Writing Culture in Diwata (y Poeta)

[Minor edits below.]

Yesterday evening I had a late visit to Bob Glück’s Writers on Writing class at SFSU, to read from and talk about Diwata. It was an interesting class. There is one student’s question that I’ve been thinking about since last night: How did I make the decision to use very culturally specific references, language, etc, and did I fear alienating readers from the work.

This is a very valid question. The funny thing is that lately, I haven’t really felt this kind of fear, at least about non-Filipinos turning away from the work because they can’t relate to it. I told the students I’ve had a lot of time to work this out, to think about the risk of alienating folks culturally dissimilar to me. Certainly, my readership has grown, due in very major part to the relative “success” of Poeta en San Francisco, which some years ago, I really believed no one outside of my political poetic cadre would read, precisely because I believed it was very specific.

I remember the kinds of issues educators in different parts of the country would tell me about, while teaching Poeta en SF. The absence of translation would lead to defensiveness about encountering a language not understood or recognizable. But astute educators can tell you this is a way in, right there. This is a conversation to be had about what the poet has chosen to do, what the importance of that unfamiliar language (especially the baybayin) is to the poet and his/her project. In other words, there’s a sound reason why the author has decided to include these, and decided not to translate. The author has thought about the reader, his/her ability or inability to undertsand, the power dynamics that play themselves out as a result. (Why am I talking about myself in third person here?)

Educators would also tell me about really heated arguments their students would have in the (physical and e-) classroom, vehemently disagreeing with one another about the politics of the work, the hardline stance of Poeta’s poetic speaker, the apparent “white man bashing,” the profaning of prayer. Again, all opportunities for conversation about point of view/position, power dynamics, and purpose.

I’ve been thinking about Andrew Zornoza’s essay, “Visualizing Words and Worlds,” at the Poetry Foundation. One thing I’ve been thinking is this: if we are going to pay such acute, close attention to each and every “little” thing in a poem, then everything about the poem and its creation should be deliberate, and be able to stand up to such scrutiny. In one grad seminar I ended up dropping, I remember talking about my dilemma with language and multilingualism. I hadn’t quite figured out how to do it, successfully execute multilingualism in my poems. I did know that multilingualism has always been important to me, my life, my history, and hence, to my poetry. I remember some white hipster colleague of mine telling me in this derisive tone, ”You shouldn’t just use foreign language just because you can. There has to be a reason for it.” And while I agreed with his advice, I didn’t appreciate that tone, i.e. of course I know there has to be a reason, a very good reason, for it, and for anything you do in/with/to a poem — each line break, for example, or the decision to use one form over another. What I was seeking was concrete advice on how to execute multilingualism.

So back to the student’s question last night. I responded by saying that how Poeta was received really surprised me. Where I thought I was writing something very culturally specific, others outside of my community were able to read the work through their own experiences and ways of understanding our current, ongoing state of war, or others’ (or their own, or their parents’ or grandparents’) struggles with being an English language learner, or with multilingualism, or being an immigrant/expatriate/migrant, or gender inequality, or gender violence, or religious devotion, or hypocritical Christian moralizing, or gentrification, or urban way of life.

In other words, readers of all stripes can always find a way into your work, unless they just don’t want to. So with Diwata, I had little apprehension about it being alienating; it was a non-issue. I told them there’s always a community of people who want to read our work, folks for whom the poetry is mutually resonant, and it’s just a matter of finding them. And I am glad to have reached this point, where I can hold a good amount of faith in readers being able to find their own way around the text. That my poems can simply do what they mean to do, that I can just write a poem, a body of poems, and worry about the poems themselves, instead of all the stuff that I think should be peripheral to the poem.

Bottom line is this: I believe that if we are clear with what we want the poem to do or be, and if we learn craft-wise, or mechanics-wise, how to do these things, how to be attentive as writers of poems, then we can let the poem be the poem, “direct but prismatic” (No really! Single input, multiple possible outcomes).

What I did not tell the class, but what does bother me is this: If anything, my ongoing work has alienated other Pinays. But this is just the opposite of Pinayism operating here.

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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.

6 Comments

  1. The first poems of yours that I read (and which are in Poeta en San Francisco) were poems I found online several years ago in MiPoesias. I made a mental note to go find Poeta, and I did find it at the Tinfish Press table at AWP in Chicago in 2009.

    My initial reaction to the untranslated parts of Poeta (I didn’t know the word “baybayin” till I read it sometime later here in your blog) was that I found it a kind of useful quiet reminder that not everyone in the world chooses to speak English, or to speak it all the time. I think I said something about this when I wrote about Poeta in my blog. (I can read Spanish, more or less, sometimes a little haltingly, though have never spoken it well.)

    To put it another way, and to state what should be obvious: English isn’t the “default” language, it’s not the language that all other languages are measured against. (Unless, perhaps, you’ve spent a little to much time insulated in English departments and similar places, though here we get to one of those “don’t get me started” things, but anyway.)

    I grew up in a family where we spoke only English, though there was a faint presence of other languages, my parents who had studied (variously) French and Latin and Spanish in school, and my dad also had a bit of German that he picked up when he was in Europe at the end of the Second World War. (He was, for a little while, put in charge of a group of German prisoners of war.)

    But apart from that, the life I lived growing up didn’t “force” me to learn any other languages — English was the only language we actually spoke in my family and my community — and it was a conscious political decision to start learning other languages, to the extent I’ve learned any.

    Back when Didi Menendez was hosting the Cafe Cafe blog as an open group blog, I posted a couple of poems there that were partially or wholly written in Spanish, my first attempts at writing poems in a language other than English. It wasn’t just an experiment, as such — the poems (or parts of poems) “came” to me in Spanish, whatever that actually means (getting here into the mystery of where poems come from in one’s interior world, which I’m not prepared to articulate at the moment…)

    In my most recent book of poems, The First Light Touches Me, I included two poems that I wrote entirely in Spanish (out of a total of 12 poems in the book). I eventually decided to include my own English translations as a kind of Appendix at the end of the book, though the translations feel to me only like translations, not-quite-adequate suggestions of what the poems say. The actual poems are in Spanish.

    This raises a whole lot of questions, regarding cultural appropriation, assumptions we make (or don’t make) about what culture is and who decides that — the list is long, and I don’t pretend to have thought through all of the questions to clear conclusions. Essentially I decided just to trust that the poems would be able to speak for themselves, and that people would respond to them, or not, based on wherever they come from in life and history and the world.

    In a broader sense, I suppose I make that kind of decision when I write and/or publish any poem, though I suppose I was a little more conscious of thinking about this with the poems in Spanish. Everything we do exists in the context of history.

  2. Super interesting and certainly a topic many POC have to work with when trying to create something with the potential to be ‘universal’ or that may have ‘crossover’ or ‘main stage’ appeal. “In other words, readers of all stripes can always find a way into your work, unless they just don’t want to.” That’s my favorite part of this post! But I do have to ask about the closing two sentences – Do tell. How and why? Curious about this paradox.

    • alas, anthem, if only i understood better what’s happening there (re: the last part of my post). you ever get that sense that your own peeps are backing away from you cuz you’re always in intense work mode? it’s something like that. or straight up jealousy. who knows.

  3. Great post. My thought is regarding the following:

    “You shouldn’t just use foreign language just because you can. There has to be a reason for it.”

    I want to turn that around and say, you shouldn’t just use English just because you can. There has to be a reason for it. Sadly, there are a lot of monolinguals in the US due to “circumstance”, design or some combo of the two. But that doesn’t mean they should use English without thinking about the reason why.

    For me, although I’m not monolingual, when I write in English it’s a case of “This is the oppressor’s language // yet I need it to talk to you” (Rich).

    • “I want to turn that around and say, you shouldn’t just use English just because you can. There has to be a reason for it. ” yes kenji, absolutely. when (if ever) do we have conversations like that, or when do folks with english privilege have conversations like that? and what does that conversation sound like?

      there’s a reason why *i* write in english, surely to communicate with “you,” as you’ve quoted from rich. then we can get historical, right, why filipinos speak english in the first place (i.e. war, compulsory american education, et al).

  4. @bjr: hmmm, yeah, super mysterious. and interesting as a community engagement puzzle. @kenji: on point!

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