by Jennifer Elise Foerster | Senior Editor
I first read the poetry of No‘u Revilla when I was working with the team of editors for the anthology, When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through: A Norton Anthology of Native Nations Poets, published in 2020. Mvto, thank you, to the poet, Brandy Nālani McDougall, who served as the regional editor for the Poetry of the Pacific. Brandy’s generosity and knowledge of Pasifika literature introduced to the editorial team an outstanding number of excellent poets, including No‘u Revilla (she/her), the ‘Ōiwi (Hawaiian) poet born and raised in Wai‘ehu, Maui, who performs, writes, and teaches poetry throughout Hawai‘i and internationally.
Of the poem chosen for the anthology, “Smoke Screen,” I was struck with Revilla’s exacting imagery and how powerfully the figurative language tells the story of her father’s, indeed many fathers’, grueling labor at the HC&S (Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co):
He whistled sugar cane through his neck,
through his unventilated wife,
his chronic black ash daughters.
Not only is this a poem about labor, love, forgiveness, and family, it is also a clear-sighted criticism of the colonial and capitalistic occupation of her homeland, exposing the sugarcane industry’s harmful impacts to the natural and cultural landscape, and peoples, of Hawai‘i.
Revilla’s debut book of poetry, Ask the Brindled, selected by Rick Barot as a winner of the 2021 National Poetry Series and released from Milkweed Press in August 2022, is no less daring and artful in its handling of subjects at once deeply personal and political.
Ask the Brindled enacts healing through its invocation and honoring of the moʻo, which Revilla defines in several ways in the book, including as a “shapeshifting water protector, lizard, woman, deity,” and as “story, tradition, legend.”
Elders and knowledge carriers, women in particular, from Revilla’s biological and chosen family and community, are steadfastly present throughout the book as the poet confronts colonial, sexual, and gender violence, holding up the torch of desire, sacred connection, and story, carrying the light so that others may, too, rise up into the beauty and truth of their being.
Every poem in Revilla’s collection is profound, in that each poem sings, bold and resolute, in her power—a power that is not individualistic but collective; a power that rises from the waters and the mountains of the islands; a power that is ancient and deep in the veins and in the voice, in body and in dream. No‘u Revilla speaks from this power, shaping her poems with the language, breath, and movements of a fiercely loving protector.
There is so much to say about this book, but one of the many things I am grateful for that No‘u offers for her readers, is the ‘Ōiwi world as the center. These are poems of sovereignty—cultural and political sovereignty, language sovereignty, erotic sovereignty, and intellectual sovereignty. I am making my way through all the books and texts that Revilla refers to and recommends in her book’s Notes, as I encourage all of you to do. No‘u Revilla is an inspiring activist and educator, and this debut book of poems is a revolutionary beacon, a gift, an invitation.
I sat down to talk with No‘u over Zoom on August 29, 2022, and am thrilled to share our conversation with you.
Jennifer: It’s such an honor to speak with you today—thank you for taking the time. I just love your book.
No‘u: Thank you very much.
Jennifer: Has your semester of teaching [at University of Hawaiʻi-Mānoa] started already?
No‘u: Yes, the semester started last week. My wife and I just moved, and it was kind of unexpected. So we are in the thick of moving into our new house, trying to make it a home, starting a new semester, and my book launch is this Thursday. So it’s a beautiful, dense network of beginnings.
Jennifer: Could you tell me a little bit about what you are teaching this semester?
No‘u: I’m teaching two creative writing courses at the undergrad level this semester, and one of them is our introductory course, where I’m teaching poetry and spoken word. The other course is a poetry workshop. For both classes, I am asking students to compose a poem in which they center an elder. An elder can be a biological relative, chosen family, a mentor, a body of land, a body of water—what an elder can be is expansive.
Jennifer: I love that idea, as a prompt, to center an elder in a poem. Could you speak more about how elders in your life inform your poetry?
No‘u: I mean, without our elders, where would we be? And as a queer Indigenous woman, “chosen family” is very much baked into how I survive, how I have survived in the past. Being an ‘Ōiwi wahine, I grew up with a very beautiful sense of family not being this nuclear set of just one mother, one father, a white picket fence and two-point-five children. Growing up, my cousins and I were so close, and I have so many aunties and uncles, so my sense of relations was broad from the beginning—broad, but also very deep and rooted in land and water and how you earn relationship to place.
I remember when I found Haunani-Kay Trask. I was in Bobst library at NYU. I was not looking for her, but I was roaming the stacks and I found her books. I just sat down and really poured myself into her work.
We need our elders. I feel like when you are queer, when you are Indigenous, when you’re femme, when you’re a woman, there is a kind of seeking you have to do to find community, to find continuity, in what you think you’re dealing with alone. Then to find this connection, as I did with Haunani, and to understand there is no way that I or any of us have ever been alone a day in our lives! We need our elders.
The prompt, for me, is my way of being transparent with my students that there is an Indigenous woman teaching you and I’m never going to keep that a secret. And this is the way we introduce ourselves, by telling you who we come from and where we come from. Because when I say hello to you, it’s all my ancestors saying hello to you.
Jennifer: In your poems, you refer to many of your influences. Haunani-Kay Trask being a primary influence, also Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, Joy Harjo, and others. I love the poem, “So sacred, so queer,” which is after Simpson’s response to Billy-Ray Belcourt’s poem, “sacred.” How your poem moves across a spread of two pages is wonderfully compelling, especially in how it can be read in many directions, all of which are embraced within the pair of refrains, “so sacred” and “so queer.” This is, to me, an embrace that invites a feeling of belonging, and of return, return to home, to origin, to body, to relationship with the earth and the stories that make us. Thank you for this poem.
You have a number of poems in this book that work within unique forms like this, forms that you’ve created to specifically embody the voice and intention of the poem. In that poem, for example, I feel like the form embodies the layering of conversations you are having with other Indigenous poets, queer poets—another sphere of “chosen family”—and how these spheres may echo, correspond, teach, and interrelate. Many of these poets I’m in conversation with, too. Words travel far and weave this web among us. These shared networks of influences are inspiring and make me feel even more grateful to be meeting you and your work now.
When you were at NYU and you found Haunani-Kay Trask in the library stacks, which is amazing in that it was “accidental,” had you previously heard of her or been exposed to other Native Hawaiian, ‘Ōiwi, writers?
No‘u: Literary excellence is very much part of our roots as Hawaiians, but assimilation does a fantastically vigorous job. While Hawaiian culture certainly appeared in my education, for example, there was definitely pressure, not just from high school counselors but adults in general, to graduate and leave. We were taught that the farther away you can get from Hawaiʻi after high school, the more successful you will be. When it came to learning a second language, for example, I was told—so many of us were told—that Hawaiian language wouldn’t get us a good job but Japanese would because of tourism. Success was always put in terms of extractive capitalism and getting away from your homeland and your people.
So when I was at NYU, I was headed for an entirely different life. And then I found Haunani, in the stacks of the library. In Hawaiian, we call that hōʻailona, a sign from your ancestors. How in the hell else was I going to find Haunani-Kay Trask in the stacks at NYU as a journalism major? There’s no way that was an accident!
Jennifer: So she found you, and she sent you, returned you. . . home!
No‘u: Haunani, rest in peace and power, was known for telling other ‘Ōiwi, especially ‘Ōiwi wahine whom she met when she was abroad giving lectures,You have to come home. There’s a movement happening. You have to come home. There are a handful of people I love, comrades, family, who came home because she told them, You need to come home, what are you doing here?
Jennifer: I wanted to ask about your thoughts on activism and movement-making. I’m starting to teach a course that I’m calling Poetry and Indigenous Activism. I’m really just teaching about my favorite poems by Indigenous authors, because I think all poems by Indigenous writers can be considered as activist poems, in the various ways that activism can mean. I related very much to the poem in your book, “When you say ‘protesters’ instead of ‘protectors’” because it challenges the conceptions of “the protest” and “the protestor.” Could you talk a little bit about that, and what activism means to you?
No‘u: We’re poets, right, we’re writers, people who have committed to take care of each other through story, through language. In 2019, Puʻuhonua o Puʻuhuluhulu was established in the stand to protect Maunakea. The mainstream media, of course, in Hawaiʻi and abroad, constantly described Hawaiians who stood to defend our sacred mauna as violent protesters—ugly, hysterical, divisive protestors. And we’ve all seen this move before. Because what happens when we name ourselves? Names are important. And when you decide to take on that kuleana, that responsibility, those histories of what it means to protect, not only do you acknowledge that you have something worth protecting, but that you yourself are a worthy protector. There’s so much work that gets done in the decision to say “protector.” We learned this from Standing Rock, right? What happens when we claim language and name ourselves?
Jennifer: You speak about story and how it carries our lives, our cultures, generational knowledge, our futures. And I love thinking of story, of word, also as a “protector.” Poetry is protection and protector as well, both as spoken word and word on the page. Both have their own path of communication and protection. What do you think of the difference between the spoken word and the word on the page? The things that poetry on the page can do, the use of the page-space, typography, treatment of documents and text, how does that, for you, carry story differently than the telling of story, of word/story being spoken?
No‘u: Thank you so much for this question. And yes, of course, any chance I get I want to emphasize that oral traditions are not dead or passive, they are active and alive and evolving because Indigenous people get to evolve just like anybody else. And not just get to, I think we lead the world in that.
For me, I love to perform, but I’m also very in love with what I get to do on the page that I can’t necessarily do on the stage. For example, there’s a poem in the book called, “The opposite of dispossession is not possession; it is connection,” again, taking inspiration from Leanne Simpson, who is just so amazing. The poem is a contrapuntal; there are three columns of text and you should be able to read it left to right, up and down.
Language will always fail, but in that reaching for each other through performance, we create this shared experience. And you cannot replicate it, the kind of intimacy and trust that you build in a performance. The dynamics, the people in the room, the way they hold their breath at a certain line, the way they laugh, the way they applaud, the way they instinctively moan when you string together certain sounds and images—each experience is one-of-a kind. And shared experiences are revolutionary ground.
The page, for me, is all about the power of return. I can keep coming back to that poem. I can keep coming back to that page. The page is generative because of the power of return. Even if a performance is recorded, you cannot return to that same dynamic. The power of a performance is the living that happens between us, the trust that I’m going to follow you into this story like this. I’m going to follow what’s happening in this room. But on a page, the careful work of reflection, the slow work of shapeshifting, the way I’ve learned to ask new questions, the way I understand metaphor differently, all of it pools around return. And it’s slow. Good, slow work.
Jennifer: That’s one of the best things I’ve heard about the page—the page being the place of return. The poem that you mentioned, “The opposite of dispossession is not possession; it is connection,” is one that changes every time I read it because of its form as a contrapuntal. It invites me to return to it because the material it presents isn’t conclusive. The poem promises to continue to open with each reading. This kind of opening is transformational, and in this way, I think the poem on the page is as revolutionary as the shared experience that happens in performance.
I read an article yesterday about heartbreak. Something we all know, and science was just validating this thing that we know, is that heartbreak has a physical manifestation in the body. When we have a heartbreak, it triggers the stress hormone, Cortisol, in the brain, that can cause all kinds of illness and anxiety. Great heartache can weaken the left ventricle in the heart and cause the heart’s main chamber for pumping blood to actually change shape.
All this we know, that heartbreak, just like trauma, is embodied in our body. But I was thinking about how heartbreak can be embodied in the poem. Heartbreak is emotionally and physically painful, but it is also something that can be transformative. I sense this in your poems, especially in the second section of the book, where the poems become a way of transforming, healing, through heartbreak. Poems are places where we can record that heartbreak but also enable a return to it in some way, and through that return, a shift.
No‘u: Thank you for that. Poetry is where I can metabolize heartbreak and make something useful, something that doesn’t drag me down, doesn’t drown me, but teaches me how to breathe underwater. It helps me to shape-shift.
During the time that I was writing the dissertation that would become the manuscript, I found myself gravitating to the list form as the thing that would hold all the heartbreak we deal with as Indigenous women—more so like gutbreak, because for Hawaiians, it’s not so much a heart thing, it’s a gut thing. The list form helped me metabolize those things. Poems like “In search of a different ending,” “How to swallow a colonizer,” the notes section of my erasure poems, all live in lists.
Often the list form is talked about in terms of control. As an Indigenous and queer woman, I’m wary of that paradigm. I hear “control” and I’m like, oh, my uterus, stay away. You know what I mean? Stay away from my bedroom. Stay away from my land, stay away from my waters.
I love thinking about why I’m using the forms that I’m using, why I am bringing this body into the poem in order to understand this story. So I think for me, the list form isn’t so much about control as it is . . . you know, I’m still in the thick of choosing better language for this. I just don’t know whether leaning on “control” is the most generative thing to do considering the different histories of dominance and violence that spawned in the name of control.
I love moving like a lyric poet and making associative leaps, and—you know what—it’s not about control! The list form is such vigorous ground on which to move. Lists are associative, and if anything, rebel against order. A list will suggest chronology, it will suggest hierarchy, but then fuck it all up with a leap.
Jennifer: I have this image—talking about the list and then the associative leaping—that the list is like stones that you can step on and jump from here to there, or like footsteps that imprint on the ground, saying, here is our ground, and now that you know this, you can make whatever dance you want, and that’s what the poem allows you to do.
No‘u: I love it! The footsteps, yes! The body is constantly in motion. Yes to collaboration. Thank you so much for helping me think through that.
Jennifer: I wanted to ask about the story of the making of your book, how the book came into the architecture that it is, with its shapes and its forms and its sounds. You talked about the list form as something that was generative for the process. What other things helped shape the making of the book?
No’u: Thank you for this question because I get to give love to a dear friend of mine, Rajiv Mohabir, who is a talented poet and one of the most generous people in poetry. Ask the Brindled wouldn’t be alive if it wasn’t for him. Rajiv is one of those creatives who really does want to bring everybody up. No gatekeeping, no cheap chitchat. Rajiv’s phenomenal work, on its own, adorns and grows our world in important ways, and he still keeps the collective in mind. The only reason I submitted the manuscript to the National Poetry Series is because he was there on a regular basis saying, Are you working on your manuscript? Okay, never mind. Just send it to me. And then I sent it to him. He read it and quickly got it back to me with his notes. Rajiv has a very special place in the book’s history. I mean, without him, there wouldn’t be this book. So, yes, this is definitely how I want to answer the question: Rajiv.
Jennifer: Beautiful, thinking about all the people who are behind the making of the poems’ architectures, the making of these sound spaces. Do you have a hope for how the sound of this book, how the movement of this book, travels, to whom or to where?
No‘u: I know what it’s like to have to dig through metaphors to find a gay Hawaiian in a story. I don’t want to survive in a metaphor. I’m 36 years old, and I still get so gleeful, Jennifer, when I see a queer, brown woman anywhere loving and living out loud, all brave and safe. I’m just so gleeful. Just gleeful!
I have a poem in my book, this two-page spread of all these different whispers like, oh, is she family? Is she gay? Is she straight? Is she lizard? Is she human? It’s all this guesswork about queer femme Indigenous bodies. And some of it is stealthy and slyly reproductive. Other times, it’s very toxic, and it perpetuates awful things like blood quantum and enough-ness. Is she gay enough? Is she Hawaiian enough?
Coco Solid is a Māori creative, and her debut novel just came out, How to Loiter in a Turf War. Coco sent my wife a copy of the novel, and as we were recovering from COVID this summer, we managed to go into our backyard and play cards all day while we took turns reading the novel out loud. We finished it that day. It’s a beautiful novel, and there are queer Pacific women characters written out loud. There’s no guesswork. Theyʻre safe and brave.
And you know what, I threw that book across my house, two or three times, I think, because of how close she gets in language to our joy in Oceania, how close she gets to decolonial love among Indigenous Pasifika women. I think if one young gay Hawaiian woman finds my book and feels less alone—yeah, I’m good. I’m so good. Yes, you. I hope you come and talk to me.
Noʻu Revilla is an ʻŌiwi poet, performer, and educator. Born on the island of Maui, she was raised with the Līlīlehua rain of Waiʻehu and currently lives and loves with the Līlīlehua rain of Pālolo valley on Oʻahu. Her debut book Ask the Brindled (Milkweed 2022) was selected by Rick Barot as a winner of the 2021 National Poetry Series. She teaches creative writing at the University of Hawaiʻi-Mānoa and is a lifetime “slyly / reproductive” student of Haunani-Kay Trask. Learn more about Noʻu at https://www.nourevilla.com/.
Jennifer Elise Foerster is the author of three books of poetry, most recently, The Maybe Bird (The Song-Cave 2022), and served as the Associate Editor of When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through: A Norton Anthology of Native Nations Poetry. She has been a recipient of a NEA Creative Writing Fellowship and a Lannan Foundation Writing Residency Fellowship. She was a Wallace Stegner Fellow in Poetry at Stanford, holds a PhD in Literary Arts from the University of Denver, and teaches Poetry at the Rainier Writing Workshop among other programs. Foerster grew up living internationally, is of Euro-American and Mvskoke descent, and is a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation of Oklahoma. She lives in San Francisco.