For #APIAHeritageMonth, Ongoing Thoughts on Teaching Filipino American Literature

Reminder. Never, ever underestimate what our predominantly Filipino American students are capable of. They are young, resilient minds, in a place of critical and intellectual inquiry. Give it to them. Open up the space for them to do this, to ask questions, to grapple with ideas and concepts with which they may not have any previous exposure. Facilitate their inquiry. Ask them questions. Coax and push, bit by bit, past their social, political, historical, cultural comfort zones.

I always start with what they claim to know. I ask where and how they came to that knowledge. I go from there, excavating, examining pieces very closely, proposing alternative points of view, presenting other existing knowledges. (One of the things that I appreciated most in this semester’s recent weeks was how my students said of Cheena Marie Lo’s A Series of Un/Natural Disasters, that the poetry affirmed, solidified what they already suspected or thought they knew.)

I discuss concepts, always doing my best to discuss them in real life contexts. After it’s clear they are understanding what’s being discussed, after they have contributed themselves to that understanding, then I offer them the terminology. We all contribute to meaning making, to defining.

We read. We read critically. We hone in and pull way back. Here, Amanda Ngoho Reavey’s figurative tesserae and mosaic in her multigenre work, Marilyn, are useful. Examine the individual pieces closely, reflect upon their “fit,” with/among one another. To what larger picture is each tessera contributing.

I am saying all this, because I am tired of our community underestimating our young people’s capacity for literary, poetic rigor. I think we resort to what is most simple when studying our community’s literary work, because we are compartmentalized — we believe intellectual work belongs only behind the closed gates of the highest echelons of the academy, and then we resent that intellectual work exists only in singular form, only behind the closed gates of the highest echelons of the academy.

We want to be passive and just watch a performance. We want to be entertained. We want meaning spoon fed, glossed over, and given to us in memes. We don’t want to engage what we don’t already know. We don’t think we want to expend the energy or invest the time. We dismiss complexity in literature as “colonized,” as literature for “white people,” and in doing so, we dumb down some pretty amazing work that folks in our community are creating.

The obvious problem is that the above logic is saying, only white people write and read complex literature; we are saying to others that our own people are not capable of literary complexity. So when others come and treat us in a simplistic, reductive, and imposing manner, why be offended? This is the message we’ve put out there, that we are incapable, that we are passive.

We think of reading literature as a “bourgeois” activity and pastime — “Filipinos don’t read,” remember? But seriously, even the most so-called “street” or “everyman” poets and authors in our community are avid and sophisticated readers of literature.

When I was very young as a writer, back around the year 2000, I remember arguing on a listserv with a fellow aspiring APIA writer, about “straight forward,” “narrative” poetry, versus “experimental,” “inaccessible” poetry. This person chided me about my being so influenced by “experimental” poetics, telling me no one would read or “get” APIA authored work that was “experimental,” because it was “irrelevant” to “The APIA Experience.”

I wonder where this person is now. I haven’t heard from them or heard their name in 17 years.

(In the meantime, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee is canon in Asian American Literature.)

I want to say that suspicion of those who wield English is legitimate. This is part of our colonial legacy. I also want to say that as we collectively work towards decolonization, we have to look very closely at our use of English. Nothing of what I am saying is new or revolutionary, by any means.

Do be critical of our mastery of it, the language and its literary forms. But yes, strive towards mastery of it. Not to be in its thrall, and not to oppress our own, but to complicate it, to hybridize/mongrelize it, to transform it.

And yes, rather than replicating those same oppressive systems, rather than perpetuating inequality among our own, let’s wield our Englishes to communicate well our complexities, use it in our everyday liberatory practices.

I believe the finer we communicate our complexities, the more painstaking work we invest in our literature, the much more long term its effects. Cheap and easy = disposable culture. I do not want my poetry to become a victim of forgettable, throwaway culture.

Ultimately, I come back to the reasons why I chose to dedicate myself to the arts. Art opens us. Art makes dialogue happen. Art and literature stay with(in) us, having entered through our pores, our hearts, our brains, our ears, our eyes, all at once. They reside in our memories, as if they reside in our cells. We feel and experience their effects for years to come. We pass these down to the next generation, that they would in turn, do the same.

 

For #APIAHeritageMonth, A List #3

This is an ongoing list of APIA poetry collections which have informed my own poetics, my ideas of what gets to be called poetry. It’s been a while since I’ve read a lot of these books, so I am going on memory for a lot of this.

Here is List 1 | List 2. And below is List 3.

Linh Dinh, Borderless Bodies. Oh man, Linh Dinh. Human bodies and meat. This is what I think of. It’s grotesque, but true, and that’s something a lot of us don’t know how to talk about or want to talk about. As a poet, how do you go there, but still keep it reined in just barely enough so as not to go over the top with outrage for sake of outrage, victim and suffering porn, emotional coercion of your reader, knowing your poetry must move, stir, elicit complex emotion from your reader.

Russell Leong, The Country of Dreams and Dust. I love Leong’s poetic lines. They are so clean in this collection, so well-managed, if you will. So, as I’ve just said about keeping it barely reined in, he definitely does this here, balancing historical sweep of Asian migration and diaspora, so many small details, objects, textures, historical narrative in persona, and some lovely lyrical language. This whole collection is so well organized, and that is so appealing to me.

Nick Carbó, El Grupo McDonalds. This is one of the first poetry collections I’d ever read that centered what I think of as a contemporary transnational Filipino voice. I had first read some of this collection’s very thoughtfully crafted individual poems as an editor of Maganda magazine at UC Berkeley, and as an aspiring (proto-emerging) writer. You might say, it was the poetry I needed to read when I needed to read it. “Clean,” is a word I keep returning to. By clean, I mean no excess, just an apparent matter-of-fact tone that feels like it should be simple, but then, upon further thinking, you realize contains so many layers.

Genny Lim, Winter Place. Every time I see Lim perform, I think, damn, she is legit. In performance, her poems are a lion. On the page, it’s something different. So then, what I appreciate is that Lim’s poems translate well “from page to stage.” But more importantly, each venue (page, stage) brings forth an aspect or element of the work. On the page, lines that allow a slow unfold, something meditative, a quiet contemplation. Then on the stage, that roar.

Alan Chong Lau, Blues and Greens: A Produce Worker’s Journal. Yes, the grocery store! Specifically, as Asian one located in the International District of Seattle, where Lau apparently works (or worked). The beauty of a place like the Asian produce market in an American city is intersection and collision. As the worker, you are a witness to these intersections and collisions, so many brief encounters that bring forth some kind of possibly profound realization on the daily. Or not so profound. That our profound as poets and artists is someone’s everyday, or routine, or mundanity.

Laswon Fusao Inada, Drawing the Line. Inada reminds me so much of Manong Al Robles. The jazz cadence, the refrains and repetitions, the cultural and historical memory of a place and its people, or citizens. Poetry that is rooted in Americana, if you expand your ideas of Americana to include all its people’s voices and stories, its Mini Marts and Kwickie Lubes, its Japanese internment camps.

OK, more to come!

For #APIAHeritageMonth: A List #2

This is an ongoing list of APIA poetry collections that have informed my poetics. I am noting a couple of interesting things in social media, in response to my posting these formative texts lists.

  1. Younger APIA poets kind of don’t care.
  2. I am having really interesting discussions with “elder” poets, of different ethnicities (i.e. not just APIA) about tradition in poetry, versus Po Biz, which typically gets confused and conflated with poetry.

People, Poetry ≠ Po Biz.

I do want to continue with these lists of my formative texts. My first book was published in 2003, and my fifth book comes out before the end of 2017. I am still writing my sixth book, but am in no terrible rush to do so. My writing has grown, or changed, or mutated, throughout the years. There have been “newer” cultural influences, in which “new” really means “new to me,” and not inherently new. But I always go back to the beginning when I write, and when I teach and mentor.

Also, to be a poet is to deal with tradition. You may think you are chucking away tradition, but even chucking away tradition is a tradition.

That said, list installment #2.

Jaime Jacinto, Heaven Is Just Another Country. There is, of course, a major historical precedence for Filipino poets writing in Hispanic and Latino traditions. Hispanic, meaning, as a result of our centuries-long Spanish occupation. Latino, meaning, here in this country, Filipino Americans aligning themselves with Latino and Chicano poetics, due to our shared histories of Spanish colonialism. The poetries resulting from this are necessarily multilingual, with a particular darker, brooding tone and aesthetic. Flip gothic. Also, Jaime has always been one of my most generous mentors.

Sesshu Foster, City Terrace Field Manual. And I am back on the prose poem, thinking now of its uses in mapping city blocks, imposing order on what is not really so orderly, allowing us to see on a map/grid what is otherwise considered blank, empty, invisible, with its “opportunities” for “development.” And then the ability to jump from persona to persona, speaker to speaker, the way cities speak in so many voices. If you listen.

Haunani-Kay Trask, Night Is a Sharkskin Drum. Such fierce indigenous, anti-imperialist poetry, bringing in elements of oral tradition, very well placed on the page, with a justified and sharp as all hell uncompromising righteous anger against militarism, tourism, and settler colonialism. We are implicated.

Al Robles, Rapping With Ten Thousand Carabaos in the Dark. I have learned so much about poetics from this poet’s performances, from informal, impromptu interactions, in which all is organically story and poetry. In which all who come to the table participate. This is where so much of my #Kuwentuhan comes from. And then on the page, how the line organically comes to be, how metaphor is something you are born with. And then for subject matter, writing what is street level, what others ignore or pretend is not there. Taking the time, listening, and asking.

Jessica Tarahata Hagedorn, Dangerous Music. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A young Pinay from an immigrant family in the Bay Area, falling in with the local poetry scene, mentored there by poetic elders who saw something in her, published on a gritty, SF-based micro-press, writing in multilingual Spanish and Tagalog, influenced by, speaking the languages of counterculture and pop culture. Yo.

Yoko Ono, Grapefruit. People who don’t know Yoko, or have never considered Yoko, please read this book’s “simple,” minimalist instructions about the art that is all around us, about the art that we make in our daily lives, that we incorporate into our routines and domesticities. And/or how we may insert ourselves into the art that is all around us.

So that’s what I have today. I am so interested in conversations about traditions, and elders. And/or about generations.

For APIA Heritage Month: A List

A list, or listcicle, if you will. Today is May 1st, and not only is it APIA Heritage Month. Last month was National Poetry Month, so both April and May present me an opportunity to take stock.

I produce these lists to get me thinking about what I have read, and what works and authors I revisit. This helps my own writing process. I also produce these lists because I am asked frequently, in individual messages, for any advice I would give aspiring writers, aspiring MFA program applicants, Pinays newly coming into their identities or settling into identities more complex and liminal.

My response to advice is always to read. Make your reading lists your own personal, political, and aesthetics curricula. Think about what you are drawn to, and then start to think about why. What do you need to learn in any particular body of work that pulls you in, or perhaps more importantly, what do you need/have to learn in any particular body of work that (you feel) keeps kicking you out, or kicking you in the ass. What can you learn about your own poetic voice from any particular work?

Sometimes, this is not the advice that advice seekers want from me. Many times, what they want to hear from me is, wow, no one has ever done what you are doing before in poetry, you are so talented and you are going to be big; come, have coffee with me, and let me introduce you to my publishers like now. 

Nope.

If I ever have to energy to respond substantially, it’s to say you have to work, and grind, and grit your teeth, and work some more. Through the rejections. Through the “writers’ blocks,” through the endless drafting and editing. Read like crazy. Learn to engage deeply what you read. Look deeply at what (you say, think) your influences are, and reflect hard on why.

That said, my list, part 1.

Frances Chung, Crazy Melon and Chinese Apple. From this work, I learned about distilling down to the simplest and most concrete language possible for what I mean to say. From a Chinese American woman New Yorker POV/cosmology, examining boundary lines, what interior and exterior spaces belong to whom, what spaces we may claim, what spaces we are ghettoized into, how we may navigate bustling American urban space as “others.”

Catalina Cariaga, Cultural Evidence. What can white space, what can the page do for you. If you are a poet, then where you place the words onto the page in relation to margins, in relation to each other, in prose blocks, in spare, minimalist lines, is a substantial part of what you do. You are creating visual effect. You are as a result, setting tone and timbre.

Truong Tran, Dust and Conscience. This is one of the works that got me thinking for the first time about the prose poem and its possibilities. Again, with the visual effect, and the emotional piece. Now, omit the punctuation; what happens now. Especially when writing about memory, and family history. What do you remember? The details, or the emotional content. Are memories as neatly compartmentalized as a series of discrete right and left justified prose blocks.

Eileen Tabios, Reproductions of the Empty Flagpole. This is another work that got me thinking about the prose poem and its possibilities. How may one string together seemingly disparate thoughts into something like a cohesive body. How does that make sense, when it shouldn’t really make sense. So there’s something here also about the emotional content, especially that which results from ekphrasis.

Bhanu Kapil, The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers. This book totally fucked with me, in terms of what was “real” response from strangers, to a certain set of questions, versus what was mediated by the poet. The devil’s in the details, I suppose. But what ended up being important to me was impact and surprise of the resulting “response.” Also of note is the fact or affect of the WOC being granted/gifted the space to speak on her own behalf.

Oliver de la Paz, Names Above Houses. First thing: The prose poem figures prominently on this list. It’s not a big secret or surprise that my own book, Diwata, has used this book as something of a model. They both rely heavily on the prose poem form. Storytelling is happening. Personal myth making from memory and family history is happening. And that the story of us migrating from our homes to this new place — this is indeed a remarkable story that defies our understanding, and enters into mythical space.

OK, so that’s it for now. More to come.

For #NationalPoetryMonth: Oh boy, poetry is “relevant” again.

Yes, friends. The amnesiacs and apologists, and yes, also the assholes, have spoken. Poetry is relevant again, in “these times” of crisis. Alleluia.

Allow me to call your attention to this image. You and me, we too are changing culture and language, as The Bard himself did. Perhaps we won’t ever become the forebears of English language colloquialism like he is, but don’t ever let anyone tell you that our work does not have everyday, noticeable cultural impact.

You will pardon my sarcasm here. I seem to recall having the same visceral gag reflex, when poetry became “relevant” again, after 9/11, in which poets who had never professed to be “political poets,” some of whom had previously expressed derision for those of us whose poetic lives have always been political, all of a sudden were soapboxing about why poetry must be political, why it is so necessary, like it was some new thing.

Poet friends, are you feeling like that pushover, emotionally abused girlfriend? You know, the person on whom others depend for everything, but then they get all confused, hostile, and superior when you speak up and say, hi, I have always been here, taking care of your shit. They want you to stay silent, and they want to ignore that you were the one who did all that emotional work.

They use verse to teach their children how to speak and read. They use verse in their weekly worship. They use verse to consecrate their unions, to bury their dead, to mark rites of passage. They turn to verse every time something challenging happens in their everyday lives, in their personal, social, and national lives. They turn to verse to sell their products. They think this is edgy and cool, and they pat themselves on the back about it. They turn to verse because they can’t speak for themselves, but they think using the verse of others is speaking for themselves.

You, my friend, are part of that invisible but ever-present unpaid and unappreciated labor force, and they take credit for even thinking that your work is of convenient use today. They think they are so clever, tapping into your labor. They’re really not so clever, are they, otherwise they wouldn’t be trying to appropriate your work all the time.

They say, we appreciate you now, until we don’t; we need you now, until we don’t. They think what they do is so much more important than what you do. They think what you do is easy, that it’s not real work.  They think you should be grateful. I am aware this is not gracious, but you know what? I’m not grateful.

I will tell you what I am grateful for. I am grateful for poetry, for poets, for those who have always championed poetry because of poetry’s undeniable social, cultural, and historical value and weight, for those who believe that poetry has always defined us and helped us find direction as individuals and as communities, for those who have always known, always recognized, always shown in tangible ways that these “small” works are immense, for those who never belittle poetry, never just pay it lip service, and those who never, ever take poetry for granted.