Letters to a Young Poet, Pinay Style 3

A few weeks ago, I wrote this: “I keep thinking, God what if I had had a professor much like my 45-year old self — some tattooed, gray-haired, foul-mouthed Pinay professor — when I was 18, 19, 20. What would my younger self have asked her. What would my younger self need from her. What would my younger self be experiencing, sitting in the classroom with her at the podium, with her asking me what I think, with her hearing me..”

Today, seven of my poems, including these “Dear Pinay” poems have been posted at The Brooklyn Rail.

Dear Pinay,

You ask me how it is I came to poetry. You want to know how I came to bring words together to become a poem. I want to tell you about my girlish handwriting in pink, strawberry scented ink. I want to tell you about typing my words on a manual typewriter, its carriage return, no correction tape. I want to tell you about liquid paper, about drafts upon handwritten drafts, about the smell and feel of so much cream and Florentine marbled stationery, about cutting class and taking a good part of the afternoon to choose a writing implement. I want to say I was waiting. So much ache. So much breaking. I want to say so much silencing and time.

Dear Pinay,

Remember those diaries we were gifted as young girls, pale pink and floral, golden curlicue embossed. Remember that tiny golden lock. Remember wanting to crawl inside. Remember how not speaking yielded so many secrets. Remember how you’d write and write, like if you didn’t write, you would just die. Remember how you safeguarded that key with your life.

Dear Pinay,

When I was 19, my poems were so coated with honey, so precious. My language was not really my language; it was sugary, airy, so fancy. When I was 19, I blew my paycheck on a Waterman Laureat mineral blue fountain pen. I chose ink cartridges in Serenity Blue. I transcribed my finished poems into a matching hardcover, blue marbled, perfect-bound journal with gold leaf edged pages. I loved the feel of that scratch — gold plated nib onto paper. I loved how each page air dried before I turned the page or closed the book. Dear Pinay, nobody ever read my poems. But then again, that wasn’t the point.

I have been thinking about what comes next. I have always made a connection here, a connection there, when teaching. This semester, it’s been almost entirely about making connection. Yesterday evening after Pinay Lit class, I was chatting with some of my students, and I told them this was the semester I had decided that I needed to communicate to my students what is at stake for myself. Why am I so invested in this work. My previous M.O. has been to be as professional as can be, as stoic as can be. Part of this is my own defense mechanism as a WOC who is an adjunct professor, wary of such stereotyping as emotional, personal, subjective. How these things are regarded in our culture as feminine, thus as inferior to stoicism and professionalism. I never wanted to appear underqualified, unable to command respect the way so many dudes with half my teaching experience and less than half my publication cred can afford to command respect.

Yes, that’s problematic, the expectation, and then the fact that I had acted upon that expectation.

But as I’ve witnessed my students in the past going through their own processes with potentially emotionally difficult work, I don’t know that I’d done enough in the past, not to mitigate the difficulty, but rather, to be reassuring that the process is important, if not necessary.

Pinay Lit can be hard, precisely because Pinays never get center stage unless they are beauty queens, and while I adore Pia Alonzo Wurtzbach (that’s Miss Universe to you), I still classify that place on center stage as one defined by Western and surface notions of beauty. A spectacle. The way I frame it, the place on center stage that Pinays have in Pinay Lit is a hard one, because it requires historical, cultural, and epistemological excavation. It requires critical reading, critical thinking, the setting aside of imposed colonial worldviews, and/or a willingness to consider and participate in the process of decolonization. Not just one that remains in academic abstract, but on a very fundamental level, in who we are and who we decide to become.

Dear Pinays, this is some difficult soul work and intellectual work that I see grown folks around me incapable and unwilling to do; I see in a lot of them a surface appreciation for this thing called diversity and pride in cultural identity (Look! Filipinos doing something. Look! Filipinos being beautiful.), and then that’s it. Then a retreat back into the echo chambers of their lives. Now then, with classrooms full of young people such as yourselves, I push way past that surface, way past that comfort. That’s my job. It can be scary and uncomfortable, and I wish I had recognized sooner that I could be reassuring by highlighting my own long and difficult process and personal stake, what I’ve had to fight with and against. How I manage to barely persevere. That the work is ongoing and total, continuous. And sometimes you can’t go back to bliss and naivete.

How, once you’re woke, you continue the work of staying woke, encouraging wokeness in those around you, and then deciding what to do with your wokeness.

So then, what do I do next.

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