Is it difficult to teach APIA poetry to APIA students? Or is it difficult to teach APIA poetry within Ethnic Studies settings? My sense is that APIA poets are considered disposable, a dime for a dozen heartfelt three-minute spoken word performances, or in a poetry collection’s apparent “difficulty,” more readily disregarded or marginalized. I would love to be continually disproven.
I ask these questions, knowing I enjoy the privilege of my books being taught in some awesome places by some awesome educators. I hold the poetry book sacred (that’s me in the picture, and the regular pilgrimage to the SPD Books warehouse), and am disappointed by some folks’ apparent unwillingness to pick them up, get themselves good and immersed, take the things seriously enough to teach them, in excerpts sure, but how about in their entirety. Also, my primary experiences teaching poetry are in Poetry courses, where the expectations are different, I think. Primarily, the classes are populated by/with enough students who know their way into a poem, have experience writing poetry or studying poetic form and/or traditions, and so my work is about bringing everybody to the same “level” of understanding regarding poem and poetry, and this as it exists within specific social contexts.
In other words, this is a poem, so let’s talk about its poem-ness and then, let’s talk about its social context, and let’s talk about these things in the same conversation, how they are related, how each affects the other (i.e. the poetic and the sociopolitical), what decisions the poet appears to have made about the poem’s construction, its form, its language(s), its specific cultural and historical references. And from what’s been committed to the page, how does this translate into orality, or what is the poem’s relationship to orality? And/or from what literary and oral traditions, from what literary and oral tradition forebears, from what cultural movements does the poet draw? This is also a good conversation about the literary and the sociopolitical/historical.
This is indeed how I speak on my own poetry, when it is taught by other educators. One thing I told Margaret Rhee’s students yesterday was this: if loss of language, loss of culture via colonization and Catholicism are some of issues I’m trying to write about in Poeta en San Francisco, then this is why I have used the dictionary definition (my speaker is in a position to define terms) and Catholic prayer and Catholic ritual as forms. This is why I include baybayin; rather than explicitly tell you that our languages have been lost, why not simply assert the presence of those “lost” languages. If I am trying to write about tourism as also a kind of invasion, then I use the travelogue form to demonstrate its invasiveness, which, in my handling tourism and Catholicism together, morphs into something like a Stations of the Cross kind of language and movement.
So already, this is a conversation about form, diction, syntax, and historical and sociopolitical content.
Yesterday’s class visit was so affirming, that “difficult” poetries can be handled by young APIA students who may have little to no experience defining what a poem is, discussing what poetry is and does. And that it can happen, “difficult” poetries can be taught within Ethnic Studies settings in ways that neither marginalize the poetics, nor oversimplify and objectify the ethnic experience as monolithic.
I remember when Sunny Vergara taught Gravities of Center at SFSU, in Filipino American Literature, back in 2004. There were some great discussions about what was happening on the page, how those uses of page and “white space,” (or white space’s absence) were as much a part of creating the narrative, as the words themselves. That those issues of form and construction respected the reader by giving her the space to work out meaning herself, without it having to be explicitly preached to her.
So I commend those educators who can confidently guide their students through “difficult” texts towards that kind of recognition and understanding. Of course, I don’t think of my own work as so difficult (here, I equate “difficult,” with “inaccessible”), but I definitely think of my work as layered and complex.
I think also, as an author, with the publishing of the book, this is where the work begins. Interacting with readers has proven to be so rewarding. Poeta en San Francisco has always sparked such interesting, energetic, and even passionate discussions. There is so much in Poeta that I look back at and think, holy shit, I wrote that, and it is mean, and it is raw, or in your face, or it really really pushes harder than I thought I was capable of pushing. And I am amazed at its lifespan so far. And I would love for it to live and provoke more generations of young readers.
Finally, here’s my last question (for now): what makes a book of poems teachable, especially in ES spaces? How are these currently taught? And how improve upon that? And ultimately, how to elevate APIA authored poetry beyond personal expression and feeling? Can we regard APIA authored poetry the way we regard APIA authored novels and scholarly texts?