an appealing artistic expression of that message. Craig Santos Perez is a master in finding that balance.
Without a Barrier Reef
I hold my wife’s hand during the ultrasound.
“That’s your future,” the doctor says, pointing
to a fetus floating in amniotic fluid. One night
a year, after the full moon, after the tide touches
a certain height, after the water reaches the right
temperature, after salt brines, only then will
the ocean cue swollen coral polyps to spawn,
in synchrony, a galaxy of gametes. We listen
to our unborn daughter’s heartbeats; they echo
our ancestors pulsing taut skin drums in ceremony
and arrival. The buoyant stars dance to the surface,
open, fertilize, and form larvae. Some will be
eaten by plankton and fish, others will sink
to substrate or seabed, root and bud. “She looks
like a breathing island,” my wife says, whose
body has become a barrier reef.
The weather spawns another hurricane above
Hawaiʻi. Rain drums the pavement as flood
warning alerts vibrate our cellphones. In bed,
we read a children’s book, The Great Barrier Reef,
to our daughter, who’s snuggled between us.
“The corals have mouths, stomachs, and arms,”
we tell her, pointing to our matching body parts.
“They form families, like us. They even build
homes and villages.” She loves touching every
picture of tropical fish and intricate corals;
I love that the pictures never change
(and isn’t that, too, a kind of shelter). We close
the book, kiss her forehead, and whisper:
“Sweet dreams.” She is our most vulnerable
island, and we are her barrier reef.
A few years from now, maybe we’ll go snorkeling.
The water will drum against our skin. The ocean
will be warmer, murkier. No fish, anywhere.
All bleached and broken. When we return
to the eroded shore, she might ask: “Daddy,
are the corals dead?” Maybe I won’t tell her
about dredging, pollution, or emissions; maybe
I won’t tell her about corals struggling to spawn,
frozen in vaults, reared in labs and nurseries.
“Don’t worry,” I might say: “They’re just
sleeping.” Maybe she’ll look into the water
and whisper: “Sweet dreams,” as the surface
of the sea closes like a forgotten book.
(Top image: Craig Santos Perez.)
This article is part of Imagining Water, a series on artists of all genres who are making the topic of water a focus of their work and on the growing number of exhibitions, performances, projects and publications that are popping up in museums, galleries and public spaces around the world with water as a theme.
Susan Hoffman Fishman is a painter, public artist, writer, and educator whose work has been exhibited in numerous museums and galleries throughout the U.S and has been awarded numerous grants and awards. Her latest bodies of work focus on the threat of rising tides caused by climate change, the trillions of pieces of plastic in our oceans and the wars that are predicted to occur in the future over access to clean water. Fishman is also the co-creator of two, large-scale interactive public art projects: The Wave, which addresses our mutual need for and interdependence on water and Home, which calls attention to homelessness and the lack of affordable housing in our cities and towns.
Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.
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