Islander’s Samoan-inspired works wins poetry award in Fiji
Jamestown resident John Enright has won an award in the First International Literature Competition conducted by the University of the South Pacific Press in Suva, Fiji. Enright won for his collection of poetry, “14 Degrees South: Samoa Poems.”
The competition that Enright won had over 100 submissions. There were also awards for fiction, nonfiction and biography. He learned of his victory in a rather roundabout way. “Before I heard from them, I got a press release forwarded to me from the newspaper back in Pago Pago, for whom I occasionally do some writing,” Enright said. “It is the Pacific and everything moves kind of slowly there.”
Enright, who grew up in Buffalo, N.Y., spent 26 years in the South Seas before settling in Jamestown in 2007. For 13 years he served as American Samoa’s State Historic Preservation officer.
After receiving his bachelor’s degree in literature from the City College of New York, Enright received his master’s degree in folklore from the University of California at Berkeley.
“I started writing poetry when I was 18 years old,” Enright said. “I was living in New York and there was a pretty lively poetry scene there at the time. I got into that, and then I moved to San Francisco, where there was also a poetry scene. So I’ve been writing and publishing poetry for 49 years.”
It was Ronald Reagan’s election as president that prompted Enright to make a major change in his life. “I was working in Berkeley at the time and I decided that it was time to leave the country,” Enright said. “I think I was right. I had visited Samoa before. I wanted to get out of the country and it was a good place to go. I got a job teaching at a college there.”
The decision to return to the mainland U.S. after many years abroad came when Enright got old enough to retire. “I was kind of tired of the banana republic politics down there,” he said. “It was time to get out.”
Enright’s sister Rosemary lives in Jamestown, and he had visited many times over the years. “When my wife and I left Samoa we didn’t know where to go,” Enright said. “So we ended up here. It was a good choice. I’m glad we came to Jamestown. It’s a little colder than Samoa, but it’s an island anyway.”
Enright has published several smaller collections of poetry in the past, and his work has appeared in a number of magazines. He has also written prose in the form of journalistic pieces, essays and short stories. He is currently at work on a series of detective novels set in Samoa. The first book in that series will be out next year. “Maybe that will bring in more money than the poetry does,” Enright laughed.
Enright’s Samoan detective is inspired by none other than TV’s Columbo. “He’s sort of the coconutheaded detective who nobody thinks can get anything right,” Enright said. “He ends up solving all of the cases anyway.”
The sense of place is important to Enright. “A lot of detective novels are ethnography pretending to be detective novels,” he said. “They’re really about what life is like there.”
“14 Degrees South: Samoa Poems” will be published in 2012 by the University of the South Pacific Press. “I’m sure it will be available [in the U.S.],” Enright said. “It’s just a matter of how available. Being in Fiji, they look more toward Australia, New Zealand and Great Britain than the United States, but I’m sure it will be available through Amazon.”
All of the poems in the collection were written during Enright’s time in Samoa. He was inspired by everyday life in the South Seas. “They’re poems that come out of the experience of living in Samoa,” Enright said. “Most of them are insights into daily life in the tropics.”
Enright looks to poets like Ezra Pound and Charles Olson for inspiration. He did his master’s thesis at Berkeley on William Butler Yeats. He is also influenced by some of the early beat poets like Gary Snyder.
“I’m still writing poetry now that I’m living in Jamestown,” Enright said. “I’m writing poetry about where I am, so it’s more Rhode Island and Jamestown poetry that I’m writing now. I’m looking forward to breaking into the world of novels.”
A monetary award came with the prize from the University of the South Pacific Press. “It was $500, which is a nice little honorarium, but that’s over 25 years of poetry which comes out to about $20 a year, which is not bad pay for a poet,” Enright joked. “I’m looking forward to writing more novels and more poetry about here.”