Individual Work
Ask Me for the Moon: Working Nights in Waikiki

"Ask Me for the Moon: Working Nights in Waikiki" is a work of Web-based digital poetry about the labor force that sustains the tourism machine of Waikiki in Honolulu, Hawai'i and the problematic nexus of tourism and indigenous culture. The text amalgamates excerpts from theoretical discourse and includes a section of "notes" comprised of eight nodes in prose as well as a list of references. The lyrical text displayed in layered animation remains primary, however, providing the organizing material for both the literal and literary movement of the text.

An opening introductory sequence projects a white font on a black background with a backdrop image of Waikiki's skyline at night emerging from the blackness. The poem makes use of transient (or time-regulated) text: lines of poetry are displayed and fade out after several seconds, but are replaced at the same location or elsewhere along the same line by new text fading in. Sometimes identical and overlapping letters are recycled when they reappear in the new text, endowing the poem with a sense of kinetic continuity. The poem is thus both transient and palimpsestic, and combines these two techniques for its layering effects. The animation recalls textual layering techniques present in the digital poetry of Talan Memmott, Jim Rosenberg, Mez Breeze, or Robert Kendall.

Visually, the animated palimpsest creates something like a slow shimmering, evoking the play of moonlight on a shoreline. The alliterative and assonant quality of the verse, moreover, allows the material that fades out to linger as an echo in what replaces it (as "scrub" replaces "scour," or "threshold" follows "shoals" which in turn follows "host"). Thus, a phonetic ebb and flow accompanies a visual one in the poem.

After the opening sequence, further segments of the poem are accessed via a graphical banner image that includes a horizontal menu bar with five stylized - and changing - photos of Waikiki, each linked to more animated textual sequences. Upon clicking these images, audio clips are activated, which resemble both the sound of breathing and that of waves, evoking not only the incessant labor of the workers but also the sighs of the ocean nearby.

When the animated poetic segments come to rest they call up passages of resonant critical discourse that offer theoretical reflections by eminent cultural theorists and philosophers of the 20th-century, such as Barthes, Derrida, Levinas, Lefevbre, and Marx, but also contemporary scholars such as Momiala Kamahele and Haunani-kay Trask who are writing directly on the question of Hawai'ian culture and politics. The poem, however, does not simply include or contain its own commentary. Rather, it offers an unfamiliar view of the hyper-capitalist enclave of Waikiki and places its postcolonial (or neocolonial) labor practices in an ethically unsettling frame.

Yet the same frame is aesthetically appealing. In fact, the polished appearance of the interface and its visual representation of the pristine Hawai'ian night is a thematic reinforcement of the need to keep the stark realities of labor concealed and nocturnal. Images of greasy kitchens appear clean in the monochrome interface; sweaty hands and faces are cropped out of thumbnail views or otherwise sanitized by their stylized treatment onscreen. The overall cadence of the piece is slow, which also sits in thematic contradistinction to the frenetic machinations of those in the service industry who effectively produce the tourist's sense of leisureliness and timelessness. In a reflexive reading, the polished appearance of the short poem, inevitably layered itself as a programmed digital artifact, belies the disproportionate labor that goes into its own production.

"Ask Me for the Moon" was published in the Iowa Review Web (Summer 2005) at It has appeared on syllabi for courses treating digital media and creative / animated writing at the University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee and Virginia Tech. The author of the poem, John Zuern, is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa, and has published widely as a theorist and critic in the field of digital literature.

(Screenshots courtesy of the ELMCIP database)>