This week’s feature is a form of writing artistry which has always eluded me – poetry. I’ve always loved reading poetry but never been able to write any so I’m thrilled to have Pacific Poet, James Toma, share his writing journey with us and also give other aspiring poets other some tips for writing and publishing their work.
Talofa! I guess I am very humbled that goddess storyteller Lani Wendt Young approached me about contributing to the much anticipated TusitalaFiapoto newsletter. First of all, for me, the world of writing (whether it is fiction, nonfiction, and/or poetry) takes a lot of dedication, patience, determination, making sacrifices, and of course a very active imagination.
My hobby of writing poetry started when I was a senior at Samoana High School in American Samoa. At that time, I was a student reporter writing articles for the school’s student-run newspaper, Samoana Times. I also had won awards from the school system’s sponsored monthly Young Writer’s Essay contests. So I knew about writing nonfiction at that point. But no way was I a poet…yet.
Aside from writing, I grew reading books and listening to Pop/Rock (Madonna, Michael Jackson) and soft rock/light listening (Mariah Carey, Elton John). So when I became a Secretary for the school’s Mata’ala (yearbook) Staff my creative mind immediately went to work. What will the writer in me do for the school year’s mata’ala? There is no room for a fictional short story, no room for a nonfiction essay…what? Then the idea of a poem hit me and I was completely clueless. How to start? What would be the first line? That time, Princess Diana’s death was all over the media and Elton’s “Candle In the Wind” was on rotation on the island’s KSBS FM 92.1. I got the title right away because Elton mentioned “legend” in the song. For my poem, I worked on the concept of Samoana High as my soon-to-be alma mater and that a poem saluting us (the students) as well as saying goodbye to SHS would be fitting. It should have that theme, that concept. So I wrote the poem and thus, “Legends of the Sea” (because the school mascot was the shark)was born.
“Legends” became a hit with my colleagues and the Editor of the Mata’ala decided for it to be the overall theme of the mata’ala. It was published in the 1997-98 mata’ala and was also set into a farewell song for my class’ (’98) graduation ceremony at the falelaumei in American Samoa. “Legends” had all of the marketing elements:
· I considered my audience: My audience was the student body of Samoana High School. I included the school’s colors, the school name, a thank you to our parents, etc.
· I referenced my culture: Because I was Samoan I had to include my culture. So I added the legend of the malie ma le laumei into the poem to make the piece not just for the readership of my schoolmates but for it to appeal to people outside of Samoana High.
· I mentioned the creator above: I believe in the Lord so much and I was raised a strong Christian and that having the Lord in there would bless it so yeah…
Two years later, I landed an internship as a Youth Reporter at the local newspaper Samoa Post. I hosted my own page for the youth by the youth called Islandnext. Its title derived from a line in the Spice Girls song “Move Over.” Lol, my love for music has such a huge role in my creativity skills. For Islandnext, I had a column on there dedicated to the young poets of American Samoa. I, myself contributed my poetry from time to time. At this point, I can only remember one poem and it was called, “Into Fairyland.” This poem visualized American Samoa as a fairyland with all its colorful flowers and hospitable people, my people!!! Islandnext would soon end as I decided to enroll at American Samoa Community College.
As a student of ASCC, I knew that my writing poetry career must go on and that it must not stop! (That is determination, always look for ways to publish your work.) So I became a reporter for the college’s newspaper and contributed three pieces of poetry that were published. “Fairy Girl” (a eulogy to an English instructor that sadly passed away during my time at ASCC), “The Crying Mermaid/Fall of Hawaii” (a piece inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s famed tale and my own perspective of Hawaii and American Samoa’s histories), and a tribute to my mom for Mother’s Day, “Lo’u Tina Peleina.” The idea for the Samoan title came about from the singer Madonna’s “La Isla Bonita” song. Hehehehe, again music played a role there!!!
With all my success in American Samoa alone, I knew then that it was time for a more broader audience, an audience that means the United States and beyond.I moved to the USA. My poetry writing career was put on hold for quite a long time due to so many reasons them including financial. Yes, being a writer/poet does not mean a mansion or a luxurious lifestyle my friends. Also, as a writer/poet, you should not think about money but about the joy of being published and sharing your work with the world. Letting your voice be heard is your moment!!!
By 2004, I was enrolled at Pierce College in Lakewood, WA and my English instructor was the advisor of the school’s S (tudent) L (iterary) A (rts) M (agazine). He loved my writing assignments so much that he asked me to contribute to that school year’s edition of SLAM. I remember coming home that day thinking intensely about what poems to submit. I knew that this was not American Samoa so all my Samoan-themed poems in my diary will not go well with the intended audience. I remember going through my private notebook of poems and finally decided that “oldtimes” (all in lowercased letters), “Criminal,” “Birthmark”, and “SLAM” (in the tradition of “Legends” I was hoping for it to be the theme of the magazine) were most fitting. In the end, SLAM chose “oldtimes” and “Criminal” for publication. I was ecstatic!!! For brief description, “oldtimes” is a twist on the Moses story and on Greek mythology. “Criminal” was a retelling of the Jesus crucifixion with a psychological twist. One piece of advice at this moment: write about what you know the most. Do not write about something that you have no knowledge of. Or what you can always do is research, research, and research. Luckily, I grew up reading the TusiPa’ia (Holy Bible) and Bulfinch’s Mythology. SLAM was released in 2005 and it included a brief biography of me. I got to read these two poems to the Pierce College student body as well as a small coffee shop in Seattle, WA.
I moved to the Washington, DC metro area in Christmas 2005. I have to tell you that DC is such an expensive area to live in!!! Yes, VERY EXPENSIVE. Since this was the capital city of the great US of A, I decided to get into its groove and adapt. For the next five years I would go on to attend the annual National Book Festival on a yearly basis, concerts by artists like Mariah Carey, Sarah Brightman, and Katy Perry (Michael Jackson’s Immortal concert is pending, wish me luck!!!), visits to amazing museums: Madam Tussauds DC and the National Gallery of Art (I went to an exhibit of the Tahitian artist Gauguin’s works there), and of course the plethora of Marian art found at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception just to name a few.
By 2010, I finally submitted ten poems to Heliocentric Press http://www.facebook.com/pages/Heliocentric-Press/340699766186 all based on themes of darkness and despair. As a poet, I want to grow and try other areas and themes. So these ten poems are all depressing and melancholic but still fun (I think) to read. The editor loved them and has chosen to publish them all in an anthology soon to be released called In the Valley of Hinnom. It is in the process of production and will be available soon. Also, on November 8, 2011 some of my poems will be featured online at: http://itsgoldenmag.org/
Now, I maintain a Samoan-bilingual/ Pacific islander poetry blog on the Polycafe website where all other Polynesian artists and businesspersons gather to share their talents online. The poems I have on there are all Polynesian-themed and my personal favorites are “Magical”, “Number 1”, “Penina”, “Aiga Bus”, “Volcano”, and “Boy of Coconuts.” It also has photos and drawings you the Pacific Islander would enjoy or relate to. They were all written while listening to music from Mariah Carey, TeVaka, Le Anivas, Katy Perry, etc.My own pieces of advice to budding poets of the Pacific are:
· Read, Imagine, and Write!: The age-old counselto all writers and poets is to continue to read those books and magazines and newspapers and you will go far. Use that imagination of yours to compose poems in your head and then write them out on any notepad, notebook, paper napkin, post-it note, or type them on your laptop, pc, etc. Remember to write about your personal experiences and things you really know about. Hey, you can be like me since you’re a Pacific poet, write about your culture, whether you’re Samoan, Tongan, Maori, Fijian, or Chamorro. Do your homework and research a topic you are not that familiar with! And then lose yourself in your poetry, there should not be any restriction, it’s a free world… (Poems also don’t have to rhyme but of course it’s got to have a rhythm…) Finally, you must have a skilled English instructor/professor to educate you on the structures and forms of poetry there are in this world. Take a creative writing class today in college or get to know your high school English teacher…
· Subscribe!: Yes, I couldn’t do it without the help of these two great magazines for writers and poets alike. Writer’s Digest and Poets and Writers. They usually list publishers that are looking for your type of work, tips on how to market/sell your work, and all the hoopla of the writing world! They are somewhat costly but guess what! You can sign yourself up online to receive Poets and Writer’s free newsletter in your email. Go to their website at http://www.pw.org/ (or copy/paste it into your browser)and sign up for it with your email address, it’s FREE! You won’t regret it, it’s filled with so much info that you need to get your work out there…
· Loud and Out!: I know that Samoans love Hip Hop/ Rap music so let me tell you now if you didn’t already know that there’s two types of poetry for that: 1) Spoken Word and 2) Performance poetry. So if you’ve got a voice that needs to be heard, concerns about social issues in your community, etc. then those two are what you need to look into. You must do your homework and research them online. In New Zealand, they have the South Auckland Poets Collective group which has a facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/spoetscollective1.
· Share your work with your family and friends!: Get support for your poetry writing career! Let your family and/or friends read your work and then gain their readership. If you’re a love poem writer, an enthusiastic poem writer, an empowering poem writer, then yes! Brighten someone’s day with your poetry! If they are in a diary, rewrite them out on a piece of paper then…
So there you have it! My incredible journey in the poetry writing universe and of course my own knowledge of this craft. I know that there are others with their own journeys, their own stories, their own ladders, their own sagas, their own formulas but those aforementioned are mine personally. I hope it inspires someone out there and hey, Who knows? You may even be better than me but the point of all this is you need to get your talent out. You need to be ambitious about it. A tip to to the busy-bees (the employed or parent poet) keep a diary and in that diary you can write your life out in it. All your frustrations, your secrets, your crushes, etc. please record them down for later editing and sculpting into poetry okay? Iamanuia le aso ma to’aga I lautalenimai le Atua! Aua le fiugofie!!!Tofasoifua!
Jamztoma (James Toma)
Dance To the Samoan Beat
I’d like to dance to the Samoan beat
Clap my hands, skip my little feet
Moving to the rhythm of the music
I am the Elvis of the South Pacific!
I can also be
a chief’s daughter,
an orator, a warrior, or
a proud ancestor…
I’d like to dance to the Samoan beat
Tell a story with my hand routines
Make the ancient spirits come alive,
And dance on for all time!
Angels they lure
Our women away
Make love to them
Oh such rhythm!
The sweetness they create
I often dream
When I enter the afterlife
Is there such a place-
For you and I?
Birds and heroes
And damsels aglow
Hearts not closed
Zone for the saints
And fortunate sinners
This everlasting place
That holds much honor
I meditate often
About such destiny
For you or me
Mountains of gold
Rainbow water that flows
A potion of youth
A world of truth
Blessed music from trumpets
Playing by the entrance
Of perceived paradise
Beyond the sunlight
And you and I, as islanders
Know when to surrender
To this Elysium
Or friend me on facebook: http://www.facebook.com/jamztoma
Thank you James for sharing your journey with us! We invite everyone to connect with James via the links provided and also read more of his poetry. Showcased in this week’s newsletter are several other Pacific poets and their work as well. Enjoy!