We All Come From Water: Poetry from the Edge

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Poet Terisa Siagatonu poses while sitting amongst the trees.
Poet Terisa Siagatonu poses while sitting amongst the trees. (Courtesy of Terisa Siagatonu )


So many of us come from water but
when you come from water
no one believes you.
Colonization keeps laughing.
Global warming is grinning
at all your grief.
How you mourn the loss of a home
that isn’t even gone yet.
That no one believes you’re from.

These are the words of Terisa Siagatonu in her poem 'Atlas'.

Terisa's poetry emerges from climate change and its impact on marginalized communities. She also writes poems from the perspective of her hyphenated identity: raised in San Francisco with deep Samoan roots.

In our conversation, Terisa looks back at January's underwater eruption that caused massive tsunamis in Samoa, Tonga, Fiji and other nations in Oceania. Initially, the disaster made headlines and relief efforts filled social media feeds, but Terisa questions what sustained care looks like for those impacted by a changing global climate.

After speaking on this topic at venues across the country and around the world, even addressing members of the United Nations, Terisa Siagatonu discusses climate justice and how she "languages" her experience on this episode of Rightnowish.

Poet Terisa Siagatonu looks off to the side as she sits on a set of stairs.
Poet Terisa Siagatonu looks off to the side as she sits on a set of stairs. (Courtesy of Terisa Siagatonu )

Below are some lightly edited excerpts of the episode with Terisa Siagatonu.

Terisa: For those who don't know, [in January 2022,] there was an underwater volcanic eruption right on the coast of the island and Kingdom of Tonga… I saw a lot of Tongan friends of mine really nervous about not getting a hold of family members. I also saw the power of the Pacific Ocean herself, in terms of how the waves of eruption could reach our coast here in the US. And it speaks to this notion that I hold with me all the time that Hawaiian scholar, activist poet, Haunani-Kay Trask talks about in her work, “upon the survival of the Pacific depends the survival of the world.”

Terisa: Because so many times the world kind of relegates [Pacific Islanders] to the margins of their consciousness and of world maps and forgets that there are people from water – like my people – that are only heard about when it comes to natural disasters or when it comes to tragedy. What happens in the Pacific should matter to all of us.

Pen: When I thought about speaking to you it was about how can we keep this story alive? Make sure that [devastation from the volcanic eruption] is not just something tragic that happens and we move on, because we know that this will impact people for some time to come. So how do you keep that in people's foresight?

Terisa: I think social media helps... I think it's also a great time to talk about what do people know about Pacific Islanders outside of devastation and climate change outside of your honeymoon vacations? … If we're talking about what happened in Tonga, let's talk about Tongans. Let's talk about how the Pacific migration even came to the U.S. Let's have more nuanced conversations about it. A lot of times my lane is to help language, and stand in the gap between what people know and what people don't know using art.

Pen: …Your poem titled “Atlas” you wrote that over 5 years ago still has huge implications today....for example, where you talk about identifying with bodies of water... Growing up in the Bay Area, I'm so accustomed to identifying with land. Like I know somebody from the neighborhood. It's Chris from 73rd, he’s from a piece of land. But I don't talk about the creek that runs through his neighborhood or the body of water that the community was built around. And so this Atlas poem, you do a wonderful job of identifying water with people. Do people receive it that way?

Terisa: You’re really hitting it on the head with the reasons I wrote it… expanding our notions of where we come from, that not all of us just come from land, but it is the water that surrounds us too, and it runs through us and our communities. Because I come from an island and my community comes from an island, water is of importance to us, but water is important to all of us! Being from the Bay, we are water people, we're here on California's coast and how much do we know about the quality of the water right here in our backyards?

Teresa (reading excerpt of Atlas):

How everyone is beginning
to hear more about your island
but only in the context of
vacations and honeymoons,
football and military life,
exotic women exotic fruit exotic beaches
but never asks about the rest of its body.

Terisa: I don't even think people realize that Samoa is actually two separate islands because of colonization in that the eastern island, called American Samoa, it’s a U.S. territory. I don't think a lot of people even know that. I don't even think people know what a U.S. territory is, which isn't to shame them because I once didn't know it either… And so my hope is for people to at least get curious. I don't expect people to be experts and be supremely knowledgeable about who Samoans are… So much about being Samoan can also be linked directly to what it means to be American. I say that because of Samoan’s high rates in the U.S. military. I say that because so many of people's insight into who Samoans are come from the NFL... I want people to care enough about helping to connect those dots for themselves because there's a deep colonial history to why that is, why Samoans are who we are

Teresa (reading excerpt of Atlas):

When people ask me where I’m from,
they don’t believe me when I say water.
So instead, I tell them that home is a machete
and that I belong to places
that don’t belong to themselves anymore,
broken and butchered places that have made me
a hyphen of a woman:
a Samoan-American that carries the weight of both
colonizer and colonized,
both blade and blood.

Terisa: It sometimes feels like the hyphen itself is like this bridge with no railings. So you just don't know if you're safe. You don't know how to traverse it all the time. And I think part of being a bicultural kid in diaspora is that I am always yearning for a sense of belonging in being samoan enough to claim my Samoan identity, but sometimes not feeling adequate and living up to what that means, because of things like language loss and how I don't fully know my language anymore, or I never learned it because my family was in survival mode when they immigrated here and thought teaching me English was going to be more helpful for for me and my upbringing.

Terisa: It's also rejecting my Americanness sometimes because of U.S. imperialism and how much it has desecrated not just the Pacific, but so many of our countries. And so sometimes that identity is so hard for me to really reckon with… So I got deeper into exploring my indigeneity as a Samoan. And also making peace with: maybe I live on this hyphen. Maybe it's not a matter of like equalizing my Samoaness and my Americanness, and I just stand on this hyphen and write my poems over here, over the water [laughs]

Teresa (reading excerpt of Atlas):

California, nestled on the western coast of the most powerful
country on this planet.
Samoa, an island so microscopic on a map, it’s no wonder
people doubt its existence.
California, a state of emergency away from having the drought
rid it of all its water.
Samoa, a state of emergency away from becoming a saltwater cemetery
if the sea level doesn’t stop rising.

Pen: Since writing this piece five years ago where has it taken you?

Terisa: It was one of the poems that I took with me to the U.N. Conference on Climate Change in Paris, where the Paris Agreement was created back in 2015. It has been the door that has remained open to many opportunities that I've gotten to expand the conversation of who Pacific Islanders are, what is at stake, and what is the cost of not knowing what's what's happening in the Pacific in terms of the climate and why people should care. And so that little poem means a lot to me. [laughs]

Pen: What did it feel like [presenting the poem to the United Nations]?

Terisa: It felt exhilarating because it's a global stage, people came from around the world to spend a few weeks together to talk about how are we going to get ourselves out of this climate devastation and what are our best solutions.. I am grateful for the times in which I can share work about the Pacific, about being Samoan. Something that maybe they didn't have any knowledge of before. And I'm always thankful for those opportunities to share work in those ways… But there is this element of tokenization that happens often people want to hear your story… They for sure want to hear the tragic, traumatic parts of it so that they can feel something so that they can be stirred up with emotions in order to care and change and act. But then there's this gross feeling to it sometimes too, where there's this extraction… extracting people for their trauma, for their most devastating parts and not like seeing them as these whole human communities that deserve more.

Terisa: And so these climate convenings are interesting in those ways. I try to manage how much energy I give, to who and why… It's like trying to heal the system within the system. I mean, we don't even have to be at a global convening to feel that. I think that's a daily thing for me, to ask what are people's intentions? Am I clear on my own values? Am I aligned with them?

Pen: You mentioned value. How do you show your value as an artist in this line of work?

Terisa: There was a moment where I was in a Bay Area organizing space in which the facilitator was asking us, “like what our values were? And in asking us more importantly, like, do we know what our values are? and how do we know what they are? And she was asking us, like, Do you write them down? Do you review them? Do you adjust them? And I had to get real of myself around like, No, I don't do a lot of those things. I think we in our head theoretically is like, Yeah, I have values. Of course I have them. Who do you think I am? But it's like, how do I measure if I'm aligned with my values?... I think it's a daily practice and I'm not an expert at it at all. Every day I'm trying to figure out how to do it better.

Pen: Mannnn. I never write down my values, as much as a write. It's like duh! I write everything else down: to do list, shopping list. Anything else is like targeted intention.

Terisa: now that we're talking about it, I actually should revisit it because I haven't looked at them in a while

Pen: I mean, it makes sense to revisit it now. Right? as you take on new journeys, right?

Terisa: right!

Pen: Do you ever think of yourself as a climate changer?

Terisa: Yeah, I do now! It took me a while to really own that I'm an environmentalist or I'm a climate change organizer because I had a perception of like, you had to care about this work in a particular way to deem yourself as a real and true climate changer… But then I realized, not only do I think that's not true, we’re literally running out of time, so I don't actually care. I'm just going to put my head down and do my work in this narrow lane that I know and trust that enough of us are in our own lanes with our own gifts trying our best to try everything!

Rightnowish is an arts and culture podcast produced at KQED. Listen to it wherever you get your podcasts or click the play button at the top of this page and subscribe to the show on NPR One, Spotify, Apple Podcasts, TuneIn, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts.

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