Brown Girl Consumed: Filipino Food Poem

Dear Brown Girl,

This is just to say, motherfuckers love your food!

Bon Appetit says the latest craze is popcorn and Gummi Bears® in your halo-halo, and you’re looking at this sideways as others nod in gratitude,

Andrew Zimmern also swears by sisig, you’re the latest craze, you’re an episode of Bizarre Foods,

He says Americans can’t get right with creamy pig brains, so he alters your recipe to make it acceptable,

He exits the metropolis in search of the authentic, he slurps worms dipped in vinegar, pulled straight from a fucking tree, and then he pales at your “dirty” ice cream. What a dick.

You are Parts Unknown, and so Anthony Bourdain also comes to bat for your balut. He throws back his head and swallows Emily Dickinson’s beaked and feathered hope,

Next time, he’ll sip this strange little salty bird, he’ll crunch this little baby’s bones, wipe his mouth, and the world will learn Filipinos are so poor they’ll eat anything, a people with so much resilience —

Your archipelago is a culinary adventure! You should be so grateful, you are on our map!

Remember when your classmates teased your stinky lunch, your marrow bones, soup, patis, and rice, your spoon and fork,

Remember when they told you that you eat dog food, and you didn’t know how to go home and cry to your mom because she was just too busy working —

Well, fuck all that, because now you’re cool,

you’re pork bellies sizzling in cast iron cool, you’re organic free trade leche de coco simmering cool,

you’re edgy piquants and aromatics, you’re umami, you’re pricy speciality grocery items, spilling out of the suburban supermarket’s ethnic aisle,

you’re urban food trucks at an art show cool, you’re vegan man bun hipster cool, you’re deconstructed lumpia cool,

you’re wine pairings lightyears from the go-to passé Rieslings (yawn),

you’re cooler than California rolls, than chop suey, and people freaking the fuck out over kung pao chicken at Panda Express don’t know how cool you are (they’re gag reflexing at the innards we third worldlings eat) —

They’ll never know the 12 hour workshifts of TNTs sweating into high end catered meals for lesser than minimum wage, under the table, nevermind subsistence,

they’ll never know about street kids scrounging for pagpag,

they’ll never know the recipes of our cataracted grammas who stayed home and never learned to read, or the ones who can still recite José Rizal’s “Mi Último Adiós,” from the heart as the nilaga stews,

Dios mío! The tsismis around tables of itchy gabi leaves and roots and malunggay fronds, elders’ manicured hands like luya (sige na, anak, they say, clean these tables and we’ll play mah jong later),

Dios mío, talaga! Our spinster titas, who singlehandedly took the sharpest machetes to the pigs’ (and to some men’s) throats, bled those tasty motherfuckers, flipped handrolled tobacco with their tongues, with their chorus of boning knives, these works of art no metropolitan museum would ever show,

Dios mío! All the breaking necks and bleeding, all the flaying and the cutting, in pambahay, tsinelas, gold rings, anting-anting. All this after morning mass, all this before noon. This is where you told them about your broken heart, this is where they said, ay babae, he was never good enough for you. This is where they wiped away your tears, and said, anak, you are a good girl,

Fuck these first world gourmands swearing Filipino cuisine is the next big bandwagon to ride to the bank, fuck their rebranding for bourgeois Western palates,

Fuck all that, girl, go on get down with your kamayan and your banana leaves, your slurping fish heads, your extra rice to soak up the crab butter, your chicharon and San Miguel with your crooning titos, your dad’s canned Ligo sardines, salted eggs and tuyo cooked on the backyard grill, your green mangoes with ginisang bagoong, dear, deep red, so sweet, so cool.

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#allpinayeverything 2: micro-reviews of 2016-2018 full length pinay and pinxy authored works

IN THE COUNTRY by Mia Alvar. In these stories, economic inequities and political repressions drive a diaspora of workers and asylum-seekers. Migrant workers and expats plot their own personal revolts. Sally Rivas in “The Miracle Worker” calls them little mutinies. They’re a repudiation of a role Alvar’s characters are relegated to or have passively assumed. Alvar’s stories deliver insight into the issues of immigration, family, community, and country, of how the past intersects with the present, and how the political is often at the root of our little mutinies. (Reviewed by Donna Miscolta. Read the full review at https://www.hypertextmag.com/review-in-the-country-by-mia-alvar/.)

LOLAS’ HOUSE: FILIPINO WOMEN LIVING WITH WAR by M. Evelina Galang. There is a language of rape. The words differ depending on who’s speaking. There are the words used by the perpetrators. There are the words by the deniers and the words by the blamers. There are the words by the victims when they can manage to speak them. While all these words are part of the stories in M. Evelina Galang’s Lolas’ House: Filipino Women Living With War, it is the victims’ words that Galang rightly honors, giving them the pages they deserve. (Reviewed by Donna Miscolta. Read the full review at http://www.seattlereviewofbooks.com/reviews/the-language-of-justice/.)

BENEDICTA TAKES WING by Veronica Montes. When I read these stories, I am immediately immersed, falling into the lives, hearts and minds of the characters as I do when I am entranced by such stunning storytellers as Isabelle Allende, Marlon James, Lois Ann Yamanaka, and Jessica Hagedorn. Montes’ stories are a profound collection that moves us fluidly among and beyond physical places, myth, real and dream time. Each story feels like a mantra bringing us back to center, in longing and belonging, reminding us how we lose and find each other in the world. Montes’ voice is our collective voice, her characters are each of us in our abundant beauty and flaws. (Reviewed by Arlene Biala.)

If you would like to contribute a micro-review, please do so here. Please remember: Full length Pinay and Pinxy authored works, published in 2016-2018. Four to five sentences please. Salamat!

With Praise for the Work of the Poets

There has been an ongoing theme in many of my poetry and poetics discussions — one of transformation.

Much of this comes up as we talk about process, at the same time we talk about ways of resisting consumerism, objectification. Ultimately, we try our best to keep in proper perspective this thing called “market,” and “industry,” which is ironic given that little money actually changes hands in the poetry industry.

But it’s also very real that we have a perception of capital and “worth,” in this industry. We have hierarchies of value in this industry. We acknowledge those we perceive as having “cachet.”

So, where does transformation, and transformative experience “fit” in this industry.

My grad students and I had been hinting at these things all semester, sensing that some works did something to us, and we tried our best to give that “something” words. Work that was “meaningful,” respectfully engaging its constituents, thoughtfully crafted and executed, had implications larger than what was presented on the pages, that had emotional resonances, such that readers came away from the work with more than when they entered it.

One of our senior faculty members came to visit our class, to observe my teaching this semester. We were reading Philip Metres’s Sand Opera that evening. Before our mid-seminar break, one of my grad students asked for their thoughts on Metres’s work — it’s an important distinction, our senior faculty member responded, the poet who transforms an experience, versus one who merely transcribes.

And all of our light bulbs went bright with our collective, “Aha.”

We already know of the kind of poetry that merely transcribes. We describe it as underwhelming and even pretentious. We describe the work ethic as lazy. I want to be generous though, and understand transcription as a preliminary part of the process. Yes, we do transcribe, the things we hear, words that strike us, that come from mass media, social media, popular culture, phrasings that make our ears perk up, clever bits of language we mishear or overhear in the world.

I keep a notebook full of these glimmers, intimations. Sometimes real gems of poetry come in these bits of brevity. Those are gifts.

And sometimes they remain just glimmers, with nothing added to them. Bits of untapped potential. Ephemera maybe, at best. Maybe the writer did not know, maybe the writer doesn’t know yet that the glimmer is just the beginning, and that in order for a glimmer of an idea to become poetry, the real poetic work must be done.

This is where I make my confession. I have a major peeve — those who pass off as the most profound poetry what are really just their clever bits of language and observation, transcribed onto the page like mass printing fortunes to stuff into cookies, those who think these fortune cookies are enough; poetry is that cheap, easy, and mass produced for immediate consumption and utility.

Poetry is art object, this I believe. Art objects, exquisitely crafted — here, I think of Jaime Jacinto, Fatima Lim-Wilson, Marjorie Evasco, Merlinda Bobis, Angela Narciso Torres. Just gorgeous to behold, and insisting on being rooted in our social realities. But it’s also true a lot of exquisitely crafted art objects are beyond our reach, inaccessible. That’s not necessarily my cup of tea, though also, “inaccessible” is a relative term.

There are found objects whose beauty and intricacies others have discarded/disregarded. The poet elevates this, transforms it into art or transforms our perception of it by offering different angles/views. Here, I think of the deceptively simple, street-level poetry of Al Robles and Tony Robles. And I also think of Amanda Ngoho Reavey’s re-purposed official documents, and Janice Lobo Sapigao’s rewriting of Silicon Valley. I kind of think of myself in this category as well.

And then there is kitsch. I won’t name names, because that would be mean. And it would be equally mean to not include these as a kind of poetry, though I am tempted. I suppose “kitsch” is also a relative term. But I feel like kitsch, stuff that takes up space, is akin to this transcription. Little risk has been taken.

As a palate cleanser, I will end with this poem from Fatima Lim-Wilson, from her collection, Crossing the Snow Bridge (Ohio State University Press, 1995).

The Dangers of This Craft
by Fatima Lim-Wilson

For your own good, do not claim to be a poet.
-Advice of a well-meaning friend.

How we sing, even as we are boiled alive.
Those who torment us strain to sustain
our last notes. In a landscape
of sameness, our crooked towers scrape
sensibilities, the well-trained eye.
Why, when starved, do we thrive?
Remembrance of childhood’s bread
rising. The taste of dulcified
droppings of air. Our well-
meaning friends beg us, please,
speak in the measured tones
of the mediocre. Show off
our mastery of muteness,
the ambidextrous virtuosity
of work-stained hands. Let
those knitting needles, heavy
handled axes fly. Why must
we hear voices? See the moving
parts of still objects? And so,
we insist we no longer see
through white-washed walls.
We confess our dreams of flying
have ceased. We scheme,
the miracle of money keeping us
awake. Our pleasure lies
in memorizing the exactness
of recipes. We are found to be
most eloquent when quiet, even
as we argue happily with the teeming
inhabitants opening doors in our heads.
We stare seemingly unmoved at the fire
of our burning books, all the while
enthralled, reading secrets in the flames.
They think they’ve killed us off
even as somewhere, everywhere, a child
recalls the beat of the ocean womb.
They dance upon our tombs, unaware
of how they have fallen
victim to the rhythm
of our singing bones.

#allpinayeverything: micro-reviews of 2016-2017 full length pinay and pinxy authored works

“Leona and Castora,” by Katrina Pallon (2014).

So, in an effort to build upon the crowd sourced listing I’ve been doing, I open up this space to these Pinay and Pinxy micro-reviews. Here are the first four responses:

BLOOD: COLLECTED STORIES by Noelle Q. de Jesus. I’m only a handful of stories into this collection, but already I feel profoundly welcome. The confident, clear-sighted prose of de Jesus guides us deeply into the lives of her characters who are (thus far) grappling with their cross-cultural existence as they quietly, intensely search for pieces of home in landscapes grown increasingly strange. Skimming through to get a feel for the rest of the book, I see there’s much to look forward to: stories of marriages, pregnancy, children, families. Familiar subjects, to be sure, but not common, surely not in the hands of this writer. (Reviewed by Veronica Montes)

LAND OF FORGOTTEN GIRLS by Erin Entrada Kelly: An engrossing story of sisterhood, community, and stories–the ones we tell and the ones we keep to ourselves. Kelly’s characters are more than meets the eye, asking us to confront our deepest fears with compassion. Sol’s growth is organically brilliant as she comes to learn that the stories of those around her are just as important as the ones she grew up with and make up on her own. Stories are here for our survival in times of abuse and loss or in the brave, hidden spaces we carve out. They shape who we are and who we want to become. (Reviewed by Princess Fernandez)

INVOCATION TO DAUGHTERS by Barbara Jane Reyes: I’ve been reading Barbara Jane Reyes’ poems since she was a young poet self-publishing her poetry through the publishing format of Xerox and the publishing house Kinko’s. As of this writing, my favorite poem of hers is “THE DAY,” which is featured in her new book Invocation to Daughters. I understand some folks have called it “angry.” It is angry. But “THE DAY,” a poem about the last day of her beloved father’s life, is set within this collection. So that it actually is reductive to summarize Reyes’ poems as (merely) angry. It would be more accurate to call it “Love”—which would explain why many of the poems are angry enough to strike back. For Love does not tolerate injustice. As Reyes notes in the book’s title poem: “Daughters, our world is beyond unkind”—an educated rather than embittered assessment. This book can both empower daughters but also hopefully educate those surrounding them. (Reviewed by Eileen R. Tabios)

LOVE IN A TIME OF BELLIGERENCE by Eileen R. Tabios. The Contents of Love In A Time of Belligerence are most inspiring. She revisits in the second section titled “From ‘The Ashbery Riff-Offs” John Ashbery’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” a poem that inspired part of my PhD thesis. If you wish to follow Eileen Tabios, you will have to work hard to open up all the synapses of your brain; she escapes from any classification/calculation – improvised detection – instinctive deflection any reader has to protect him- herself, and is still there to hit, entertain, surprise, enchant, and escape. (Reviewed by Anny Ballardini)

If you would like to contribute a micro-review, please do so here. Please remember: Full length Pinay and Pinxy authored works, published in 2016-2017. Four to five sentences please. Salamat!

My Year (Or Two) Of Reading Poetry

I have been meaning to sum up my past couple of years of reading and teaching full length volumes of poetry, in both MFA settings, and undergraduate Philippine Studies and Asian American Studies settings. Part of this is thinking about what works elicited strong response, what works presented some good challenges, poetically, politically. So here goes, in alpha order.

  1. Jason Bayani, Amulet. This poetry is a sometimes unexpected seaming together of high poetic diction and traditional poetic form, intense spoken East Bay, Fil Am, and Hip hop colloquialism. I like it because it speaks to the inhabiting of multiple worlds our community’s poets must deal with on the regular. There’s little taking or putting on airs here; it just is, and that is great. My undergrads and I love the familiarity of Bayani’s voice, poetic and not so poetic spaces. Whether my undergrads realize it, there’s a confessional element to Bayani’s poetry, which is something to which they gravitate. When I first taught this book in Fil Am Lit classes at SFSU and USF, I had a lot of students who came from Fremont, and so this collection was so easy for them to anchor themselves to, and hence, dig into its emotional content. For such a masculine work, we discuss, it is indeed quite emotional.
  2. Safia Elhillo, The January Children. This collection to me, is really well-organized and well-contained. As a “brown girl,” I read this work as an antithesis and antidote to the unfortunate over-simplicity of Rupi Kaur. Elhillo is comprehensive, in carving out the confusion and ambivalence of being a citizen of in-between spaces, not “African” enough, not American enough, not black enough, too brown, mixed up with mother tongue and adopted/imposed tongue. The series of poems to Abdelhalim Hafez serve as a place for revising and perfecting her ideas on beauty and gender expectation. Here, her speaker pleads her case; this is how she may be the ideal groupie to the heartthrob celebrity, i.e. this is how she may be beautiful and dutiful. I like this both sincere and ironic voice. The questioning is genuine and must be so. And sometimes, most times, answers and resolutions aren’t easy.
  3. Cheena Marie Lo, A Series of Un/Natural/Disasters. A group of my undergrads in Filipino Literature really took to this work, especially around Lo’s repetition of “Poor black…” for driving home what should be the obvious point of who was most affected by Hurricane Katrina, which is something Americans as a whole take for granted or do accept, but only in the abstract. Other undergrads in this class were so curious and disturbed about Lo’s use of decontenxtualized numbers and data. What was this about? For them, there was a certain amount of openness about this being death tolls, property damage, et al. That Lo’s decontextualization made a point about dehumanization. My grad students were more critical about the position of the speaker, so far away, like most of us, sitting at our computer screens and watching events unfold via social media. I kind of think this was the point. Anyway, I am drawn to Lo’s work for its deceptive sense of order amidst disorder.
  4. Layli Long Soldier, Whereas. Here, my students and I talk about the importance and the uselessness of language and grammar, even at its most precise. Akin to Philip Metres, Long Soldier examines that language of official document, in this case, the uselessness, the emptiness of the congressional resolution of apology to Native Americans in 2009. For me, for many of my students, the anchor of this collection is “38,” which drives home Long Soldier’s acutely critical commentary on the specificity of grammar, and on selective historic omission. Some of the concrete poems were originally lost on me, and when I look at them again, I still think I may be missing something. For sure though, this work is effectively stark in its depiction of native impoverishment, and there’s a tone of hopelessness that I can barely manage. It is an emotionally difficult read.
  5. Philip Metres, Sand Opera. This work pushes the limits of what a poet can do with page, pushes the poem into actual physical space. My grad students and I loved that about Metres, who offers multiple ways of reading, through erasure and redaction, which push us as readers to figure out how to fill in those disturbing spaces. How else are we able to read about torture, and how else may a human being write about it. What is an “appropriate” and adequate response. How to take on this impossible task, how to encounter and engage the official documents, and still maintain and centralize this threatened humanity. We discussed the position of the speaker, an American of Arab descent, an American citizen, a resident of the middle of the USA, the father of a USA-born child of Arab descent; what is at stake for this person. Everything is at stake for this person.
  6. Rajiv Mohabir, The Cowherd’s Son. It was fortuitous that I did have a student of South Asian descent who was able to point to Mohabir’s use of language, a specific dialect from a specific part of South Asia. This student was also able to explain Mohabir’s knowledge of Indian epics, via a vital and lovely talk story, via the speaker’s grandmother and elders, not formally schooled, comprising the labor class in the West Indies. This kind of specificity enabled us to go in on the creole to compare and contrast different versions of story, given the contextual translations Mohabir provides. It’s amazing how much we are able to understand, if intuitively, and really love about the voice of Mohabir’s speaker, and his insistence of centering his family/home language and narrative.
  7. Amanda Ngoho Reavey, Marilyn. I love this work. My undergrads definitely needed some guidance through it, but Reavey’s inclusion of official documents really helped them; it gave them a way to see how one loses their ties to ethnicity, and so then they can begin to appreciate the work and struggle of Reavey’s speaker. So much of teaching Fil Am Lit is about identity, and this work pushes way beyond conventional community expectation on the identity question. I encourage them to think of themselves as mosaics, to think of each tessera that comprises them, to think of what happens to the whole when so-called small pieces of them are taken away and replaced with other things. How may a person reassemble themselves, and what does that new picture look like. And what if it doesn’t resemble the original.
  8. Tony Robles, Fingerprints of a Hunger Strike. I am part way through reading this, and I have yet to teach it in near-future iterations of Fil Am Lit. I love the tonal shifts, as we see with Tony Robles’s lines, abrupt and clipped, in repetition, then flowing, reflecting prose. I love Robles’s voice, and the surface simplicity of his verses. He gives us a ton of things to think about, especially about our own privilege, and how we may freely move through this embattled San Francisco that is going extinct, when others cannot. Perhaps it’s an obvious statement to say that Tony Robles writes in the tradition of Manong Al Robles. But now we have to think critically about what this means, for a Frisco Pinoy poet to move through his city, to witness very keenly, to be necessary scribe and mouthpiece, to act for the people.
  9. Janice Lobo Sapigao, microchips for millions. One common element between Sapigao’s and Reavey’s works is the visual element. In Sapigao’s case, we are looking at maps, we are looking at binary code/language, and we are looking at microchips. One of my undergrads pointed out, this is a kind of poetic imagery, but with literal image. Yes. When we look at maps of toxic clouds covering Silicon Valley, do we think of ourselves, our homes, our families in proximity to it. I do. Additionally, there is a young speaker here, trying to reconcile the much touted glamour and wealth of Silicon Valley, with the overworked, aging immigrant mother. This is a work of a Pinay daughter centering, exalting the immigrant woman workforce, who have been systematically discouraged from fighting for their rights as workers. These are the people who have made Silicon Valley as great as it is, and so let us not erase the toll this work has taken on their bodies, their exposure to toxins and radiation. Another student says, there is revolutionary potential in this work.
  10. Javier Zamora, Unaccompanied. There is some beautiful lyricism here, that works its way (logically) towards starkness, what I think of as an anti-lyrical conclusion. The memory and the trauma in this work is gut-wrenching, gut-punching, and exhausting, necessarily so. There’s little room for nostalgia, which I think is also a reader expectation for the works of migrants and exiles; among American readers, there’s little idea of what “refugee” means, the gravity of the word. And so I read these poems, looking for light and beauty wherever I can, hoping for these things for Zamora’s speaker; in the homeland and in the fleeing is so much terror, and even the mangoes and the estuaries fill me with fear. I don’t know how else to explain it.