Yesterday evening, I spoke with mostly Filipino American students at UC Berkeley at a Maganda magazine sponsored event. Adrien Salazar moderated, which was my suggestion, just so I wouldn’t ramble, and so that I could actually discuss issues relevant to young Filipino American college students, and aspiring writers and artists. He asked me a lot of really good questions, as did the students.
I want to first go back to Susan Schultz’s question on reading, and why I’ve been preferring more dialogues than straight reciting and performing from the text: “What purposes are served beyond poetry itself?” Yesterday’s conversation was really more about figuring out, as young artists, as students, as Filipino Americans, where poetry is figured in our personal and community lives and memories, and political movements; how do we make connections with other communities via our words and art; how do we discover our “I,” in all of its complexities, and grow it such that we are making connections with other human beings, other communities, other movements. As young folks of color, as young writers of color, how do we learn to survive, sustain ourselves, and thrive in an industry, economy, and culture that has historically robbed us, that continues to rob us of our diversity, substance, free will, humanity.
We talked about how some of my poems which I thought were very culturally specific end up reaching readers/audiences in ways I hadn’t anticipated, including how fellow politicized Pinays have shied away from or rejected my work because it’s poetically or emotionally difficult. This has made me check my expectations of readership and community, and to really embrace letting go of poems I’ve sent into the world to have their own lives. The whole anxiety about author authority has to go; if readers we’d never anticipated connect to our work, which they have done by processing our words through their own cultural and experiential filters, rather than turned off because the work was too foreign or difficult, then we’ve done effective work as poets. This means, above and beyond poetry, we’ve made a connection, expanded and/or bridged community.
We talked about why I had to continue my writing education outside of the safety of my community. I told them what Allan Manalo of Bindlestiff Studio told my Filipino American Arts course last semester at USF; while it’s always necessary and great to have nurturing Filipino American community arts spaces in which to grow as young artists, you have to leave this nurturing space, and “cut your teeth” in a bigger world, embrace discipline and rigor, hone your craft. This also speaks to me of forging connection beyond our sanctioned spaces, and blowing open internally and externally imposed expectations for how we write, and what we write about.
One student did ask why poetry is so serious; as literary editor of the publication, she continues to read poetry submissions that are so dark and heavy. My response was that in our communities (of color), poetry has historically served and continues to serve as an integral part of political movements, and so the work is both rallying cry and consciousness raising work. I think the heaviness is also due to a general tendency towards confessional poetry, that laying bare of intimate details of our emotional lives. I mentioned that there are movements against this heaviness, and cited the light, humorous work of Billy Collins as an example of movement to wrest poetry away from the gravity of real world issues that affect our everyday lives — war, militarization, economic injustice, sexual violence. In other words, our world really is dark and heavy, and hence, the art that interests me most is the art that reflects/confronts the dark and heavy.
I keep thinking about Chuck D as the CNN of the ghetto, and Jack Agüeros as the PBS of the barrio. Now, if we add an interactive component to these, how much more necessary and useful are poets and poetry, art and artists. I think these are purposes beyond poetry itself, with poetry as the means by which we create and maintain our connections of depth and substance to other people, to the world.