Pacific Voices: Tinfish Editor Susan Schultz Waxes Poetic on Her Press, Her Journal and Her Poetry, but Mostly Her Press


Jennifer Feeley

Among the nearly numberless translation-friendly literary journals that have sprung up the last decade or two, few if any has provided a warmer welcome to translators working in and out of the East-Asian literary traditions than TinFish Journal. If its founder, poet and literary scholar Susan Schultz, who also edits TinFish Press, had a dollar for every interesting East-Asian poem she has published in English translation over the years, she could probably retire to a ten-acre beach-front property in Honolulu with an infinity pool and view of Diamond Head many a reader would kill for. She does in fact live in Hawaii, in Kāneʻohe, although not on the beach, but East-Asian poetry is but one of the many equally interesting Pacific Rim and Pacific Basin literary traditions her journal and press have helped to bring to the attention of English-speaking readers. It is thus our great pleasure to present the following interview together with a handful of covers from the publisher's beautifully designed and deservedly distinguished backlist.

What prompted you to start Tinfish?
I started the journal in 1995, and the press followed a year or so later with our first chapbook by Joe Balaz. I'd lived in Hawai`i for the better part of five years at that point and wanted to find a way to put into relation two kinds of poetry that I felt spoke to each other, but had never been put in the position of listening. East and west coast experimental writing was something I had just discovered as I left graduate school in the late 1980s; “local,” multicultural literature was something I found when I moved here. While their forms and modes were very different, their obsessions with language, with difference, with politics, struck me as worthy of putting into play in the same space, so I “restricted” the journal's region to the Pacific and started looking for writers who somehow combined these poles in their work. That metaphor is really atrocious but I like it. It wasn't easy then to find such writers then, but now there are many: Barbara Jane Reyes, Craig Santos Perez, all the Hawai`i writers in Tinfish 18.5: The Book—I could go on and on . . .
Tell me more about “The Book”?
Well, it outgrew its concept as a mid-year extra journal issue and became a book. The poets in the book were all in the M.A. Program at UH at the time; it was an astonishing cohort of students. I wanted to bring them together, as poets of various ethnicities and backgrounds who were all obsessed with issues in Hawai`i: militarism, tourism, culture, you name it. Then Gaye and Lian Litvin, who was an MFA student at the time, brought in all the artists to illustrate the poets' works. Gaye made it into one of those old-fashioned puzzle books, the kind you used to take on airplanes, before digital took over.
How did you conjure up the name “Tinfish,” which I love, by the way?
At the time our visiting writer at UHM was Terese Svoboda. Her husband, Steve Bull, was very fun to talk to, so when I got the idea for the press and saw him at a reading I asked, “What would you call a journal of experimental poetry from the Pacific?” Without batting an eye he said it needed to have a metal in it, something like “goldfish.” Well, I didn't like the gold part, so I said, “How about tinfish?” and there we had it. I had no idea it also refers to torpedoes, restaurants, and even a punk band. That was before Google.
You get any support from the university or state?
Very little. The UH has very little money, and the state, which did have some, is in crisis. I put up a lot of the money myself, but these days the press mostly pays for itself. We live off a few bestselling titles, ones that are used often in classrooms around the country.

For example?
Craig Santos Perez's from unincorporated territory [hacha], Kaia Sand's Remember to Wave, and Daniel Tiffany's Dandelion Clock. We still sell quite a few copies of Lisa Linn Kanae's Sista Tongue, which was our first big seller, and Lee Tonouchi's Living Pidgin: Contemplating Pidgin Culture, as well. Nothing earth-shattering, but just enough to keep us afloat and to get the word out about experimental poetry in the Pacific. By the way, Craig's second book, from unincorporated territory [saina], which was published by Omnidawn last year, just got short-listed for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in Poetry!
That's great news! Speaking of prizes, you must have gotten a lot of orders for Barbara Jane Reyes's Poeta en San Francisco after it won the James Laughlin award.
Yes. You know they gave her the award before we'd even published it. I really hate the award system, but this award was good for us and for her, as the Academy of American Poets ordered over 5,000 copies up front and helped to pay for more of them. I love the book for its uses of Apocalypse Now's conflations of Vietnam with the Philippines, and for its examinations of San Francisco, the American disaster in Vietnam, and many other things . . . . I also like the way she uses the Clash!

I've heard you put your kids to work sealing envelops and adding stamps. Any truth to that story?
Don't know about that, but if you go to my blog, you'll see a bunch of us, including my kids, binding Tinfish #19, which was made of material so hard to fold that it had to be cut in half and then rebound with tape and lots of glue.
The Tinfish designs are so distinctive!
Gaye Chan was our art director for many years. She did some designs herself, and then enlisted students and grads of the UH program and colleagues to do design work for us. She has recently stepped down—she's chair of the art department now and has other fish to fry—and there are fewer design students at hand. But we're anticipating that we'll find designers somehow!
Who came up with the idea for the centerfolds?
These were Gaye Chan's kuleana, as we say in Hawai`i. She wanted to provide a space for artists to present works on the body, so the last several Tinfish issues each contain a centerfold designed by different people. My favorite centerfold remains the first one, which was Gaye's and which represented (as I now remember it) the problem of sexuality after having children.
I love design for Deborah Meadows' The _ 6 0 s _ and _ 7 0 s : from "The Theory of Subjectivity in Moby Dick” . . .
Stuart Henley designed that chapbook. Deborah Meadows' work, her two Tinfish chapbooks and other books from Green Integer, Shearsman and elsewhere, is extraordinary in its critical/lyrical uses of prior texts. The chapbook takes Moby Dick as its source text, examining 19th century rhetoric for its gaps, elisions.
A lot of small presses have been folding recently. Can you put to rest the rumors that Tinfish is on hiatus?
During this coming year I am on sabbatical, but I can't sit still, so we have more plans than I'd planned to have. Craig Santos Perez is choosing two full-length manuscripts for Tinfish to publish. I call it the No Contest, as he's doing the selecting, but it's not one of those poetry contest deals. He has first chosen a book by Jai Arun Ravine (who was published by Tinfish in #18 as Alysha Wood), which engages Thailand and America, as well as gender, nationality, and other issues, while using both English and Thai languages.
I've also heard word of some new chapbooks.
This idea is very new, but, yes, we're going to do a retro series of small chapbooks, with the help of the designer Eric Butler in Honolulu. The chaps will be short, cheaply produced, and sent out to “subscribers” (for modest donations). Each will have a run of only 100 or so. Hoping to show some of the richness of writing now without going broke doing it, and I've always loved the philosophy we've had for many years of using recycled materials and not being high-gloss.
What's the story behind the “recycled issues?” I'm thinking in particular of the recycled maps (issue 16) and the cereal boxes (issue 9).
What I've loved about the recycled work is that usually the material came to us before the writing did. So the cereal boxes were found by someone in a dumpster and given to Gaye; the hamburger sleeves we used to wrap Steve Carll's chapbook, Hamburger, came the same way—he's a vegetarian by the way, so don't be scared off by the title. Usually the writing has nothing to do with the materials (at least analytically speaking!) but they somehow work together. My favorite instance of synchronicity was when an early Tinfish cover featured accountant paper, with lots of squares. Then we strangely got poems that were written in graphs or, as with Zhang Er's poetry, on Chinese notepaper. These kinds of “accidents” happen all the time.
Can you talk a little about your own work? Such as, how in the world did you end up writing a poem about Angelina Jolie?!
No Guns, No Durian was a collection of my own prose poems, which was folded into And Then Something Happened (Salt, 2004). These poems were ways to rethink the notion of family. I am an adoptive mother and over the years I'd been mother to my son I noticed that the very way in which people conceptualize family in our culture is steeped in blood genealogies (something even more noticeable when you live in a place where blood matters so much in some ways, so little in others). So the poems work through these received notions of family and try to reconfigure it. The Angelina Jolie poem was based on her journals from Cambodia (she and I are similar in having sons from Cambodia, if in nothing else at all), which were at once very juvenile and utterly profound. So I stole from her.
Tell me about your recent book, Dementia Blog—what drew you to write poetry in blog form?
I was keeping a blog at the time my family went to visit my mother in her home in Virginia in late summer, 2006. We arrived at a moment of crisis; she clearly could not live by herself any more, or even with a caregiver in her home. So I kept blogging, though the blog changed into a series of observations and meditations. The form of the blog worked (I kept the sequence of entries in “backwards” order, as the blog does) because of the estranging effect of Alzheimer's. When you lose notions of cause and effect, for example, or temporal progression, you often feel caught in a backwards world. So the form enacted the problem. Since writing that book I've kept blogging about Alzheimer's; dementia has become a central concern for me and my work.
Tinfish has published a zillion things from or about the East-Asian side of the Pacific. I wonder if you could say a few things about some of them before I let you go?
Of course! Thanks for asking! And thanks for your interest in Tinfish:
Photograph by Craig T. Kojima
Susan Schultz on Some Favorites from the Tinfish East-Asian Backlist    

Linh Dinh's Three Vietnamese Poets   [excerpt]  

This chapbook came about when Linh was living in Vietnam and I asked him for work. He later gave us a book, but first came the translations, along with an introduction. The chapbook was very expensive to produce, so when it went out of print we put it up on Free Stuff on our website for all to see.


Kim Hyesoon's When the Plug Gets Unplugged   [excerpt]  

This is simply one of my favorite selections of poetry ever. Kim, who is a feminist Korean poet (ably translated by Don Mee Choi), writes in the voices of rats about Seoul issues. The designer, Michael Cueva, put such vivid pictures of rats into the chap that some of my students refused to read it. Though once I had them reading out loud, they recognized that these poems were quite profound meditations on human life.


Hwang Jiwoo's Someday I'll Be Sitting in a Dingy Bar   [excerpt]  

This chapbook came to us from its first translator, Scott Swaner, in Washington State. Somewhere during the time I sat on the manuscript, he died. We put the book out, and then Gaye and I burned a copy of it so that he could have it in the afterworld; I have photos somewhere. These poems are rather Ashberyan (to me) in the sense that they're conversational, quite learned.


Sawako Nakayasu's Clutch: Hockey Love Poems   [excerpt]  

When Sawako was in San Diego, she sent me a sheaf of poems with a note about how much she loves hockey. I was hooked, as I'm a huge baseball fan, and the notion of loving a sport is familiar to me. The best review of the chapbook, which is held together by a rubber band tied in a knot, advised readers not to keep the book anywhere near a vacuum cleaner.


            Susan's Favorite Centerfold, by Gaye Chan   from Tinfish 11  
All photos, images and text reprinted courtesy of Tin Fish and the respective copyright holders.