Thoughts On Treating Our Own Books As If They Are Not Forgettable Or Disposable Items

Seriously, I think it’s important to ask: how do we as authors experience the book, regard and engage the experience of the book as this thing, body we’ve created, that goes out of our brains and private creative spaces, and into the world?

I am thinking about this now, as I continue to discuss Poeta en San Francisco in classrooms, with students coming into poetry, or coming into critically thinking about their own Filipino American/”ethnic” American/”other” American identities. At first I feared the discussions would be stale because the book is “old.” But the discussions are totally not stale. The book itself, the poetry in it is not stale. I am pleased and relieved this is the case, and I am making all kinds of revelations that I thought should have been obvious, but perhaps aren’t really so much.

I’ve had a fear about revisiting the work and the possibility of finding I could no longer relate to it. Indeed, I came to my “The pure produces of America go crazy” (p. 21), and my “ave maria” (p. 68) in Poeta yesterday, read both of those aloud, and thought, hot damn; this is some gritty, angry girl who wrote these. But the feeling I had there was not one of disconnect or even cringing shame. It was much more about how I as an educator could now step back a bit and discuss the necessity of that anger and grit, while also discussing political content in poetry, while also discussing racial misidentifications, while also discussing convergence and collision in city (city as the contact zone), while also discussing the aftermath of war, while also discussing patriotism and duty, while also discussing the importance of the poems’ multilingualism, while also discussing poetic rigor.

Let me also step back here and say that when the book was newly awarded and then newly published, I was still in a state of shock. I was fresh out of grad school, I was completely unaccustomed to having a lot of eyes on the work. I was slowly coming to terms with even just the local Filipino American academic and artist community receiving and knowing my work. I was still figuring out what it meant for me to be a poet, what it meant for my life and my identity as a human being. All the waxing poetic and defiantly about recognizing that I am a Pinay poet, that I am a political poet – that is all part of this process of figuring out why that is even important at all, and ultimately it’s been part of a larger process of self-understanding.

I wonder now if a lot of poets let their work die in public because of what it’s like in our ongoing nascency, emergence, liminality. The movement and transition from writer to author is really not a cut and dry, easy experience on the psyche. Being in public is difficult. Being heard in public, being critiqued in public, being expected to exist in public, to be a public person, is difficult.

All this, plus this flawed notion that publishing rapidly is the desired and expected thing to do, that the blitz of public readings and talks is the only thing we must do, that we must rush to do it within the book’s first year lest we risk its falling into obscurity — this is, well, flawed thinking, no? A fellow Pinoy author once told me that he believed that it could take at least three years or so for a book to gain momentum. Readers need to find their way to the book, and this is why we consent to the blitz. But readers also need to experience the reading of the book in a complex and meaningful way. I believe that authors also need to experience the book, their own books, in a complex and meaningful way.

I was starting to get to articulating this realization last year, when Margaret Rhee taught Poeta en SF in her Asian American Studies course at UC Berkeley. At that point, I was grateful for the shift, from talking about Diwata, just to mix it up for myself. But during and after Margaret’s class, I realized how younger readers were going to continue to find their way meaningfully into this book, something for which I am totally grateful. That encouraged me to teach Poeta en SF in my Filipino American Literature course at SFSU last semester, and indeed, here were these mostly-young students, finding a meaningful experience in their reading. And so I look forward to teaching it again next semester at SFSU.

Anyway, all this to say I am only getting better at Poeta en San Francisco book talks, and it’s not too late. This book has a life, apparently a good long life. I am also getting better at Diwata book talks. And as I had a wonderful conversation this past weekend with Jai Arun Ravine about For the City That Nearly Broke Me, which Jai is reviewing for Lantern Review, I am only going to get better at discussing and representing that chapbook, and on the whole, my growing poetics as well.

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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.

2 Comments

  1. Thanks for posting this; in reading it, I’m reminded that it’s important to continue reevaluating a book, and the reasons for certain decisions one has made. To keep looking at the next new thing is perhaps natural, especially in the glitzy U.S., but doesn’t necessarily guarantee meaningfulness. And a book’s relevance can change, both for the writer, and her readers. We live in an era in which it’s now perfectly fine for a writer publicly discuss a previous book — you don’t have to wait for a reviewer, or for the “market,” to bring it up.

    Speaking of which, I didn’t market my book (Prau) very strongly when it was published, and perhaps self-consciousness and/or lack of confidence went into that. But it wasn’t just about a sense of liminality for being Filipino and pinay (and I think there are definitely reasons for why being pinay can make one feel marginal in this society). But also about lack of funds, huge life changes, knowing that I write in ["avant garde"] forms that are difficult reading for some, and about age (what I “should’ve done” by the age of 55 [at that time], what is expected of me as a writer, and what I realistically have the physical energy to do vs. what I really want to do). This is not to complain about my lot in life [although, I think anger has its place], but part of an ongoing process about what the relevant issues are at my time of life, what really motivates me now (as opposed to previously), and what I want to prioritize.

    In any case, these are very good and useful issues that you raise.

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