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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.

 

 

Engelbert Humperdinck in Hawaiʻi

Engelbert Humperdinck in Hawai‘i

 

Recorded live in August 2018 at the historic Hawai‘i Theatre in Honolulu, this concert features Engelbert Humperdinck crooning more than five decades of his international hits, including “After the Lovin’,” “The Last Waltz,” “Release Me,” “A Man Without Love” and many others.

 

Engelbert Humperdinck in Hawai‘i

 

 

 

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Wordsmiths

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX: Wordsmiths

 

On this special episode of Long Story Short, we look back at conversations with three of Hawai‘i’s contemporary authors. We revisit our 2011 interview with Chris McKinney, whose gritty, semi-autobiographical novels, like local best seller The Tattoo, depict the dark underbelly of paradise. Acclaimed novelist Susanna Moore, whom we interviewed in 2012, draws inspiration from her Hawai‘i upbringing, calling forth both beauty and danger in her writing. Our 2008 guest, storyteller and historian Gavan Daws, has made a lasting impact on Hawai‘i’s literary scene with his book Shoal of Time: A History of the Hawaiian Islands, which remains the bestselling history of Hawai‘i. These “wordsmiths” have built careers weaving stories of Hawai‘i in distinctive, personal ways and have proven exceptional at bringing these stories to the page. Hear how they approach their craft and get a glimpse into their literary lives.

 

Program

 

This program will be rebroadcast on Sunday, March 17, at 4:00 pm and 11:30 pm.

 

Wordsmiths Audio

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

I did a calculation a couple years back. Someone, somewhere in the world has bought a book of mine every forty minutes since 1968.  And you used the word academic about me.  I am a recovering academic.  Put it that way.  I never wanted to write like an academic.

 

In part, I wroteIn the Cutbecause was so exasperated by hearing, after three Hawaiian books, that I was a woman’s writer, which meant that I wrote poetically about children, and flowers, and mothers.  I remember thinking: Oh, is that all I can do?  Oh, is that how I’m seen?  So, I very, very purposefully wrote In the Cut to dispel that notion.

 

Some of the best stuff, some of the best ideas, some of the best things that you can plug into your story will be thing that may be scary, and things that there’s actual risk in sort of hurting somebody’s feelings or making somebody mad.  I mean, if you’re gonna refuse to do that kinda stuff, find another vocation.

 

Those are three of Hawaiʻi’s successful contemporary authors sharing thoughts about how they approach their craft.  These writers have built careers weaving stories of Hawaiʻi in distinctive, honest, and personal ways.  On this episode of Long Story Short, we’ll hear some of the fascinating backstories behind their books.  Island Wordsmiths, coming up next, on Long Story Short.

 

One-on-one engaging conversations with some of Hawaiʻi’s most intriguing people: Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox.

 

Aloha mai kākou.  I’m Leslie Wilcox.  Despite the technology that dominates our lives these days, a good book continues to inspire our imagination and transport us to new places, far away and even within ourselves.  Here in Hawaiʻi, we have fascinating stories to share, and writers who’ve proven exceptional in bringing these experiences to the printed page or screen.  On this edition of Long Story Short, we feature some of the wordsmiths with whom we’ve talked story over the past decade: Chris McKinney, Susanna Moore, and Gavan Daws.  Perhaps not surprisingly, all three have been teachers, as well as writers.

 

We start with our youngest author.  Chris McKinney of Honolulu was thirty-eight, with four books under his belt, when I interviewed him in 2011.  A writing career seemed unlikely when Chris McKinney was growing up in rural Kahaluu in the 1970s and 80s.  School-assigned books sparked his interest starting in middle school, and little could Chris McKinney guess then that his very first novel, The Tattoo, would one day become assigned reading in many Hawaiʻi schools.

 

You know, especially in Tattoo, part of the story is about a father seeking to toughen his son.  I just make this wild, random guess and figure it’s autobiographical.  So, which father?

 

Oh, stepfather.  And I can’t remember it, but I can just imagine what must have been the look on his face the first time he saw me, when I was about two or three years old.

 

Because of the leisure suit?

 

Because of the way my mom had dressed me.

 

And he said: I’m gonna do something with this kid.

 

Yeah; he just must have taken one look at me and thought: What in the world is this woman doing to this poor kid?  It almost felt like, you know, even though it was the 1970, early 1980s, that we were living in some sort of time warp plantation, sort of the way you were brought up thing.  And even the stories that he seems to enjoy telling the most are stories that involve people doing spectacularly crazy things.  And so, I think for him at least at the time, is part of what being a man is about.  To not show the next guy that you’re not just tougher than him, but you’re crazier than him, that you’re willing to go further than he is willing to go, and he better recognize that before he messes with you, basically.  So, if it wasn’t for my stepfather, The Tattooprobably would not have been The Tattoo.

 

So, you obviously had material to be a writer, but were you thinking about being a writer?

 

Absolutely not.  Again, remember, in some ways, I am my mother’s son.  And it is that cliché immigrant Asian story, or that philosophy, in that they want their children to succeed financially.  I mean, that is the most important thing you can do in life, is you get a good job and you make a lot of money.  And I think that hearing my mother and my grandparents and stuff talk like that all of my life, that I bought into that more than anything else. Art; you know, art, that’s not what I’m gonna do.  I’m going to make money.  So, for a long time, the plan, at least from about high school and for most of my undergrad, I was going to become a lawyer, an attorney.  And then, what had happened was that I spent probably too much time playing ukulele and drinking beer, and playing Nintendo during my undergrad that I needed to go to grad school in order to get into a good law school.  So, yeah, you know.  And at the same time, I had my bachelor’s degree in English. During my bachelor’s degree in English, I was parking cars for a living.  After I completed my bachelor’s in English, I was still parking cars for a living.  So, either way, I thought that grad school, whether it would be an avenue to law school or anything, was probably a good idea, ‘cause I didn’t want to park cars for the rest of my life.  Which was what it felt like.  So, it wasn’t until I went to grad school as an unclassified graduate student.  And again, I was very lucky because the professors who would take me, one being Joy Marcella, and the other one being Phil Damon, and another one—all three of them in the same semester, Ian MacMillan, when I wrote for them, they were all very encouraging.  And I thought: Maybe I can do this.

 

Did you have a sense that your writing was fresh, and that you knew a world that most people hadn’t written about?  If they knew it, they didn’t write about it.

 

Yeah.  Quite honestly, it’s because if you were to look into the sort of educational background of, let’s say, all of the kids my age within that square two miles of where I grew up, I would put money down on the fact that I may be one of three that actually graduated from college.  If that. So, in the sense that I was sitting there and I was writing stories among whatever, you know, seventeen, eighteen other people, yeah, there was definitely nobody else writing the kinda stuff that I was writing.

 

Would you talk about more of the influences on your writing?  What, and who have influenced your writing?

 

There’s a list of teachers that I’m thankful that I had. The first great teacher I had was a guy named Mr. Guerrero.  And this was when I was living in California.  He was fantastic.  He assigned the class a book, Animal Farm, that was the first novel that I had read that just totally resonated with me. And at the time, I wasn’t thinking that I wanted to be a writer, but it was the first time that I saw, and I was in awe of what you could do with a book.  At first, we read it, and then of course, it was thig thing, this power corrupt scheme and all of that.  And you know, I’d seen that before.  But when you find out that it’s based on the Bolshevik Revolution, that just blew my mind. Wait a minute; so this guy took history, he put it on some generic farm, and in that last moment, of course, when the animals are looking through the window and they can’t tell the difference between the pigs and the farmers, the human farmers, I mean, talk about an ending that I will never forget.  So, that was the first book that blew me away.  And then, in high school, I had a couple of good English teachers.  I think one of them still teaches at Mid Pac. Mrs. Takeshita, Mrs. Takabayashi; they were really good, and they were always encouraging.  So, I had teachers, and then there were books that influenced me. Shakespeare, Mac Beth particularly resonated with me when I read it in eleventh grade in high school.  So, that was the second story that just sort of blew me away.

 

How do you feel about high school students getting The Tattoo as required or recommended reading in many schools?

 

Thankful.  I mean, at first, it was weird.  So, when the book first came out, and people would come up to me and say: I don’t read, but my teacher assigned this book and I had to read it, and it was The Tattoo.  At first, I didn’t really know what to say to that, ‘cause I just thought it was strange. But at this point, ten years later, eleven years later, I’m grateful.  Something like that would never have occurred when I was in high school. I mean, high school, you were taught The Canon, you know, Dead White Males.  So, I think that it’s interesting to see that there’s more of a progressive thing going on in high schools, where teachers are allowed, and some of the language in that book is kind of foul.  So, it’s gratifying to see that they have the courage not only to buck the idea that everything has to come from the Western canon, but also that they can take a little bit of risk with what they include in the curriculum.

 

Since this interview first aired in 2011, Chris McKinney has published more books, bringing his total to eight.  He continues to teach writing courses at Honolulu Community College.

 

I spoke with our next critically acclaimed author in 2012.  At the time, she was living in New York City.  Susanna Moore’s tenth book is expected out this year, 2019.  Her repertoire includes two memoirs, one history book, and seven novels, including one called In the Cut, which was made into a 2003 movie starting Meg Ryan.  Susanna Moore grew up on Oahu, attended Punahou School, and lived what appeared to be a privileged life in Tantalus, Kahala, and Portlock in the 1950s. However, her mother’s untimely death led to an unhappy upbringing.  That experience would later compel Susanna Moore to explore family dynamics in her writing.

 

When did the writing bug come?  Or had you always had it?

 

I’d always had it, and wrote as a child, and wrote plays, and really bad poetry.  You know, I was a reporter for Ka Punahou, the newspaper.

 

Did you write more after your mom passed away?

 

No, I don’t think so.  I think about the same.  And also, really a bookworm.  You know, reading early, and reading insatiably and incessantly.  And then I stopped, because I had to work, I had to support myself.  And writing certainly was not going to be a way to do it.  And still isn’t, you know.  Like a lot of writers, I had to teach in order to write.

 

How did you find your voice in the first place?

 

With the first book, I’d had a baby, a girl child.  So, I’m sure there was some identification there with myself and my mother, and my mother with her mother.  And I was approaching the age, the same age as my mother when she died.  And I felt a bit shaky, and I wanted very much to just get down in writing what had happened to me, and to my daughter’s grandmother.  And that’s really how it began, just to record it.

 

And who were you imagining would see it?

 

She; I was imagining my daughter, when she grew up, would find this helpful in understanding who I was, and who her grandmother had been. And then, of course, it took her years, and years, and years to read it, interestingly.  She could not read it for the longest time, not until she was maybe seventeen or eighteen, because it was too pain for her.  She would start it, and then she’d have to stop.

 

What did she say after she read it?

 

Thank you.  She understood.  I think certain things were made clearer to her.  Some, perhaps more mysterious.

 

And what’s the name of that book?

 

My Old Sweetheart.

 

Which is really the story of you and your mom.

 

Yes.

 

As you say.  The Whiteness of Bones; I mean, I didn’t have this background as far as you talked about a little girls growing up on Kauai with a land-rich family, but very much a creature of the ocean and the forest, and you know, hanging out with the cook. How did you get that?  That was such beautiful imagery.

 

Well, of that came from spending summers on Kauai, particularly in Waimea.  And there were bits of that from my own childhood, although those weren’t my parents. The relationship with the gardener was our gardener at Tantalus; that was real.  The mongoose; my sister did have a pet mongoose.  There were things that I took, and then things that, of course, I made up.  I always thought that in a way, nature took the place of my mother.  So, I was very, very grateful and conscious of it, even I think, as an adolescent that it was playing a part in my life that was significant. But Hawaiʻi was meaningful to me in a way that was profound.  Still is.

 

I find it just really wonderful and refreshing that you have taught at Yale, at New York University, at Princeton, and you haven’t attended college. But you’ve been hired by Ivy League universities to teach.

 

It’s because of the books.  You know, if I hadn’t written these books, I would not be hired.  No; and I don’t think I could teach in the English department.

 

Creative writing is what you teach.

 

Creative writing is such a made-up thing, and ill-defined.  I mean, yes, I can get away with that, teaching creative writing without a degree, but even if I knew everything there was to know about Emily Dickinson, I would not be hired for that.

 

Do you regret not going to college?

 

It would not be unlike the way my life would have gone if my mother had lived.  I think if I had gone to college, it might have been harder for me to get started on the path that became my life.  My path to becoming a writer, or to becoming independent and free, the way I did become, would have been much, much harder, if not impossible, had she lived.

 

Why?

 

Well, she would have wished for me a more conventional life, I’m sure.  To marry, to have children, to be near her, station wagon, house in Kahala; all of those things to which she aspired.  And a bohemian life would have seemed to her probably frightening and impractical.

 

Are you saying the wandering, the bohemian lifestyle is really you, and if your mom had been alive longer, you wo7uld have taken longer to find that?

 

If ever.  Yes, I think it is really me.

 

It is really you.

 

Yes.

 

So, that raises an interesting question.  Would you rather have had your mom with you longer, or …

 

Yes; always.  Always.  I would much rather have had my mother.  And I am one of those people who, I don’t believe that suffering makes you an artist. In a way, I’m saying the reverse of what I just said, that I don’t think the things that happened to me as a child, or as an adolescent, or a young woman, made me a writer.  I think that was there.  I don’t think suffering is ever an advantage.

 

Really?

 

No; I don’t think so.  I might have written different kinds of books, my interests might have been different, I might have been less interested in mothers. Clearly, I would have been less interested in mothers.

 

Since this interview took place in 2012, Susanna Moore has moved back to Hawaiʻi from New York and married a former Punahou Schoolmate.  She also has published a history of Hawaiʻi called Paradise of the Pacific.  Susanna Moore lives in Kapaau in North Kohala on Hawaiʻi Island, but returns every fall to Princeton University on the East Coast, where she’s been teaching for the past ten years.

 

While Moore is an author who became a university instructor, our next guest was an academic who became an author.  Gavan Daws of Manoa, Oahu says he never planned to move to Hawaiʻi, let alone become an authority on Hawaiʻi history.  He left his native Australia, and just happened to get off the ship here.  He was teaching history at the University of Hawaiʻi in the 1960s when he wrote and published his first book, Shoal of Time, which has remained the best-selling history of Hawaiʻi, ever since. This acclaimed author and historian has written shelf full of meticulously researched and sometimes controversial books, including Land and Power in Hawaii.

 

So, you accidentally came here, in a sense.  And then, you accidentally got a PhD in Pacific history?

 

It was like breaking the balls on a pool table. You know, things just went everywhere, and one of ‘em went into a pocket.  And that was the academic life.  It could have been anything else.  It just kinda grew from there.  I got offered a job, I kept the job, I got tenure, I wrote a book, and so on, and so on. But I’ve also done other things outside Hawaiʻi, and other things other than academic work, you know.

 

Within just, what, a decade or so of coming here, you’re writing a history of the Hawaiian Islands, Shoal of Time.  Is it still a local bestseller after all these years?

 

Yeah, it is; it’s forty years in print.  Which is amazing.  Eighty percent of books disappear after a year.  They’re like restaurants, you know; they fold.  And I had no idea, doing that, what kind of life it would have, or even if it would get published.  Which you never know.  And just a little bit of the history of that; Honolulu Book Shops, which was the only bookshop in town in those days, they ordered twenty-four copies.  And when they sold them, they didn’t reorder; they thought that was about the demand.  But here it is, forty years later.

 

It’s required reading in many courses.

 

Which I don’t want; I don’t want to be required reading.  I want to be read by, my phrase, consent adults.  I want them to choose to read it.

 

Have you heard that in the intervening decades after the book came out, there has been some perception on the part of Native Hawaiians that there’s a colonial tone here in the book?

 

Oh, sure.  Yeah.  I think every writer writes as someone of his or her own time.  I certainly had no great ability beyond anybody else’s to look backward or forward, or sideways.  I breathed the air that was here to breathe at that time, and wrote that. Now, in the forty years since then, and almost fifty years since the research, there’s two generations. That’s half the people living here now; A, weren’t born then, and B, weren’t born here.  So, the change in everything here is huge, since I started doing that.  Any general history written now will be written by somebody now, looking back at then through the eyes of now.  Totally different.  There wouldn’t be a sentence in this book that would be the same, if I were doing it now.

 

Is that right?

 

Oh, yeah.  Or if anybody were doing it now.  Now, I that forty to fifty years, we’ve now got more than thirty years of the Hawaiian renaissance.  Now, think what a difference that’s made in the air that everybody breathes. Okay.  The next book that’ll be done, and I wish done soon, will breathe that air.  Fine. Thomas Jefferson says: History needs to be rewritten every generation.

 

When you were researching Shoal of Time, how did you put yourself in mind of what, say, Native Hawaiians were doing at that time, and how’d you learn to characterize certain things?

 

With difficulty.  What I try to do with writing, and it’s not just for Shoal of Time, but anything at all, I try to keep people interested in turning the page.  If you’re not readable, then what?  If I put you to sleep by page ten, even if I’ve got something interesting to say on page fifty, and you don’t get there, what have I done?  So, first thing; be readable.  And then, you’ve gotta dance with nonfiction.  With fiction, you can say anything to be readable; you can have sex every three pages or a mighty explosion every five, or whatever.  But with nonfiction, you can’t really take those liberties.  So, what you’ve gotta be able to do is, do that dance between readability and reliability.  And that’s a dance.  And it’s a solo dance; only one person’s name is on the book.  And everybody’s dance with readability and reliability will be different.  And that’s why they’re my books; that is to say, that’s my name on the title page.  But they’re only my books.  There’s always room for another book and for a better book, always.

 

What other ways have you told stories in your life?

 

Well, if it comes down to twenty-four words or less, I suppose that all my life has really been about words and audiences. Words is all I have.  I have no other skills of any kind, either creative or financial.  So, it’s words; words are my currency.  And I kinda grew up on the edge of the Outback in Australia, where when I was a kid there was no radio, and where for a long time there was no TV.  And storytelling was what everybody did.  And when you got old enough, which was around sixteen, you’d go into the pub two or three years below drinking age, and that was storytelling territory as well.  And on top of that, I’m about five-eighths Irish in books and in stage plays, and in song lyrics.  And I’ve done the libretto for an opera, and I’ve made documentary films which are not my talking, but other people’s talking.  And I’m a huge admirer of standup comedy; I just love standup comedy. So, words are the way that things come to me, and on a good day, they’re the way that things come out of me.

 

You’ve been on bestseller lists, and you’re an academic whose books have been reviewed by the New York Times, which doesn’t happen to most academics, because they like to point that out.  Would you talk about that a bit?  You’ve drawn the attention of major reviewers and major audiences and readerships.

 

I did a calculation a couple years back. Someone, somewhere in the world has bought a book of mine every forty minutes since 1968.  And you used the word academic about me.  I am a recovering academic.  Put it that way.  I never wanted to write like an academic.

 

And you didn’t.

 

No; and for cause.  Because bless them; for all their virtues, most academics do not write to be read.  They write to demonstrate that they know something.  That’s a very different thing.  And they write for other academics.

 

Does that mean other academics might consider your work lighter than others, because it is, quote, commercial?

 

They’re welcome to; perfectly welcome to.  But I don’t see any necessary contradiction between writing responsibly and readably.

 

This multi-talented wordsmith has also written for film, television, stage, and has even written songs.  In 2018, his most famous book, Shoal of Time, celebrated its fiftieth anniversary.  The e-book version has now outsold the many hardcover and paperback editions.

 

Mahalo to all of these accomplished wordsmiths—Chris McKinney, Susanna Moore, and Gavan Daws—for giving us a peek into their literary lives.  And thank you for watching.  For Long Story Short and PBS Hawaiʻi, I’m Leslie Wilcox.  Aloha nui.

 

For audio and written transcripts of all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit PBSHawaii.org.  To download free podcasts of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, go to the Apple iTunes Store or visit PBSHawaii.org.

 

I said to my editor this time, who’s Sonny Mehta, who was also the publisher of Knopf, that I’ve always felt my books were covers that would only induce a woman to pick up the book in a bookstore, you know, that I know that women are the primary buyers of fiction, but it would be awfully nice to have a book that a man might want to read from the cover.  And I think covers do make a difference.  And he said: Yes, yes, I agree that would be good, especially as it might be your last cover.  And I thought: [GASP] What does he mean?  He saw my face, and he said: No, no, I will always publish you; I don’t mean that, I mean that it might be the last …

 

Paper book.

 

–book in which you’ll be able to hold it in your hands. So, it’s changing.

 

[END]

 

 

 

Nat King Cole’s Greatest Songs

Nat King Cole’s Greatest Songs

 

Celebrate the centennial of the timeless and inescapable artist in this special featuring his greatest hits and cherished standards, including “Mona Lisa,” “Unforgettable” and “When I Fall in Love,” along with rarely seen footage from his variety show.

 

Preview

 

 

 

GREAT HOUSES WITH JULIAN FELLOWES
Goodwood House

Great Houses with Julian Fellowes

 

Follow “Downton Abbey” creator Julian Fellowes on his quest to discover the real stories of Britain’s great houses. As he uncovers personal stories hidden behind the walls, he realizes these aren’t just homes for posh people – they hold history.

 

Preview

 

Goodwood House
Join Fellowes at Goodwood, for 300 years the home of the Dukes of Richmond. He learns how the house and family owe their existence to an affair between King Charles and a French spy, and about the House Party, where illicit affairs were conducted.

 

 

 

NĀ MELE: TRADITIONS IN HAWAIIAN SONG
Jerry Santos

Na Mele: Jerry Santos

 

When we hear his distinctive voice, there is no mistaking the music of Jerry Santos. And when we listen to his lyrics, there is no mistaking his connection with the memories and emotions of our own lives. In this NA MELE, Jerry has woven together a story of home. “The idea of home was the driving force for the content. Most of the songs speak to the idea of ku‘u home, a personal, endearing way to refer to our place in the world. It becomes ku‘u because we attach to it our familiarity, what the wind and the rain are like, how the mountains smell, what is in the river, who our people are, our attachment to them and the things we have learned by being of a place,” Jerry says.

 

Jerry mixes “All of That Love from Here” with his signature song, “Ku‘u Home ‘O Kahalu‘u,” as well as “Tewe Tewe,” a playful song that pays tribute to the slippery o‘opu. He also performs “Seabird” and “Ku‘u Makamaka,” among other songs. Joining Jerry are musicians Kamuela Kimokeo and Hoku Zuttermeister.

 

 

 



GREAT PERFORMANCES
Joni 75: A Birthday Celebration

GREAT PERFORMANCES: Joni 75: A Birthday Celebration

 

The songs of legendary singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell’s are among the most sublime musical landscapes of human emotion ever created. Mitchell’s unique musical and lyrical gifts are an unprecedented marriage of intimacy and universality, creating a sound that is incomparable, yet relatable to all.

 

Preview

 

 

 

GREAT HOUSES WITH JULIAN FELLOWES
Burghley House

Great Houses with Julian Fellowes

 

Follow “Downton Abbey” creator Julian Fellowes on his quest to discover the real stories of Britain’s great houses. As he uncovers personal stories hidden behind the walls, he realizes these aren’t just homes for posh people – they hold history.

 

Preview

 

Burghley House
Julian Fellowes visits Burghley House, for 500 years the home of heirs of William Cecil, the political brain and iron fist behind the throne of Elizabeth I. Fellowes hears tales of royals and commoners, including a farmer’s daughter who married the tenth earl.

 

 

 

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