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boundary 2 28.1 (2001) 121-151

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From the Sublime to the Devious:
Writing the Experimental/Local Pacific

Rob Wilson

1. “Two Postmodernisms”

Starting up in Honolulu not so long ago in the downsizing weathers of 1995, the literary journal Tinfish was formed out of a cultural as well as political movement (ongoing in Hawai‘i, as in other dispersed sites of local/transnational reimagining) to mix, coalesce, and juxtapose what Susan Schultz, the founding editor and writer in poetics, called in a brief editorial statement “the two postmodernisms.”1

At times in the Pacific, it seemed to some, the experimental and the local had come to function like two lurid ships passing in the postmodern night: Looking across the Pacific to Buffalo, Perth, and Sydney as much as to the interethnic nation of Bamboo Ridge for its aesthetic moorings, Tinfish sought to intervene in this textual rift and to shake up the stagnancy of forms and discursive protocols of “the local” that had set in.2 [End Page 121]

The opposed meaning of what Schultz had called these “two postmodernisms” signifies, on the one (more experimental) hand, a concern to activate the play of languages and mixed heritages of representation, as in some intertextual and deconstructive abyss that calls into question any undertheorized, stable, or reified version of “identity,” “voice,” or “sovereignty” of meaning, cultural self, nationhood, and so on. The “deconstruction of nostalgia for transcendental identity is crucial to international poetry working out beyond modernism,” is how the editors of a special issue of Angelaki put this drive to unsettle identity.3

This postmodern tactic of language play at times uprooted the writing self from the place/identity of local embodiment and stressed, instead, the “depthless” scene of writing as a kind of perpetual displacement and deferral of the self’s being housed or contained by any ongoing identity with sign or place.4

This avowedly avant-garde sense of language-as-home had come to be considered, at least in the local Pacific, as a mainland U.S., metropolitan, or “New York–centric” brand of post-Ashbery poetics playing itself out against other, emerging tactics of voice and identity that, on the other (more local) hand, had pushed poetic language toward voicing a more trenchantly situated, affiliated, or localized kind of postmodernism. A kind of local-based poetry that wanted to align itself with forces and forms of imagined identity that [End Page 122] were coming to be called, in the late 1980s, “postcolonial.”5 This postmodernism, as Schultz saw in Hawai‘i and the transpacific regional emergences, “embodies history and believes in voice.”6 Such poetry became a means by which local/ethnic/indigenous identity (and these are not the same claims) could protect themselves against homogenizing forces of the global-culture industry and U.S. mainstream.

This stance, claiming to express a postcolonial kind of postmodernity, would urge of writing in the Pacific those aggravated concerns to recapture strong claims to cultural, cultural-national, and subaltern ethnic identity; to reclaim some indigenous nation as seen under global/local superpower threat; and to express, more generally, some situated coalition of local writing forces and energies, a kind of place-based imagination of belonging to some specific locality, liminal zone, and counternation as entangled in a distinctive, if nervously ambivalent, colonial history.7

At times, these two postmodernisms can be said to have split off into extremes of textual wordplay and ludic prattle, say, letters and words in love with their own materiality and poetic sound play, on the one hand, versus (in another version) a kind of reified, nostalgia-drenched, and reiterative primordiality, on the other hand, wherein indigenous claims to place, myth, symbolic aboriginality, and nation are invoked to assert a kind of ontological priority against competing versions of cultural mixture, ethnic settlement, or linguistic and biological “hybridity” discourse as such. Ludic unreadability and [End Page 123] white-bread deconstruction, on the one (parodic) hand, versus a kind of grand transparency and sublime genealogy of native metaphor claiming a legacy of balance, blood, earth...


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pp. 121-151
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Archived 2004
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