FAQ 5: Gummi bears and popcorn in halo-halo? Srsly? Y tho?

Halo-halo image source: https://vimeo.com/66370910

Apparently I have a FAQ series on this here blog, and which you can see here: FAQ 1 | FAQ 2 | FAQ 3 | FAQ 4.

So, this thing has been circulating in social media — a Bon Appetit recipe for halo-halo, which include blackberries, blueberries, lime, and then gummi bears and popcorn (please Google search it; I’m not going to link it here). Let me first say, I am aware the title of the Bon Appetit article is “Ode to Halo-Halo.” So then, not the “real thing,” but some kind of “tribute.” Let me also say, I’ve recently seen some westernized atrocities of Asian cuisine, including pho with broccoli and quinoa. Why even call it pho then? It’s just soup.

WTF people?

Gummi bears and popcorn.

I was thinking, Western substitutes for kaong and pinipig. But no. You can make halo-halo without kaong and pinipig. In fact, one of the best halo-halos I ever ate was at a place in the Mall of Asia (in Manila); this halo-halo had langka, saba, flan, and then the mango ice cream, milk, and shaved ice. So very, very good. And I don’t like the beans in halo-halo anyway. My mother had explained to me that other regions, other provinces of the Philippines had their different ways of preparing halo-halo. Same was true of another quintessential Filipino dish — chicken adobo. I’d been told that one Philippine region or province add coconut milk to the soy sauce/vinegar mixture. I love this; it is now the only way I ever cook chicken adobo.

Let me also say, I am aware you may be asking, now, why would a Filipino American poet/literature professor concern herself with these food atrocities. Ahem, they did use the term, “ode,” after all.

Let me also say, as a Filipino American, I do a number of substitutions in my own Filipino cooking. There’s probably very little that is “purely” Filipino about my cooking.

I am not a “purist.” I don’t cook or eat tripe in kare-kare. I also use Swiss chard over Asian greens such as bok choy. I also use Trader Joe’s peanut butter. When I make arroz caldo, I use boxed organic chicken broth. I don’t eat sisig when I know it contains innards and brains. I make sinigang with salmon and souring agents other than sampaloc.

I do eat Señor Sisig tofu tacos, the Lumpia Company’s bacon cheeseburger lumpia, Maharlika NYC’s ube chicken and waffles, all of which have been created by young Filipino Americans in the foodie scenes of their locales. In fact, this is actually something I’ve had good conversations about, with my Filipino American Literature students at SFSU.

For example, what are examples of Filipino American “Third Space.” What is Filipino American hybridity?

When Joey Ayala had an extended residency at Berkeley’s now defunct Pusod cultural space, one thing he talked a lot about was The Province of the Fil Am. There are so many of us in this country, with our histories and densities much more apparent in such places as the Bay Area. We have our own Filipino culture going on here, our own new traditions, which may or may not bear much resemblance to what our elders practiced “back home.” Even “back home” deserves quotes, because for me now, “back home,” means Fremont, means the Tri-City Area where two of my sisters were born, where my parents bought their home and sent us to school, and where we ultimately buried my father. “Back home” is not the Philippines anymore. So then, The Province of the Fil Am.

So then, the difference between Bon Appetit’s “Ode to Halo-Halo,” and then Señor Sisig and the Lumpia Company and Maharlika NYC should be apparent.

Why do Filipino Americans create “Third Spaces”? At the ground level, at the street level, we are changing our cultures, such that Filipino American — in which Filipino and American are already a hybrids, accommodates and embodies yet more hybridity. Our families are multi-ethnic. Our languages are Tagalog-Ilocano-formal and casual English-Spanish-urban vernacular. These are processes in which we are the active agents of our own change. We substitute and improvise when something is inaccessible, we chuck stuff too, when it is no longer useful or relevant. We adapt for our own Westernized sensibilities.

As an author, I can also tell you I improvise and substitute, I chuck stuff too, when working with poetic traditions that I have inherited, that have been imposed upon me.

I can’t accurately speak for Bon Appetit’s motivation, though I would suspect it has something to do with “diversity,” and making something “new,” and adapting it for a hip and allegedly cultured “Western palate.” Is this appropriation? Possibly. Appropriation entails lack of permission. Did they seek permission? I don’t know. And from whom would they seek permission? Oh, I don’t know, Amy Besa, Romy Dorotan, Nicole Ponseca perhaps? Who are the Filipino American chefs, and authorities/masters of the cuisine? If the publication were so interested in actually paying tribute (as composing an “ode” would tell me), why couldn’t they have asked Besa, Dorotan, Ponseca, et al to craft an American halo-halo?

So that’s where I am. Absolutely no love, actually, the opposite of love for this “Ode to Halo-Halo.”

FAQ 4: How do you read a poem, teach someone to read a poem, especially in Ethnic Studies Department courses?


So this is a continuation of yesterday’s blog post on teaching poetry — are these blog posts considered “essays,” or “serial essays,” I wonder….

I referenced Los Angeles Poet Laureate Luis J. Rodriguez’s definition of poetry as a special, intense, and sacred use of language. This is something I believe more and more, what makes poetry so socially difficult but (and) sought after, prized, and coveted; what makes poetry so contentious. Why do people think it’s both so cool, and so pretentious to be a poet. Why do people find themselves arriving at poetry during rites of passage and during the most trying, difficult times in our lives. And during historic times; why do we have inaugural poets. And why do we gravitate towards the works of wartime poets. And why do we have poet laureates. And then, conversely, why do people deride poetry as “precious,” socially irrelevant, lacking basis in the real world. These binaries — what they tell me is that poetry is an intense battleground, that people really feel quite strongly about poetry, that people have an emotional stake in poetry.

Surely, this is intimidating for someone just entering into the field. Perhaps the aspiring poet suspects that poetry fuels our revolutionary fervor, or provides emotional release or support, and that is why they want a piece of it. Unexposed to the ugliness of MFA workshop and the publishing industry, to them, poetry is a kind of magic. Once you teach them the anatomy of a poem, that magic fades.


I prefer to think of it this way. I remember when I was learning how to play the piano, which is something I abandoned when I was around 11 or 12 years old, because my heart wasn’t into it. I would look at sheet music like it was some kind of secret code which teachers did indeed try their best to teach me to read. I would bang on the piano keys in vain, and some butchery of Mozart, Chopin, Rachmaninoff would happen. It was an atrocity and an injustice. And then my mother would sit at the piano on Saturday mornings; I would wake up to her just running her fingers over those same keys, and something beautiful, something I could not explain, would happen. Just the most beautiful music filling all of the air in our house. She had (and still has) a relationship with those pieces of sheet music, where she can just eyeball it and understand. She had cracked what I thought of as secret code; it was now inside of her.

Sometimes I think poetry is something like that. There are cues, clues, symbols all over the sheet music, that if you know how to read them, then in your head, you know. That does not take away from the magic of attending a symphony, where an orchestra can take what’s on that paper, and punch it to the heart of you so that you are in your seat weeping. When the mainstream appropriates that music, you may lament that your favorite classical piece is now being used to sell some lame product in some unnecessarily overwrought TV commercial (Orff’s “Carmina Burana” selling Domino’s Pizza, for example). But the work is the work; it will always be the work, with both “high” and “low” cultural resonances.

OK, so what does this have to do with teaching undergrads how to read a poem.

I like to ask them what their experiences are with poetry. What poems have they read, that have stayed with them, and why? Sometimes they can recite entire lines, and sometimes it’s just a phrase or two they remember, or a symbol or metaphor. Sometimes it will be something they read and memorized in grammar school — Edward Lear’s “The Owl and the Pussycat,” Lewis Carroll’s “How Doth the Little Crocodile,” Tupac Shakur’s “The Rose That Grew From Concrete,” Nikki Giovanni’s “Ego Trippin.”

So there’s something about poetry that insists on sticking to our memories. Why? How? Now you can discuss mnemonic devices in poetry. Rhyme, meter, repetitions (alliteration, et al). You can introduce them to terminology, to poetic forms.

Now you can discuss symbolism and other figurative language in poetry. Now you can talk about whether roses literally grow from concrete. And if they do, then what are those conditions? How does it not wither and die, from all the pollution, car exhaust, garbage, and neglect, from all the violence and ruckus that could just crush it. What does it take for this rose to grow, and bloom, and open? OK, are we still talking about the literal rose? Are we sure?

In Filipino American Literature class, I try to bring in poems by Al Robles’s Rappin’ With Ten Thousand Carabaos in the Dark. And so we have the I-Hotel on Kearny and Jackson Streets, San Francisco. Are there really carabao there? What is a carabao, what does it do, what do humans use the carabao for. Where are the carabao on Kearny Street. Why?

This all feels very elementary, but you would be surprised (or maybe you’re not) how many college students feel they have not been properly taught or exposed to literary and poetic device, and to poetic forms, such that they actually understand what they are and why they’re used.

When I was in high school, and then early on as an undergrad, (1) I was taught the sonnet like it was The Word of God. That if I did not know the form immediately upon sight — and then, specifically, which sonnet form — then I was culturally deficient. (2) No one ever taught me why the form was utilized, what the form is good for communicating, whether to look at what comes before and after the volta, or to look for the building argument that culminates in the rhyming end couplet.

If I had been taught the latter instead of the former, then perhaps my journey into poetry wouldn’t have been so vexed and combative. (Then again, I can say in hindsight as an old person, that all the fight, and the stress, have made me into the author I am today.)

Still, as a teacher, my point is that focusing on the “why” of poetic form and poetic technique will likely yield better results, rather than a gloss over the “what.” This goes also, for teaching poetic forms other than western forms — the whats, hows, and whys of the haiku and tanka, of the ghazal, of the tanaga, ambahan, and balagtasan, of the pantun and pantoum, to begin with. This goes also for all of the western appropriation of non-western traditions. No Walt Whitman without Indian philosophy. No Modernism without classical Chinese poetry. No pantoum without the pantun. And perhaps even no sonnet without Arabic poetry and song.

FAQ 3: How do you read a poem? How do you teach people to read a poem?


This Thursday in Filipino Literature class, I am teaching To Love as Aswang for the first time.

I’m doing that thing again, where I have to go back into my mental files and figure out, once again, how to explain poetry to undergrads. What is a poem? What is poetry? How do you read a poem? What kinds of things do you look for in a poem? And even: what makes a “good poem,” a “good poem.” I’m not sure this is a “fair” question, but I am interested in how readers of various backgrounds and levels of exposure to poetry would answer this question. We all have our aesthetic, political, and cultural preferences.

I like to fall back on Luis J. Rodriguez. During a couple of his Bay Area events, he was generous to offer his definition of what a poem is. Poetry, he says, is a special, intense/compressed use of language. So then that already speaks to the use of distilled/condensed language; words and combinations of words are working overtime, beyond casual, conventional meaning. Therefore, poetry is seeking to accomplish a lot in a small amount of space, with relatively few words.

Rodriguez also says poetry is a sacred use of language. I think, of course, about prayers, in which you profess your faith and speak to your deities. I also think about vows and oaths, where you state before your community that your word is bond. Poetry is an ancient form, chanted and sung, predating the written word. If our society were ever to become post-written word, then I would say poetry would outlive the written word. All of this perhaps is esoteric to you. I do believe poetry is special, otherwise I wouldn’t have chosen to become a poet.

It’s always an interesting experience, opening up these questions to a classroom full of students. Sometimes I get a definitive, “I don’t get poetry,” where the door’s been shut. They’ve been constantly told they’re reading it wrong, that they must read between the lines to find the hidden meaning. And so they claim to “hate” it. But this isn’t specific to students; I meet all kinds of people who claim to not “get” poetry, who claim to “hate” poetry.

One thing that’s important for me to put out there is that there are many kinds of poetry; every human culture has its own poetic traditions, chanted, sung, spoken, written. We seem to have omitted this truth from our consciousness; we believe, or we’ve been taught to believe that “Western” poetry is The Only Poetry. We are taught to believe Poetry is Universal, when it’s really the opposite — poetry comes from culturally specific places. And in its well-rendered specificity, it transcends cultural specificity. See how those intolerant to poetry would hate this kind of contradiction? It’s only through my years of direct experience with diverse groups of readers that I have come to believe this specificity breeding universality — some of the most culturally specific poems I’ve ever written have found resonance in others I would not have ever imagined.

More often, I get, “Poetry is expression.” “Poetry is your truth.” Here, the door’s also been shut; there’s no additional need for inquiry. Expression of what, why, and how? Part of the resistance to discussion, I believe, is about the reader not quite yet having found the language to describe the what, why, and how — in terms of their own reading responses and reactions, but also the literary terminology that describes what and how the poem is happening. Perhaps there’s also a skepticism; surely, the length of the poetic line, or the fact that a poem is in a certain poetic form, is not what’s getting a reader emotionally worked up here.

There’s a preference then, for a kind of loose “Anything can be a poem,” way of thinking in which random bits of profound, cryptic, spontaneous, florid, fancy language and phrasing — all of these fall into the garbage heap of “Anything can be a poem.”

This is why, I believe, folks get really resistant to actual discussions of poetic technique, poetic form, poetic line. These discussions dispel that notion. No, not anything can be a poem — see how cries of elitism start to happen? Sometimes it’s just words jotted on a scrap or napkin, or jotted in a diary or journal. Sometimes those jottings are the germs or seeds of a poem.

So, continuing with this garbage heap metaphor, perhaps it’s best to think of those random “anythings” as being deposited into a large compost heap, in which time, movement, darkness, and heat make something new that enables growth (poeisis means to make, or to create). And this is why I take the time to discuss with my students, that literary devices are deployed in order to enhance a reader’s understanding, and to deepen a reader’s emotional engagement. It’s important to remind them that the vocabulary is not esoteric; it’s there to be used, and clarified.

So that’s where I am today, turning over the question, “What is poetry,” again, for the millionth time, again.

Filipina American Literature: Reading Recommendations 5

aswang cover 2

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

It goes without saying. I am a professor of Filipina American Literature, and thus my work entails reading, teaching, and digging for Filipina American Literature. There are lots of Filipina American literary authors, some less known than others. Most often, Filipina American authors find themselves subsumed and/or marginalized by larger groups which claim them when convenient, and which forget and erase them when inconvenient. Sometimes, I find these amazing gems, deep cuts many of us would otherwise not know existed. I say all this now because as with any damn thing on social media, there is push back. Enough, some are saying.

Really? Enough what?

That said, as I am a busy person (I have three jobs), I have called for reinforcements, fellow Filipina American authors, Arlene Biala and Veronica Montes.

Virginia Cerenio, Trespassing Innocence.

I have written about this book before. Here is what I said: “This is a very important collection that often is omitted from discussions on Filipina poetry in this country. These are poems of cultural and political awakening. A second generation Filipina American, the speaker of these poems has come of age, and continues to find her voice in a very turbulent time.” I have always loved this collection. I realize it’s now stereotypical to call a work “gritty,” when it comes from the “grassroots community.” I mean it as a compliment. It’s urban, in which I mean specifically, San Francisco I-Hotel second generation Pinay, circa 1970s-1980s, so it is indeed “street,” activist; it’s got a Flip politic and aesthetic, and a genuine empathy for her elders’ now aging generation of labor. The emotional tone of this work is appropriately poignant and defiant.

Sasha Pimentel Chacon, Insides She Swallowed.

Insides She Swallowed received the American Book Award in 2011. Recommended by Arlene Biala, Poet Laureate of Santa Clara County. This is stunning work, poems that hit you from all sides. Chacon’s poem “Blood, Sister” is to me a revelation in fate, family and diaspora. The articulation and distillation of objects and seemingly simple actions explored to create weaving and fluid talk story, deep honor songs, is what I love about her poetry. So looking forward to her upcoming book “For Want of Water” which was just selected for the 2016 National Poetry Series Open Competition to be published by Beacon Press.

Barbara Jane Reyes, To Love as Aswang.

Recommended by Arlene Biala. Barbara Jane Reyes’ To Love as Aswang (PAWA, Inc. Publications, 2015) is an invocation to all women, particularly to Pinays. The work as a whole is informed by many Pinay narratives and composed into a mantra that resonates deeply within the body. This mantra is a Lola’s heartbeat and lullaby, it is full of longing, pain, rage, power, reckoning and resistance.

This work is essential to our narrative. For instance, the poems about “Sweetie” described as “a digital decoy designed to trick perverts into thinking they’re having webcam sessions with a real live 10-year-old Filipina.” (Jezebel.com, November 5, 2013). As difficult as these poems are to take in, the rhythm that is felt throughout the entire book acts as an amulet that protects us from becoming despondent, guiding us instead toward empowerment. The collection is a catalog of the many stories that make it necessary for us “to love as Aswang” if we are to rise above daily human suffering and injustice.

Marianne Villanueva, Mayor of the Roses.

Recommended by Veronica Montes. Marianne Villanueva’s prose is precise and unflinching, often eliciting a gasp from this reader. In these stories we hear the first-person voices of several middle-aged pinays, women who are becoming increasingly invisible to those around them, and even to themselves. “Sometimes, because I’d lived apart so long,” says the narrator in the title story, “I couldn’t quite be sure of who I was.” Many of these characters move through their lives as acute observers rather than full participants. We recognize fragments of ourselves here, but Villanueva’s work also creates a sense of space that invites us to imagine agency and the possibility of change.

FAQ 2: Decolonizing Creative Writing? Decolonizing Publishing? Is it possible?


“Do we break the rules? How do we get what we want, as individual and community artists? How do we get to do what we love to do as artists? And then finally: are we interested in social change? If we are interested in social change, what are we doing, how are we participating in movements towards social change?”

That’s what I wrote a couple of years ago, when a group of young Pin@y MFA students invited me to chair their panel for AAAS.

I am thinking about this again; I am always thinking about this. Rather than consenting to being embattled by the whiteness, maleness, and heteronormativity of MFA culture. Rather than bringing those dominant cultural standards into our own communities, and replicating those power structures, and eschewing critical thought. What does it look like for POC and WOC to write with rigor in a culture and space where rather than operating in reactionary mode, we are centered, where our discourse and politics are centered, where our aesthetics are centered. Where our discourses, politics, aesthetics are complex, contradictory, intersectional. Not the dominant culture’s standards, with ethnic reference neatly plugged into it, but messed the fuck up, picked apart, Frankensteined. Truly hybrid, liminal space. Third, fourth, fifth space. What would decolonized creative writing praxis look like? Both on the individual level, and on the community level?

There is nothing wrong with pursuing an MFA degree. There is nothing wrong with pursuing publication with nationally recognized publishers. How can you get yo shit, but be woke, be critical of motivation, mess with the power structure, not replicate it, not succumb to respectability politics, which serves to erase our dissent, and makes us docile, grateful subjects. How can we clarify and foreground our values, build and maintain/make sustainable our own shit.

I am thinking about this, writing all of this, of course, from the POV of a Pinay who is overworked, burning out, whose free emotional labor is constantly expected and demanded. I believe this is something that also requires decolonizing.