Hawaiʻi

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Aunty Nona Beamer

 

Original air date: Tues., Oct. 23, 2007

 

Passionate, Intelligent, Talented and Truly “Hawaiian”

 

Passionate, intelligent, talented and truly “Hawaiian” are just a few words that describe Aunty Nona Beamer.

 

Join Leslie Wilcox as she “talks story” with the woman who coined the term “Hawaiiana” – educator, storyteller, hula choreographer, composer – the irrepressible Nona Beamer.

 

Aunty Nona Beamer Audio

 

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Transcript

 

Aloha! And mahalo for joining me for another wonderful conversation on Long Story Short. I’m Leslie Wilcox. We’re about to sit down with Aunty Nona Beamer whose life as an educator and composer began simply enough – teaching hula to young, local girls in Kaka‘ako and to America’s first movie star, Mary Pickford. But, as a student herself, young Nona would be expelled from school – for chanting in her beloved language. And it was her love for that school – Kamehameha – that would lead her to write a letter as an adult demanding reform of… well, let’s let Aunty Nona tell her stories herself. We got together with her at her friend’s house at Diamond Head.

 

(Nona chants)

 

You wanted to do this interview near Kamapua‘a. What’s the significance?

 

Well you know, we are not here very often. And so much of our family background is mythology and legends and history and the Pele family and the love affair between Kamapua‘a and Pele you know, and all that exciting passion going on. Here’s a chance to see a replica of that symbol of the legends of the story; so I don’t like to pass up the opportunity to come and say, ‘Thank you!” We are so happy to have the myths and legends to pass on to our children and have my daughter with me, and you know.

 

You mentioned passions. Look at you. You still have such a passion for life. Have you slowed down at all? I mean, I know you were sidelined in the hospital for four months. But there you are back at it again.

 

You know, I’m having so much fun and I am so grateful and I think, look where we are in all of this beauty and no matter where we look around us it is glorious. How lucky can we be? How lucky?

 

You’re in your mid 80’s now.

 

Sweetheart, I was 84 last week. Is that mid?

 

And a couple of years ago you where in the hospital for 4 months. You had a bypass surgery, you had a stroke and lots of people were very worried about you.

 

Bye bye Nona (laughs). I guess God had another plan for me and I thought, well I better get off my arse and do something. So I am trying to do something. Yeah, life is so beautiful. And it’s so beautiful because of each other, you know? Our kindness with each other, our voices, our smiles, the way we touch each other’s hands. It seems so corny but it works.

 

And you saw some of that when you were ill in the hospital.

 

Yes, and people that I did not know, reams of cards, school children. And I’m reading them and I had no idea who these people were, but the healing vibes were just so powerful and all the prayers. They’d come to the door and say a prayer standing in the doorway, and I’d look and couldn’t make out who they were. And sometimes I couldn’t hold my head up and somebody would be chanting at my door. I thought, isn’t that wonderful that people would give up themselves and their healing energy is healing me, you know? This business of kindness and love, it’s so, so real. And it works Leslie, in every aspect of your life. And we say to live pono. That’s not very easy, pono spiritually, pono emotionally, pono physically in every aspect of your life. Moderato, you know? So you don’t overeat, you don’t get overemotional, so your blood pressure doesn’t go, you do things moderately and that’s a pretty good recipe for us, you know?

 

And that’s exactly what you’re doing with management of your diabetes. You are, you are, talk about structure, you are using structure to keep healthy.

 

My dear hanai sister has taught me how to do that. Yeah. And I have felt so much better since I’ve known the alternative, I keep to this rigid regimen because I know it’s keeping me healthy. So there’s no, no possible way to cheat. And I feel badly with so many Hawaiians, wonderful talent, beautiful people, stuffing their mouths, drinking the sodas. Oh the big uh, I forgot what you call them, with the rice, egg, hamburger, gravy. Loco moco, oh loco moco and I think so unhealthy, oh dear, if we could just get the Hawaiians to eat sensibly, they won’t all die of diabetes before they’re 20.

 

You are really watching yourself, you’re measuring your water intake even.

 

Yes, because the kidneys are not happy if you don’t give them enough water. Then I swell up if I give them too much water. So you just have to learn what that balance is, you know.

 

On the other hand, you were telling me that yours is now a life without laulau.

 

Yes, but I can have a half a cup of poi twice a week. So I’m happy about that. But no laulau. We make it with won bok. It’s the luau leaves – that has too much potassium for the kidneys.

 

So you are motivated just to keep going. Your body may be slipping up a bit but you’re all there in every other way.

 

I’m having a good time. But I’m looking for some mischief to get into. Do you have a grandfather for me? (laughs)

 

Having a good time and waiting for some mischief at age 84. You gotta love Aunty Nona. And there’s much more to her story. Did you know that it was none other than Nona Beamer who coined the term “Hawaiiana” back in 1949? We’ll find out how – and why – next.

 

You know, you’ve done so many things in your life. I mean it’s, you’re one of those “hyphen” people: educator, storyteller, hula choreographer, composer. How did all that happen?

 

Well of course we’re a big family. So that we had to take care of the children, telling them stories so they would go to sleep. And then my mother was ill one summer. I was 12 and getting ready to come to Kamehameha. And my father said that your mother can’t go to the studio, Nona. You have to go and your sister will go and help you, you know. I think my sister was 10 or 9, somewhere around there, so she was going to answer the phones. And I looked on the appointment book and the first student was Mary Pickford. And I said to my father, “Oh I can’t teach this lady. She’s a very important movie star. My father said, “Get in there.” And she came with Buddy Rogers. I think they were on their honeymoon and he was so nice. She was tiny – she was smaller than I was. And her little hands, little feet, she was completely charming. Got me over the fear of teaching because we were talking and singing and doing lovely hula hands, graceful as the birds. And I got over my fear. Well I get to Kamehameha in September and there’s a notice on the board. “Any girls interested in teaching at the Kaka‘ako Mission, sign up.” I thought, I taught, I know how to teach, so I signed up. And here were little preschool children at Kaka‘ako. It was a very deprived area, you know? And they didn’t know about soap and water. So the children had sores all over their legs. And they smelled bad. And ah, so the first thing we did was get big washtubs and bathe the children with tar soap, smelly brown tar soap. And I’m crying and trying to sing and then the children would say, “Oh, come to the singing lady. Come to the…” So my line gets long as the children were waiting for their baths and nobody at the other tubs. I thought, “Hmm, singing is the way to interest children,” you know? So the first class I faced I started telling them stories and then began chanting about the kahuli and the kolea birds (sings a bit). “Spooky, spooky, spooky!.” And they were frightened. So then I put one note in the song (sings a bit more). And they smiled and weren’t frightened anymore. I thought, “That’s how I’m going to teach. I’m going to teach them little songs, tell them the history and they’ll be smiling and learning their history all in one fell swoop.”

 

You composed music that stands forever. Every school kid, virtually, in Hawaiʻi knows Pupu Hinuhinu. You wrote it. How does that feel? I mean, virtually every child grows up knowing your song.

 

Well it’s a sweet little simple thing, you know. But I think that it’s appealing to all levels, children and grandparents, just the sweetness of it, you know? I think we are very lucky, if we can sing sweet little songs it kind of calms us down and maybe we’re not raising our voices, maybe there is more calmness in the family, you know? So I think it has a lot of uses.

 

So storytelling is really the basis of so much of what you’ve done and what your family has done as well.

 

It is, yes. Well we didn’t have books, we didn’t have you know, lot of authors writing about Hawaiian culture. In fact, I didn’t even know about the overthrow until I was on the Native Hawaiian Study Commission. I didn’t even know about the politics of those times, you know?

 

Where do you get your knowledge of Hawaiianess? From your family experience?

 

Yes, well it was from grandparents, grandmother.

 

But you don’t speak fluent Hawaiian?

 

No, no. We were not allowed to. And then the suppression at Kamehameha. I think psychologically it caused a lot of damage among a lot of Hawaiians in my age group, you know? Because we were forbidden, we were punished. Yeah, it was a psychological block.

 

And yet, as a teacher you had to have structure?

 

Well you know we didn’t have textbooks. We didn’t have curriculum, you know? We didn’t have a term Hawai‘iana until ‘49 when I coined it. And it was at a workshop with the department of education teachers. Well it was called Department of Public Instruction then – D.P.I. So I wrote on the board “Hawai – glottal i – dash – ana.” So I turned around, I looked at the teachers.. I said, “I’d like for us to study this word ‘Hawaiiana… Hawaiiana.’” Now the “ana” is the root word “to measure, to evaluate, to determine what is the best.” So we’re going to concern ourselves with that and teach only the best of Hawaiian culture in the classroom. And that was my reason for that word “Hawaiiana.”

 

You made it up.

 

Yes. And I didn’t mean “-ana” like Americana, Mexicana like a conglomerate of things, you know. But I meant to measure everything that we’re going to teach, and offer the children the very best in the culture.

 

That’s one of the many one-of-a-kind things you’ve done, firsts you’ve done. What about when you were a student at Kamehameha Schools and got briefly expelled?

 

(Nona holds up two fingers)

 

Twice you got expelled?

 

Well it was strange. The first time, the President of the Trustees, Frank Midkiff, was having a tea in the pink garden, in the bougainvillea garden – so pretty. And so he asked me, I had started the Hawaiian Club and it was simply because my friends had said, “Can we learn a song? Can we learn a chant? Tell us a story.” So we’d gather Monday after school and we would learn a chant. Unbeknownst to anybody else, but Mr. Midkiff was a champion of mine, a personal friend and hero. So for him I would do anything. So we came into the garden chanting (sings the chant). And we finished our chant and we bowed to everybody and we walked out. And then my principal said, “Winona you may pack your bag and leave this campus.” It was a sacrilege that I committed – to chant and do motions as we were walking.

 

Because?

 

Because it wasn’t allowed. No language, no chanting, no dancing, no nothing.

 

But you could do western dancing?

 

Oh yeah, we could do anything else, yeah.

 

But that’s how it was in those days at Kamehameha Schools.

 

Absolutely.

 

Because everyone was on this western path.

 

Well, it was just the mindset of the time, I think, you know? They were there to school good and industrious men and women, you know? And there was no further look about advancing us, as students or Hawaiians! I wanted to go to college. “Winona, there’s no reason to go to college.” I mean, my principal! I though, what kind of principal would tell you not to think about going to college? So it kind of hurt me that they wanted to keep us so subservient.

 

Have you had kind of a love-hate relationship with the school since you were a kid?

 

You know, I’ve loved them all my life, all my life. In 1927 my grandmother took me to the old chapel where Farrington School is now and I heard the voices of the Kamehameha men. Oh, the stone walls were just vibrating with these wonderful voices and I fell in love with Kamehameha. Didn’t know anything about it except just a name, you know? And I knew later on about the campus where my father had lived as a child. And then later on when I was hired we were given living quarters there where my father was when he was 6 years old. He was in his dormitory, you know? So there was a lot of joy in my heart for Kamehameha just from that initial love of the sound of their voices, the men singing. Of course, my grandmother was a graduate and my parents had attended. Of course all of us in our family had attended. And now it was time for the grandchild, and you know, they have been as close to me as my own blood family.

 

The school which expelled you twice was the school where you dedicated 40 years of your teaching life.

 

And $87,864 scholarship money I have raised in 35 years for scholarships for Kamehameha. Yes, I love them like my family. Well now they’re coming into the sunlight.

 

And you were part of that. You were part of bringing back the Hawaiianess into the school.

 

I like to think I was, but there’s a whole faction of us. Class members, students, they were asking. Why can’t we have Hawaiian? Why can’t we be what we are? Why do we have to be who we are not?

 

And the school was acting in what it thought was your best interest?

 

Yes, and yet they said Princess Pauahi, in her will, stated that we were not to speak, we were not to chant, we were not to dance. So when they hired me, the first thing I did, “Could I see the will? Please may I see the will?” Nothing in it about Princess Pauahi saying there would be no language, there would be no dancing, there would be no – they lied to me, they lied to me all those years. So my estimation of administration went (motion of hands going down).

 

Well and then what happens many years later, your idea of the administration had again fallen. You wrote a letter to the State Supreme Court in the late 1990s, in which you said, “Mrs. Lindsey, Mrs. Lokelani Lindsey, a trustee’s micromanagement methodology is an utterly diabolical plan of a self-serving egoist.”

 

Oh, I didn’t know her at all. But it was just an abomination that had happened.

 

In your letter, you were expressing what had been an inner angst, many people upset with what was happening at the trustee level at the old Bishop Estate. But so many people didn’t want to lose what they had and you were the one who brought it out.

 

Well, you know they were afraid of their jobs. The students were afraid of their scholarships. I didn’t have anything to lose. I had no children in school. I had retired. And I thought this was just not right. So when my hanai son Kaliko Beamer Trapp came home and told me that Lokelani had sent a directive to the University Language Department that the vocabulary they were developing could not be taught at the Kamehameha Schools, you know? So I just felt that because if it was spoken during Pauahi’s time we could have spoken it. But I thought ah, we’re back to the middle ages. We can’t speak it ‘cause Pauahi didn’t speak it 50 years ago. Something’s wrong, you know? So that really sort of capsulated it from there. We had to do something about it. That was the straw.

 

And there was a firestorm after you wrote the letter.

 

True. Well, I think it gave other people the courage to speak up too.

 

And that triggered an overhaul, a reform of the old Bishop Estate.

 

It was about time, about time. Well, I wish it were as lasting and as meaningful now. But they aren’t there yet, they aren’t there yet. I think they have to do more on campus with the old guard. I love them dearly. We’re all good friends. But they have to be more mindful of Hawaiianess, you know? Not to be thinking of all the business and the dollars and the cash register. Think about the students. That’s why we’re there – for the students. Not to amass fortunes in the bank.

 

The woman who coined the term “Hawaiiana” – lives it. Aunty Nona Beamer stands up for what she thinks is right – what she feels is pono. We don’t have much time left, so we’ll make the rest of this long story, short. Stay with us as we continue “talking story” with the irrepressible Nona Beamer.

 

Are we going to see you in future years standing up again, doing the kind of things that got you expelled, that triggered reform in the old Bishop Estate?

 

(Laughs) You know I am getting a little more outspoken and Keola says, ”Ma, you’re swearing more these days.” I used to say dammit, but now I say dammit to hell. (Laughs) Well I think that’s one of the perks of the elderly – that we can speak up, that we’ve been there and we have the courage ‘cause we know what it feels like to be denied your language, denied being a Hawaiian. So there’s no, I don’t think there’s any guilt. It’s just positive affirmations.

 

You’ve done it before and perhaps you’ll do it again.

 

Do it again? (laughs) Thank you honey.

 

You know, you have so much love, so much aloha and yet you believe in principles and standing up even if it ruffles feathers and makes people lose their jobs.

 

Yes. Well it seems, if it’s right, if it’s reasonable, it’s good you know, you should try to keep as much goodness as you can. And sometimes we just need a little help from one other. Just hang on to one another and make it better.

 

But I think what you’re telling us is it’s not just about being nicey nice. It’s about following principles, and values.

 

True, true, yeah.

 

Let me ask you one question – this may be dicey so let me know. One of the things that we do is we ask viewers what would you like to ask Aunty Nona? One of the questions that people always ask about and you may not want to talk about it, I understand. A viewer in Hilo would like to know if you see any mending between your sons Keola and Kapono Beamer?

 

Well you know there doesn’t need to be mending. They have diverse careers.

 

So your sons had a personal and professional parting of the ways. Does it hurt or is it something a family deals with?

 

Well I miss them together, I miss the sound of their singing. At my father’s funeral I was just weeping because I heard them singing together when I hadn’t heard them for a while. I miss the mellowness of their sound. But I see it coming in my grandson now. And I think of all the good things we’ve done. So if their direction is different, so be it. We can’t just stagnate in our same place. We got to grow or we die. So I don’t see that there’s a lot of mending because the love is still there. I don’t know that they’ll sing Honolulu City Lights together again. I don’t know.

 

But they both came to see you when you were in the hospital?

 

Yes they did.

 

Must have been nice to see both of them at once?

 

The same room – we were all talking together. Yes, yes. And I’m glad that it happened before I “make die dead”! (Laughs) Well I do think that they have a lot to contribute. I don’t know what direction. But I think we’re going to see something through Kamana. And his generation will probably mend the fences that their parents have knocked down.

 

They’re the next Beamers.

 

I think so. I think we are going to see some interesting things from him.

 

So what do you, what do you look ahead to? What’s ahead for you?

 

Well you know, I want to keep the Hawaiianess in things as much as possible. And it doesn’t seem as though it’s that important. In fact, it’s kind of corny when you say, “What is the Hawaiianess?” you know? It’s this aloha feeling – the kindness between people. You know, speaking nicely, looking at each other smiling, you know. Oh, it seems like so little. But it’s a gargantuan concept to keep this aloha in the world. And that’s what we all have to do in our own hearts – to keep this aloha. Not easy.

 

You know when people who’ve known you a long time and know you well describe you, the personal qualities they tend to talk about are: courage, stubbornness – and they say you’re full of aloha. Are they right?

 

Well, you know I’m very grateful and that’s a big stabilizer in my life – that I’m so grateful for all the things, the goodness of family and everything you’ve had behind you, you know. But you’re not here by yourself. Oh, my great-grandmother’s here, my grandmother’s here, everybody’s here behind me. And I think oh this is part of our aumakua, our belief in our guardians that are around us. But we have to listen. We have to be in tune because they’re all here to help us. But sometimes we get so busy we just run rough shot over everything. And life has so much beauty underneath it. If you just be quiet enough to listen to it.

 

Passionate, intelligent, talented and truly “Hawaiian”… just a few words that describe Nona Beamer. It was a pleasure sharing stories from Aunty Nona – and sharing them with you. I wish we had more time. But we have to make this Long Story Short. Mahalo for joining me. I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou kākou!

 

 

 

 

INSIGHTS ON PBS HAWAI‘I
The Hawaiian Language

 

Ka ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi, the Hawaiian language, once forbidden in schools and nearly lost, is flourishing again in these Islands. In 1978, it became the official state language along with English. It lives in song, in books, in the daily lives of Hawai‘i residents and in schools dedicated to perpetuating native culture. On the next INSIGHTS, we’ll discuss the Hawaiian language with guests Christopher Kaliko Baker, Assistant Professor, Kawaihuelani Center for Hawaiian Language, University of Hawaiʻi, Mānoa; Manu Boyd, kumu hula, musician, Cultural Consultant at Kamehameha Schools; Kamalei Krug, a graduate of the DOE’s Hawaiian Language Immersion Program; and Amy Kalili, Director at Mokuola Honua Global Center for Indigenous Language Excellence.

 

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LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
W.S. Merwin

Original air date: Tues., Dec. 22, 2009

 

 

Pulitzer Prize-Winning Poet

 

In his more than fifty year career, William S. Merwin has received nearly every major award for poetry, including two Pulitzer prizes. He has traveled widely and lived in Europe, but since the late seventies Haiku, Maui has been his home. It is also where he found an affinity for native Hawaiian culture and where he crafted a mythical, Hawaiian narrative. He talks to Leslie about how his love for words began as a child, when his mother would read to him. He also reads from some of his poetry collections.

 

W.S. Merwin Audio

 

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Transcript

 

All day, the stars watch from long ago. My mother said, I am going now. When you are alone, you will be all right. Whether or not you know, you will know. Look at the old house in the dawn rain; all the flowers are forms of water. The sun reminds them through a white cloud, touches the patchwork spread on the hill, the washed colors of the afterlife that lived there long before you were born. See how they wake without a question, even though the whole world is burning.

 

That’s one of Maui’s most honored residents reading his work…he’s a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner, W.S. Merwin. Yes, a major American writer whose poems, prose and translations have brought him international literary standing…he has lived in Ha‘iku, Maui since the late 1970s. W.S. Merwin, or William as his friends call him, next on Long Story Short.

 

Aloha mai kākou, I’m Leslie Wilcox. Welcome to Long Story Short. From childhood, W.S. Merwin has loved the sound of words and putting them together. He’s won nearly every major award for poetry in his five decades as a writer.

 

Born in New York City, raised in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, Merwin traveled widely before coming to Maui in the late 70s to study Zen Buddhism. He built a house on old pineapple plantation land in Ha‘iku, Maui, and found himself drawn to native Hawaiians, their culture and their causes. Words remain a constant in his life. In April 2009, he won his second Pulitzer prize for poetry, for his 21st book, The Shadow of Sirius.

 

Well, let me ask you…kind of daunted to be talking to a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner. Any advice—

 

Forget about it.

 

—for me?

 

[chuckle]

 

What annoys you when people…in terms of how people react to you as a poet and as a Pulitzer winner?

 

Well, I don’t think of myself that way at all, obviously. I mean, pretty silly, wouldn’t it, if I walked around thinking, I’m this, and I’m that. All my life, I’ve wanted to write poetry since I was five years old. I’ve always thought when I finished—when I got a poem to where I was ready to let it go, ‘cause I couldn’t do any more to it, or for it, I thought, Well, I may never do that again, it may never happen again. ‘Cause I don’t think, for me, that it’s an act of will or an act of reason, or any of those things. Suddenly, I think to me, it’s something that you hear. I mean, suddenly, there’s a phrase or there’s a moment in your life, or something which brings up, some words, something that have to do with that. And they’re maybe words you’ve known all your life, but you never paid any attention to them. But all of a sudden, there they are, they’re alive and they’re going somewhere, and you listen to them. And I think that the whole secret of poetry is listening. And children know how to do this. Children start listening. Even before they know what words are, they’re listening, they’re paying attention. And then they learn to read, and in our culture, they’re discouraged from reciting poetry or from the pleasures of poetry, which they know all about when they’re very small. And if they’re lucky, they catch up with it again, and they realize that it’s a matter of not of just understanding, it’s a matter of hearing something, and it’s a matter of pleasure. It should be pleasure. And just as people say, Oh, I can’t do that. Well, you don’t think about a rock lyric, you don’t think about whether you understand it. If you like it, you remember it, and you find that you’re humming it in your head, after a while. And you haven’t thought about whether you understand it, or maybe you don’t understand it. I mean, back in the days long ago, when we all listened to Bob Dylan…I mean, the great lyrics of Bob Dylan and the Beatles I don’t think anybody was supposed to understand then.

 

Somehow, it resonated.

 

What about the Yellow Submarine? I mean, what is understandable—

 

Or—

 

—about a yellow submarine?

 

Or who was the Egg Man?

 

Yeah. Yeah.

 

You know, I’m thinking of my daughter who wants to be an artist, and I think from the very beginning, I said, Well, make sure you can earn a living at it. Did you ever say, I want to be a poet, and a parent or someone else said to you, Whoa—

 

Oh, they all said that.

 

—be practical.

 

They all said that. And they said, What are you going to do to earn a living? And I said, Well, I’ll find out that as I go along. But I didn’t do it the other way around. I think I’m going to have a career, and then I’m going to write a little poetry in my spare time. I never ever thought of it that way. I thought, this is what I want to do with my life, and maybe I’ll find some way to stay alive. And I lived on very little money for quite a few years. A lot of artists, in all the arts were that way until very recently. And it’s only in recent generations that people thought that the first thing was earning a living. And as long as you think that, I mean, as long as you think that, you’re not gonna do it. A friend of mine said, Well, I really want to try to translate Hawaiian poetry and I’m gonna do it when I get a grant uh, to do it. And I said, You’re not gonna do it. You don’t care enough about it. He said, What do you mean? I said, You like surfing. And I said, If you want to go to surf in Australia or Bali, you find a way to get to Bali and Australia, and you go surfing. You don’t worry about somebody giving you a grant to go surfing in Bali and Australia. You get on with it. If you want to start translating Hawaiian poetry, which I think is pretty well impossible, you try. You get to work, and you devote a lot of time to it, and you don’t wait for somebody to subsidize you. [chuckle]

 

Why do you think it’s impossible to translate Hawaiian poetry?

 

Because in the first place, the melodic—the lyric aspect of the great chants is… hano hano hanalei I ka ua nui. I mean, how do you ever translate a line like that? It’s so magnificent. But you can’t—there’s nothing—no way in English that you convey that sound. And then underneath; so much of Hawaiian poetry is the overtone, all of the things that it’s referring to, all of the myths that it’s referring to. I mean, if you look at a book of translations, classical translations of Hawaiian poetry, about three-quarters of the page is footnotes, to say what all this really means. I mean, the rain always has an erotic meaning to it, and it has a reference to the place. And that place in other legends. And if you don’t know those things, you don’t really know what the oli is about.

 

You wrote an entire epic narrative of Hawaiʻi, your—

 

Yeah.

 

—adopted home.

 

That’s right. You know the story of Koolau and Piilani. Koolau was famous as a young man. He was the best shot on the island. And they said he never missed. He had one rifle that he was very proud of. And his wife—everybody believed that—you can’t tell from the photographs, but she was considered very beautiful as a young woman. And they were in love, and they were married, and had a little boy, Mana, out on the western corner of—

 

Kauai.

 

Kauai. Koolau was fingered with leprosy, and it was at a time when they wouldn’t let people with leprosy—they would ship them off to Kalaupapa to the leprosy colony over there. And they wouldn’t let anybody from their family go with them, or even accompany them over there. And they never came back. And so the Hawaiians’ name for leprosy was the separating sickness, because it broke up the family. And of course, for Hawaiians, nothing could be worse that that, because the family unit is integral. Koolau and Piilani, they suspected that their little boy probably had it too. And he did. And they decided that they would not allow him to be arrested, and they were going to stay together. And they went over to Kalalau to the valley on the north coast, where there were already a number of Hansen’s Disease patients staying, to stay out of reach of the law. I mean, this was a very wild place, Kalalau, and then was one sheriff that wanted to capture him and make his political name doing that. And Koolau let it be known that they would not leave the valley alive. And that meant, obviously, that anybody who came for them was risking his life too. And the sheriff tried to get the jump on him, and Koolau killed him. And then, of course, they sent the army in after him, and they escaped and I was absolutely fascinated the story, and I suddenly realized that if someone were to want to write about this—I couldn’t write the history, I’m not a historian. I can’t write an essay about it, that’s ridiculous. And so I just sort of carried it around, that story. And I finally thought, the only way it’ll work is as a poem. And the only way it’ll work as a poem is if the central figure is not even Koolau, it’s Piilani. It’s a Hawaiian woman. And I said, I can’t write a whole poem in the voice of a Hawaiian woman. Once I got started, this one night, I just saw her starting out at night, going up the trail,

 

You saw her in your mind? It was a visual—

 

Yeah, yeah. And I started the poem, about her just going up this trail. And the whole of her journey up, who she met, the places she went, and so forth, until she went down and the whole story. And then from there to the whole history of Kauai, because you can’t separate them totally, it’s all the same story. That was the poem.

 

It was a novel-in-verse called “The Folding Cliffs.” He was born William Stanley Merwin and from an early age he had a fascination with the magic of words. In his home on Maui, he writes only in longhand—daily—in a room with a view of the outdoors. Nature is an inspiration.

 

Can you tell me where you were, and what you were doing when you heard your first poetry inside?

 

Well, you know, I was very lucky. This is another thing that a lot of children don’t have. Maybe they never did, I don’t know. But my mother read poems to my sister and me; everything from silly childhood jingle poems to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Child’s Garden of Verses. Stevenson spent several years here in Hawaiʻi on the way to the South Pacific.

 

Yes.

 

And I can remember her reading Tennyson’s The Brook, and I love that poem.

 

You loved it as a kid too?

 

Yeah, even when I was a little boy, before I could even read. I think some children are lucky and their parents read stories to them. And that’s great. But prose and poetry are different, and hearing their parents read poetry is, I think very important. My father was a minister, and the sermons, I didn’t pay any attention to. But we had to go to church every Sunday, and sometimes more often.

 

He was a Presbyterian minister, wasn’t he?

 

Presbyterian minister; very strict Scotch Presbyterian. But he read the King James version of the Bible, the psalms and lots of the Old and New Testament, and that in the King James version. And that was the version that really seemed like magic to me, and I really listened to that language, and I know I knew quite a lot of those passages by heart by the time when I grew up and moved away from the whole thing. But I still remember that sound of hearing, hearing the psalms and hearing the proverbs, and hearing the prophets and hearing the New Testament. That’s very valuable for children to hear that.

 

So when you’re writing, do you come at it from a place of joy?

 

Yeah, I really love everything to do with poetry. And I feel very lucky if something ever begins to sort of happen. I think there was a great French novelist, Flaubert, who somebody asked him about inspiration. He said, Inspiration consists in sitting down at the same table, at the same time, every day. And waiting—waiting—wandering around hoping to be struck by lightning, I mean, that doesn’t make much sense. I mean, Keats, the sort of archetypal romantic of English poetry, very great poet, worked at it all the time. He tried very hard to write all the time.

 

And yet, you say when it happens, it’s an accident.

 

Sure. It is; both of these things are true. When you look at dance, I mean, take ballet dance, for example.

 

M-hm.

 

It looks effortless, doesn’t it?

 

It does.   That’s the point, isn’t it?

 

And it’s certainly not effortless. I mean, the effort that went into being able to do that. When you hear someone play Mozart, or any instrument, or whatever kind of music you like, a saxophone playing jazz and improvising; it looks effortless, doesn’t it? It looks as though it happens—

 

Yes.

 

—all by itself. And you know perfectly well it didn’t happen all by itself. This is a whole lifetime that’s gone into that. And I think that’s true of any of the arts. The arts have to be sort of partly an obsession. You have to be a little—

 

Partly an obsession.

 

—a little bit obsessed to make it work. Look at the great surfers. I mean, did they learn how to stand up on a surfboard with a with a big wave curling behind them all by themselves? It looks like the easiest thing in the world. At that point, it is the only possible thing to do. If you change your mind, you’re—

 

[chuckle]

 

—you’re wiped out right there.

 

And for years before, they’ve been on the alert for any bump in the surf, and they’ve been out there.

 

That’s right.

 

After graduating from Princeton, W.S. Merwin began his literary career by translating in works in Spanish, French, Italian and Latin into English. He also worked as a private tutor to the son of famous author and poet Robert Graves. It was through Graves that Merwin met many other literary greats, such as T.S. Elliot. In 1952, when he was only 24 years old, he became a published author, with a book of verse titled The Mask ofJanus. He lived in England, Spain, France, and New York, before settling in East Maui.

 

And what brought you there? You’ve lived in many parts of the world by then.

 

Yeah. I kept a little rent controlled apartment in New York for many years. I wanted to live there part of the year. I came out to Hawaiʻi, and I really fell in love with Hawaiʻi. And I met Robert Aitken, who was the Zen teacher here, and I wanted to stay and spend more time with him. Little by little, the longer I stayed here, the more I wanted to stay.

 

Was it just the nature that drew you?

 

It was partially the feeling of the remains of an ancient culture too, and of an ancient language and culture. And suddenly, here were the real remnants of it, I mean, with the hula and the chants, and the things like that, things that. Everything about it fascinated me. And they were still related to a place, and you could see the place that it was related to. I’m not a wannabe Hawaiian. I mean, that would be very silly. But I had I had, and still have, enormous respect for everything to do with Hawaiians.

 

You’re a very successful poet. But what if you needed to pay the bills, you needed to publish poetry.

 

I would do something else. Then I would—

 

You couldn’t force poetry?

 

No. I would take on a prose writing job, or go do some readings, or something like that to pay the bills. I’ve had to do that all my life. I never expected to earn a lot of money. I think that’s been true of artists all through the years. I mean if money is the first thing, there are very few artists that, for whom money was the first thing. I think there are usually quicker and faster ways of earning money than writing a symphony or writing a few poems, or even writing a novel. I mean, sometimes you make it big with a novel, but sometimes most novelists have got five or six novels in the drawer that never even got published.

 

Do you always pay attention to how many books are selling, how you’re doing in the—

 

No.

 

—marketplace?

 

No, when I get a royalty return or something like that, I look and see how they’re doing, and then I put it in the file and forget about it. I think, sometimes I’m agreeably surprised, and books of poetry don’t sell an awful lot.

 

You’ve won two Pulitzer Prizes for poetry thirty-eight years apart.

 

[chuckle]

 

And yet, you’ve written more than twenty collections, more than twenty books. What was it, do you think, that won you those two Pulitzers for those specific books?

 

I have no idea. I really don’t. I don’t know how people felt when they opened those books and read them, and what other books they were looking at that year that they were comparing them to, and all the deliberations that they went through. And what made them like that book more than another one. And a lot of it is not exactly politics, but it’s chance. It depends on what book came up the last time, and so on, and so forth, and the shuffling of the cards. I mean, part of it is chance in that sense. So I don’t know. And I’ve never tried to double guess editors or if prizes come, I’m delighted, I’m always surprised. I’m very happy and it’s very nice. But I certainly don’t spend my life thinking, I wonder if I might get such-and-such a thing, or anything like that.

 

W.S. Merwin is also a pacifist, anti-imperialist, and an environmental activist. His poems are known for their awareness of the natural world, their intimate feelings for natural landscapes. But they’re not always light and upbeat. Some of them are dark and foreboding.

 

You seem like such a pleasant, jovial, happy person for having an apocalyptic view of the world, as I read your poems.

 

I don’t think these are incompatible. I’m on one level, extremely pessimistic. And you don’t want me to pursue that line of thought either, I don’t think.

 

You’re pessimistic about what humans do to nature.

 

That’s right.

 

I know that; that’s very clear.

 

I don’t think that we’re separate from nature. I mean, this is one of the things in which I differ from Presbyterianism, and a whole lot of that tradition. I don’t think that we’re distinct from the rest of the life at all. And I think that if we damage the rest of life enough, we’re damaging ourselves, and we’ll pay for it.

 

You think we’re continuing down that path.

 

Oh, I certainly do. I think that we can only think of it in terms of our own economic advantage, and this is deadly. The human population reached one billion in 1813. It’s now somewhere around nine, and heading for eleven; and that’s only in two hundred years. Now, what does that mean? That means you’ve got your foot on the accelerator as hard as you can, and you’re heading straight for a stonewall. I mean, the first law of thermodynamics, I believe, says that you can’t have an infinite amount of material in a finite space. Something’s gonna happen, it’s gonna explode. And I think that is why everything seems to be speeding up, and speeding up, and there’s more and more conflict. I mean, look all around the world now, people are at war with each other. And I think that every effort in that direction is a hopeful sign. Every act of kindness simple goodwill toward any living thing is a good thing. I don’t think there’s ever enough of it. And I don’t think we can ever learn too much about it. We never do quite enough of it. We all feel that, don’t we? You know, that we’re never quite nice enough to our parents, or to our friends, or we always forget all those things. I think that’s all true. And it seems so simpleminded that it’s hardly worth saying, but we obviously ought to think about more often.

 

Well, would you do us the favor and the pleasure of reading some of your poetry? Some—

 

Well—

 

Perhaps a couple of selections?

 

Sure. Well, the last book, I think it’s probably—the last is the best place to choose them from. That’s The Shadow of Sirius.

 

Pulitzer Prize winning book.

 

That’s the one. Sirius is the dog star. And it’s the brightest star in the visible sky, in visible humanity. And there are lots of stories about Sirius. But the middle poems of the middle section of the book is a series of little elegies, and they’re all poems to do with dogs. Which is not very common. So let me read a poem. This was about a really great black dog, who was blind, and we used to walk every day together. And it’s called, By Dark. When it is time, I follow the black dog into the darkness that is the mind of day. I can see nothing there but the black dog, the dog I know, going ahead of me, not looking back. Oh, it is the black dog I trust now in my time, after the years when I had all the truth, all the trust of the black dog through an age of brightness, and through shadow, on into the blindness of the black dog, where the rooms of the dark were already known and had no fear in them for the black dog leading me carefully up the blind stairs. She was a creature who was never afraid of anything. That was the wonderful thing about her; there was a real nobility to her.

 

W.S. Merwin and his wife Paula live surrounded by hundreds of species of palm trees that they planted and maintain. The poet rarely ventures far from his sanctuary on Maui. Mahalo to two-time Pulitzer Prize winner W.S. Merwin, and to you for joining me on Long Story Short. I’m Leslie Wilcox of PBS Hawaiʻi. A hui hou kākou.

 

This a poem to my wife called, To Paula in Late Spring. Let me imagine that we will come again, when we want to, and it will be spring. We will be no older than we ever were. The warm grieves will have eased like the early cloud to which the morning slowly comes to itself, and the ancient defenses against the dead will be done with, left to the dead at last. The light will be as it is now in the garden that we have made here these years together, of our long evenings and astonishment.

 

Oh, that was wonderful.

 

Good. I’m—

 

That was wonderful.

 

—glad you liked that.

 

 

PBS HAWAI‘I PRESENTS
A Conversation with America’s Poet Laureate: W.S. Merwin

PBS HAWAI‘I Presents: A Conversation with America's Poet Laureate

 

Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and accomplished literary translator William Stanley Merwin shares his thoughts on creativity, conservation, communication and more in A Conversation with America’s Poet Laureate.

 

Program

 

Merwin, the first Poet Laureate from Hawaiʻi, discusses his upbringing, his literary and philosophical influences, and his kinship with the Hawaiian culture in this wide-ranging one-hour interview. Set against the lush, serene background of his Maui home, Merwin expounds on the meaning of language, the practical purpose poetry and literature serve, Hawaiian myths and values, the future of mankind and much more. He also shares poems from various stages in his six-decade career, including readings from some of his 26 published collections of poetry.

 

 

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