My Year (Or Two) Of Reading Poetry

I have been meaning to sum up my past couple of years of reading and teaching full length volumes of poetry, in both MFA settings, and undergraduate Philippine Studies and Asian American Studies settings. Part of this is thinking about what works elicited strong response, what works presented some good challenges, poetically, politically. So here goes, in alpha order.

  1. Jason Bayani, Amulet. This poetry is a sometimes unexpected seaming together of high poetic diction and traditional poetic form, intense spoken East Bay, Fil Am, and Hip hop colloquialism. I like it because it speaks to the inhabiting of multiple worlds our community’s poets must deal with on the regular. There’s little taking or putting on airs here; it just is, and that is great. My undergrads and I love the familiarity of Bayani’s voice, poetic and not so poetic spaces. Whether my undergrads realize it, there’s a confessional element to Bayani’s poetry, which is something to which they gravitate. When I first taught this book in Fil Am Lit classes at SFSU and USF, I had a lot of students who came from Fremont, and so this collection was so easy for them to anchor themselves to, and hence, dig into its emotional content. For such a masculine work, we discuss, it is indeed quite emotional.
  2. Safia Elhillo, The January Children. This collection to me, is really well-organized and well-contained. As a “brown girl,” I read this work as an antithesis and antidote to the unfortunate over-simplicity of Rupi Kaur. Elhillo is comprehensive, in carving out the confusion and ambivalence of being a citizen of in-between spaces, not “African” enough, not American enough, not black enough, too brown, mixed up with mother tongue and adopted/imposed tongue. The series of poems to Abdelhalim Hafez serve as a place for revising and perfecting her ideas on beauty and gender expectation. Here, her speaker pleads her case; this is how she may be the ideal groupie to the heartthrob celebrity, i.e. this is how she may be beautiful and dutiful. I like this both sincere and ironic voice. The questioning is genuine and must be so. And sometimes, most times, answers and resolutions aren’t easy.
  3. Cheena Marie Lo, A Series of Un/Natural/Disasters. A group of my undergrads in Filipino Literature really took to this work, especially around Lo’s repetition of “Poor black…” for driving home what should be the obvious point of who was most affected by Hurricane Katrina, which is something Americans as a whole take for granted or do accept, but only in the abstract. Other undergrads in this class were so curious and disturbed about Lo’s use of decontenxtualized numbers and data. What was this about? For them, there was a certain amount of openness about this being death tolls, property damage, et al. That Lo’s decontextualization made a point about dehumanization. My grad students were more critical about the position of the speaker, so far away, like most of us, sitting at our computer screens and watching events unfold via social media. I kind of think this was the point. Anyway, I am drawn to Lo’s work for its deceptive sense of order amidst disorder.
  4. Layli Long Soldier, Whereas. Here, my students and I talk about the importance and the uselessness of language and grammar, even at its most precise. Akin to Philip Metres, Long Soldier examines that language of official document, in this case, the uselessness, the emptiness of the congressional resolution of apology to Native Americans in 2009. For me, for many of my students, the anchor of this collection is “38,” which drives home Long Soldier’s acutely critical commentary on the specificity of grammar, and on selective historic omission. Some of the concrete poems were originally lost on me, and when I look at them again, I still think I may be missing something. For sure though, this work is effectively stark in its depiction of native impoverishment, and there’s a tone of hopelessness that I can barely manage. It is an emotionally difficult read.
  5. Philip Metres, Sand Opera. This work pushes the limits of what a poet can do with page, pushes the poem into actual physical space. My grad students and I loved that about Metres, who offers multiple ways of reading, through erasure and redaction, which push us as readers to figure out how to fill in those disturbing spaces. How else are we able to read about torture, and how else may a human being write about it. What is an “appropriate” and adequate response. How to take on this impossible task, how to encounter and engage the official documents, and still maintain and centralize this threatened humanity. We discussed the position of the speaker, an American of Arab descent, an American citizen, a resident of the middle of the USA, the father of a USA-born child of Arab descent; what is at stake for this person. Everything is at stake for this person.
  6. Rajiv Mohabir, The Cowherd’s Son. It was fortuitous that I did have a student of South Asian descent who was able to point to Mohabir’s use of language, a specific dialect from a specific part of South Asia. This student was also able to explain Mohabir’s knowledge of Indian epics, via a vital and lovely talk story, via the speaker’s grandmother and elders, not formally schooled, comprising the labor class in the West Indies. This kind of specificity enabled us to go in on the creole to compare and contrast different versions of story, given the contextual translations Mohabir provides. It’s amazing how much we are able to understand, if intuitively, and really love about the voice of Mohabir’s speaker, and his insistence of centering his family/home language and narrative.
  7. Amanda Ngoho Reavey, Marilyn. I love this work. My undergrads definitely needed some guidance through it, but Reavey’s inclusion of official documents really helped them; it gave them a way to see how one loses their ties to ethnicity, and so then they can begin to appreciate the work and struggle of Reavey’s speaker. So much of teaching Fil Am Lit is about identity, and this work pushes way beyond conventional community expectation on the identity question. I encourage them to think of themselves as mosaics, to think of each tessera that comprises them, to think of what happens to the whole when so-called small pieces of them are taken away and replaced with other things. How may a person reassemble themselves, and what does that new picture look like. And what if it doesn’t resemble the original.
  8. Tony Robles, Fingerprints of a Hunger Strike. I am part way through reading this, and I have yet to teach it in near-future iterations of Fil Am Lit. I love the tonal shifts, as we see with Tony Robles’s lines, abrupt and clipped, in repetition, then flowing, reflecting prose. I love Robles’s voice, and the surface simplicity of his verses. He gives us a ton of things to think about, especially about our own privilege, and how we may freely move through this embattled San Francisco that is going extinct, when others cannot. Perhaps it’s an obvious statement to say that Tony Robles writes in the tradition of Manong Al Robles. But now we have to think critically about what this means, for a Frisco Pinoy poet to move through his city, to witness very keenly, to be necessary scribe and mouthpiece, to act for the people.
  9. Janice Lobo Sapigao, microchips for millions. One common element between Sapigao’s and Reavey’s works is the visual element. In Sapigao’s case, we are looking at maps, we are looking at binary code/language, and we are looking at microchips. One of my undergrads pointed out, this is a kind of poetic imagery, but with literal image. Yes. When we look at maps of toxic clouds covering Silicon Valley, do we think of ourselves, our homes, our families in proximity to it. I do. Additionally, there is a young speaker here, trying to reconcile the much touted glamour and wealth of Silicon Valley, with the overworked, aging immigrant mother. This is a work of a Pinay daughter centering, exalting the immigrant woman workforce, who have been systematically discouraged from fighting for their rights as workers. These are the people who have made Silicon Valley as great as it is, and so let us not erase the toll this work has taken on their bodies, their exposure to toxins and radiation. Another student says, there is revolutionary potential in this work.
  10. Javier Zamora, Unaccompanied. There is some beautiful lyricism here, that works its way (logically) towards starkness, what I think of as an anti-lyrical conclusion. The memory and the trauma in this work is gut-wrenching, gut-punching, and exhausting, necessarily so. There’s little room for nostalgia, which I think is also a reader expectation for the works of migrants and exiles; among American readers, there’s little idea of what “refugee” means, the gravity of the word. And so I read these poems, looking for light and beauty wherever I can, hoping for these things for Zamora’s speaker; in the homeland and in the fleeing is so much terror, and even the mangoes and the estuaries fill me with fear. I don’t know how else to explain it.

One thought on “My Year (Or Two) Of Reading Poetry

Leave a Reply