The poet has questions against futility

bjr artist statement (6)

I’ve been teaching, as you all know. I’ve been trying to keep my head on straight, resisting the reactionary, trying my best to keep in perspective the kind of work that has always been necessary for me to continue doing.

This is hard, to say the least.

I am trying my best to not let the echo chamber of social media detract or distract me from my work. I am not engaging a lot of people in virtual space about politics. I am trying to stay focused.

I’ve been having wonderful discussions with my students, in the classrooms, before and after classes, in university event spaces. What I have always appreciated about my position is the ability to move back and forth between spaces. Perhaps it goes without saying that my spaces are progressive spaces, where work, where the work and value systems of my colleagues are aligned with my value systems.

Yesterday evening in Pinay Literature class, I thought I would make more complex the already-complex discussions we have been engaged in. We talked about decolonization. Specifically, we talked about decolonization in art and literature. Given what we can define as political decolonization, the dismantling of colonial institutions of power, given the existence of colonial mentalities that hinder the formerly colonized from becoming truly liberated, what can literature and art do? Can it do anything? And anything it can do, is any of that good enough?

I ask these questions knowing there are no simple, easy answers. I reassure my students that I know the enormity of these questions, but that it is indeed important to reflect on, to be critical of what we are constantly being bombarded with in mass media and social media, to discuss in a place where discussion is encouraged, where ideas and definitions are nudged and even pushed.

Some things my students put forth were Theater of the Oppressed, and Liberation Theology, as opportunities and spaces for people to practice decolonization, to critically examine (and expose!) hegemony and our own consent. We talked about Social Justice as helping souls, radically giving ourselves to others; Social Justice as confronting those structures and institutions which perpetuate the people’s poverty and oppression. We talked about the importance of bringing indigenous epistemologies to the forefront, being critical of the popular tendencies to romanticize indigeneity.

I am aware that many folks in social media are railing against academics, against classroom work that is perceived as having nothing to do with the real world, that is derided as nothing but self-indulgent and abstract talk. But I am also acutely aware that those criticisms are flawed, precisely because of the importance of praxis. As an educator, I want to do my part and then some, in bringing up critically thinking, self-reflective, conscientious young people, who don’t drink the Kool-Aid of knee-jerk anti-intellectualism and knee-jerk binary thinking.

As a poet though, is my work good enough: Is writing a poem, is writing a book, good enough. What does that do. Like any other cultural production, poetry can be appropriated. It can be ignored and dismissed. In its concentration on language and form, it can be deemed inaccessible, and hence, irrelevant. The necessary solitary time that the writer must take in order to do that work of writing, revising, editing, submitting can also be deemed acts of individual self-indulgence, in favor of individual accomplishment, hence, careerist. The desire to have our words amplified is also seen as selfish, ego-serving. If I were to internalize this criticism, I would believe poetry is an act of futility.

I believe these are my real questions: I had been wondering whether it is good enough for teaching to be my praxis. But more painfully, I am wondering whether it is good enough for poetry to be my praxis.


Aftermath, Soul Searching


Friends, like so many of you, I have been stunned, disoriented, angry, furious, heartbroken, terrified these past few days. I was harassed on the bus on Wednesday morning, targeted for my ethnicity and gender, while I was speaking to a friend, as articulately as I could about what we all woke up to.

I have been overwhelmed. I have been outraged. I have felt untethered.

And yet. And now.

This will not be a cliché about what my students are teaching me. This will not be one of those posts about mitigation or reductive optimism.

My grounding is in my family, those I love; and my grounding is in my work, doing what I love.

In my family, where experiencing the loss of my father, we have reinforced with one another the value of humanity, compassion, comfort, dignity.

As a worker in a place where advocacy, access, activism, and social justice are built into my everyday work, in concrete and measurable ways.

As an educator in both public and private institutions, where knowledge, illumination/enlightenment, wisdom, agency, social justice, elevating and centering our people’s epistemologies, are my frameworks.

As a writer and author who is Pinay and marginalized, fighting for voice, presence, visibility, respect, self-determination.

I have been working for a long time, beyond exhaustion, beyond despair.

Practicing kapwa, practicing Pinayism as best I can.

I wonder whether all of this suffices to considered praxis.

I am not always gentle. In fact, gentle would probably be one of the last words any of you would ever think to describe me. I am hard. I am critical. I see people now, triggered, activated, outraged. I am glad for this, but part of me also wants to yell. Work has always been necessary, and urgent. Our humanity, our safety have always been threatened. We have always been suffering injustice. Long before This. Long after This.

I have been thinking more about Social Justice, which has always been implicit, an undercurrent in my teaching, due in part to my few years of teaching in a Jesuit institution. I am thinking about Social Justice more and more, the fact that I have never done any committed study or reading on it. That I should. That perhaps it would provide more focus and clarity on the work that must be done, on the work that I must continue doing. I am not so sure where to start except to acknowledge that I cannot take for granted that the work of Social Justice is indeed committed work. I see some Jesuits call it “helping souls.” Some call it a “radical giving of oneself to others.” And am I doing enough of that. Has my exhaustion rendered me incapable of this.

FAQ 6: You really get edited? By editors?


Indeed, I do.

Why this question? Well, a few things. There is so much sensitivity among writers of all stripes. There is so much “us” versus “them,” in which we view “them,” the editors, as these unbudging gatekeepers, elitists, trying to keep those precious doors shut, trying to disallow us entrance into the hallowed halls of authordom.

Here’s the thing. There are amazing editors who are worthy of our respect, and then there are editors who we know we wouldn’t, we shouldn’t trust with our work. It could be “simple” aesthetic differences, in which “simple” isn’t so simple. Those aesthetics are politically and culturally informed. And here, I am not playing identity politics. I’ve had American, cis-gender-hetero-white male editors on opposite sides of the country, who are amazing, amazing readers and appreciators of my work. I’ve encountered APIA editors who want nothing more than for me NOT to send them my work; they don’t like it, they don’t appreciate it, they don’t want it. I can make assumptions as to why this is the case, but that would just be me being a royal bitch, shit talking like a motherfucker.

What I have learned is this: why even submit to those editors in the latter category, those who will never appreciate our work?

I was inspired by Eileen Tabios’s recent blog post, which included images from one of her current manuscripts. It has editorial marking and comments, which I am happy and heartened to see. Yes, even the most prolific and established authors get down with a good editing experience.

“Good” is the operative word.

I have had good, satisfying, productive editing experiences with book editors. This is, for me, one of the best reasons for either establishing a longterm-ish relationship with a publisher. There is an editor there who comes to know your work, and therefore, knows how to read you and offer you editorial input.

I have had multiple publishers, and so while I do not have this longterm-ish relationship, I have met and worked with editors who are great readers of poetry, who have so much experience, and so much insight. After seeing Eileen’s blog post, I went back over my old exchanges with Peter Conners over at BOA Editions, Ltd. His reading was very hands on, line by line, page by page, and then big picture. I have to trust that an editor who I believe has edited Li-Young Lee, Naomi Shihab Nye, Sean Thomas Dougherty, would have a thing or two to teach me. We even talked through the dreaded italics talk, which we multilingual poets anticipate, know well, and have to grind through.

Our exchanges were so thorough and respectful of the work, its intentions, and ambitions. I look at what Diwata was when I first submitted to them, and what was ultimately published — two different things entirely, with a finished product that was, indeed, finished, polished, clarified, so clean.

Let me back up and talk more about my earlier experiences as an emerging author. Eileen Tabios edited my first book, Gravities of Center. This was back when I knew nothing about nothing. I was new in my MFA program; I hadn’t published in many journals or magazines. I knew nothing of the First Book of Poetry hustle that my East Coast Filipino American counterparts were undergoing, with the book contest circuit and all that stuff that I still generally keep the hell away from. All I knew was that Marie Romero at Arkipelago Books was offering me an opportunity, and that I had to take it. Eileen was both loving and rigorous with the work, taking into strong consideration the kinds of tributes I was trying to make to my poetic elders as well as to my closest friends. She knew my aesthetic concerns, the “why” of my experimentation, my cultural and political concerns.

I believe Gravities of Center is an accurate reflection of where I was at, aesthetically and poetically at the time that it was published. The work, while emotionally cringe-worthy for me today, I believe is technically sound. A young poet who was still quite naive and unexposed, at the very beginning of her long, ongoing poetic education, wrote that.

Poeta en San Francisco was taken through the wringer over the course of three or four semesters of MFA workshop with colleagues who really got to know my work, and one more semester of MFA thesis advising, with Stacy Doris at the helm of each of those workshops and advising. I loved Stacy so much, and I miss her so much. When I write, even today, I think, what would Stacy tell me now. All of those times I was so exhausted with my own work, that she would let me plead my case for being “done” with Poeta, how she would really, truly hear me, only to gently tell me, “Nope. It’s not done yet.” There was no coddling, no placating, just a straight up, “You know this needs more,” layers, complexities, an obvious gaping hole needing attention, my need to come outside of my head to read and speak from a different angle (or angel!) or POV of the growing monstrosity that was the work.

By the time I’d submitted Poeta en San Francisco to Susan Schultz at Tinfish Press, I’d already submitted it as my MFA thesis, and there was so little to be done to it except hunt for a heap of money to get it produced, so we did that.

With my chapbooks, those were also as done as possible by the time I’d submitted those, such that the editors — Carrie Hunter, Brenda Iijima, and Anisa Onofre, of Ypolita Press, Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs, and Aztlán Libre Press, respectively — were really just contacting me to ask me for clarifications. Same was true, working with Edwin Lozada at PAWA, on To Love as AswangSo, it’s nice when editors enact their confidence in me to submit a finished product. But, as I prepare for Invocation to Daughters to go into editing and production mode (which will happen at some point soon; I am actually in no rush), with Garrett Caples and City Lights Publishers, I look forward to what this editorial experience is going to look and feel like. I already know from the work he’s done, something about his aesthetics, and then from our email exchanges, and from our few but cool in-person encounters, how he works, and what he liked/found interesting about my work, and about the manuscript in the first place.

So then, my point in discussing all of this is not just to be open to being edited, but to be discerning about which editors to whom you are submitting your work. If you already know that editor’s repertoire, then you should know if your work may be a good or good-enough fit. If you don’t know that editor’s repertoire, you must do your research, which is as simple as looking at the publisher’s catalog. If you decide it’s not a good fit, then don’t waste your time and energy, getting worked up over unnecessary and avoidable bullshit.


Filipina American Literature: Reading Recommendations 6


You can find previous recommendations here: List 1 | List 2 | List 3 | List 4 | List 5.

Well, Filipino American History Month is coming to a close, but we should continue on with these reading recommendations. Every day is the perfect time to learn about Pinay authors and works we’ve never previously heard of.

her beckoning hands by Arlene Biala

“if you could keep up with her, the beating of the kulintang / the colors of her voice a dance she is challenging the drummer / she is challenging the drummer to respond she is scooping / twirling frenzied wrist neck feet into a dance all hair bracelets / beating the screams out of the slow lapping of the lake.” This is gorgeous music. Arlene Biala’s second full-length poetry collection, her beckoning hands, contains such lovely, lush, and earthy poems that are grounded in ritual object and ritual practice, mantras that resonate within the body, and plant the body firmly in the world. Biala voices defiance when she must, outrage when she must. Still, she is ever mindful that poetry is prayer, that poetry always humanizes us, that poetry is a life sustaining river.

Blood Orange by Angela Narciso Torres

Recommended by Michelle Peñaloza. Angela’s poems are lush with memory and love. Her approach is the discovery and mining of memory through highly detailed sensory landscapes. Her speaker’s powers of observation render the excavation of memory more powerful. Angela’s poems are concerned with family; the distances between home and homeland; the spaces between the present moment and the potency of remembrance; love and motherhood. Of her first collection, Blood Orange, C. Dale Young, writes: “Because paying attention is a form of prayer, [her] poems pay deep and close attention.” Throughout this first collection, Angela’s poems read as beautifully stitched tribute to childhood, motherhood, the Philippines, parents—each treated with the reverence of sacrament and elegy, yet not ensconced in nostalgia. Angela’s poems are richly tactile and full of subtle music, seeding the reader in her speaker’s vivid remembering and present questioning of what to make of what remains.

Excavating the Filipino in Me by Eileen Tabios

Recommended by Aileen Ibardaloza. Eileen Tabios’ latest 24 page chapbook published by TinFish is gorgeously transcribed and designed. “Excavating the Filipino in Me” carefully unearths the million things we forget about a birthplace, including “the placid surface… camouflaging sharply-edged stones.” The most important lesson for me is that we learn to live (peacefully) with whatever we uncover and whatever we choose to remember (or forget) by “stagger(ing) back towards love.”

The Art of Exporting by Cristina Querrer

Recommended by Eileen Tabios. Cristina Querrer’s The Art of Exporting is diasporic, nostalgic, indigenous, contemporary, concurrently realistic and symbolic—which is to say, a poetry collection that is as archipelagic as its root source, the Philippines. The complicated, conflicted, and, yes, beloved motherland is an effective muse for Querrer, inspiring many moving poems and lines as the poems’ persona is ever attuned to history: “She stands by her window / no matter how far from the sea” (from “The Cartographer”). The poems are not didactic even as they distinctly evoke their muse. Querrer’s nuanced touch amplify the resonance of their poems. Stylistically, there’s also much variety —for example, the diptych persona poems of “Maganda” and “Malakas” effectively updates the creation myth. A major strength of this collection is its diction—it’s high vocabulary at ease with itself so that its effects are harmonious and never pretentious.

Song of the Yukon by Trisha Sugarek

Recommended by Eileen Tabios. I read this book as I’m generally interested in homesteading and off-grid stories. Trisha’s novel, set in Alaska, more than satisfied my curiosity. It’s about LaVerne, a teen and budding song writer who followed the poet Robert Stiver’s trip to the wilds of Alaska. But it also delighted due to its structure of weaving poetry, song lyrics and correspondence harmoniously within the novel’s narrative. It also wove in a lesbian experience, perhaps not the first time but a rare point of view within the genre of homesteading, off-grid Alaska and Wild West stories. Sugarek’s multi-layered approach uplifts this book from the crowded field of such stories.

Letter to a Young Poet, Pinay Style 2

Source: AP News Photo

Yesterday evening in Filipino American Literature class at SFSU, I taught my book, To Love as Aswang, for the first time. There was definitely something about the energy in the classroom, in the pockets where the Pinays and WOC congregate together. An appreciation, inquisitiveness, a hard processing of all of the book’s voices, existing in some kind of harmony and disharmony. A willingness to delve into these voices and POVs, to slog through the ugly and violent and painful. To sift through it and make sense of it. I kept thinking, and I keep thinking now, of how these young women would answer my 18 questions in “To Proceed, You Must First Understand.” How may I bring them into my poetic world, as this vital connection has been made. I see as well, the young men of color, thinking, really thinking hard about what all of this means, for us as we try to be a cohesive community. The world is such a fucked up and difficult place, our place and status as Filipinos and POC is a terrible and complicated thing to process, is there any good to be had, sitting in a classroom talking about it. What good is art, lit, and poetry. Does/can poetry “fix” any of this. I don’t have an answer. Back when I thought I had the answer, I was really just putting my own arrogance and narcissism on display. But I am so pleased that most of us are on board with the willingness to acknowledge, to think about the difficulty.

To Proceed, You Must First Understand.

I will also add that in Pinay Lit class at USF, we finished reading and discussing M. Evelina Galang’s One Tribe, and I feel like this is the best discussion to date, that I’ve had with my students, since I first started teaching the novel some years ago. We kept ourselves focused on Pinayism, and this thing that many Pinays know from lived experience — that we have been so silenced and marginalized for such a long time, it has always been expected and demanded from us such that it has become our norm and default. And subsequently, when we do have the focus turned back upon ourselves, in a deep and critical way, when we do find ourselves in a forum in which we are seen and heard for who we truly are, for how complex we are, we freak the hell out. We want to hide, and push that away. We want to dissociate, crawl back into the shadow and continue being ignored.

My students have always struggled with/about the literal and figurative endings for the characters of Las Dalagas, lifted into the sky in their homemade craft, into the hurricane. We struggled through a tough conversation on death, liberation, release. We talked through the experience of being young Pinays, newly armed with knowledge that is meant to empower us. What if that knowledge has come too late to save us? What if there are too many practical gaps between our lived experiences, and what that knowledge promises us? Is our prior ignorance ever a better alternative?

Since yesterday, I have also been thinking more about some brown girl, the next manuscript after Invocation to Daughters. I’d had ideas of what it needed to feel rounded out, given more texture and dimension. Today, I feel as though the thing it needs, and the thing I need, is to continue with the letters, my epistolaries, to the young Pinay poet, whoever she is. Surely, I am thinking of my students; 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.