[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.