INTERVIEWED BY SOPHIA LIU
Noʻu Revilla is an ʻŌiwi poet and educator. Born and raised with the Līlīlehua rain of Waiʻehu on the island of Maui, she currently lives and loves with the Līlīlehua rain of Pālolo on Oʻahu. Her debut book Ask the Brindled (Milkweed Editions 2022) was selected by Rick Barot as a winner of the 2021 National Poetry Series. She also won the 2021 Omnidawn Broadside Poetry prize. She has performed throughout Hawaiʻi as well as in Canada, Papua New Guinea, and the United Nations. Her poetry has been adapted for theatrical productions in Aotearoa as well as exhibitions in the Honolulu Museum of Art and the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She is a lifetime “slyly / reproductive” student of Haunani-Kay Trask. Learn more about Noʻu at nourevilla.com.
Brandy Nalani McDougall called your work “poetry…for the gut…Oiwi poetry at its finest and fiercest.” What initially drew you to poetry? Why turn to poetry as a vehicle to solidify and defend familial history?
I appreciate your choice to say: defend. Poetry, for me, exacts a closeness. In my early 20s, it was a transformative closeness that called me out on a lot of bullshit. I kept imitating dead white men because that’s what was put in front of me and I didn’t know how to reach for anything different. Representation matters.
At the time, I had just enrolled in a workshop with Robert Sullivan, a Māori poet, and we had a meeting to discuss my first poem of the semester. The draft was loaded with allusions to Greek mythology so I thought it checked all the “right” boxes. Yet with the hard copy of my poem in hand, he looked me in the eyes and asked: “Where is your culture? Where are your people?” No preambles, no cushion. I will always be grateful for how naked those questions were because I couldn’t hide. My culture was nowhere in that draft so essentially where the fuck was I? Every day poetry keeps me honest; it tests me, he alo a he alo (face to face). After so long in the closet and centuries of American colonization working every day to vanish who and what and how I love, I want to work toward closeness.
Thank you for sharing that. I’m so glad that those questions were asked. I read that you learned Ōlelo Hawai‘i in your 20s. Why was acquiring this language necessary for you and how did it impact your work?
Language is continuity. I feel closer to my lands and waters and ancestors when I’m able to wrap my mind around the world the way they did. In Hawaiʻi, for example, each place has names for their winds and rains, which means my kūpuna (ancestors) devoted time and observational rigor to studying how these elements shaped the land and its people. Clearly, for them, this kind of attention was valuable. So the names my kūpuna composed not only reflect a deep study of their environment but also a deep respect for the relationship between kanaka (people) and ʻāina (land). Naming practices reveal a lot about a relationship, especially in Hawaiʻi, and that’s what so much of poetry is, the responsibility of naming, renaming, or remembering names.
Speaking of imitating dead white writers in your previous answer and the responsibility of poetry as memory, which writers influenced you to cease this imitation and harness poetry to defy tradition and memorialize your ancestry?
It’s not so much defying tradition, as if there is just one, but choosing to feed and be fed by other traditions. Right now my students and I are talking about the multiple and simultaneous, the many-named and many-bodied in terms of literary genealogy and futurity. When I think of this kind of work, I reach for writers like Leanne Simpson, Joy Harjo, and Audre Lorde. Indigenous Pacific women writers like Sia Figiel, Tusiata Avia, Teresia Teaiwa, and Selina Tusitala Marsh absolutely devastated me when I first started taking my poetry seriously. Their work broke me open. It had to...I forgot I was part-ocean.
I loved the conversation and connection between you and Jocelyn Kapumealani Ng in “letters to the gut house: collaboration & decolonial love in Hawaiʻi.” Why did you decide to write an essay together in epistolary form?
Thank you so much for reading our collaboration, Sophia. Your aloha for that piece means a lot to me. Jocelyn is my collaboration soul mate and we’ve been writing letters to each other for years. When we get together, the worldbuilding that happens is fearless and tender. As a queer ‘Ōiwi femme who descends from shapeshifters, that balance is important. So on the way to AWP in 2019, I started writing a thank you letter to Joce for all the ways our collaborations have fed me. That six-hour flight was one hundred percent gutspill and I ended up presenting the letter on my panel. I came home and read it to her on the beach in Waikīkī, then she wrote me a letter in response, then I wrote again, then she wrote, back and forth – gratitude inspires reciprocity. The essay that Milkweed published weaves fragments of different letters we have written to each other. You could say it’s a little bit of light from different rooms in our gut house.
That spontaneity is so precious. You’ve dedicated several of your poems to younger family members. How do they inspire and inform your work?
The manuscript of this book really turned when I realized that it wasn’t enough to just write against what I wanted to burn down—violence against Indigenous women, rape, homophobia, colonization. It can’t just be about what we help bring to an end. We also have to commit aloha to growing new ground. What are we helping to build? I write to my three nieces because I want them to know they are part of larger and longer conversations between Indigenous wahine who show up and protect each other. Wahine like myself, their mother, their grandmother, their great-grandmother, their other aunties, and people like Haunani-Kay Trask and Brandy Nālani McDougall. What I went through, I want that shit to stop with me. So I name each violence, I set them out in the sun. I want my nieces to see that ʻŌiwi women can name injustice without looking away, from ourselves or each other. Yet it’s important that these poems also enact joy, play, and gratitude. I want my nieces to see aloha as intergenerational action.
How do you approach performing your poems? How does performance amplify the written word?
Performance is a vital part of my practice. I’m lucky to be part of a close-knit creative community here on Oʻahu. During the pandemic, it was nourishing to lean on each other and share how much we missed performing for live audiences and talk each other through how dramatically our writing rituals changed. For my book launch in September, the entire lineup was chosen family, and one wahine in the audience came up to me after and said it felt like she got to watch best friends fall in love with each other. High praise indeed.
I’m always thinking of different ways to share poetry in public. Lehua Taitano blew my mind one year at AWP—she cracked the world open for me as a performer. For some years now, Jocelyn Ng and I have been building toward a project that is part art installation, part immersive spoken word. I also want to figure out how to afford feeding audiences every time I share my work. It may seem like a small thing but when people are able to share good food, good drinks, and good story, intimacy deepens.
In an interview with The Rumpus, you said, “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.” Do you write with an intended audience in mind?
Yesterday was our Lā Kūʻokoʻa, our Hawaiian Independence Day, and in the early hours of that same day, Maunaloa erupted! We call this a hōʻailona, or a sign in this case of great change to come. Hulihia. When lava flows, it's a good time to reflect on the changes we’ve made in life and what we want to grow moving forward. It feels appropriate to talk about audience as lava makes its way to the ocean on Hawaiʻi island. My ʻāina, my lāhui, my kūpuna, my ʻohana, they are always with me when I write. And I don’t feel it as a burden; it is a responsibility and privilege. I want to write to them, for them. Ask the Brindled is my humble way of reaching out to other Indigenous women, especially ʻŌiwi wahine and women who fall in love and choose to build family with other women. The book is also a love letter to survivors and shapeshifters.
Thank you for taking the time to speak with me and for such stunning answers. Lastly, as a professor, how do you teach poetry as a resistive and reclamatory force?
My students and I talk about poetry and ea, or breath. Ea also signifies rising and sovereignty in my language. What do we give our ea to? How do we earn the ea of our readers? How do we bring our bodies to meet and metabolize the poems we write? Poetry should be part of the body, and our bodies are here on purpose. My ancestors worked hard to make sure I’d be here, with you, with my communities, with every reader who chooses to make story with me. We are here on purpose.