Guest Speaking at UC Berkeley: Poetry, Women's Issues, and API Resistance Art

Last week I spoke at UC Berkeley for a very interesting student initiated class on Art and API Resistance. And as with the title of my blog post, I found the topic of poetry and women’s issues in API resistance art to be quite nebulous. Or rather, it’s vast, and in addition to this, students find their ways into both women’s issues and p0etry in so many different ways. That said, I suffered a bit of  a slow and sputtering start.

The discussion became very, very productive after some pulling teeth kinds of moments of silence; that again is the thing about discussions with undergrads, who can tend not to be forthcoming. This is not because the interest isn’t there, nor is it because they don’t have questions. It’s just that warm up takes much more time.

As well, regarding women’s issues in my poetry, most times it feels this is self-explanatory. With Virgin Mary personae, with the biblical Eve, even with my Diwata storyteller persona, my self-representing “she” is so apparent. That she is speaking, about herself and what is important to her, is so obvious to me that it feels like retreading to explain.

But before moving away from this topic into questions on writing process, I was able to discuss briefly Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, in which Walker discussed the many ways in which women have traditionally created art in domestic spaces: dressmaking/clothes making, beautiful and functional quilts from scraps of old clothing and fabric, amazing meals prepared from what they’ve grown in their own gardens.

So I am glad that students’ questions ended up being really much more about poetic process, starting with how I “found my voice,” who I read, what were my entry points into the reading and writing of Poetry. There were questions about where I find my words, given how vivid, specific, and concrete my poetry can be. In addition to so much reading, I told them the thesaurus was one of my faithful companions, if only to rule out words that are pretentious and not on the mark. I talked about my refraining from those abstract terms, Revolution, Oppression, et al. I told them it was because I’ve noticed how readers shut off or shut down once you start hurling abstract accusations into a crowd.

It feels like students were indeed receptive to the idea that our own poetic voices change and develop over time, with much reading of not just poetry, with much “trying out” of different poetic tools, and that good poems are a result of that, and of paying acute attention to the details of our surroundings, editing, revising, reading lines aloud to myself when in the process of drafting, carrying notebooks around with me, actually handwriting drafts versus typing them up in blog entries or MS Word documents, dedicating a certain amount of time every day to writing. That said, I was quite pleased that it was very pragmatic stuff the students were asking.

Additionally, I was very pleased that even though it was a certain small number of students actually engaging in these pragmatic lines of questioning, these were young API women who appeared to me to be taking on very seriously and concretely issues of craft and process. I was able to suggest some writing exercises for those not exactly sure how to communicate in words on pages what they are thinking and feeling, what they believe they mean/intend to say.

Last thing. One student asked what kinds of things to do when we are not writing. One student had been painting and drawing, but afraid that this was taking away from the poetry, that in some way, creating visual art was working out what could have been worked out in a poem. Again with handwriting/scribbling down words, observations, et al in the notebooks to refer back to later, dedicating a certain time every day to write, even including the written poetry in the visual art.

This made me remember that someone had asked a similar question at the SFPL reading in December: what kinds of things you do when you are not writing. I thought about this again yesterday while weeding and mulching my parents’ backyard. Former apricot orchards, the soil there is so healthy, dark, and rich, full of all kinds of slimy critters. The guava tree and gargantuan lemon tree continue to grow like monsters on speed, and it’ll soon be time to plant some herbs and vegetables. This makes me think of what grows in our little urban patio.

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Barbara Jane Reyes

Author of Gravities of Center, Poeta en San Francisco, and Diwata. Adjunct professor in Philippine Studies at University of San Francisco.

4 Comments

  1. I always appreciate good stories about what happens in the classroom, especially ones that respect the complex relations that are built there, even if temporarily. I relate to your experiences of working a quiet and reluctant room, and then making profound connections.

    But I’m questioning whether I want to keep teaching, and how working in educational institutions relates to my writing.

    I’m also thinking about your mentoring post from a little while back. Can such mentoring occur in educational institutions — of course it does but in the way that we wish?

    • Thanks kiita, yes I think mentoring can occur in these educational institutions, or maybe at least be initiated there. Certainly the university is one point of contact for so many young women and established professional women? So even if the young woman goes on into the “professional world,” i.e. medicine, law, corporations, et al, where they will find other mentors, they do start generally in the university.

      But I don’t think the educational institution is conducive to more long term mentoring relationships? We are only there as students for a limited amount of time and always kind of pushed along before we get too “attached” to our professors? At least that’s how I felt as an undergrad. I’d have one intense professor one semester, then because there were all these other requirements, I couldn’t continue taking classes with this one professor who’s made such an impact on me. Also, s/he would have 50-100 other students such that I’d wonder if s/he would even remember who I was.

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