WOODRAT FLAT: Saijo writes it out plain with a riddle at the center
If Albert Saijo were still alive, and if he were to embrace the Internet, I'd totally follow him on Twitter. He's kind of a celebrity; as a beat poet he collaborated with Jack Kerouac in the 1950s—which is very cool. But let's give him his own spotlight; his Twitter feed would look something like this:
WE MUST REALLY LOOK INTO WHY THE SLIGHTEST PRAISE GIVES US SUCH INORDINATE PLEASURE
VOCAL HARMONY IS ONE OF THE FEW GOOD THINGS HUMANS DO TOGETHER
I NEED HOURS OF IDLE TIME—TIME NOT COMMITTED TO SCHEDULE OF ANY KIND
WRITE IT OUT PLAIN WITH A RIDDLE AT THE CENTER
EVERY TOOL IS A REDUCTION OF ANIMAL CAPACITY
I'd retweet all of that. Saijo hits just the right note of profound brevity mixed with "wtf?":
IT IS A MYTH OF OUR AGE THAT WE REQUIRE FORMS OF REASON TO SURVIVE
Of course, I'm showing you excerpts from Woodrat Flat—just out from Tinfish Press this January—that particularly tickle my millennial sensibilities. Woodrat Flat features an extended series of poems, prose poems, and one-liners like these that are digestible, accessible, weird, lovely, and mind-bending.
However, the poetry in Woodrat Flat carries none of the look-at-me performativity that Twitter as a venue seems to inspire. (The capital letters are supposed to mimic Saijo's characteristic block-letter handwriting rather than convey shouting.) Quite the opposite, the collection posthumously presents poems that Saijo never published while alive. They were ostensibly part of his private journal, written in the 1980s and 90s while he and his wife were living off-the-grid on the rural coast of Humboldt County, CA, where they grew pot and lived as much in a state of nature as possible.
There are a good number of poems that deal directly with this illegal occupation. Saijo rants about the demonization of marijuana, arguing for his individual sovereignty, freedom from surveillance, and the necessity of opting out of the insanity and state violence of civilization. The silent subtext, just under the surface of these passages, is Saijo's experience of internment in a concentration camp for Japanese Americans during WWII. The police helicopters that disturb Saijo's rural community of pot-growers seem like just another incarnation of the forces that put him behind barbed wire in his youth. Sadly, by the end of the collection Saijo and his wife are forced out of their home and must move to the Big Island to live in seclusion on Kilauea.
With this biographical knowledge we can read Woodrat Flat as the bittersweet story of Saijo's time in Humboldt County—a kind of paradise lost. In longer prose poems about the land on which he lived—which are the real highlights of the work—we see Saijo-the-author keenly observing and interacting with the land and its creatures, finding his way into being a more ethical and less heavy type of human animal. His language combines seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of animal species; the jargon of an amateur meteorologist; and a rhythm formed by clipped notes and sudden descriptive turns.
His best poems are built on a circular movement of ideas that mimics the motion of the landscape and allows pieces to end but escape conclusion. If you read nothing else in the collection, check out "PIONEER PLANTS" and "SNOW".
That's the other place where Saijo hits the sweet spot of our contemporary sensibilities. Occupying a point at the nexus of traditions of both American and Asian nature writing, Saijo self-interrogates in a fiercely ethical way, questioning even his impulse to exclude flies from his living space or dig a plot in his garden that disturbs the life in the soil. An alternative framework from which we might envision our place on the planet emerges from these poems, offering questions that remain starkly relevant. Saijo writes, "BEFORE WE STEP OUT OUR DOOR SHOULDN'T WE ANNOUNCE TO EARTH AROUND US - LOOK OUT BIG HEAVY COMING."
The collection will launch at the University of Hawaii at Hilo as part of the Albert Saijo Symposium on Wednesday, March 11.
Symposium presenters will include Timothy Freeman, UH Hilo instructor of philosophy (currently teaching PHIL 330 Philosophy of Art), Michael Stein, UH Hilo instructor of art (currently teaching Art 394, a writing intensive course, Philosophy of Art: Principles and Criticism), Visiting scholar Jan Garden Castro, art teacher and author based in New York and Susan M. Schultz, professor of English at UH Manoa. Schultz has written extensively about Saijo's work and recently published in January 2015, WOODRAT FLAT, through her publishing house Tinfish Press, at which she serves as editor.