What is the role of the poet “in these times,” continuing thoughts

Friends, we are living in terrible times, bereft of wisdom and compassion, corrupt to the core, incompetent, irresponsible, morally reprehensible. It is a vile time.

I want to put it out there, amplify something that Solmaz Sharif discussed at our Poets & Writers panel on Poetry and Empire. I don’t believe I want to support any poetry that is sanctioned by The State. I don’t believe I want a poetry associated institutional core values of white supremacy and disaster capitalism.

You may argue with me that as Americans, we are all complicit. Sure.

But I also believe that our reliance upon The State for legitimacy makes us passive, ineffectual.

I don’t have a lot of answers; I have a shit ton of questions. Can we meaningfully resist? Can our art, our words be a part of meaningful resistance? In the very recent past, I was so resolute, as an educator and an author, on the side of social justice and wisdom. These things I bring into my classroom on the regular. I sense that it is all very heavy and intense for my students, but it’s crucial that these discussions happen, even if it is just bringing all of these (for now) unanswerable questions into the open.

But I am also feeling like nothing that I can do is enough. As an educator, an author, a citizen. I am turning to Carlos Bulosan constantly, not just because he is my current syllabus item, but because I don’t know any other Filipino American authors who write about these concerns of social responsibility. How to be, what it means to a be citizen, an American of Filipino descent who is a writer.

Anytime I’ve put it out there in writing what I believe our responsibilities are to our own communities, anytime I’ve been openly critical of how we perpetuate colonial mentality, anytime I want to hold folks accountable, I’ve been shunned, lectured, belittled, talked shit about, dis-invited, erased, ignored by my own. Who are not my own.

I am tired of the prevailing mentality that absolves us of any responsibility, accountability, culpability. We have enabled the fascist state that is now our everyday reality, by pretending it would never happen to us or affect us lest we jeopardize our precious careers. So then, what is meaningful resistance. What meaningful intellectual, soul searching, light bringing, community building work must we all do. What can educators and writers and artists really, truly do.


Poem for Today: Carlos Bulosan, “Song for Chris Mensalvas Birthday”

Something I often think of, as a poet, this binary social attitude that poetry is both frivolous, excessive, then that poetry is so necessary, especially in times of strife and turmoil, such as now. As poets, we are tasked with taking the temperature of the room, and putting it down on the page with eloquence. And then as poets, we are accused of being too little in the world, too much in our own indulgent heads, not doing anything of social relevance because we are seen as sitting in our safe little writing studios, agonizing over muses and love. In the academic world, we aren’t seen so much, because we’re not perceived as doing any heavy lifting like those who toil over producing factual, institutionally sanctioned bodies of work.

If we are regarded, it is with disdain for being so “poetic,” elliptical, flippant, somehow un-serious because of the relative brevity of the poem, because of tone, because of the artfulness of the genre. And because of the oft-made error that even many academics make, that the “I” is not lyric and expansive, but personal and individual, hence small. And that the love poem is always a poem of personal and self-serving eros, certainly not of larger social significance, even when we are talking about Filipinos, guided by kapwa.

“At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love. It is impossible to think of a genuine revolutionary lacking this quality… We must strive every day so that this love of living humanity will be transformed into actual deeds, into acts that serve as examples, as a moving force.” ~ Che Guevara.

That said, today’s Valentine’s Day poem is “Song for Chris Mensalvas’ Birthday,” by Carlos Bulosan.

Song for Chris Mensalvas’ Birthday

How many years did we fight the Beast together,
You in your violent way, in your troublous world,
I in my quiet way, with songs of love?

Over the years we fought apart and together,
Scarring our lives, breaking our hearts,
For the shining heart of a heartless world:

For the nameless multitude in our beautiful land,
For the worker and the unemployed,
For the colored and the foreign born:

And we won, we will win,
Because we for truth, for beauty, for life,
We fight for the splendor of love…

They are afraid, my brother,
They are afraid of our mighty fists, my brother,
They are afraid of the magnificence of our works, my brother,
They are even afraid of our songs of love, my brother.

So on this day of your birthday,
I am happy that the glissando of time has compacted,
At last,
Our early promises in that faraway city of our youth,
That I alone can totally remember,
That I alone can destroy with stroke of my hand:
So joy to your world and all that lives in it,
Joy, joy to your coming years,
Joy to your unrelenting heart and mind,
Joy to your brown hands that suffered so much,
More than mine did, having suffered another terror,
The terror of the mirroring soul:
Joy to your wife,
Joy to your children,
Joy to your friends,
Joy, joy, joy,
Joy to all the world,
And for all this joy let me have one little joy
To guide my mind that remembers her always,
The quiet little one that moved my heart
To remember, always to remember, the song of love…

They are afraid, my brother,
They are afraid of our mighty fists, my brother,
They are afraid of the magnificence of our works, my brother,
They are even afraid of our songs of love, my brother.

Essay: What Does It Mean to be an APIA Author in “These Times.”

I am seeing a lot of folks — educators and authors — checking in on social media. They want to know how are we all writing, being productive, working in these times. It feels apocalyptic, and given the word’s etymology — to uncover — yes these times are apocalyptic.

With teaching, I am always “taking the temperature” of the classroom. How hard can I push, or how gently in tone must I speak to say the things I must say. About Empire and Filipinos. About America and Filipinos.

As an educator, I strive not to be an evangelist or a fanatic, not to judge my students on their “wokeness,” or lack thereof. I negotiate and I nudge, towards thoughtfulness, critical and creative thinking, towards articulating complexity. I always refer to the texts and their authors, rather than my own agenda (and of course, being the professor, I have curated the selection of texts, so that’s where you may speak of my agenda).

As a less experienced educator in the past, I have aggressively pushed my own ideas with little regard for where folks are at, and that has only served to close some learners. Hopefully, these closures were not permanent ones, but I see how that is more damaging than it is a learning opportunity.

It’s in my own writings that I may push and shove as hard as I see fit. Even as I know my aim is to reach that Pinay readership, the ones I have been saying have never seen themselves in literature as protagonists and addressees, the ability to sit with a written, published work, gives even the reader space and time to work it out. I know there are authors whose works I was not ready for upon my initial reading. I know that as I matured, I know that over the years and decades, I have been able to return and return again to literature, finding new ways of reading.

I have been writing essays, many of which have been commissioned or requested by various editors. As I have been reading a lot of Carlos Bulosan’s essays in On Becoming Filipino, my essays, I suppose, approximate aesthetic statements, or manifestos. I get quite blunt in my essays. No reason to veil my own beliefs.

And then, with poetry, I know my own can be quite blunt, but we also have the strategy of operating in the figurative realm, which enables a reader to have a layered experience with a text.

That said, my latest essay, still in progress:

What Does It Mean to be an APIA Author in “These Times.”

Let’s be clear on this: Xenophobia and racism are not on the rise just now in 2017, in the United States of America. Xenophobia and racism have been here, as our ongoing condition, and many of us APIAs have benefited from it.

What I would like to think is changing is our consciousness, and the willingness of some in our literary communties to address institutional violence directly in our literary work, in our use of language, and also in our literary career ambitions.

When I am most optimistic, I believe I see an eroding of reticence on the part of some in our literary communities, to interrogate our relationship to the State, to the Corporation, to USAmerican institutions and power structures that perpetrate violence and terror that are based in gender, sexuality, class, race, religion, ableism, ecology, immigration.

How may we foster in ourselves and one another a willingness to soul search, to ask ourselves why we have been so in denial, going about our lives and writing careers as if we have nothing to do with any of this violence and terror.

How can we critically examine why have we consented to the role of the well-behaved, respectable Good Colonial, resigned and relegated to apery, when we truly know this will not keep us and our loved ones safe.

How may we hold ourselves accountable, and do the hard work of calling out those in our communities who inflict these violences upon our own.

I would love to see more poetry and literature, more community-based grassroots publishing and mentoring arise from that critical self-examination, more prioritizing and centering resistance, dissent, and defiance. I have been returning to Carlos Bulosan frequently, to remind me to be present, engaged, vigilant in the world, to remind me not to take “American freedom” for granted.

“I read more books, and became convinced that it was the duty of the artist to trace the origins of the disease that was festering American life.” ~ Carlos Bulosan

“…the writer is also a citizen; and as a citizen he must safeguard his civil rights and liberties. Life is a collective work and also a social reality. Therefore the writer must participate with his fellow man in the struggle to protect, to brighten, to fulfill life. Otherwise he has no meaning — a nothing.” ~ Carlos Bulosan

You may want to argue with me, that poetry is personal, not political, that poetry is about beauty and beautiful things. And I would respond that resistance, dissent, and defiance are beautiful because when we stand up for what we believe is right, we expose our rawest, truest selves, and who and what we love most in the world are all laid bare. Because especially during the most volatile times, compassion, hope, and light are beautiful.

I would also add, that under the rule of tyranny, there is no luxury of neutrality, of just being.

“…always art is in the hands of the dominant class – which wields its power to perpetuate its supremacy and existence.” ~ Carlos Bulosan

“…in which to be is to to be like, and to be like is to be like the oppressor…” ~ Paolo Freire

So then, what does it mean to be an APIA author in these times? To learn well the necessary activist history of our forebears, to understand why activism and art have no tidy dividing line between them. To meaningfully resist white supremacy and patriarchy, to meaningfully resist the historical pressure and desire to conform to bourgeois ideas, which do not reflect our own lived realities, and therefore do not benefit our communities. More insidiously, they mean to undermine and erase our efforts at self-determination.

Finally, we must meaningfully resist appropriation by institutions that would skew and defang our words and work, via tokenism and celebrations of diversity, for example, for their own edification.

The work is daunting, and it is neverending. The smallest start is to read. Here are some recommendations: Tarfia Faizullah, Solmaz Sharif, Tony Robles, Janice Sapigao, Sarith Peou. Brandy Nālani McDougall, Rajiv Mohabir, Cheena Marie Lo, Bhanu Kapil, Craig Santos Perez, Aimee Suzara.

“a million brown pilipino faces
chanting: makibaka, makibaka, makibaka
makibaka, makibaka, makibaka…” ~ Al Robles

Why I Turn to Lit and Art When Times Are Hard

“Hard” is an understatement.

I am inspired by fellow APIA author Neil Aitken’s recent post on the value of art in these times.

Last semester, during the elections, I was teaching Pinay Literature at University of San Francisco, and Filipino/a Literature at San Francisco State University. In Pinay Lit class, I definitely felt myself step up my intensity, especially immediately post-elections. Taking the “pulse” of the classroom informed me to do this. My students were in need, not necessarily of comfort or safety, but of a space where they could think it out and talk it out. I was very happy to open up my classroom space in this way. I was also in need of talking and thinking space. An elder poet and educator recently told me that arts and poetry, that our classrooms must be sanctuaries; we must be able to provide these spaces to our students.

So, is it “soft,” to think of arts, literature, and poetry as talking and thinking spaces? I think not. Daily atrocities are informed by historical and cultural illiteracy, deliberate manipulation in the form of unsubstantiated irrationalities, and constant, unadulterated bullying. Folks succumb to the exhaustion, the despair, and yes, to the bullies.

I have been thinking that “sanctuary,” need not be spaces where we retreat from our gross national realities. I am thinking more and more about my “sanctuary” spaces as fortification, in which we fortify ourselves with knowledge, with wisdom. How else is resistance work sustainable, if we deplete ourselves beyond usefulness. How do we practice “self care,” and not have “self care” be a cliché. How can we practice both self care and resistance.

This brings me to the question of resistance. What is meaningful resistance, as teachers, as poets, as artists, as students. It certainly is not enough to engage in social media outrage. There are only so many internet petitions we can sign. Perhaps it’s not always possible to engage in acts of civil disobedience and public demonstration. Perhaps we, you are afraid. There is good reason to be afraid.

I have been turning to literature, as as a way of nudging folks towards some kind of action, but mostly, because the misinformation we are being violently force fed (is that redundant?) is not only detrimental to democracy, but straight up meant to deceive us into passivity, compliance, and consent. There is also this denial against things one does not know because one has not bothered to read, to do the mental, the intellectual work. As an educator, I seek to disrupt this.

I turn to literature again and again, as a place to remember hope — I keep thinking of Nick Joaquin’s “A Heritage of Smallness,” in which he dresses us Filipinos down majorly — we think so small, we aspire to so little, we are not great, and we’ve just accepted our sad lot. Well, damn, you wanna say, I give up, you are right, we’ll never accomplish anything meaningful, others know better than we do. But then Joaquin writes, look though, there have been people in our history who aspired towards greatness. A man wrote a novel that inspired an already ready to go populace, an entire nation of people resisting empire.

A literary work, a Filipino of letters propelled a revolution.

So this is where I’m at this morning. Nothing is easy. But we persist.