Some Thoughts on Poetry, Difficulty, Language

Belated thoughts here, on my last lecture in Pinay Lit, in which we read Janice Sapigao‘s microchips for millions, and my For the City that Nearly Broke Me. This thing came up about use of languages not “readable” or readily accessible to readers. In Janice’s work, it’s the pervasiveness of the binary code. In mine, specifically the piece, “Malaya,” it’s the Tagalog/Indo-Malay “mash-up.”  

First, we recognize that binary code is indeed a language. We agree that it is a language, and we agree it is a language used widely in Silicon Valley, which is the setting for Janice’s work. We also agree that while we cannot read it, someone (or something) does; many someones (and many somethings) read it, function in it. It is directly related to the affluence of this area, the Bay Area and Silicon Valley.

If we cannot read it though, then is it enough, for us as readers, to have that recognition which I just described? Does that make the appearance of the language in Janice’s text effective?

Consider also, that while we readers cannot read this language, do the low-paid, overworked immigrant labor force of Silicon Valley, who are central to Janice’s poems read that language? Or are they as “in the dark” as we are, not knowing what is being communicated in that language? And if they are in the dark as we readers are, which I suspect is the case, then as readers, does that help us create a more layered reading experience?

(Similar questions arise regarding my “mash-up.” Can you read it? Probably not. If not, then what do you “do” with the poem? What is this poem about then?)

And does the presence of these languages in these works make the works, “difficult.” And if so, then is this a “bad” thing, this difficulty? In our communities, where so many readers and community members expect and demand narratives to be handed to them in the most non-threatening manner ever, especially narratives authored by women, and especially narratives authored by “younger” women. This perceived poetic cleverness, what I call a willingness to handle difficulty, is a thing if not disliked, then definitely discouraged. Anti-rigor.

I am thinking more and more about layers in poem, and layers in bodies of poetry. I am thinking I can’t write any other way, if I mean to write what and how I mean to write. And it is a challenge to write a layered, multilingual thing that both immediately disturbs you, and also unravels itself over time with a lot of thoughtfulness, and for readers and editors, it seems to become a terrible inconvenience.

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Virtual Blog Tour, Is Pinay Lit a Genre, and Tagging Others

From Vince Gotera: The “virtual blog tour” is an excellent, friendly way for writers, artists, and other creative folks to bring attention to their own work as well as that of others. It begins with an invitation from another artist or writer. Then in your blog you acknowledge the person who invited you, answer four given questions about your work and your process, and then invite three other people to participate. These people then do the same thing, referring their blog readers to the blogs of three more people, and so on. It’s a wonderful sort of “pyramid scheme” that’s beneficial for everyone: the artists and writers as well as the readers of their blogs. We can follow links from blog to blog and then we can all learn about different kinds of creative process and also find new writers and artists we may not have known about before.

The person who invited me to take part in the blog tour is Vince himself, a poet and educator, who, like me, hails from the San Francisco Bay Area. Now, though, he’s a landlocked Pinoy in Iowa. A more formal biographical statement is as follows: Vince Gotera is the Editor of the North American Review and a creative writing professor at the University of Northern Iowa. His collections of poetry include the forthcoming Pacific Crossing as well as Dragonfly, Ghost Wars, and Fighting Kite. His work has also appeared widely in magazines, anthologies, textbooks, and online venues. Visit his blog, “The Man with the Blue Guitar” at http://vincegotera.blogspot.com.

Allow me to introduce to you, his poem, “Aswang,” a Philippine mythological creature that continues to fascinate so many of us. Perhaps this excerpt may help you understand the fascination:

… and I saw his mother, a pretty mestiza widow,
her face hidden by hair hanging down
as she bent far forward from the waist.
A manananggal, the worst kind of aswang:
women who can detach themselves at the hips,
shucking their legs at night like a wrinkled slip.
They fly, just face and breasts, to prey on infants.
For a moment, a shadow like a giant bat
darkened the moon…

"Aswang," by Hellen Jo.

“Aswang,” by Hellen Jo. helllllen.org

I would like to think the writing we are doing stateside is contributing to the lore.

Vince has also written up some wonderful explanatory text on the creature and on the poem, so let me not say too much more, except that our aswang poems will be sharing space in the forthcoming anthology Kuwento: Lost Things (An Anthology of New Philippines Myths) (Carayan Press). Go read this poem, and allow yourself to be spooked. Though, please notice the stanzas that comprise this poem are in sonnet form. He has written about formalism, and his use of form as well.


Here are the four questions I’ve answered about my own work:

"Gabriela Silang," by Francisco Coching.

“Gabriela Silang,” by Francisco Coching.

1. What are you currently working on?

Many things — developing and teaching college classes and community workshop, and editing an anthology, all of which are centered around Pinay Lit. Pinay, for those of you not in the know, is a term we use for Filipina, or Filipino girl or woman. Some use it in casual conversation, as affirmation, and others have politicized it (shouting with fist raised: “Pinay Power!”).

I have also completed my own poetry manuscript centered around Pinay voice, writing on the Pinay body.

2. How does your work differ from others of its genre?

Is Pinay Lit a genre? Let’s go ahead and say it is. However conversational or politicized the usage of Pinay, I’ve been interested in some time now, in potentially Pinay-centered literary space, in writing, reading, and teaching. Can we push the discussion to where it’s most sharp, most difficult — regarding historical and social issues, and just as important, narrative, craft, language, form.

Can we do this in spaces where those who identify as Pinay are both encouraged and emboldened to speak and push their writing, without the kinds of gendered, racialized pressures exerted upon us by our Filipino male community members who want to tell us what to do and what to think, by our white women colleagues who want to save us and speak for us, by our oblivious American classmates who just don’t give a shit. Can we do this without descending into an uncritical Kumbayah. Can we create a strong foundation on our own terms, welcome and maintain rigor, be empowered and articulate wordsmiths. I hope we can.

3. Why do you write/create what you do?

Much of my interest in Pinay lit is not just in the fact that I identify as Pinay and a Pinay author, but in my general observations and experience interacting with other Pinay writers. There’s so much fear, reticence, and timidity that I want to understand and dispel, not because all of us should be shouting and showing our teeth, bearing machetes and fists (though, isn’t that some kind of fierce, wonderful image), but because of how that fear hinders us from writing our stories and getting them into the world.

4. How does your writing/creating process work?

I am always online! The internet has become a place that concerns me, as much as the geographical places I’ve been writing about. I’ve been trolling Filipina bride websites for advertisements and testimonies (from brides and “clients”), and news stories about Pinay OFWs. Perhaps it’s morbid, but I am always looking for narratives about these women and girls being bought, sold, and broken, and I do this because I want to know what is happening to them in the world, and why. I don’t want to pretend none of this matters to me. I also don’t want to pretend that what happens to them also is happening to me. But I need to write about these women and girls. I’ve been crafting poetic lines, trying to flesh out narratives, to humanize the sound bytes and statistics I’ve been gathering. I need to find their resistances. I need to know that they fight back.


Now, as for the four bloggers I am tagging — yes, I’m only supposed to tag three, but these four are good:

Rochita Loenen-Ruiz is a Filipina writer living in the Netherlands. She attended Clarion West in 2009 and is an Octavia Butler Scholar. Her short fiction has appeared in a variety of online and print publications including Clarkesworld Magazine, The End of the Road anthology, Mothership: Tales from Afrofuturism and Beyond, Philippine Genre Stories, the Philippine Speculative Fiction anthologies and We See a Different Frontier. Her Movements column appears regularly on the online magazine, Strange Horizons. http://rcloenenruiz.com

Rashaan Alexis Meneses: Born and raised in the seismically fractured and diverse landscape of southern California, Rashaan Alexis Meneses was recently awarded 2013 fellowships at The MacDowell Colony and The International Retreat for Writers at Hawthornden Castle in Scotland. Current publications include a personal essay in Doveglion Press, short stories in New Letters, Kurungabaa, UC Riverside’s The Coachella Review, University of North Carolina’s Pembroke Magazine, and the anthology Growing Up Filipino II: More Stories for Young Adults. http://rashaanalexismeneses.com

Anthem Salgado founded professional development program and web resource, Art of Hustle, providing training and consulting for creative entrepreneurs, small businesses and nonprofit organizations. His experience spans 15 years across industries that include arts, education, nightlife, cultural and community affairs, and more. He focuses on marketing, helping maximize on audience development, referral building, and income generation opportunities. http://www.artofhustle.com

Melissa R. Sipin is a writer from Carson, CA. She won First Place in the 2013 Glimmer Train Fiction Open and her writing has been published/forthcoming in Glimmer Train Stories, PANK Magazine, Fjords Review, 580 Split, and Kweli Journal, among others. She cofounded and is editor-in-chief of TAYO Literary Magazine. As a Kundiman Fiction Fellow, VONA/Voices Fellow, and U.S. Navy wife, she splits her time writing on the Pacific and Atlantic coasts and blogs at www.msipin.com. She is currently working on a novel. http://msipin.com/blog

The Writer Is Also a Citizen

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[Photo credits: Center for Art + Thought]

With Noël Alumit, Rachelle Cruz, Giovanni Ortega, and Chris Santiago, I just participated in a wonderful literary community event down in Los Angeles yesterday afternoon: The Writer Is Also a Citizen was the closing event for the exhibit, I Want the Wide American Earth: An Asian Pacific American Story, at the Japanese American National Museum.

From the JANM website:

I Want the Wide American Earth: An Asian Pacific American Story was created by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center and curated by Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center Initiative Coordinator Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis. The exhibition is supported by a generous grant from the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, and is a collaborative initiative with Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES).

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Fil Am Fiction: Reading and Rereading Hagedorn et al

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I did say once or twice that teaching Filipino Lit class would start to get repetitive in terms of what I’m reading, though I have to say I have been enjoying all of this reading and rereading. There is something about returning to a text 20 or so years later, and reading it not necessarily with new eyes, but with more emotional and intellectual maturity. Knowing or understanding more, not just about the field of Filipino and Fil Am Lit, but about the world.

Last semester I revisited Jessica Hagedorn’s Dogeaters, and happily found that “postmodern” texts were no longer an immovable block, which students would resist or be unable to access. I thought about and experienced how young readers have become much more sophisticated in their readings of non-linear, multi-vocal, multilingual texts, that popular culture — in part, through science fiction, graphic novels, and comics — have opened up young readers to these non-linear and even quarreling/self-contradicting narratives. Also, these students have had much more access to multicultural literature that I ever did when I was their age. Also, teaching in Bay Area urban centers’ universities brings me into diverse classrooms full of students who are open or willing to be opened. I have also rediscovered that discussing the morally questionable (or morally compromised, or morally challenged) is great! Without judging, trying to avoid imposing our sets of values on different characters, we try our best to understand why they do what they do to themselves and to one another.

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More On Lit and Community

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Here’s a fantastic picture, one of many, from this weekend’s literary festivities. L to R: Angela Narciso Torres, Aimee Suzara, Evelina Galang, Melissa Sipin, Janice Sapigao, me, Grace Burns, and Trinidad Escobar.

First, yes, the Bay Area is really like none other. Evelina has just flown back to Miami, and has written this lovely blog post. Never to be taken for granted is the fact that in the Bay Area, Filipino American Studies exists, housed in most of our colleges and universities. I came from UC Berkeley, where so much of what I was about Filipino American history, language, and culture came from a combination of courses in Asian American Studies, Asian Studies, Southeast Asian Studies, Ethnic Studies. AND an amazing English class, Post-Colonial Literatures, focusing on Filipino Lit. My professors have been diverse and amazing. As a graduate student at SFSU, there was always opportunity to escape from  the social weirdness of Creative Writing into Ethnic Studies and Asian American Studies, where now, I have the opportunity to teach. As an educator, I have the privilege of teaching Filipino Lit classes, and developing Filipino/a Lit curricula in USF’s Yuchengco Philippine Studies Program. Yes, an endowed program, which we are lucky and privileged to have, and not to squander.

This is all very precious to me. And you may be thinking of other applications and connotations of “precious,” as you read this. As I’ve said, these are opportunities not to squander, and never to take for granted. I will not romanticize my position as one peripheral to institution, martyr to institution. Yes, I work full time. Sometimes I work three jobs. Next semester, four. I do this because I love it and because I can. I love the opportunities to teach what I love most, to interact and dialogue with, to guide students of color into all kinds of wonderful and profound realizations, to witness the growth/widening of their creative, critical, and intellectual selves. And I continue to learn. I have been learning how to pare down on my curricula, to focus, deepen a conversation, to give this more rigor rather than conduct too many conversations at once, to return to a text again and again, and really continue to open each text and myself. I get to do this with Filipino authored texts.

I also get to do this as an author myself, an artist in the hustle. I will not romanticize any kind of class struggle or class division, no creative underclass. There is no suffering here. Just a lot of work, a lot of joy. Let this always be concrete, and steeped in praxis — doing and making. Thoughtful, reflective, calculated doing and making. Always with conviction, always with smarts. Make mistakes as we all do, revise the plan when necessary, and then move on. In the process, making and widening the creative and community space.

Noteworthy from this weekend’s book festival was the Meritage Press panel featuring Michelle Bautista, Jean Vengua, Gayle Romasanta, Aileen Ibardaloza, and Karen Llagas, on women authors and work. What I loved about that discussion was that work was necessary. Bottom line, You live, you and your family live. You hustle, you multitask, you prioritize, you negotiate. You make the space wherever you can, for a creative life and a creative self. You let your life be all of these things, and you find the communities and work that concretely enable you, that support you and your manifold possibilities. Also noteworthy from this weekend’s book festival was Melissa Sipin’s panel of emerging writers, which included Grace Burns, Janice Sapigao, Maria Vallarta, Trinidad Escobar, and others. It was great to see and hear various emergences, all very thoughtful and brave.

I joke about how in my family, a family of all sisters, my sisters and I never called one another Ate and Ading, etc. But in the Filipina American literary community, I’ve found Ates, and many younger Pinays have made me their Ate. This literary and community sisterhood is challenging; I come into it the way I live as a sister to some strong and strong-minded, independent biological sisters. We give one another a lot of space to make decisions, to live and work and do. We do this without a lot of verbiage. Filipina American literary sisterhood is a little bit different; as wordsmiths, more dialogue and more face time seem to be a requirement. So then I value these community spaces, and classrooms where the dialogue and face time happen.

So then, my takeaway from the weekend — and I haven’t event talked about Litquake, or the million amazing conversations had with various good people — was about making space and time, prioritizing, and never asking for permission to do so.