[Edits below.]

I was just thinking about what I ended yesterday’s blog post with: this sense that po-biz/poetry world/the Poetic Industrial Complex is always on the lookout for the next new hotness, which means the newest crop of newly published poetry collections, written by the newest crop of MFA program graduates. That after a poetry book’s first year in publication, its relevance fades, and interest in it fades until no one is reading it or talking about it anymore, much less teaching it. Maybe we can call this New Syndrome, the belief that anything new is bigger, better, and more bad-ass than its predecessors. I am wondering if this is really true, and whether we authors have a hand in making this so.

[Addendum and/or afterthought: In the above model, poetry becomes this disposable/consumable throwaway thing, not built to last, and not meant to grow attached to or keep. In a way this is subverting our own (poetry’s and poets’) chances at “greatness.”]

In an interview from a few years ago, the interviewer asked me about some poems that I’d written over ten years ago, and which were published in Maganda magazine. Apparently, these poems had been her and others’ way into my work. For me, the poems are a little “cringe-worthy,” for their being so didactic and full of post-colonial terminology. Apparent in the poetry is the kind of young indignation and pride as I came into my “Brown Power” stage of political education and development. This coincided with my having “Kayumanggi” in baybayin tattooed into my right arm. I chose to use the cross kudlit under the “nga” symbol. I am not a purist. I am not ridiculing my past self, my younger self, except to say that at the time, I could never have known that any of my poems would have staying power, that anyone would still be reading them over a decade later and finding their way into Filipino American poetry through them.

This is what I am thinking this morning: even “old” poetry is always new to someone. This is a good thing, that “old” poems can have some staying power, retaining their relevance as trends in poetry come and go.

The downside: when a poet realizes that even “old” poetry is always new to someone, and so therefore does little else but perform the same old poems for new audiences, over and over again. In the college scene, there is always a new group of freshpersons coming in from quiet suburbs and non-diverse places, finding political fervor in the university, finding their “Brown Power” or their ethnic pride after taking their first Asian American Studies intro course, and needing to hear articulations of it in cultural and artistic productions. That’s a constantly renewable audience.

So the above is the extreme opposite of what I am calling the New Syndrome. I think I am realistically somewhere in between. At last week’s Field of Mirrors reading, I read one poem from Gravities of Center, which I’ve been revisiting lately, and finding much of it not so “cringe-worthy.” The reason I’ve been revisiting this book lately is because as I give Poeta en San Francisco presentations for classes, I feel it’s useful to contextualize, as in some themes in the first book have been built upon in the second book. By extension, some themes in the second book get to be built upon in the third book, and so on. Each previous book as a dress rehearsal for the next one.

And with Poeta en SF, the readership continues to grow, educators continue to adopt it for courses in Asian American Studies, for courses on the literature of San Francisco and California. Nick Carbó told me a long time ago that course adoption was the way to go for guaranteeing book sales and I totally agree with him. As well, a body of scholarly work is actually being written. At the 2008 Midwest Modern Language Association, Gina M. Sully (UNLV) presented a paper entitled, “The Haunting: Harold Bloom, Barbara Jane Reyes, and Ghosts in the Contact Zone.” At the 2009 American Comparative Literature Association Conference, Alexandra M. Jenkins (OSU) will be presenting a paper entitled, “Transnational Poetics in the Work of Jose Garcia Villa and Barbara Jane Reyes: Extralinguistic Experimentation in Collective Enunciation.”

I am glad these things are called to my attention. For one thing, it helps my self-esteem as an author, that I and my work appear to be taken seriously, beyond simply being newly graduated, newly published with trendy material (and really, when are Filipinos ever trendy in America?), and also, that my work is reaching out farther than I’d ever anticipated, and that perhaps my work will have some staying power. The challenge then will be to stay open to the growing scholarship surrounding and/or including Poeta en SF, while continuing to write new bodies of work.


3 thoughts on “Poetry: New Hot and Relevant?

  • March 17, 2009 at 3:54 pm

    You are leaving a literary legacy for yourself, BJ, and doing it the right way. I bestow greatness upon you. 🙂

  • March 19, 2009 at 12:24 pm

    It is crazy how people expect writers to crank out books like a product, but the relevance of good book is indeed timeless. Poets are being forced to find a formula and stick with it, like many fiction writers sometimes suffer.

    • March 20, 2009 at 12:47 pm

      Hi Tara, yes absolutely. In the meantime I’ve heard of poets who write and compile their manuscripts in their own time, when the work is ready. And there are poets whose 1st and only books thus far are so memorable, or so meaningful, we do indeed keep talking about them and their work, wishing they’d put out more but also still revisiting their books. Offhand, among Nor Cal Fil Ams I think of Jaime Jacinto, Jeff Tagami, Catalina Cariaga, Al Robles.

      I know I have to check myself on that feeling that I need to be always cranking manuscript. As if, if I don’t I’ll get “forgotten.” Something I need to get over. Of course I say this knowing how much I like that fire under my ass as a way to keep working. Middle ground is nice.


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