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Poet explores meaning of a 'Portable Planet'

February 4, 2001
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@dcn.davis.ca.us

"Portable Planet" is a new collection of poetry by "the other Maui poet," Eric Paul Shaffer.

Shaffer, 45, earned his Ph.D. from UC Davis in 1991. "Portable Planet" is his third book of poetry.

The poems were written during the eight years that Shaffer and his wife, Veronica, lived in Okinawa, Japan, before moving to Maui two years ago.

"Of course W.S. Merwin is the Maui poet," Shaffer said. "I'd be delighted to be known as the other Maui poet."

The heart of the book, according to his editor at Leaping Dog Press (Jordan Jones, also a graduate of UC Davis) is "The Western Room," a poem that presents glimpses of Okinawa through a walking tour of Shuri Castle, the newly restored royal residence of the Ryukyu Kingdom.

"Shuri Castle was completely destroyed in the Battle of Okinawa (during World War II) because Japanese forces located their headquarters there and in the tunnels below it," said Shaffer. "A few years after we arrived, though, the castle was re-opened after being rebuilt from the ground up. I used to spend afternoons writing by the royal pond and wandering the grounds. It was only natural that 'The Western Room' took the form of a walking tour."

"The Western Room" is wonderful, as is the much shorter poem "A Portable Planet." (Note: The only difference between the title of the poem and the book title is the article attached to the poem.)

"This poem arose from the birthday gift of an inflatable globe that my good friend Kathryn Capels sent to me on Okinawa from Sarasota, Florida, for my birthday in 1991," said Shaffer.

"When I moved to Okinawa, Kathryn and I realized that we were almost exactly on opposite sides of the planet from each other, and that fact inspired her to send me a globe, and the globe inspired me to meditate upon the meaning of being so far from everyone I knew and the many meanings of roundness and planets in the first place."

But the poor little 10-inch globe finally succumbed to the Okinawan heat and humidity.

"The seams split and not even the hottest of my hot air could round it out anymore, so it was lovingly disposed of in an appropriate ceremony: My wife and I toasted its demise over a pot of green tea and respectfully placed it in the proper trash receptacle," he said.

"The poem helped me feel more grounded on the foreign soil supporting me," he added. "It is a humorous statement and demonstration of my poetics, too.

"Even the odd paradox of a portable planet served me well, since planets are not actually portable, only our models of them are. That realization demands that we examine our models of the world closely to see what they say about us, and in the end that is what this book is about.

" 'Portable Planet' is all about what life on Okinawa was like. In all of the poems, I hope it shows that I loved the place itself, enjoyed my teaching (at University of the Ryukyus), delighted in exploring, and found the culture and the people fascinating and perplexing and often less than open. Japan is not America.

"The foreigner is of interest there but not embraced as often happens in America. I met many generous, open, and friendly Okinawans and Japanese on Okinawa, but it was always clear that I was not an insider, which is why I invented the term 'inside-outsider' to describe this odd and intriguing experience," he added.

Shaffer had a book-signing at a bookstore in Kahului last November. At that event, 31 copies of "Portable Planet" were sold, which is phenomenally good for a book of poetry.

Shaffer couldn't resist adding that W.S. Merwin came nowhere near selling that number of books at his most recent reading at the same store.

"It is just hard to sell poetry, and I am pleased with my tiny victory on Maui," he said. He should be proud.

This month he sent the manuscript of "Living at the Monastery, Working in the Kitchen," his next book, to Leaping Dog Press. It will be published this summer.

The book is a collection of poems written in the voice of Shih-te, a cook and janitor at the K'uo-ching Monastery in the T'ien-t'ai Mountains during the T'ang dynasty in 7th-century China. Shih-te was the companion of the famed Han-shan, 24 of whose poems were translated by Gary Snyder as "Cold Mountain Poems." Shih-te is credited with only about 50 poems (Han-shan is credited with 307), and Shaffer admired Shih-te's personality as revealed in his work.


"Because I could see some similarities in his position at the monastery and my position at the Japanese university," said Shaffer.

"Then I decided to write some poems in his voice."

The poems in "Living in the Monastery" are elaborations of an imagined life of Shih-te, which Shaffer calls textless translations.

He also intends to finish two additional projects this year: his novel about an American professor teaching English in Japan called "Root of the Sun," and a book of short stories about expatriate life at a university in Okinawa called "A White Car Nation."

To inquire about ordering any of the above mentioned books from an independent bookstore,
Bogey's Books at discounted prices [ Click Here ]

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