I Am No One’s Graveyard: An Interview With No‘u Revilla

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I first met No‘u Revilla when we were both PhD students at the University of Hawai‘i. Her poems featured performance—an embodiment of the words on the page, taking shape on her tongue. This mo‘o kiss was the first I learned of the partnering of aloha ‘āina and poem, though it had existed so linked from time immemorial.

The most memorable encounter that I had with No‘u’s poetic sensibilities was when she gave a presentation and workshop on how to use Kanaka ‘Ōiwi poetic devices to push a poem’s possibilities. Using the poems of the renowned Hawaiian sovereignty activist Haunani-Kay Trask, I witnessed as No‘u read closely the poems and presented a template for us to understand the connections between poem, ‘āina, aloha ‘āina, and the connections of all Pacific Islands in their continuing struggle against Western and American imperialism. Her debut collection of poems Ask the Brindled, just released from Milkweed Editions, takes this conversation into today where the mo‘o descended mana wahine queer struggles for space amidst ongoing pillaging of Kanaka ‘Ōiwi resources.

Ask the Brindled, selected by Rick Barot as a winner of the 2021 National Poetry Series, is an intergenerational reclamation of the narratives foisted upon Indigenous and queer Hawaiians—and it does not let readers look away.

I spoke with Revilla about this landmark accomplishment via email and Google Doc as well as by phone and text. Hearing her speak and reading her poetry is a joy that I am delighted that everyone will experience soon.

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The Rumpus: As I read, I am reminded of Audre Lorde’s clear message to us about the transformative, erotic, and immediacy of the poem’s work. You begin this collection with a set of definitions that you revisit throughout the collection that positions the speaker as mo‘o—literally genealogically descended of the lizard people—and move into a treatise on Maunakea. Can talk a little bit about the connections this tension produces?

No‘u Revilla: Mahalo, Rajiv, for sharing time with me, and mahalo for bringing in Audre Lorde. I learned to ask better questions of desire and knowledge through her work, which I often read side-by-side with work by Haunani-Kay Trask. I also appreciate your attention to the list of definitions that map the book. I gravitate to the list form because of its play with rhythm and attention. I’m interested in the ways lists invite us to pay better attention to how a thing accumulates and moves, and I wanted each section to sit with different definitions as a set of relationships. How did the word moʻo come to mean all these things? How did moʻo come to hold so much? And how do we, those who put these moʻo in our mouths, learn to call them properly? In Ask the Brindled, the definitions of moʻo begin with the god body and the lizard body. The final definitions depict a grandchild and a protector. This reach between bodies is much of the muscle of the book. As someone who learned Hawaiian later in life—I am forever learning my ʻōlelo makuahine—I marvel at how capacious our language is, especially when it comes to water and notions of justice and love.

Rumpus: I am dazzled by the inclusion of ‘Ōlelo Hawai‘i combined with English to enliven the speaker’s treading two worlds. How do you decide what is in ‘Ōlelo and what is in English? What do each of these languages do that the other cannot?

Revilla: Can we sit together in our gratitude for a moment that we are able to learn and speak our ancestors’ languages and do so safely . . . e ola nō. Generations before me were punished if they spoke ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi. I grew up with one of the longest Hawaiian names in school—Noʻukahauʻoli is my full name—and it wasn’t until my late twenties that I met a teacher who pronounced my name correctly and used it with aloha. It also wasn’t until my late twenties that I met a woman who not only knew how to say my name but understood with her body and playful, poetic mind what my name means in our language.

Can you really know someone if you don’t understand their name?

Aloha, for example, has so much body and history, and I wanted to sit with that complexity in this book. Mass corporate tourism needs to vanish complexity in order to make money—it’s 2022 and I still meet people who believe aloha means “getting lei’d” or that Hawaiians and Hawaiian lands are only here to serve tourists—it’s ruthless. So as part of my language practice, I started composing blackout poems of dictionary definitions of Hawaiian words. Two of them made it into the book. The practice helped me be in my body a lot more. I mean, your hand is hot and throbbing from striking through all that text. That heat, that wela, reminds you that you are a living, breathing body making choices about what you are keeping and what you are blacking out.

Words have legs. I like thinking that those who know ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi are able to follow those legs into a part of the poem that is just for them. And that part of the poem is just as active as any other part because people who can enter there can talk shit with me, commemorate with me, sing the song with me, even call me out on something missing or out of place. ʻAʻole i pau.

Rumpus: A major feature of your work is writing into occupation and colonization with personal stakes. Whether by thinking through “missionary position” or by “swallowing a colonizer” the reader is presented a how-to of sorts. Can you talk about the poetic move you make to topple colonial logics?

Revilla: “How to swallow a colonizer” ends with the title of a beloved song of resistance in Hawaiʻi called “Kaulana Nā Pua.” “Pua,” in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi, means flower and symbolizes descendants. I wrote “How to swallow a colonizer” to celebrate ʻŌiwi abundance.

Haunani-Kay Trask taught me how anger, pride, and ecstasy can live on the same page—not as a broken treaty or an eviction notice but as a poem. A poem that can live as a small rock in your chest until you’ve learned how to breathe better, until you’re ready to spit that rock on the page or stage and be, what she called, “raw, swift, and deadly.” She taught me how to stand taller as an aloha ʻāina—how to say “no,” and trust my “no.”

What do you need help saying “no” to? Who taught you your “no”?

What happens to your body when you say “yes” and mean it? That’s a kind of aloha.

The history of missionaries in Hawaiʻi, as for so many other island nations, is a violent and insidious history. The toxic binary between one god brought by foreigners and our many gods born from our lands and waters was a lesson in fear: Turn away from the abundance of our kūpuna (ancestors) and feel saved by scarcity. And, of course, the legacy of shaming our beautiful brown bodies and the beautiful brown things we did with other beautiful brown bodies in our sovereign beautiful brown dirt.

As more missionaries settled here in Hawaiʻi nei, light and dark were unsurprisingly rendered as antithetical. In order to cultivate a better home for the single male Christian god, light and dark were increasingly defined by opposition. In other words, American settler colonialism perverted my ancestors’ sense of dark and consequently fucked with our relationship to light. So now I’m thumbing through every metaphor I’ve penned for light and dark, asking myself: Does this fuckery live inside me still? Did I refuse this inheritance? Is my “no” strong enough, daily enough as a queer femme ʻŌiwi poet? Or does it squat somewhere inside me still? This was never and will never be an issue of morality; it is a crisis of relation.

Sometimes a poem is a rock, and sometimes rocks turn into flowers. And no matter how many poems I write about aloha and decolonial futures, they may still try to kill me. But I am no one’s graveyard. None of us. Not today, colonizer. I would rather eat rocks.

Rumpus: You’re quoting Ellen Kehoʻohiwaokalani Wright Prendergast here with the eating rocks as a decolonial act as in her mele Kaulana Nā Pua! I am interested in how the concept of Pō (Darkness) has influenced you. Can you name some specific delights you take in this Darkness-as-space-of-creation?

Revilla: In the Kumulipo, which is both a creation story and genealogical chant, earth and sky rub against each so hot and so hard, night gives birth: “Hānau ka pō.” Pō is cosmogonic. Pō is heat and huli (turning); it is the kind of darkness so thick it creates. The more I think about your question, the more I realize how surprised I am to see the word “delight” next to Pō. I certainly don’t think that these two can’t be considered together, it’s just that “delight” hasn’t come up in the usual constellations of terms that I see paired with Pō. So, I appreciate this invitation toward delight.

As a poet, of course, one delight is language. The musicality of ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi in the Kumulipo is breathtaking. If there was a rhythm to creation, that would be it. The way that long o shapes different words for darkness: Pōʻele, Pōwehiwehi, Pōuliuli, Pōpanopano, the list goes on. Understanding that my ancestors cataloged these different forms of night because it was necessary to distinguish, for example, Pōpanopano, darkness that is absolute, from Pōʻele, darkness that the eyes can navigate—this is delight with roots. My kūpuna observed their ʻāina with such respect and intimacy. Re-reading the Kumulipo and moving alongside these sophisticated names is a celebration of aloha ʻāina, and it speaks to me as a poet because poets do the work of naming, or at least turning a thing over and over in such a way that your readers recognize the need for a new name. Although Pō only appears a few times in the collection, like in “So sacred, so queer,” Pō is always with me in my practice.

Also, on a literal note, I was in the restaurant industry for years in order to pay my college tuition, and I had to work at night. Since I went to school during the day, I also wrote at night. To this day, my sweet spot is 11 to 2 in the morning. From napkins to sugar packets to take-out menus and old customer checks, I turned everything I could into a “blank” page. Nothing is ever blank, though. Fuck terra nullius.

Rumpus: Erasure and erasure poetry feature in this work, speaking back to Annie Dillard, specifically. What does erasure allow you to achieve?

Revilla: The erasure triptychs I did with the Hawaiian language dictionary surprised me. Each includes a dictionary definition of a word in my language, a blackout poem of that definition, and “notes” on the process of blacking out the definition to create a poem. The two words at the center of these triptychs are ‘ai and aloha, both of which constellate around what it means to nourish each other. Of course, dictionary definitions are limited and cannot reflect all the living that the word has done and will do. I wrote these triptychs when I started gaining more confidence in my language skills. I felt like I could reach deeper and stay with things longer. The blackout poems gave me another way to enter these words and hold the values they represent. The “notes” created a space to reflect on my choices—not just as a poet composing a blackout poem but also as an ʻŌiwi learning ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi in my twenties. Our word, hāhā, always comes up for me when I talk about this.

Rumpus: This also extends to poetic craft, rethinking and relearning ways of Hawaiian poetics. In her book on kaona, Nālani MacDougall talks about a particular variety of metaphor in Hawaiian poetics that allows for a palimpsest of meanings, an archive in words, mediated through descriptions of ‘āina. What are some ‘Ōlelo poetic devices and frameworks that you develop here in this collection?

Revilla: Mahalo for this question because I get to shout-out the artist responsible for (and who appears on) the cover of the book, Jocelyn Ng. Jocelyn is a queer ʻŌiwi creative who I have collaborated with for years now, and one of our ongoing collaborations is an epistolary project called “the gut house.” In our culture, the heart is not our emotional center. What houses our different knowledges is our naʻau—our guts, our viscera. A figurative definition of naʻau is child. The word, hoʻopaʻanaʻau, means to memorize. Demonstrably, naʻau embodies visceral knowledge and succession—that which sticks to one’s mind, body, and spirit. As ʻŌiwi continue to protect our sacred lands and waters, an expression of aloha ʻāina has appeared on signs in marches, die-ins, and nonviolent protests: “Naʻau or Never.” It’s a play on the phrase “now or never” but the language has thrown down a gauntlet for me as a writer. How does naʻau mark time or serve as passage between generations? There are poems in the book, like “Welcome to the gut house,” that navigate the naʻau.

Rumpus: “Na‘au or Never!!!” There’s so much worldview in this complicated phrase! Who are the other poets you go to in times of personal need and elation?

Revilla: Every year, I re-read a villanelle, sestina, and sonnet sequence by Brandy Nālani McDougall, who you brought up earlier. When I started learning poetic forms, it felt generative. For me, constraints can lubricate strange, unexpected turns. Brandy’s work was especially thrilling because she plays with “traditional” forms in order to map ʻŌiwi narratives on different scales. After reading her book The Salt-Wind: Ka Makani Paʻakai, I thought, Ok, the sonnet, yes, how can I mess with a volta so that my sonnet could snap like my sister’s wrist when she wraps her hair into a bun? Or my aunties’ hips when they hula at a funeral in Hāna? I’m grateful to writers like Brandy who call you toward intimacy and world-building rather than enemy-making.

Rumpus: I love this idea of constraint as lubrication! So queer how form can sprout poetic recklessness! Has this collection of poems revealed where you are being pulled creatively?

Revilla: ​​Your language about queering form and sprouting “poetic recklessness” brings me back to a core principle of my work: to be slyly reproductive. Haunani-Kay Trask wrote a poem called “Sons,” which challenged assumptions that a woman is only valuable if she bears biological children. In the poem, the speaker famously declares:

I have no sons
to give, no line of
immortality.

I am slyly
reproductive: ideas
books, history
politics, reproducing

the rope of resistance
for unborn generations.

It is a complex challenge. On one hand, Indigenous people have struggled and continue to struggle against genocide. For me, as an ʻŌiwi, it is an ongoing heartbreak to know that my people are not the majority on our own lands, which is a direct result of American settler colonialism. My wife is Tongan. I remember the first time she talked to me about Tonga, I realized that her people are the majority in their country, that they live on their lands and see each other in everything they do—at school, in the store, in traffic, at church, in meetings, at the beach. And in the middle of her stories, I started to cry. The reality hit hard: I have never lived a day in Hawaiʻi where my people were everywhere I looked. How often am I the only Hawaiian in a room? How often are Hawaiians tokenized, dismissed, and threatened in our own country? When you come for our land, you come for us, too. Mourning the loss of our people is important, and mobilizing against that loss is survival.

On the other hand, to be “slyly / reproductive” is to practice an Indigenous feminist ethos that expands what it means to hoʻoulu lāhui, to grow the nation. Biological motherhood is not the only way a woman can be a good citizen. Haunani, who did not have biological children, mentored generations of ʻŌiwi through her activism, her teaching, and her poetry. In fact, when I was growing up, it was drilled into my brain that success meant getting as far away from Hawaiʻi as possible and assimilating the American dream. Yet nothing can touch what it felt like when, in my twenties, after coming home from NYU, in the thick of Hawaiian-language classes, I started dreaming in my ʻōlelo makuahine (mother tongue).

So, I keep developing my proficiency in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi. I’m reading more of our epics and proverbs, spending time with them so they sink into my naʻau. I’ve also wrapped myself around the challenge of a long poem and started a daily writing practice to explore what that could look like.

Rumpus: What advice do you have for other Native and queer poets who are struggling to be seen by the poetry world?

Revilla: Sometimes, you’re not going to be ready. Sometimes, you’re going to ask the wrong questions. But you’ll never be alone. Each time you come to write, you bring your ancestors and the lands and waters you come from. You are not alone.

 

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Author photo by Bryan Kamaoli Kuwada


Rajiv Mohabir is the author of three poetry collections, the latest of which is Cutlish (Four Way Books 2021, Finalist for the 2022 National Book Critics Circle Award), and translator of I Even Regret Night: Holi Songs of Demerara (1916) (Kaya Press 2019) which received the 2020 Harold Morton Landon Translation Award from the Academy of American Poets. His memoir Antiman (Restless Books 2021, Finalist for the PEN Open Book Award, and the 2022 Publishing Triangle Randy Shilts Award and the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Memoir), received the 2019 Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing. Currently he is an Assistant Professor of poetry at Emerson College. More from this author →