What does it mean to decolonize the creative space #2

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Who makes the rules? Are we OK with that? Do we follow the rules? 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?

Notes: Asking, Community, and Poetic Work

First, this: I’m disliking FB communications more and more. It’s the quick impulsive reactiveness versus the ways in which we, as thoughtful human beings, need time to process complex ideas and concepts, to think about work’s specificities and strategies.

In case you did not already know this about me, I tend towards misanthrope and skeptic, and am biased against spectacle, clusterfuck, and flamewar.

I also very much dislike the collector and marketer, those who collect, market, and spam, with apparent shallow understanding of you, your work, your concerns; who exhibit a sad disregard for the quality of the work in question; who jump on bandwagons because there are bandwagons upon which to jump; who habitually request social network connection with no intention of interacting with you in discerning, thoughtful, human ways.

That said, I have been appreciating “old school” means of connecting. I’ve received telephone calls from friends, colleagues, and collaborators, and for the quality of the conversations, I am very grateful. I’ve been sitting down and having face to face conversations with people, with tea, with meals, and this has been fantastic.

Now. One thing a fellow Pinay educator and I were talking about the other day is this: the act of asking. We frequently find ourselves in these authoritative positions, where we tell the community what its issues are. We do the diagnosing and prescribing. Surely, finding ourselves in these authoritative positions comes from years, decades of producing work. Folks in the community have confidence in our works and our ability to speak.

But there is also push back. And this is healthy, because each one of us is a specific subjectivity. I cringe when someone responds to my work by saying, writing, expecting that I represent them, their voice, their concerns. To me, this takes away a person’s agency and responsibility. To me, this person has consented to letting go of his/her agency and responsibility. So then I understand the push back; when a Pin@y reacts adversely to my work as not representing them, this can only be good.

I can only hope this is both an opportunity for dialogue, and an opportunity for others to write thoughtfully and produce work better representing themselves and their concerns.

As an aspiring writer, I came to writing to represent my own experiences. I was encouraged, emboldened to do so because I was able to see other Pin@ys writing, publishing, and teaching. I learned that Pin@ys, Filipin@s in America were not content to remain voiceless. This is where I came to learn learn about activism, in which our communities collectively empowered themselves to act upon their concerns.

I am troubled when hear folks claim to be “a voice for the voiceless,” because I know now that doing so is not really activism, if you are with me on my interpretation of activism as collective self-empowerment towards action. Claiming to be a “voice for the voiceless,” silences those others’ voices, and it feeds into essentialism and constructed binaries. As we indict the mainstream in its treatment of Pin@ys as a homogeneous, and even monolithic body, we need to look at how we do this to frequently ourselves, for sake of ease and simplicity.

Interviewers have asked me many times, about writing The Pinay Experience, an essentialist question. I tell them I am writing the things I know and want/need to know/find out. The work of reading, asking, researching, then drafting is an active exploration of a variety of Pinay experiences; I then write the pieces of it that resonate most, that trouble me the most, that I understand the least. My most recent manuscript was that kind of exercise in asking. similarly, my anthology project is an exercise in asking. In receiving responses from brave and willing souls, I hear in very substantial ways, concerns that I did not previously consider, lived experiences I do not share.

So where am I at now. Needing to really talk with people, needing to get better at hearing and listening. I am continually frustrated by disconnect and by assumption and defensiveness. I’m saddened that I am mansplained when I try to voice my frustrations about where and why I think disconnects are happening. I am also trying to be very clear about my subjectivity and epistemology, very clear about outlining my place, upbringing, political and artistic origins, (formal and informal) education, and intentions. I think about Harryette Mullen discussing problematizing black female subjectivity. I am surely interested in doing the same with Pin@y subjectivities. As an author, as an educator, as a community member, this is everything to me.

So then: Epistemology is very important to me. As I have been discussing with my students in Fil Am Lit at SFSU’s AAS Dept., we must examine the institutions and structures of power, which represent systems of knowledge in operation, in the works we are handling this semester. We must examine, make sense of the complex relationships our characters, narrators, speakers, and artists have with institutions and structures of power, which represent systems of knowledge.

These self-examinations bring to the surface all kinds of uncomfortable contradiction, and really, contradictions are a part of our daily lives. As I was discussing with one of my grad students yesterday evening, this is not something that should paralyze us with guilt, resentment, defensiveness, rage, blaming. If anything, knowledge of our embodying and living contradiction should really enable us to be more thoughtful, more mindful of the decisions and negotiations we make on a daily basis. Yes, this is rigorous, but I think it’s important to become accustomed to the rigor.

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The Writing Prompt My Students Gave Me Produced This

For this free write, I was supposed to use “rainbow” and “need” throughout this piece:

I am not who you think I am.

After the rains fell, after the rainbows filled the sky, after the sun took away the clouds, after the clouds no longer needed the sky, after the sky rebelled, after the rebellion was squelched, there I was, the story, the word, the pauses in your diction, the spelling error, the line break, the page, and yes, the stage for your heartbreak to perform for god knows who. I am there in your dramatic gestures, yes I am the word made metaphor called poem and verse, each stanza, each metonym.

When I was an ugly little girl, I dreamed of being rainbows. My mama told me a a story about the god of clay and kiln. He took the earth and made a girl, beautiful moss and loam and worms and seeds and grass, the things you need on this green earth, the things that grow and blossom. Ever since then, I touched the sky at midnight, in winter, when there was no moon. Just dark. Just stars.

Who wanted to be a rockstar when she was a girl, and needed love from people who didn’t know she was there. Just breathing.

Who hated rainbows when she was a girl, because all she wanted was for it to rain, to mask the fact that all she did was try not to cry all the time.

Who climbs the mountain because it is there, because at the top you can see far across the sea.

Spoken Word, Poetry, and Poetics: Work, Writing, Rewriting

There’s the poetic project I think I am getting fleshed out, slowly but surely. It began with “And the word was a woman,” and it’s had to grow itself from there. There are a lot of pieces here I am negotiating. The language of my project, and its lines are becoming something very interesting to me. I blogged recently about poetic difficulty, and the poetics of hip-hop — something I’ve previously avoided discussing, as I have not really considered hip-hop to be part of my cultural, hence poetic foundation.

I am thinking about it a little differently, as with our poetics, we stretch from our initial frames into others’ frames. We build from our foundations and into the cultures that surround us, and which we now inhabit. As a poet frequently referenced for my code switching/operating in multiple registers, this is a no brainer; there’s a language that’s introduced itself into my repertoire. As poets, we sponge up languages, from everywhere.

One more aspect I’d like to introduce here is allusion, something that Roger Reeves, author of King Me, discussed on the hip-hop poetics panel at AWP. Reeves’s discussion of what (in MFA workshop language) is “acceptable” allusion and what “doesn’t quite work,” (the implication here being that the “mainstream” does not “get” it) perplexed me a little, if only because in my own MFA workshop experiences as a student and a teacher, all language, and various cultural frames are on the table, based upon what is appropriate for the contexts of the works being discussed.

I had to be reminded that everyone else may still operate within much more limited and oppressive MFA frameworks, in which the Western-Euro-centric, Judeo-Christian, hetero-male perspective is always the unbudging standard by which we must gauge ourselves.

I don’t live and work in that world. I am a fortunate soul. Or maybe, it’s better said this way: that world does not break me or tell me what I should do. I am interested in the fact that parties I think of as inhabiting (and maybe even representing) that world come seeking my opinion, input, and work. Why, I am not exactly too sure.

As an author, I know the subject matter of my work may be considered “foreign,” and particular to a specific group. Then, I am surprised by the kind of responses I receive from people who do not share my foreign-ness and specificity. They tell me they are responding to the poetry, what the poetry is doing, how what the poetry is doing allows them entry.

So then, back to forms, lines, languages, allusions. I wanted to add this excerpt of a course proposal I’m currently drafting:

Contemporary APIA poetry is deeply personal and deeply political; it is both simultaneously. The poet’s aesthetic choices are also political choices. Contemporary APIA poetry has roots in our communities’ verse traditions, for example, the tanka, haiku, renga, tanaga, ghazal, balagtasan, et al. Contemporary APIA poetry may be performative, a continuation of our oral traditions, accessible in social and political movements, and meant to communicate with the broadest bases of our populations. Poetic techniques, such as rhyme, meter, and repetition, as well as compressed and figurative language and wordplay, draw in the audience, and facilitate the delivery of “meaning” and “message.”

This too, should be a no brainer. Poetry accomplishes a lot on multiple levels and media; poetry accomplishes possibly monumental things, given multiple constraints. I think of poetry as successfully executed when you do not see the “seams.” I think of the the wires used in filmed epic martial arts battles. Sometimes you see them, but then sometimes the fights are so well choreographed and executed, your willing suspension of disbelief kicks in and all you see are human beings in gravity defying magic.

And this is probably why, I believe, lots of people think poetry is just words dumped on a page in quizzical and emotional ways. How reductive is that. I mean, Pablo Neruda wasn’t just some schmuck working out his emotions on paper.

I’d recently been thinking about the rudeness, the abruptness, the subject matter of my work, that it upsets others’ sensibilities. But I know, really know deep inside, that I must write how and what I write. In fact, that’s precisely what I work towards — abrupt, upsetting poems. Surely, I can even dig deeper, push harder, be more upsetting.

And the writing, rewriting, revising, compressing will continue. Every word choice, every line, every line break, every piece of punctuation.

Thinking of Mullen, Betts, Bulosan, and Biggie

Some things I am thinking about what is now becoming my “new” “project.” It does come from revisiting Harryette Mullen’s Muse & Drudge, and also from reconsidering Notorious B.I.G. At the AWP Hip-hop Poetics panel, Adrian Matejka talked about how Biggie was the clearly the superior wordsmith, though Tupac is more “significant.” Here, I think Adrian meant, “culturally significant.” Anyway, having been listening to a lot more Biggie (I blame my Bronx-bred Oscar for this), I am inclined to agree about Biggie’s wordsmithing. The wordplay is deep, quite layered. The results of his wordplay are interesting.


These are not at all new or incredible things I’m saying here. This is just language compressed into lines to forward a narrative with musical qualities. OK, poetry then, composed of digestible poetic lines filled with language that is accessible, everyday words used in interesting ways, producing interesting results. This is poetic experimentation.

I say all these things now, to think again about why Harryette Mullen is making a comeback in my poetics. It’s that use of “common,” everyday language in ways that make you think again of their meanings, many of which are unexpected and loaded. The music is very familiar, even catchy. The “container” feels easy to handle, and then there’s the subject matter.

So then both of these are the challenge — making that container feel manageable, and really going there with the complexity and even difficulty of the subject matter. Really though, even when the container is manageable to me (or us, if you are with me here) when does your general reading public ever pick up a book of verse as their daily reading material?

And here I do not mean books of “inspirational verse,” and “affirmation,” packaged as such, with “inspiration verse” and “affirmation” types of stock images that are supposed to be simple and profound — sunrises and such — but really make me think of Jack Handy’s “Deep Thoughts.” The kinds of images that you can slap any old obnoxious inspirational meme message on and call it a day.

I was thinking of this on BART, on the way to work the other day, rereading Reginald Dwayne Betts’s Shahid Reads His Own Palm. This is not your everyday morning commute reading material, though other commuters did eye the book with curiosity. It just got me thinking again about poetry, Poetry being so intimidating to the general reading population, such that it’s dismissable with one sentence — “I don’t get poetry.”

Betts’s work, however “tidy” in form, however well-considered each line break, however well-punctuated each sentence, is dense and difficult, precisely because the subject matter of this collection is difficult and complex. The poem (or Poem), poetry (or Poetry) as a medium for handling difficulty.

Do those who resist the difficulty of poetry (Poetry) ask, well, why can’t you just say it in a simple, straight forward way?

Could there ever really be a way to “say” “complex” things simply?

Biggie did not say things simply.

I look at Mullen again, and Betts again, and think, these poets are not being obtuse, or elliptical.

What does this mean for my own poetry? I used to love what I thought of as being open-ended when I was writing elliptically. But that was part of an ongoing process of figuring out my own poetic language. What “works,” and what doesn’t. When are you saying too little or too much? These days, I ask myself, would I even want to try to “say” “complex” things simply? I go back to my use of language, and languages (plural), smart word choice and multilingual code switch, and then what I can do with the poetic line.

Here, I am not advocating for an elevated poetic diction that seems to be meant to alienate the general reading public, by talking down to the general reading public, and fixing itself firmly within institutional space.

I find that insistence on elevated poetic diction suffocating. For me, it tells me that the Poet’s act of writing the Poem precedes any other considerations, say, addressee, persona, speaker. In these types of Poems, the Poet is always the speaker, even when claiming to be writing in persona. The Poet always reminding you of his/her central presence as the creator, and always reminding you of the Poem’s poem-ness. I’m sure I’m guilty of having done this too; as an emerging writer transitioning from “spoken word,” into my MFA program, and into other poetries, especially the kind that gets published (This is problematic, yes? Published by whom?), I was hyper-conscious of elevated poetic diction as an expectation. That is, as a Poet, this is how I thought I was expected to write, otherwise, I would always be a young spoken word artist.

Here, I am not advocating for a kind of dumbed down use of language, or an oversimplified poetry rife with declarative statements. I was teaching Carlos Bulosan’s poems, “If You Want To Know What We Are,” and “I Want the Wide American Earth,” and my students and I discussed his combined use of vivid, specific, evocative, and accessible language, and then also very lofty ideal, political language. We discussed his audience of similarly educated laborers (i.e. migrants lacking formal education, speaking a self-taught English), the urgency of the message, and the need to organize and mobilize them towards collective political action.

Language and strategy. Poems written to reach many people, and to open up complex ideas.

What does this all mean for me now.

This is not to say I am writing a hip-hop opus. Nor is this to say I am going to record a “spoken word” album. Nor is this to say I would ever diffuse the density or difficulty of my own poetry projects for sake of a singularly defined “accessibility” — who determines this? — in which all meaning is processed and handed to you as an over-explained pithy saying, with a lovely ribbon and bow. Nothing left to think about, nothing left to question.

Yo, What Am I Writing Right Now: Some Lines

And the word was a woman a man’s rib an absence a missing piece a marker of place

And the word was a woman a revision she shuck and jive she mimic and cry she ape she make shit up and new

And the word was a woman fierce blade cutting machete swinging stooping keening honing

And the word was a woman mothering loving salving fevering birthing grieving giving forgiving forgoing

And the word was a woman she slang and soul searing swagger staying staining not abstaining

And the word was a woman edging closer slowing forward moving

And the word was a woman’s work broom hands dish hands feathered hands banishing our everyday ash

And the word was a woman eyes her straight gaze you gotta look away she burn you son

And the word was a woman speak of homethings cast iron fire to feed

And the word was a woman a mother an other

And the word was a woman brewing she cast casting she chant chanting she spell she know she can’t take it back

And the word was a woman an upskirt an invite long legs leading you into her come stay and plant

And the world was a womb a wound a wolf a wonder

And the word was a woman shouting in the street high as almighty stagger slur and smile

And the word was a woman speaking womanspeak singing womansong sirensong succorsong

And the word was a woman not a beautiful thing not the way you think of beauty a caged thing a bought thing a thing to be tamed and kept and split in two

And the world was a woman well-drawing wheel-turning whalebones at work orbweaving webbing

And the word was a woman laden ladylike diminutive as advertised she came when he culled

And the word was a woman impolite in mixed company spitting guttural strange on the tongue caught in the throat a fishbone a needle a spine

And the word was a woman forking the hissing hussy tongue

And the word was a woman damning cruel and self-satisfied

And the word was woo and woe manhandled wholly man-made unholy

And the word was a woman bitch like a boss

And the world was a womb’s warm walls

I am a Filipino American Writer in the Hustle and I Love the Book

rizals library

[Pictured here is Jose Rizal's personal library.]

Many movements. Many targets. I have written extensively about Filipino American literature, and the “hustle” to which we submit ourselves. For many of us, it is a matter of necessity. Let me explain. There’s a feeling that happens, something that brews up in my classrooms full of young Filipino Americans, many of whom are reading Filipino/Fil Am Lit for the first time. First is the more obvious question of, “Where have these books been my entire life; my parents, my teachers never told me about these.” Then there’s something like, “Wow, look what these Filipinos are capable of,” and then, “Wow, I think I can also be capable of this.”

I tell people all the time that picking up Jessica Hagedorn’s Dogeaters when I was a freshman at UC Berkeley was a major eye-opening event for me. There was my journal, a hardbound book with a glossy, blue marble cover. Its pages were edged with gold. I wrote in this book with a Waterman fountain pen. My penmanship was impeccable. My poems were private.

I found Maganda that year too. Or, Maganda’s Ray Orquiola found me, invited me to share my poems. I was ecstatic and terrified. That was my first poetry reading; I was 19. Maganda published my poems. Then Liwanag in the mid-1990s. After this, I didn’t know where else to go. After graduating from college and taking Elizabeth Treadwell’s Creative Writing class at Berkeley City College, I made my first poetry portfolio, and then I made my first Kinko’s DIY chapbook. Elizabeth recommended I go to grad school. I did. While I was in grad school, Marie Romero of Arkipelago Books proposed I submit a poetry manuscript to her. Eileen Tabios was my editor. That was my first book, Gravities of Center, published in 2003.

I committed to submitting poems to various literary journals. Then, online journals were so new, that questions always arose whether that was considered “legitimate publication.” Remember Jim Behrle’s canwehaveourballback.com? Vince Gotera, creator of our international Filipino writers listserv, who is also the editor of North American Review, published one of my poems, and gave me my first Pushcart nomination. I always thought the people who were publishing me and handing me opportunities did so because they were being nice.

For my MFA thesis, I worked with Stacy Doris, who was immense as a mentor and critic, reading multilingual, postcolonial text. I submitted my thesis, which I titled Poeta en San Francisco, to Susan Schultz at Tinfish Press. While searching for funding sources to cover printing costs, I won the James Laughlin Award of the Academy of American Poets. Our original idea for a print run was 750. This was increased to 5000. This got me into all kinds of places, including BOA Editions, Ltd., who published Diwata.

I have visited classes as a guest writer, and brought my own DIY chapbooks to give away to students. I have done readings in local venues, and brought my own DIY chapbooks to raise funds for the venues. The poems, or series of poems that didn’t fit into my three full length collections became the chapbooks, Easter Sunday, Cherry, and For the City That Nearly Broke Me. I love chapbooks, and believe in them as their own compact and powerful bodies, each with its own focused reach.

As a board member for PAWA, I am now editing anthologies of Filipino/a writing. As a Filipino American specialized indie publisher, PAWA’s reach is focused (“limited” is too judgmental a word), and I believe we can reach outward from here.

I say all these things, this quickie recap of my publication history to illustrate the many places I have published. I choose different paths, different venues, as a matter of reaching many different populations of readers. Perhaps in the Venn diagram that is my publication history, there are intersecting circles or reach. Now that I teach, I am always looking, in so many places, for different kinds of work, each with its own different ideas of reach. There are all kinds of amazing narratives in our community, writers dying to be heard and read and seen, who want to get their books into the world, and be recognized for their work.

As for what I want as an educator: I want my students to think about Filipino writers strategizing language to write about the big world in all its complexities, its structures of power and systems of knowledge. I want them to think about how Filipino writers are upending the master narrative, and I want them to think about how our writers are problematizing our Fil Am subjectivities, including our expected unequal or estranged relationships with power and knowledge.

This is not elitism. This is elevation. Our narratives are great. Some of our authors are Bad Ass. We are not silent (reticent, fearful, unambitious), and we are not invisible (hiding, hidden). There is no reason why we shouldn’t aspire to great, and given that we spend so much time in the margins, to position ourselves front and center.

I am sick of being the villain, for advocating for traditional publishing. There is no reason why we shouldn’t want the narratives of our community widely distributed and disseminated; Filipinos and folks with deeply shared histories are everywhere in the damn world, not just our little private corners.

Finally, I Love the Book. I became a writer because of this Love. I cannot force anyone to Love the Book, the way I Love the Book. But I do want them to experience the Book, and not fear the Book. As critical readers, we can manage and understand many Books. And so back to what I wrote in my first paragraph, maybe I’ve even planted the seed in them, that they can also be capable of writing Books. When younger people tell me that reading Poeta en San Francisco made all the difference to them, as readers, as emerging writers themselves, trying to find their way and willing to work hard, I think of this wonderful continuity, and am glad that I have contributed to enlarging the space where Filipino Americans can envision themselves as authors, work hella hard, write kick ass work, and make it so.