A few years back I came across an insightful and sobering essay by a prominent British scholar in the field of women’s poetry (I’ve been searching in my files for the exact citation, not least since I’d like to read it again myself). Each recent generation of women poets, the scholar writes, mistakenly thinks itself immune to the invisible fate of its foremothers. And our own is no exception. Her prediction, based on her expertise in the history of women’s poetry, is that if we don’t ground themselves consciously in the work of the women poets before us, our efforts to add our voices to the ongoing poetic conversation will be in vain; we will be eroded, like decimated soil in a land where there are no trees, no roots, to hold anything together. Like the “poetesses” who once sold better than their male contemporaries but are now almost entirely erased, even contemporary women poets, in all the glorious affluent multitudinousness of our equality, are only as strong as the foremothers and precursors and mentors we choose to claim as our own, to rescue from oblivion, and to ask to reach out from the past, and bless us, and help us to begin to build, at last, a tradition.
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Again, I am thinking more about woman mentorship in poetry, and in contemporary situations, what this kind of mentorship entails, what are the obstacles to effective mentorship. Does it, must it differ from non-gender-specific mentoring, and if so, how.
I think back on the intensity of my relationships with other women artists, particularly poets and writers, particularly Pinays, and realize it’s equal parts competitiveness (and I am one of those people who think competition is healthy), and projecting our own writer and industry insecurities upon others. Others would call it cattiness, crab mentality. Pinayists would call it dogging, and Beauty Queen Syndrome. I don’t like these terms at all; not only are they dismissive, belittling, they are also essentializing, and I think they distract us from discussing the reasons for our enmity. Enmity then, as the opposite of mentorship.
As “minorities,” as immigrants, as women, as not English as a primary language speakers, I believe we believe our chances of finding recognition in a larger literary world, are slim to none. That is, we anticipate being marginalized, continuing to be invisible, whether or not that actually happens. We believe our opportunities are limited, and it’s true; they are.
An excerpt from Allyson Tintiangco-Cubales’s chapter in Pinay Power, on “Pinayism”: “Dawn Mabalon questions, ‘Who’s gonna be the next Jessica [Hagedorn]? [...] Because there can only be one Jessica, because there can only be one beauty queen [....] Because there was only one Maria Clara’.”
I have always hated this quote; but let me be clear that I am not blaming Dawn for saying this. I hate that people accept this as truth. Dawn criticizes that we have accepted the system in which we are silently, invisibly in the margins, and in which there is room for only one of us if at all, because the center of the space is dominated by so many folks who are in love their God-given whiteness and maleness, who use these labels as entitlement and privilege, who don’t have the capacity to see us much less acknowledge our presence, and when they do see us, they shut the gates in our faces.
In the meantime, of course there can only be one Jessica Hagedorn, unless she has a tocaya somewhere. There can only be one Jessica Hagedorn the writer, and for the rest of us Pinay writers, we should know better. The goal is not to be her. The goal has never been to be her. The goal is to continue enlarging the space that we attribute to her as having opened up for us.
Back to mentorship. I believe we as a Pinay community struggle with balancing affirmation and criticism. As artists we all need critical feedback, we need to be challenged in order to grow and better our practice of art. But I think the system I describe above makes us quite vulnerable to criticism, which we instead take as the opposite of affirmation. In my experience, criticism, challenging other Pinays to carry their art further, to push themselves harder, has been met with accusations of masculine behavior. That is, because I am perceived as not nurturing, I therefore think and behave like a man.
Still, my behavior as I describe above I believe is how I mentor best. I sometimes fear this makes me a shitty Pinay mentor of other Pinays. I dump all kinds of out of the Pinay box ideas on the table, and they don’t talk to me again. I get too literary when I should be more spoken word. Again with divisions, distancing, disavowal. But honestly, I don’t want to gripe here. I just want to be a better mentor, and I don’t believe it does anyone any good to simply maintain the status quo of women writing in the margins, accepting writing in the margins, accepting obscurity over editorial rigor.
Back to Annie Finch’s post. I read what she describes above as enmity, disavowal, a refusal to acknowledge history, how we are products of it, how we can therefore proactively shape our futures. Back to Jessica Hagedorn; whether or not she intended it, her presence in the American literary world opened up the space for the rest of us. What are we doing with it but squandering it by not claiming it and sharing it? What would it take for us to be able to, as a community, work at enlarging the space that women poets occupy, centering it, and building great traditions of women’s poetry.