An Interview with Sharon Suzuki-Martinez
(photo credit: David Martinez)
Poets of color face a unique type of adversity in the Southwest. Can you describe what you have encountered? How has it hurt or helped your poetry?
Scholars have written about America’s anti-intellectual tendencies throughout history. Nevertheless, I am puzzled to live in a place where if people go to college: they tend to matriculate as conservatives, and then graduate as conservatives. One of my former co-workers, a redheaded ASU graduate, told me she “hated” to see people of color on TV, and made fun of my slight Hawaii accent. Research shows that the core conservative values are “resistance to change and support for inequality.” This culture of anti-learning and pro-stereotyping explains how people can assume I’m foreign (and insist Hawaii is a foreign country), believe Chicanos are drug-smuggling aliens, African Americans are born killers, and Native Americans are/should be extinct. Many Arizonans don’t even TRY to get to know individuals from other ethnic groups, or can’t see that stereotypes are proven wrong in chance encounters every single day.
Some people glance at my Pima husband, and my waist-length hair and assume I’m some sort of American Indian too. I’ve been mistaken for the Navajo Poet Laureate, Luci Tapahonso—not a bad thing! I prefer looking ethnically ambiguous even if it makes retail workers and the police more suspicious of me. Let me explain.
I’m still haunted by an incident in the early 90’s when I was a doctoral student at the University of Arizona in Tucson. I was at a conference geared for high school teachers and had just presented on teaching Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior. I was the only Asian American in the room of White, Black, and Chicano women. Somehow, the group discussion exploded into the teachers angrily blaming Asian women for making things bad for all other women. As if their husbands were dicks because of me. They took the submissive, geisha stereotype as self-evident truth so they didn’t see themselves racists. They scared the f***ing hell out of me—flashback to nearly getting beaten up in the girls’ locker room in 7th grade. I don’t feel safe alone among strangers while being openly Asian in Arizona.
I am not sure how this racial climate has affected my poetry, but I constantly wrestle with cynicism (the enemy of creativity) and am mostly unknown as a Phoenix or Asian American poet. The great thing is I’ve never been pressured to limit my writing to Arizona or my ethnicity; I am free to go wherever I please in my poetry.
What is the poetry scene like where you live? Where’s the best place to go for a poetry reading?
When my husband and I first moved from Minneapolis to Tempe in 2007, ASU poet Laura Tohe told me via email that the Phoenix metro area didn’t have a poetry community. That was confirmed when a local poets’ group with a website inviting new members ignored my attempts to communicate them. I was shocked by how different the literary scene was from Twin Cities.
Part of the impetus for creating The Poet’s Playlist was to create a poetry community not tied to a particular location. There are poets from all over the US and Canada talking about their poetry and sharing their favorite music on my website. That project has been as gratifying to me as belonging to Kundiman, which is also dedicated to connecting across miles through poetry (and fiction starting this year).
That was a roundabout way to answer the question. Although I’m still an outsider, a lot has changed since 2007 and now the Phoenix poetry scene is on fire with more poets, literary journals, workshops, and many reading series. My favorite poetry series is the Tempe Poetry in April, but its future is up in the air. Other than that, there is ASU’s Virginia Piper Center’s Distinguished Visiting Writers Series, the Phoenix Poetry Series, Caffeine Corridor Poetry Series, Lawn Gnome Publishing Poetry Slam, Matador Open Mic Poetry, Balboa Poet House, Changing Hands Bookstore’s First Fridays open mic, and many more small open mics across the Phoenix valley.
How has social media affected your work?
It’s a strange time to be a writer. I might be wrong, but authors cannot afford not to have social media presence—no matter how seemingly counterproductive it is to their writing. But that makes Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Wordpress, etc. sound like nothing more than a necessary evil. I think connecting with your audience, or potential audience is always a good thing. Social media helps us remember the people we are writing for. Twitter, in particular, helps hone my ability to write succinctly and practice one-liners. The danger lies in missed opportunities, in not developing poetic tweets into poems.
Would you like to share a poem you’ve written while living in the Southwest?
Here is something partly inspired by a drive through Phoenix, during the height of the Ferguson protests. Thank you, Kundiman SW (Heather Nagami and Jane Lin) for your feedback and camaraderie!
Guns Save Lives
Says the sign at the bus stop, but
to follow the logic of, “Guns Don’t Kill
People, People Kill People,”
means guns don’t actually save People either.
(Unless Jesus is a pistol)
Guns can’t kill or save lives
because they are inanimate objects,
Pillows are innocent,
but also used by People to kill other People:
vicious sleeping or vegetating People.
(Flashback to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest)
Perhaps we should content ourselves
with pillows instead of guns.
Let’s stockpile pillows
like we are hoarding puppies.
Sharon Suzuki-Martinez is a sansei Okinawan-Japanese American originally from Kaneohe, Hawaii who now lives in Tempe, Arizona. She is the author of The Way of All Flux (New Rivers Press, 2012), winner of the New Rivers Press MVP Poetry Prize. She created/curates The Poet’s Playlist. She has been a Kundimana since 2008.
Tweeting at @SuzukiMartinez