Spoken Word, Poetry, and Poetics: Work, Writing, Rewriting

There’s the poetic project I think I am getting fleshed out, slowly but surely. It began with “And the word was a woman,” and it’s had to grow itself from there. There are a lot of pieces here I am negotiating. The language of my project, and its lines are becoming something very interesting to me. I blogged recently about poetic difficulty, and the poetics of hip-hop — something I’ve previously avoided discussing, as I have not really considered hip-hop to be part of my cultural, hence poetic foundation.

I am thinking about it a little differently, as with our poetics, we stretch from our initial frames into others’ frames. We build from our foundations and into the cultures that surround us, and which we now inhabit. As a poet frequently referenced for my code switching/operating in multiple registers, this is a no brainer; there’s a language that’s introduced itself into my repertoire. As poets, we sponge up languages, from everywhere.

One more aspect I’d like to introduce here is allusion, something that Roger Reeves, author of King Me, discussed on the hip-hop poetics panel at AWP. Reeves’s discussion of what (in MFA workshop language) is “acceptable” allusion and what “doesn’t quite work,” (the implication here being that the “mainstream” does not “get” it) perplexed me a little, if only because in my own MFA workshop experiences as a student and a teacher, all language, and various cultural frames are on the table, based upon what is appropriate for the contexts of the works being discussed.

I had to be reminded that everyone else may still operate within much more limited and oppressive MFA frameworks, in which the Western-Euro-centric, Judeo-Christian, hetero-male perspective is always the unbudging standard by which we must gauge ourselves.

I don’t live and work in that world. I am a fortunate soul. Or maybe, it’s better said this way: that world does not break me or tell me what I should do. I am interested in the fact that parties I think of as inhabiting (and maybe even representing) that world come seeking my opinion, input, and work. Why, I am not exactly too sure.

As an author, I know the subject matter of my work may be considered “foreign,” and particular to a specific group. Then, I am surprised by the kind of responses I receive from people who do not share my foreign-ness and specificity. They tell me they are responding to the poetry, what the poetry is doing, how what the poetry is doing allows them entry.

So then, back to forms, lines, languages, allusions. I wanted to add this excerpt of a course proposal I’m currently drafting:

Contemporary APIA poetry is deeply personal and deeply political; it is both simultaneously. The poet’s aesthetic choices are also political choices. Contemporary APIA poetry has roots in our communities’ verse traditions, for example, the tanka, haiku, renga, tanaga, ghazal, balagtasan, et al. Contemporary APIA poetry may be performative, a continuation of our oral traditions, accessible in social and political movements, and meant to communicate with the broadest bases of our populations. Poetic techniques, such as rhyme, meter, and repetition, as well as compressed and figurative language and wordplay, draw in the audience, and facilitate the delivery of “meaning” and “message.”

This too, should be a no brainer. Poetry accomplishes a lot on multiple levels and media; poetry accomplishes possibly monumental things, given multiple constraints. I think of poetry as successfully executed when you do not see the “seams.” I think of the the wires used in filmed epic martial arts battles. Sometimes you see them, but then sometimes the fights are so well choreographed and executed, your willing suspension of disbelief kicks in and all you see are human beings in gravity defying magic.

And this is probably why, I believe, lots of people think poetry is just words dumped on a page in quizzical and emotional ways. How reductive is that. I mean, Pablo Neruda wasn’t just some schmuck working out his emotions on paper.

I’d recently been thinking about the rudeness, the abruptness, the subject matter of my work, that it upsets others’ sensibilities. But I know, really know deep inside, that I must write how and what I write. In fact, that’s precisely what I work towards — abrupt, upsetting poems. Surely, I can even dig deeper, push harder, be more upsetting.

And the writing, rewriting, revising, compressing will continue. Every word choice, every line, every line break, every piece of punctuation.

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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.

One Comment

  1. It’s essential to keep writing abrupt, upsetting poems. There are people in this world we legitimately need to be abrupt with, that we need to upset, at least sometimes. (Constantly, in some cases, I would say.)

    Considering it literally, I don’t think I would say that “everyone else” still operates within the limited and oppressive MFA frameworks, though in the context in which you’re talking about it here, the MFA mini-world and the larger Judeo-Christian hetero-male etc. world are obviously all around us and we find ourselves having to deal with the radioactive fallout of those moribund places on a daily basis.

    I have a strong repulsion, a visceral reaction, to anything reeking of the MFA outlook on the writing and the world (even allowing that “the MFA outlook” might include a little bit of a spectrum of thought, allowing for individual exceptions, etc.). When I go to something like the AWP conference, or even, sometimes when I go to a poetry reading at a university reading series or at a corporate foundation founded literary center, I have to make a point of bringing no hopes or expectations whatsoever, because if I expect too much (and it’s a pretty low threshold at such places) I get disappointed pretty quickly. Again allowing for exceptions now and then…

    For me, what has always been at the heart of poetry, of writing poetry, is that it is a way to recreate something of life, something of experience, — my own direct experience, or experience of others that moves me in some way — to recreate the experience in a way that can cause someone else who reads or hears the poem to feel something of the experience that the poem originated from. If you see or experience the birth of a child, or the suicide of a family member, or soldiers coming into your town and burning down houses on your street, or moonlight on dark water on a quiet night, or grimy fog rising over a city early in the morning, or political demonstration by thousands of people demanding a living wage — to name a few examples — it’s of course valid and essential to express yourself by shouting or screaming or hugging or swearing or crying or raging, as the case may be; writing poetry means writing the experience in such a way that someone else reading the poem is then moved to scream or shout or hug or swear of cry or rage, or, possibly, to act.

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