“The Rule Is, Do Not Stop,” To be a Filipina Writer in the SF Bay Area 3, including a very old poem, “Placemarkers”

Here is a poem I wrote in 2002. It’s so old, I can’t find an actual Word file of it; I suspect it’s on one of these floppy disks I’ve held on to, though I have no computer that can actually read a floppy disk anymore. So here is an image (click on it to enlarge):

It begins: “Kearny and Jackson, San Francisco… There’s a gaping hole in the ground in the middle of this overcrowded city; I’ve never felt I’d earned the right to write about this hole which you gave a voice and a face while all I could do was watch. I never thought it was mine…”

This poem may as well be my literary address for this month’s Filipino American Literature Symposium. This is where the title, “The Rule Is, Do Not Stop,” has come from. I end the poem with, “I have always wanted to write you poems; I just wanted you to remember my name, and when you did, I felt I had finally arrived.”

A long time ago, when I met the NYC Filipino American poets who would later go on to create Kundiman, they asked me over dinner, what it was like, the Filipino American poetry scene in San Francisco. I told them, it’s deep, and old, and when Al Robles remembers who you are, then you know you have made it. There was both uncertainty, and fear in their faces. How were they supposed to know what that meant, and how was that supposed to have any value to them. They were in and of another world, one that at the time I wasn’t so sure I wanted to be a part of. Then, I felt, if I didn’t try to be a part of their world, then I would always just be some brown girl from this corner, this margin of the country, and that wouldn’t mean anything in the larger scheme of things.

Yeah. I’m glad I got over that.

It means everything to me, to be from here, of here, to be acknowledged as such, “Bay Area stalwart poet,” Mike Sonksen called me in Cultural Weekly. The photographs above were taken at the I-Hotel on Kearny and Jackson Streets, the former hole in the ground, right down the block from City Lights Bookstore. This is much of where I have triangulated my literary existence. In the photos above, from left to right: Oscar Peñaranda, Jaime Jacinto, myself, Jeff Tagami, and Al Robles.

I never wanted my writing education to take me away from this poetry scene and this place. Peñaranda once used the word, “concupiscent” in a poem about balut, and I was like, Wallace Stevens! “Emperor of Ice Cream”! Other Fil Ams around us would be like, WTF is this girl talking about. And I thought, can I mend my poetic worlds together, however strange the seams. And then I thought, perhaps being a Filipina poet in the Bay Area, for me, will always be to Frankenstein myself.

Where I am at, as we speak — I’m an elder now, yes? I am going gray. I have five books and three chapbooks under my belt. Three of my five books were published in San Francisco, two of these are with Filipino-focused indie publishers. I know that folks in the industry don’t care much for my SF, Filipino published books. They will conveniently forget about these titles, as if those books are less legitimate, as if they are not books at all.

Isn’t that typical, erasing the efforts of SF Bay Area Filipinos, acting as if we have no right to do anything on our own behalf, as if we have no right to define our own literary and artistic traditions. Because we didn’t ask permission.

I go back to Nick Joaquin’s “A Heritage of Smallness,” and Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place. This smallness is all that is expected of us, and from this smallness, shame, especially those of us who have chosen to remain grounded in the worlds and communities which have nurtured and sustained us, the very writers and authors who first said to us, “I see you.”

To be a Filipina Writer in the SF Bay Area 2

[Continuing thoughts as I compose my literary address for this month’s Filipino Literature Symposium at the Asian Art Museum.]

  • Oftentimes, and frequently, it’s said we’re not “doing it right.” As a creative writer, I am thick in a discipline and an industry with certain sets of “rules.” Here, people will say, “discipline” is already the wrong word; it is an academic, institutional term. The logic goes like this: One just writes. Anyone can write. Everyone has a story in them that is worth telling. If you restrict this, then you are a gatekeeper, and a gatekeeper is an enemy to free expression.
  • Here, people often like to say, “rules are made to be broken,” hence this disregard and derision for poetic form, for literary device and literary technique, for editors and editorial process, for publishing. We are told, those are white people’s things. I was told that my MFA in writing was an MFA in whiting.
  • At the opening of the Pilipinx American Library event, Catalina Cariaga voiced her experience as an MFA candidate at SFSU, which she attended a few years before I did, as one in which she wanted to learn to express, though her mostly white colleagues expected her to explain. This is the rub, what so many of us experience as the few POC or WOC in so many different graduate programs.
  • There’s another set of expectations though, those coming from our own communities. We have to get the story “right.” We have to do “right” by our communities. We are so used to others telling us who we are and what we are supposed to think and be, that we are rightfully guarded about our stories. We need to define an authentic self. Hence, this insistence upon what is the “right” version.
  • Another way of saying it: As centuries-long colonial subjects, we were told we couldn’t create these things for ourselves, that we weren’t capable, and the only “capable” ones are the colonizers’ appointed ones, furthering colonial agendas. And so we have developed a distrust for those among us, who walk in perceived as elite, bourgeois worlds of editors, publishers, professors — gatekeepers. We castigate those who speak elite, bourgeois language, who hold credentials from those worlds. We do these things, and yet, we uphold the colonially fluent José Rizal.
  • I say all of these things as a creative writer, as a poet, working with line, lyric, and language — my concerns and values are conveyed and contained in these. I am not a scholar, historian, anthropologist, philosopher, or political scientist — and they would tell you what concerns them, what they know and believe from their own formal training, from their own disciplines.
  • Something I have been learning throughout the course of my formal and informal education as a writer, is that we have to insist upon many stories, many voices, reflections of many experiences, coming out of our own very diverse communities. We can make spaces tell our stories in so many different ways.

I’m just talking it out.

To be a Filipina Writer in the SF Bay Area

I am trying to write this literary address for the upcoming FIlipino Literature Symposium at the Asian Art Museum. I have so many thoughts, so many beginnings in my head, and then when I try to start typing my many thoughts, I stop. Some things I am trying to form into coherent paragraphs.

  • I grew up here, went to school — K-12, college and grad school — here. At Holy Spirit School in the late 1970s-mid 1980s, there were only two or so other Filipino families, the Baldozas and the Tatads. The Baldozas were family friends. And maybe before this, one of the priests at Holy Spirit Church was FIlipino — Father Flores. He blessed our house when we moved to Fremont from Daly City. I had a sense that outside of our family parties, no one knew what a Filipino was. I had no idea that our still agricultural Fremont, much less all of California, much less the whole West Coast and Hawaii, had been cultivated by Filipino laborers. If you return to Carlos Bulosan’s America is in the Heart now, see where Allos has jumped a train in/around Niles, Irvington, or Sunol. No one ever taught me this in school; fourth grade California History never mentioned Filipinos. How could I have possibly become an author under these conditions. If I were to revisit Bulosan’s “I am not a laughing man” now, I would see pieces of myself there, so full of anger because no one ever told me or taught me that I could write what I could write, that it was not impossible, that I could find my life in letters. Imagine that, the girl child of immigrants, told she was nothing but nothing, told she was invisible, thinking she could write books, be mentioned in the same sentence as renown, even prestigious men and women of letters.
  • When I discovered I loved poetry, I didn’t know that I had a right to. A scrappy little immigrant girl who was always told to shut the fuck up, who was always told no one would ever be interested in the stories of her dirty third world people, trekking to City Lights Books in North Beach, and dreaming she could one day have a place here.
San Francisco Chronicle, March 21, 2018.
  • During Spring semester, 1990, at UC Berkeley, I met Ray Orquiola in Professor Ronald Takaki’s Asian American History class. Ray told me he had started Maganda magazine, and was looking for young Fil Ams to come and be a part of this thing. I don’t know why I trusted him enough to hand him a stack of my handwritten poems, final versions, when only a few people very close to me had ever seen my poems. I did my first poetry reading on April 29, 1990, at the Faculty Glade on the UC Berkeley campus. We sat in the grass and I shared poems. This felt exactly how a poet should share poems, sitting in the grass on a lovely spring afternoon. There were perhaps seven or so people there. My dad drove up from Fremont for this. His hay fever was so bad, he stood under a tree in the shade faraway but within eyesight. I don’t know if he actually heard me speak. It would be easy to say, the rest is history. That was the beginning of my public life in letters.

OK, so I think this is the beginning of my literary address.

WE: Pilipinx Poetics, Kapwa Poetics

[L-R: PJ Gubatina Policarpio, Catalina Cariaga, Barbara Jane Reyes, Shirley Ancheta. Photo credit: Anthony Bongco]

Lookit us, how we’ve aged. I’ve known Shirley Ancheta and Catalina Cariaga since I was in my 20s, maybe younger, coming into Bay Area Filipino American poetry. I knew Shirley from Kearny Street Workshop (KSW) and Bay Area Pilipino American Writers (BAPAW). I wrote about her at the Best American Poetry blog a while back, so please do read about her there.  One of many memories I have is of a BAPAW reading we did in the mid-1990s, at the Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco. Then, the I-Hotel was a gigantic hole in the ground, one I’d known most of my life. Our venue overlooked that hole. That was the point. Shirley and I were the only women poets on the mic, and this was a very common experience in these multi-generational Filipino American poetry events, and any discussions about Filipino American history. I’ve always voiced my thoughts on that gender imbalance, much to the impatience of my male elders. Shirley always appeared much more gracious than I.

Anyway, while the other poets’ works were about the manongs, and about the I-Hotel struggle, while the other poets were descendants of manongs, I represented a newer generation, the middle class, post-1965 Filipino American immigrant, who grew up in suburban tract homes. My poems about the I-Hotel could not imagine anything but that hole in that decades-long ground — you can see this in Gravities of Center and Poeta en San Francisco. I didn’t think I had a place among these poets, but Shirley, Jeff Tagami, and Jaime Jacinto always made sure to welcome me, let me in for who I am.

In Shirley’s poems, there was a Pinay speaker, and Pinay subjects, and Pinay inner voice that I’d rarely read or heard. Surely, Jessica Hagedorn’s got some fierce and flawed Filipinas in the world in her poetry; Shirley’s I thought of as  deeply interior-focused.

Catalina Cariaga is another Pinay poet with a special place in my heart, and in my poetics. When she was doing her MFA at San Francisco State University, I started seeing her read her poems at a lot of local events, both Filipino American, and Bay Area poetics scenes. I would listen to her work, and not be able to access it. I didn’t know what she was doing, what she was trying to do. Her performance aesthetic was nothing I was accustomed to. I didn’t know what to do with/about her poetry. I did sense it was important poetry; she wrote about Flor Contemplacion, though not exactly about her. Catie wrote about a lot of noise and distance between Flor, and her poetic I. I can say this now, but I didn’t know this then.

Then one day, her book, Cultural Evidence came out. I was taking a poetry class at Berkeley City College, and slowly being introduced to “experimental” and “avant garde” poetries. I picked up her book, saw that she was doing something different on the page, and then a big fucking light bulb went on over my head. I had to experience this work on the page. And then being able to experience/interact with the work on the page enabled me to really hear her when I would see her in performance.

When I introduced Catie the other day at the Asian Art Museum, I said that what Catie taught me was what to do with the poem on the page. We generally know, instinctively, what to do with our voices, how to wield them. The page, not so much. I should have said, it takes practice, and finesse, and patience. It takes the ability and smarts and work ethic to not fall into gimmick. You have to think about the placement of the words, of course the breaking of the lines, and you have to think about the blank/white spaces. How do you balance these things, how do you negotiate the tension and harmony.

All of this to say I am still punch drunk about last Thursday’s event. I was remembering today, when Lynn Procope and Oscar invited me to read for louderARTS at Bar 13 in NYC back in the day, we agreed upon the “pinion” format, in which I got to choose my co-readers, for how I was connected to them and them to me, for how our presences are mutually resonant. I chose Jessica Hagedorn, Bino A. Realuyo, and Anthem Salgado to read with me. This is like triangulating community. This is how you share poetic space, rather than hoard it.

This is also kapwa. I love it.

Pilipinx American Library: “I dreamt of a place to gather…”

I have so many thoughts, about where and how we gather.

I have written in the past, at the Poetry Foundation blog, for example, in a blog post I can’t find, about how lively our spaces are. We bring food, we do things oftentimes palengke style, and we make a ruckus, the volume is loud, and I love it. And then, as a reader, and as an author for whom solitary time is crucial to what I do, and who I am, I need to retreat from the ruckus and think.

Yesterday, I wrote about how it was so great, to see all of these folks, sitting in the resource room, reading, picking up books that looked interesting to them, and then taking some time with these books, and then sharing with one another what they were finding. It was lovely, to have what are usually solitary moments, and moments of realization, occurring in this public space.

So, I compare this with so many of the other events in which I participate or attend.

When we did Kuwentuhan for CWF, we turned the stage into a large dinner table. The focus of the room shifted, and so did “audience” and “performer.”

For other events, literature can get lost in the fray, too much time is dedicated to speechifying, and to over-explaining to attendees why they must value such-and-such. In these settings, the work itself is no longer there for attendees to find their own meaning, or to create their own relationships. Over-explanation, the death of one’s own process of discovery.

I loved about the Pilipinx American Library opening event, that speeches were pretty non-existent — welcomes, thanks, and then the work, contextualized with discretion by the writers. And then the focus, the library, and the space in which to read. Of course, these are all mediated things, but as a friend recently said, it was elegant. I love this, the ability to move instinctively through a space without being pushed around, herded, or shouted at, without needing a complex set of instructions.

I love a gathering space that can communicate openness of minds and thinking, in which one who has come into the space does not have to be jerked this way and that, spoken at. That even those with perceived “authority” and “status,” can project openness.