“Pidgin In the Literary Crosscurrents”
A talk from: Transpacific Dis/Positions: Crosscurrents in Indigenous, Diasporic, and Colonial Histories of Oceania at the University of California at Santa Cruz, May 5, 2018.
Hello everyone. It’s nice to be here in Santa Cruz and to be sharing my thoughts and work with all of you today. To begin with I have a concrete poem of mine that I want to project up on the viewing screen. It’s called Figuring Out Pidgin, and it will be an appropriate visual to serve as a background directive to my presentation.
I’m going to be talking today about Hawaiian Islands Pidgin literature and my own writing which is a part of that literature. Presently I’m engaged in being an active advocate for Hawaiian Islands Pidgin writing. In sending out my work on the internet, I’ve had the pleasure of being published by a number of progressive editors nationally and internationally. These editors with their inclusive platforms are providing new avenues for the appreciation of the growing literary genre from Hawai’i.
In pondering some of the themes of this symposium, and in deciding what I would present today, I came up with the idea of asking the editors of some of these different magazines as to why they published my writing in Pidgin. I inquired as to how those works, as examples of Hawaiian Islands Pidgin writing, fit into their collective vision of the contemporary literature that they were publishing today. I was curious about their decisions and viewpoints, to offer poetry that was written in a particular Creole, to an audience that had most likely never seen a Hawaiian Islands Pidgin poem before. In sharing the responses of these different editors, I’ll essentially become an intermediary to my own work, and in doing so, I will also intersperse a few readings of my poems here and there.
Editor Mark Young who publishes Otoliths, which is an online and print literary magazine from Australia, had this to say about why he published me.
“Because it’s good poetry. Also, it has enough in common with standard English to be able to stand alone, to be understood with ease, with only an extremely minimal glossary required. Otoliths has an eclectic selection of contributions. Poetry written in Hawaiian Islands Pidgin fits in quite comfortably.”
The first poem that I’m going to read today is called Bite Da Eye, and it’s one of the many Pidgin poems of mine that has been published in Otoliths. Before I present the poem there are some terms that you should be aware of. “Haole” is a word for a Caucasian person. “Ono kine grinds” means good food. There is also a different usage for the word “squid.” This has become a local slang term in Hawai’i. When a person says that they’re going fishing for squid they actually mean octopus.
As I said the title of this poem is Bite Da Eye. When old time fisherman in Hawai’i speared an octopus they would immediately cup the head of the animal, bite the eyes with their teeth, and then quickly flip the head inside out. Cupping, biting, and flipping the head inside out would be done in one swift action. This would immobilize the octopus and you wouldn’t have tentacles grabbing you all over the place. I’ve speared many an octopus with a three-prong Hawaiian sling when I used to skin dive, and it was always an effort getting them off of the spear shaft because the animal would be grabbing and holding on tight with its suction cups. I never tried the bite and flip method. Octopus have very strong parrot-like teeth. I didn’t like the idea of biting something that could bite me back. Those old time fisherman knew what they were doing.
Wen we wen buss out
wit all da local kine slang
da haoles at da adah tables
wen look at each of us
like we had two heads—
we might as well have been from Pluto.
Dey wuz listening
to two island expatriates
one from Ohio
and one from Michigan
talking wit da visitor from Hawaii.
Da pidgin flew like wun strange bird
in dat small breakfast café in Ann Arbor.
Wen da waitress wen bring da pancakes
dat wuz as big as da plate dey wuz on
da island vernacular wen flap its wings.
“Ho, dose buggahs are huge!”
And wen she wen arrive
wit my order of hash browns, eggs, and ham
I wen announce aftah I wen try’um,
“Ono kine grinds, brah,
and da ham not dat salty!”
We wuz talking story
in dat same familiar language
about da place
wheah we wen all grow up.
from spear fishing and body surfing
to da secrets of catching squid.
you bite da eye
and den you turn da squid head inside out.”
Wun haole lady
at wun nearby table heard dat
and she had wun look on her face
like she wuz tinking,
“What the hell are these people
It shall remain wun mystery to her
cause we wen bite da eye
and we wen also bite da ears.
The next editor who shared his insights is Jack Little, a person who has dual citizenship in the United Kingdom and Mexico. He edits the online The Ofi Press Magazine which is based in Mexico City where he works. He had this to say about Hawaiian Islands Pidgin.
“It’s an interesting language, and having this dialect finally recognized as an official language is surely worthy of recognition. In my part of the north of England, we have a very particular dialect and I have always been interested in the use of local languages in the written form. I love that this poem celebrates such an important moment and that it is in a form of English that I had never come across before, and certainly never read.
A lot of the work that we publish are from writers with a dual cultural background who may be writing in English as a second language. This leads to some very interesting uses of words, phrases and expressions. I love how the English language is always evolving…and Joe’s poems are making a valuable contribution to this.”
Here is one of the poems that was published in The Ofi Press Magazine.
Now I can officially
take wun deep breath
and exhale into da air
dats all around me—
Tanks foa letting me know.
Day to day
da language referred to wuz understood
cause it wuz put into practice
and wuz around foa long time already.
Da new official announcement
dat wuz recently made on its behalf
is so blatantly obvious
it’s just like Captain Cook
stumbling upon da islands.
Dat buggah nevah discover nutting
cause da first Hawaiians wuz already dere.
We know wat is wat
and we know wat we know.
So now dat Hawaiian Islands Pidgin
is recognized by da United States Census
it’s not wun great revelation to me.
I no need any compiled data
to inform me dat lots of people in da islands
speak da language at home.
I am also one to believe
dat from ear to ear
da size of your mind is biggah
den da size of your brain
so if you going tell me
dat someting is now official
den maybe you should officially
use your intellect
and perceive as to how
it sounds so blasé to me.
But den again
and maybe I shouldn’t
jump on da guys
dat are becoming enlightened
especially wen dere are many people around
who no like Pidgin
and dey going let you know about it.
So excuse me
to all da good people
who have achieved wun new perspective.
As foa me dough
wen we now talking
about speaking da local lingo
it’s like telling da sun
dat it’s now official
dat it can go brighten up da day.
Another editor that offered his perspective is Michael Organ of Tuck Magazine which is from Canada.
“We published Joe’s poetry to add to the many voices around the world that are not necessarily heard as much as they should be. There is a growing trend to dilute and limit the varying voices into one safe box, effectively standardising and neutralising their identity.
It is important more than ever therefore to remind the world how rich it is in culture, ethnicity and race, with each individual voice an important working, living and breathing part for its progress.
We publish poetry from around the world and are keen again to give each a voice. The Hawaiian Pidgin is another essential and important part of the diverse world we live in, with its beauty and individuality alongside all others.”
This following poem appeared in Tuck Magazine.
Like any adah wise guy
yapping off da top of his head
he works hard at knowing nutting.
Seeing his subject mattah on da internet
he takes it as gospel
wen it could easily be fake news
created by fake people in da fake world.
Fact checking is wun good ting
if you just stick to da facts
cause den you going know
wat is wat.
His girlfriend no help da situation
by sending him moa suspect info
on her cellphone
dat she wen find on Facebook.
and high school football glories
at da neighborhood bar or barbershop
now stay replaced
by soap opera politics and religion
spreading on da worldwide web
like unstoppable wildfire.
Da Russians wen do it
helped by da Nigerians
who wuz working wit da French
while dey wuz consulting
wit da Chinese.
Dats wat dis latest report
is saying anyway
and it’s as reliable
as its unnamed sources.
Now he’s reading
wun breaking story
dat da Pope had illicit sex
wit wun Rohingya woman
while da holy man
wuz visiting Myanmar.
It’s so outrageous
dat it has to be true
is covering up someting.
Da newly informed dude
viewing all of dis
is whipped into wun heightened frenzy
and he’s exploding into anadah rant
cause wen you work hard
at knowing nutting
you going unknowing prove
dat even belief is unbelievable.
Many of the editors that have published my work have similar views about incorporating Hawaiian Islands Pidgin into their magazines. In these next few commentaries you can see how those similarities contrast with each other.
Editor Caleb Puckett of Futures Trading, an online and print magazine which is based in Kansas, had this to say:
“I see Futures Trading as a home for writers from around the world who share a commitment to creating innovative or forward-facing work. Given this view, I naturally welcome alterity in many forms. This embrasure extends to nonstandard and hybrid forms of language—including pidgin. The distinctive voice and phrasing—not to mention the wit—in Balaz’s writing provide a perspective and verve that I continue to find attractive after multiple readings.”
Editor Jonathan Penton of Unlikely Stories Mark V which is from New Orleans, Louisiana added:
“At Unlikely Stories, we seek to publish poetry that challenges and expands the readers’ worldviews. Various English-associated patois have always been a part of that. Of course we seek poetry that demonstrates insight and craftsmanship, as well, and Joe Balaz’s poetry has both.
We frequently publish plain-language poetry, as we find that plain-language and elevated-language poetry can serve the same purpose: to expand the horizons of language, as well as the mindset of the reader. Plain-language poetry allows for unexpected and unfamiliar slang, which we find a wonderful component for intellectual growth. Joe Balaz’s plain-language pidgin poems fit very nicely into other poems of regionalisms and slang.”
The last editor who shared his views is Alan Caitlin. He publishes Misfit Magazine which is based in Schenectady, New York. I had a very interesting interchange him.
When I initially sent my Pidgin poetry to his magazine he didn’t know what to make of it. He recognized value in the work but could not wrap his mind around publishing the poems. He couldn’t get my “method or poet’s aesthetic” as he said.
However, his inquisitive and longer response was so heartfelt and genuine, that I wrote back to him and suggested that he should try to Google my work, and Hawaiian Islands Pidgin in general, with the notion that his research would answer some of the things that he was struggling with. He told me that when he could find the time he would look into it.
Two or three months later he got back to me and began his email with— “I bet you never thought you would hear from me again.” Long story short he had a new perspective and eventually he published several of my Pidgin poems in subsequent issues of his magazine. This is one of the poems that he published.
NO INSULT MY ANTENNAS
No insult my antennas
wit dat hypothetical could have been
as if it wuz wun whole different story
dat you can simply create.
Da way you see it
if it looks like wun coconut
smells like wun coconut
and tastes like wun coconut
den it could have been wun lychee.
Dat sounds like editing
and ovahlap to me
and I can do da same ting
just like you.
It could have been
wun donkey jumping ovah da moon.
It could have been
3 chickens instead of 3 pigs.
It could have been
wun lethal kumquat
instead of wun poison apple too.
It could have been lottah tings
but it wuzn’t.
It simply wuz wat it wuz
and dats da way it is.
If you like speculate
on how tings could have been
den go make some new fairy tales
or nursery rhymes
and let your theories
drift off into lala-land.
None of your changing scenarios
going get any reception from me.
I no moa time
foa your altering agenda—
I got wun appointment wit da real.
This is what Editor Alan Caitlin had to say about Hawaiian Islands Pidgin.
“I was intrigued by the unique use of language in Joe’s poetry. It is at once familiar
and completely foreign. I did not know how to respond at first. I followed some of Joe’s suggestions and read examples of his work that had previously been published in various magazines. I also found a long essay about Hawaiian pidgin. This put his writing into a broader context and I was ready to reconsider his work.
I was also able to obtain a recording of Joe’s poetry and was struck by the humor, the energy, and the striking originality of the work. The spoken versions are particularly vivid and give a broader understanding for an appreciation of the written work. Oral poetry has always fascinated me: how language is changed as it is spoken, how the spoken language is always richer and more in touch with the evolution of the language than the written language. I felt that experiencing Hawaiian islands pidgin has enriched my understanding of both poetry, what it does, and can be, and language itself.
My magazine is called Misfit. I like to think and sincerely hope to be eclectic in my use of different approaches to poetry. I admit to a bias for narrative poetry but I am open to all forms of expression as long as they are thoughtful and respectful to others. Much of what I see can be classified as being traditional in approach to subject matter so it is particularly refreshing to find a writer who opens new areas (for me). There may not be anyone else who we have published who is even remotely similar to Joe’s work so I guess you can say even Misfit has a subcategory for a true misfit and a different kind of poetry.”
All of these editors were very gracious with their comments. Their opinions on the craftsmanship of my work were flattering to me personally, but the more important thing, is that it didn’t matter to them that the poems were written in Hawai’i Creole English, or Pidgin, as it is known in the Hawaiian Islands. They were recognizing and appreciating the uniqueness of a literary genre that they were being introduced to. I’m thankful for these broad-minded editors who have taken upon themselves to provide an avenue for poems written in Hawaiian Islands Pidgin to be shared nationally and internationally.
Lastly, I want to end with a poem that I always enjoy presenting. It’s called Da History of Pigeon (and “pidgin” in this case is spelled p-i-g-e-o-n).
This poem was inspired by the Colloquium on Pidgins and Creoles, which was held
at the East-West Center at the University of Hawai’i in August of 1986. I was one of the
invited speakers and I wanted to present something new to be read with some of my earlier works in Pidgin. I composed this poem about a week before the conference. In the audience was a person named Suzanne Romaine who was from the United Kingdom. She got in touch with me later and asked me for permission to reprint the poem in a book that she was working on. The book is called Pidgin and Creole Languages, and it was eventually published in the U.K. in 1988. I find it interesting that this Pidgin English poem was first published where the English language originated from.
DA HISTORY OF PIGEON
Like different kine words
da world wuz full of different kine birds
yellow birds, blue birds, red birds, lovebirds
and den came da pigeon.
Da history of da word pigeon is li’dis—
Wen da French speaking Normans
wen conquer England in da year 1066
dey wen bring along wit dem da word pigeon
foa da type of bird it wuz.
Da resident Anglo-Saxons used da word dove
or d-u-f-e, as dey used to spell ‘um,
to mean da same bird.
It just so happened dat terms in Norman-French
wen blend wit Old English sentence structure
to form wat we now know as Middle English.
In da process da French word
became da one dat referred to da pigeon as food.
Today in England if you look foa dem
you can still find recipes foa pigeon pie.
Food foa taught, aah?
Even back den da word pigeon
wen blend wit pigeon foa get some moa pigeon.
So nowadays get pigeon by da zoo
get pigeon on da beach
get pigeon in town
get pigeon in coups
and no maddah wat anybody try do
dey kannot get rid of pigeon.
I guess wit such wun wide blue sky
everyting deserves to fly.
I’ve enjoyed giving my presentation today. Thanks for the opportunity to share some Hawaiian Islands Pidgin writing along with the insightful commentaries of some very innovative contemporary editors.
Figuring Out Pidgin appeared in Otoliths, Issue Forty-Nine, Southern Autumn, 2018.
Bite Da Eye appeared in Otoliths, Issue Twenty-Nine, Southern Autumn, 2013.
Officially Official appeared in The Ofi Press Magazine, March, 2018.
Unbelievable appeared in Tuck Magazine, May, 2018.
No Insult My Antennas appeared in Misfit Magazine, Issue No.23, Spring, 2018.
Da History Of Pigeon appeared in Pidgin and Creole Languages by Suzanne Romaine, (Longman: London, U.K.), 1988. It also appeared in the film Aloha Aina Concert in 1988. It was reprinted in Chaminade Literary Review, Number 7, 1990; Hawai’i Review, Issue 34, Vol. 16, No. 1, Winter 1991-92; Languages in Society: An Introduction to Sociolinguistics by Suzanne Romaine, (Oxford University Press), 1994; Ola, a chapbook by Joe Balaz, (Tinfish Net/Work), 1996; Eskimo Pie, July, 2015. It also appeared on Electric Laulau, a cd of Pidgin literature by Joe Balaz in 1998.
Joe Balaz writes in Hawaiian Islands Pidgin (Hawai’i Creole English) and in American English. He has also created works in visual poetry and music poetry, and is the editor of Ho’omanoa: An Anthology of Contemporary Hawaiian Literature. He presently lives in Cleveland, Ohio.