Essay: To Decenter English (Re: the Forked Tongue!)

Dredging my Google Drive for my essays continues! This one is forthcoming in the Wesleyan University Press poetics volume, American Poets in the 21st Century: Poetics of Social Engagement. This coincides with some really great FB discussions I am having (who knew we could have really great FB discussions) about Pinays and liminality, shapeshifting and resistance. I love the forked tongue metaphor, calling back to our being monsters, monstrosities, aswangs. And that somehow, we are tapping into a self-knowledge that we weren’t meant to have? Or that it’s inconvenient for others that we have this kind of self-knowledge.

To Decenter English

Lately, I have been asking myself, what would it look like, to truly decenter English in my poetry?

As is frequently noted about my poetry, it is multilingual, incorporating Spanish, modern Tagalog, and Baybayin/pre-hispanic Tagalog script into its predominantly English poetic body. “Incorporate,” indicates subsumption, assimilation into a dominant body. This is problematic and insufficient to me, as the body is still identified as an English one. Other non-English elements are viewed as ancillary, and even embellishment. I used to think that not to italicizing the “foreign” words in my poems was a form of dissent that would challenge the reader’s assumptions of foreignness. I continue not to italicize, though these days, I question whether that affects readers’ perceptions at all.

And so we must question English. A quick internet search will tell you that Filipinos have been ruled in English since 1898, and instructed in English since 1901. Question though, whether Filipinos are fluent in English — what constitutes fluency, what qualifies as fluency, especially in a (post)(neo)colonially stratified society — or whether Filipinos know enough English in order to mimic, but more so to be ruled and instructed, to execute basic commands. Question also: Which English? Whose English? The poet Jaime Jacinto once used the term, “subtracted bilingual,” to describe people like us, our fluency in our elders’ tongues disrupted by American education. Look up: Tag-lish. Code Switch. But do not assume all Filipinos are Tagalog speakers.

Question understanding, comprehension, readability — question whose understanding, whose comprehension. Readability for whom?

I was raised and almost exclusively educated in the USA (I spent one semester at University of the Philippines at Diliman), and still, these questions of language do pertain to me. For many of my parents’ and other elders’ generations of Philippine emigrants, I have learned they never feel entirely “at home” in English. My interactions and communications with them exist in a perpetual state of translation, or in some kind of third space. We collaborate, oftentimes clumsily, in an effort to agree upon meanings. Much of our system of communication is comprised of gesture, tone, and volume. Mostly, we remain in various states of disconnect. Can my poetry ever reach them, and if not, then have I failed as a poet.

In college, I took two semesters of Tagalog language classes. While I would like to think these classes helped bridge some of this aforementioned disconnect, we also learned a formal Tagalog that felt socially strange to employ. “Ikinagagalak ko pong makilala kayo,” for example, was not a phrase anyone I knew ever used. Perhaps it amused my parents to hear me say such things, though they themselves would simply say, “Nice to meet you.”

In the 1990s, I was introduced to the Quezon City based songwriter Joey Ayala, who hails from the island of Mindanao in the Southern Philippines, a non-Tagalog speaking region. Around this same time, I was also introduced to the Philippine film, Sakay (Raymond Red, 1993). What struck me then was that the language of Ayala’s songs and Red’s cinematic dialogues was a Tagalog so poetic and deep, such words I had never heard before. I wanted to use these in my poetry. They were so beautiful.

But as my parents’ generation were educated in English (see above, re: fluency), and had lived in America for decades. I learned I could not assume my parents could even access the meanings of such “deep” words. To quote my father, whom I think of as fluent in Tagalog, definitely more “at home” in Tagalog than in English: “No, we never use those words,” and “no, those are not words that I know.”

Today, what it means for me to be stuck between languages, and what it means for my father to be stuck between languages are two different things entirely. I want to say I write for my parents. Up until the day he died, my father never read my poetry. I can’t take this personally.

So then we must also question: Which Tagalog? Whose Tagalog? And how thick and impenetrable is that colonial residue which has made Filipinos ignorant of their own Mother Tongues? (Though, to be fair, American speakers of various creole Englishes experience alienation from “standard,” “formal,” “academic,” “institutional” English.)

I grew up in a household that spoke and/or listened in Tagalog, Ilocano, and English interchangeably. Code switch is our real lingua franca. Addressee has always been a factor deciding which language and combination of languages to employ — for inclusion, but also exclusion (Tayo or kami? Atin or amin?), tracking who does not understand which languages, and who understands how much or how little of each language. This is how you tell “secrets.” This is how you tsismis (chisme/gossip). Perhaps this is why some monolingual folks harbor suspicion for those of us who (must) operate in multiple languages, who appear to flow unimpeded between them. What slippery motives we must have. What wily Filipinos we all are.

To further complicate language, I know very few Filipinos and Filipino Americans who actually read Baybayin, which I had never seen nor heard of until college. My parents had never seen it either. I never knew the Philippines had its own systems of writing (of which the Tagalog Baybayin is just one; Hanunóo and Tagbanua are others); this is also colonial mentality, the uncritical assumption that the West brought us literacy and literature. A quick internet search may tell you that pre-conquest, Baybayin was written on impermanent materials (tree bark, bamboo), and used for such things as personal letters and poetry. These days, Baybayin seems to be more of a thing to be looked at. We tattoo the symbols on our bodies, and so then we must translate our bodies upon demand.

A colleague in graduate school once said to me, “Don’t use foreign language just because you can,” and I swear, I wanted to lunge across the table at him and to sink my fist into his smug, white, hipster face for his tone of inconvenience. But it is offensive also to be told that it’s as simple as writing in whichever one language I am most comfortable with. Either English or Tagalog. That too tidy to be realistic “or” is what I resent, am constantly resisting, and ultimately, would like to decenter. And this is why my speakers and personae are constantly composing polyglot lyric, breaking and reconfiguring language, translating and mistranslating, forking their tongues.

Essay: Towards a Pinay “We” Poetics

Source: AP News Photo
Source: AP News Photo

Part of my work progress and process on the Some Brown Girl: Notes on Pinay Liminality manuscript will be a refocus of this blog space, hence the website title change. I will be writing up a concise explanation of what “Pinay Liminality,” is, as I have been teaching it in my Filipina Literature class in USF’s Yuchengco Philippine Studies Program, as I have been working on it in my own writings and mentorship.

Speaking of mentorship, please have a look at this phenomenal work my students have done on Pinay Liminality. I love this so much; they deserve so much props and shout out for taking this classroom work into their own lives and spaces.

I want to post this following essay here: “Towards a Pinay ‘We’ Poetics,” which I had submitted for publication, though it sounds like — after some email correspondences with the editors — this project was cancelled or placed on indefinite hiatus. I had “rediscovered” this essay while searching my Google Drive for other works, and it is well worth putting into the world. It will be included in the Some Brown Girl manuscript.

Towards a Pinay “We” Poetics

I am interested in a “we” poetics. “We” is a persona in which I’ve been writing for a long time now, and even my “I” is a “we.” This came to my attention fully when poet Nathaniel Mackey articulated this “we,” in his discussion about the ongoing emergence journey of a people in his serial poem, “Song of the Andoumboulou.” This “we” appeals to me as a Filipina; I was raised in a culture of “we.” There are two Tagalog terms, pakikisama, and bayanihan, which speak to the social value of this “we” in practice. We are valued as members of a larger whole, in interaction and relation to others within this larger whole. We know ourselves as members of a larger whole, in interaction and relation to others within this larger whole.

Poetically, I also come from a tradition of a “we”; think of the community organizer, activist Filipino American poets Carlos Bulosan and Al Robles. While Robles wrote in Rappin’ With Ten Thousand Carabaos in the Dark, about and in the voices of the Manongs, the West Coast Filipino American migrant laborers of the early twentieth century, a socialism-oriented Bulosan invoked Whitmanesque multitudes of working men in “If You Want to Know What We Are.” I, too, have attempted to write as “the people,” this Filipino multitude:

We, Malakas and Maganda
We, Moluccas and Magellan
We, Devil and Dogeater
We, Starfruit and Sampaguita
We, Malakas and Maganda
We, Pepe and Pilar
We, Devil and Dogeater
We, Coconut and Crab
We, Malakas and Maganda
We, Eskinol and ESL
We, Devil and Dogeater
We, Igorot and Imelda
We, Malakas and Maganda
We, B-boy and Bulosan
We, Devil and Dogeater
We, Subic Bay and Stockton
We, Malakas and Maganda
We, Gangsta Rap and Galleon Trade
We, Devil and Dogeater
We, Comfort Woman and Carabao
We, Malakas and Maganda
We, Lea Salonga and Lapu-Lapu
We, Devil and Dogeater
We, TnT and Taguba
We, Malakas and Maganda

I think of this poem as conventionally “masculine”; I am acutely aware that I have already cited more male poets speaking as “the people,” in an essay about Pinay “we” poetics. I have previously written an essay on women of color and reticence*. I reject reticence as a natural state, and instead witness women writers of color ignored, or bullied into the interior provinces of the domestic, the personal, and private, while the men charge themselves with handling the “official story,” representing “the people,” addressing the outside world. Ultimately, many women are barred from being so ambitious as to speak on that “too big” outside world, effectively silenced. This is one contradition I am trying to unravel; the fine details of our everyday lives comprise a human being, communities of human beings, and the cultures of communities of human beings in the world. Writing these details then, should be regarded as ambitious.

With my third book, Diwata, I was centrally concerned with myth-making, and writing the Pinay version of Leslie Marmon Silko’s Storyteller. Indeed, Silko’s Storyteller was, along with a stack of books by Eduardo Galeano, a springboard for Diwata, as I tried to write in the voices of elder storytellers, to remember the stories they told, and the ones they never told. What intimate, unwritten knowledge, what “unofficial story,” do we hold in our memories and private spaces? What stories do we know in our bones, from having heard them so many times? What stories do we all collaboratively participate in telling? As women, how do these old mythic stories of mermaids and aswangs still hold relevance in the 21st century? Do we still need them (the stories, the tellers, the mermaids and aswangs)? What responsibility do we have to be the bearers and tellers of story, especially since many of these these elder storytellers have passed away?

Now, we are in danger of becoming disconnected, brown-skinned, immigrant American girls and women, living in American cities, besieged by a technology in which I find so much noise and so little wisdom, and which facilitates so little meaningful interaction or coming together of community and family into our sacred gathering spaces, our kitchen tables, our campfires and hearths. Revisiting Joy Harjo’s poem, “Perhaps the World Ends Here,” reminds us why these spaces are so important:

This table has been a house in the rain, an umbrella in the sun.

Wars have begun and ended at this table. It is a place to hide in the shadow of terror. A place to celebrate the terrible victory.

We have given birth on this table, and have prepared our parents for burial here.

Discontended with thoughtless and passive online “community,” I want to demand something else. As an author, I have to ask whether the book can become our table and hearth, our sacred gathering space in which we may all collaboratively participate in the telling.

As Pinays, we constantly resist silence; many of us know the pain of having been mothered by silenced women. From within a culture of we, silence can be construed as consent, and dissent as an inconvenience, an alien, undesirable element undermining consensus and community. To dissent and to demand is to be a bitch. We dissent, are privately thanked and publicly alienated, as other women police the boundaries of acceptable thought, social behavior, and speech. This reprisal breaks my heart, because we know experientially that we cannot afford not to speak our piece in a world that so casually mistakes us Pinays, no matter how distinguished or accomplished, for nannies, maids, “bar girls,” mail order brides, various girls who service you. This is obscene and offensive, identifying all Filipino women as consenting, purchasable bodies in this commerce.

My second book, Poeta en San Francisco, rails against the international commerce of Filipina bodies, that expectation of being serviced, as has emerged from military, Christian, cultural, economic invasions of the islands. This commerce relies upon the denigration of the Pinay from her original position of social, religious, and civic power, and it relies upon her silence (construed as consent). Poeta en San Francisco rejects that silence (negates that construed consent) by aggressively indicting the Christian missionary, the American soldier, the sex tourist, the Asiaphile, those benefiting from our dehumanization; my position here is often called, “white man hating”:

[why choose pilipinas, remix]

the answer is simple, my friend. pilipinas are noteworthy for their beauty, grace, charm. they are especially noted for their loyalty. their nature is sun sweetened. their smiles downcast, coy. pilipinas possess intrinsic beauty men find delightful and irresistible. pilipinas are family-oriented by essence, resourceful, devoted. what’s more, english is the true official language of the pilipinas, so communication is uncomplicated. and even though some believe in the old ways, the majority of the pilipinas are christian, so you are assured they believe in the one true god you do. foreign, but not too foreign, they assimilate quickly and they do not make a fuss. in short, the pilipinas are custom tailored to fit your diverse needs.

now will that be cash or charge?

I culled the above text, “found poetry” from a Filipina mail order bride website; it is actual testimonial from satisfied customers, serving as marketing material for those men on the fence about purchasing a Filipina over girls from other impoverished nations.

I am a poet because I believe poems can effectively resist silence, and I believe in, as June Jordan has written, poetry as a humanizing project. In writing against the Filipina mail order bride dehumanization demonstrated above, the self-representation should be truly collective, not spoken in an imposed, singular Pinay voice silencing other Pinay voices.

If we collaboratively participate in the telling, then what does that look and sound like? That’s what I wanted to try to write next. I began to wonder whether overcoming Pinay silence could be as simple as asking a group of Pinays a series of questions, and opening up the space to answer. I have followed Bhanu Kapil’s example of gathering questionnaire responses from other South Asian women for her book, The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers. In her introduction, Kapil writes, “Is it possible for you to say the thing you have never been able to say, even to the one you have spent your whole life loving?” She aimed for an uncensored “honest and swift” text, and I’d wondered if any conditions we set up could really ensure such pure, unbolstered results.

I was also influenced by Claire Kageyama-Ramakrishnan’s poem, “One Question, Several Answers,” in which an unseen speaker asks the same one question, “Where did your father live?” again and again. The addressee appears to have no choice but to keep answering. From her responses to this persistent questioning, a picture of her father’s life in the WWII Japanese internment camps emerges, gains color, dimension, detail, and sadness.

I posted a call for participants on various Filipino artist and community listservs, and many Pinays wrote back to me, not to participate or to voice any opinion on the project. They wrote to me to make their presence known, either as private gestures of solidarity, or so that I could acknowledge them, which confirmed for me the need to be visible (or to overcome invisibility), and to be heard (or to overcome silence or being silenced).

I was disappointed but not surprised at the small number of Pinays who voiced interest in participating, and in the smaller number of Pinays who followed through, and responded to my questions about body, self-image, mothering, daughtering, home, voice, worry, and ritual. What I wanted to know: If we can speak for ourselves, then what are we saying about ourselves, how do we represent ourselves, what is privately and socially important to us. What’s really eating at us when we’re looking in the mirror, preoccupied with applying lipstick, dreading going on a diet (think unforgiving full-length mirror here) before we rush off to the next errand, task, or chore.

In the spirit of Anne Waldman’s “Fast Speaking Woman,” and her predecessor María Sabina, I have come to craft these Pinay responses into trance-like, incantatory bursts. In the spirit of Diwata, woman’s voice is wind, woman’s body is earth; woman is muse, deity, and poet, and these responses become woman-centric genealogies, prayers to our mothers and to ourselves:

Daughter of reinvented selves, she of the new names.

Daughter of Evangeline la Reina, daughter of Eve.

Daughter of Maria la China, she of the rice powdered face.

Daughter of Praxedes Adviento, she with the tree trunk arms.

Daughter of Trinidad y Adoracion, storytellers who do not speak.

Daughter of Everilda, lady of sharp tongued gossip.

Daughter of Rufina, maker of dresses, lover of orchids.

Daughter of Florentina, pursued by American soldiers.

Daughter of Leyteño peasant, daughter of .22 long rifle.


Daughter of Morena, we lift our eyes to the sun.

Daughter of Kayumanggi, we warm ourselves in your earth.

Litany, participatory prayer and procession, has been one of my organizing principles; repetition as affirmation, reinforcement, assertion, and public demonstration.

Mother of mother’s compassion.

Mother of are you eating enough.

Mother of put that away.

Mother of clean this up.

Mother of make your bed.

Mother of do your homework.

Mother of shut off the lights.

Mother of you’re so beautiful.

I am interested in these prayer-like forms elevating the domestic work which has been used to debase and silence us, as in poet Irene Faye Duller’s words, “I am the maid of the world, and the world has made me dirty.” Can we also be Whitmanesque multitudes of Pinays, speaking for ourselves, living, working, in which the voices and work of women are elevated, in which we are not just humanized, but even deified. This is the gist of the book I am currently writing.

As I have been blogging my thoughts on Pinay poetics, writing this essay, and thinking more about this book project, I have just heard from Tina Bartolome, a Pinay writer and San Francisco native, now finishing her MFA at Indiana University. I clicked over to her blog, and have found a treasure of thoughtful writing on her “literary universe,” as a politicized Pinay writer. I appreciate and need this resonance; certainly, now as I write more and more about this Pinay “we” poetics, I want to be able to articulate clearly what storytelling can do. Here are some points Tina has outlined:

  • Storytelling as taking inventory
  • Storytelling as collective memory
  • Storytelling as paying homage
  • Storytelling as a comrade to social change (a conversation in progress)

She elaborates on the last point by quoting Martín Espada’s Zapata’s Disciple: “Any oppressive social condition, before it can be changed, must be named and condemned in words that persuade by stirring the emotions, awakening the senses. Thus, the need for the political imagination.” And then further down in her post, Tina tells us she wants writing to “mess with hegemony.”

I recall Hayan Charara’s essay, which was his NEA Author Statement, “Animals: On the Role of the Poet in a Country at War,” in Perihelion:

And while I don’t believe that poems will keep bombs from falling on schools, or bullets from entering bodies, or tanks from rolling over houses, or men or women or children from being humiliated, poetry insists on the humanity of people, which violence steals away; and poems advocate the power of the imagination, which violence seeks to destroy. Poets change the world. I don’t mean literally, though some try. I mean with words, with language, they take the many things of this world and make them new, and when we read poems, we know the world and its many things differently—it might not be a better or worse place than the one we live in—just different—but without the imagination, without poetry, I don’t believe that the world as most of us know it would be tolerable.

This is messing with hegemony, to insist upon poetry as a humanizing project, through which we may imagine, envision something other that what we’re given, and inspire others to do the same — to think, to speak, to write, and to act in ways other than what is officially sanctioned. This is storytelling as transformative experience. Imagine Pinays transformed in international perception from consenting, silenced, servicing bodies in commerce into dignified human beings in the world; this transformation is facilitated in large part by art, literature, and cultural productions that we create, centering the Pinay, and portraying ourselves as speaking and acting human beings exercising free will and demanding to be heard.

Concerning “activism,” I fear I am abstract; poems will not, as Charara writes, “keep bombs from falling on schools, or bullets from entering bodies, or tanks from rolling over houses.” Still, considering the silences and noise of our everyday lives, I want neither of these. I want and need something else. Pinays are capable of so much bravery, and I need to connect with other Pinays who are brave, emboldened, who have opinions about the world, about art, about cultural movements, who are willing to engage in civil public discourse about these things—not just “thumbs up,” not just “like,” not just link. I believe these are the beginnings of a Pinay “we” poetics that messes with hegemony.

Oakland, CA

* My essay, “On Feminism, Women of Color, Poetics, and Reticence: Some Considerations,” was first published in XCP: Cross Cultural Poetics #20, and reprinted in A Megaphone (Chain Links, 2011).

[Manuscript Progress] Some Brown Girl: Notes on Pinay Liminality, Including My Old Essay, “On Feminism, Women of Color, Poetics, and Reticence” In Response to “Numbers Trouble.”

Some Brown Girl: Notes on Pinay Liminality! It’s taking shape!

I’d said I wanted my next manuscript to be more prose poetry and poetic/lyric essay. So prose poems in the first section, essays in the second section.

My current trajectory is about creating bodies of work that are accessible, not because they are dumbed down, but because the “I” and the form offer familiarity, and therefore create entryways for the reader. And because the language is generally more grounded. And as a poet, I get away with not having to write scholarly work. Thank goodness.

I’ve done a not so good job keeping track of all my published essays. I had to go dredge my oldest blog (that dinosaur blogspot blog!) for this particular essay, “On Feminism, Women of Color, Poetics, and Reticence,”  which I wrote in 2007, and which was published in XCP: Cross Cultural Poetics #20, then reprinted in A Megaphone (Chain Links, 2011).

I wrote this essay in response to Juliana Spahr’s and Stephanie Young’s “Numbers Trouble,” which was published in The Chicago Review in 2007. I was trying to give white American female experimental poetics some perspective on WOC. My essay name-drops almost every woman of color author I knew of in 2007. I am re-posting it here with this lovely WOC Rosie the Riveter intersectional feminism image.

On Feminism, Women of Color, Poetics, and Reticence

Subsequent to the Chicago Review’s publishing of Juliana Spahr’s and Stephanie Young’s now notorious essay, “Numbers Trouble,” on gender disparity in the US experimental poetry scene, these two authors initiated a project entitled “Tell US Poets,” and issued a call for information on feminism as it exists for women writers in the world outside of North America. I responded to Spahr and Young, and to my relief, they were both receptive to my criticisms and questions. I asked if they were interested in hearing about American feminisms from the perspective of women writers from communities of color, for I was troubled by what appeared implicit to me in their request for non-North American information: that all women in North America experience and define gender relations, power dynamics, and feminism in the same manner.

This is a dangerous assumption, for Third World conditions exist in North America, in North American countries that are not Canada and the USA, among Native Hawaiians and the First Peoples of Canada, on Native American reservations, in the prison industrial complex, in urban, inner cities, in rural and agricultural settings. I suspect that women in these communities do not have access to the feminism which exists in white American middle class households and their corresponding professional workplaces and educational institutions.

As well, North America is comprised of many immigrant communities (one of which I am a part), who have different beliefs and practices of gender relations, and who live in varying degrees of integration into and isolation from mainstream institutions and popular culture.

And so I have come to both appreciate and resent this, “Tell us what we need to know about feminism in _____,” (fill in blank with a name of a place that isn’t in America) coming from white American women who are middle class and professionals.

Perhaps a “Please,” and a withholding of any initial assumptions would have made me appreciate the request a little bit more. This “Please,” would have made the request sound like a request and not a command. I would have also appreciated an explanation of why the requesters feel they do not know enough or anything at all about the feminism of “other” women, why this information is not something they have found, where they have looked, to whom they have spoken as they have attempted to gather information.

I am critical of the assumption that communities of “others,” or those of “other” places deemphasize feminism because of these “other” communities’ inherent or essential misogyny.

I am critical of the assumption that “other” communities’ misogyny is essential.

I am critical of the assumption that “innovative” poetry coming from these “other” places will abide by the same standards by which “white,” “avant garde” American poetry abides; I find this problematic precisely because these standards are determined by this same “avant garde,” their cultural values and their relationship with English.

As well, I would ask that this American “avant garde” reconsider that we of “other” communities may not group ourselves in the groupings set up for us by those who do not live in our communities.

Consider that Filipino American poets may have more historical and linguistic commonalities with Chicano and Latino poets.

Consider that Filipino American poets may have more aesthetic commonalities with African American poets.

Consider that Filipino American poets may have more oral tradition/storytelling commonalities with Native American poets.

In thinking about what is “innovative” poetry for women of color poets, and in thinking about this alleged reticence of women poets to submit their work to journal and anthology editors for publication, here are a couple of my reference points:

(1) Chris Chen, who curated the Asian American Poetry Now reading at the Berkeley Art Museum in October 2007, discussed “post identity poetry,” for contemporary Asian American poets, as a process of movement and negotiation, between the already used and overused tropes of cultural artifact and sentimentality, and its binary opposite of blanket disavowal of any ethnic identifiers.

Cathy Park Hong’s Dance Dance Revolution reenvisions the American city and American language. Bruna Mori’s Dérive witnesses, engages, and participates in American city and its farthest reaches, via public mass transit. Sarah Gambito’s Matadora persona is full of rage despite her apparent delicacy. Yoko Ono, Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge, Shin Yu Pai, and Eileen Tabios write from visual and conceptual art.

(2) On the Harriet blog of the Poetry Foundation, Rigoberto González reminds us that not all poets are published (yet), or seek print publication. This may be interpreted as reticence but let me offer this possibility: Many poets not widely published are perhaps invested in live and recorded performance, which makes sense for communities for whom oral tradition is underscored over written tradition.

Harryette Mullen’s Muse and Drudge draws from scat’s improvisation, verbal games such as playground rhyme, and the dozens. The chanting of Mazatec curandera María Sabina, and of Tibetan Buddhism, Anne Waldman borrows and utilizes in her incantatory long poem, “Fast Speaking Woman.” In a similar vein, Genny Lim’s incantations draw from and expand her Buddhist traditions, and from Jazz.

Cecilia Vicuña draws upon the quipu tradition of the Andean people, elongating her words as she intones, as one spins fibers into thread. She incorporates actual string into her performance, tying herself to the space, and to her audience. She writes threads of words upon the handwritten pages of Instan.

In Storyteller, Leslie Marmon Silko writes that words set into motion, much like the casting of a spell, cannot simply be taken back. There are consequences to speaking, and so it should not be done lightly or carelessly. Here, word is the thing and the representation of the thing.

Spanning or blending poetry and theatre, Ntozake Shange’s choreopoem, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf, is performed by an ensemble of women. Jessica Hagedorn, one of the original Colored Girls, has performed her poetic work with her rock band, the West Coast Gangster Choir. We can consider the ensemble poetic performance productions of Aimee Suzara’s Pagbabalik, and Maiana Minahal’s Before Their Words as descendants of Shange’s Colored Girls and Hagedorn’s Gangster Choir.

An emphasis on oral tradition in part explains the popularity of Def Poetry, slam poetry, poetry performed with music, not because it’s “new” and “innovative” a thing to do, but because certain types of music are simply a part of the oral tradition. We see Hip-hop poets as descendants of the Black Arts and Jazz Poets, Gwendolyn Brooks, Jayne Cortez, Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni. This Hip-hop generation includes such poets as LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs, Ishle Yi Park, Tara Betts, Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai, Aya De León, Staceyann Chin, and Chinaka Hodge. We see many of these poets actively pursuing publication, literary awards, graduate degrees, writing and teaching fellowships, acceptance and participation in artist in residency programs, and professorships.

Still, another reason for this perceived “reticence” of women writers of color to publish also has to do with a general and justifiable distrust of American letters and Western institutions. I say “justifiable,” for the historical exclusion women of color voices from American letters, but I am also wary of blanket rejections of poetry written by women of color who are products of MFA programs, erroneously thought of as not ethnic enough, not political enough, not invested in, not informed by the communities from which these writers come.

A member of an Asian American writers’ list serve some years ago attempted to make the argument that the poetry of Myung Mi Kim did not speak to the Asian American experience because Kim was a “Language Poet.” Here, I interpret this list serve member’s inaccurate use of the term “Language Poetry” to describe Kim’s fractured usage of language, narrative, and expansive use of white space. But it is precisely these fractures and caesurae in Under Flag which embody and enact some Korean Americans’ experiences of war, American Occupation, and subsequent displacement from their homeland, of struggling to learn new language and culture, and of negotiating between what is native, acquired, and imposed.

Catalina Cariaga’s Cultural Evidence, in using white space and invented poetic form; Tsering Wangmo Dhompa’s In the Absent Everyday, in questioning English words’ conventional meanings; and Heather Nagami’s Hostile, in examining translation and in criticisms of Asian American tropes are descendants of Kim’s numerous works.

What is “innovative” in our communities then includes various permutations of code switching, translating, fracturing language, polyglottism, vernaculars; integrating performance and music onto the page presentation; integrating our own cultures’ art, oral, and poetic forms into written English and Western poetic forms.

Debra Kang Dean’s Precipitates synthesizes koan and haiku with American Transcendentalism. Michelle Bautista’s Kali’s Blade integrates the movements of the Filipino martial art, kali, into written free verse. In Teeth, Aracelis Girmay pays very close attention to poetics rhythm and meter which mimic those of the African slaves who worked the American South’s sugar cane fields. Evie Shockley writes sonnet ballads in a half red sea, in the tradition of Gwendolyn Brooks.

Do editors of American publications recognize these innovations? How do these editors read or deal with the “foreign” elements in this work, and especially “foreign” elements that do not abide by these editors’ preconceived notions, assumptions, and prejudices? For example, not all Asian American poets are East Asian. Not all East Asian poets have Buddhist sensibilities. Not all Hip-hop poets are African American. Not all African American poets are Hip-hop. Not all Spanish writing comes from Latino/a and/or Chicano/a poets. Not all ethnic “innovative” poets disavow ethnicity; many enact rather than simply tell.

What happens to the work of “ethnic” poets who do not conform to some American editors’ expectations? How is this work received? Where does that work go? Who publishes it? And so is this reticence when we do not see this work in print?

One major theme I find in the poetic work of women of color is body politics, and its intersections with war, imperialism, race, and ethnicity. Combine these issues with the above explorations of language, vernacular, bilingualism, oral tradition, and performance. How is this work read and received by predominantly white, maybe predominantly male American editors?

Tara Betts and Patricia Smith write about the racially motivated abduction, torture, and extreme sexual abuse of Megan Williams. On the Harriet blog of the Poetry Foundation, Smith posted mug shots of Williams’ assailants, telling us, “This is where poetry comes from.”

In Trimmings and S*PeRM**K*T, Harryette Mullen writes of femininity, fashion accessories, advertising, marketing, and reproduction, in ways that verge upon pornography.

Invoking the spirit of Harryette Mullen’s Sleeping with the Dictionary, Ching-In Chen’s “Ku Li,” utilizes strategies of sound association and wordplay, and in the process, tests her readers’ sensitivities at hearing this racially derogatory term in repetition.

Elizabeth Alexander writes of Saartjie Baartman, popularly known as the Venus Hottentot, whose prominent buttocks and sinus pudoris (elongated labia) placed her body in the Western world as a living display piece or artifact. Her preserved genitals remained on display in Paris, after her death in 1815 and until 1974.

Evie Shockley writes of the Middle Passage, of rivers in the tradition of Langston Hughes (this talk of rivers which influenced Jean-Michel Basquiat), and women who navigate these rivers: Phyllis Wheatley, Gwendolyn Brooks, Sally Hemmings, Billie Holiday, and Anita Hill, to name a few.

Suheir Hammad writes of the plight of Arab women negotiating tradition and war, surviving tradition and war, and of finding and forming alliances and communities with women across ethnicity.

In the largely imagistic, “Spanglish” and “Chinglish” poems of Crazy Melon, Chinese Apple, Frances Chung has written about the inhabitants of New York Chinatown, pushed off the sidewalks and forced to walk in the gutters, Oriental curio objects gazed upon by white tourists.

Maile Arvin writes also of tourism, which continues to push native Hawaiians off their land and away from their depleting natural resources. Arvin also writes of Hawaiian Sovereignty as it permeates every aspect of her poetic speaker’s daily life.

Irene Faye Duller, in considering the global perception of Filipino women as sexual commodity and servant, has written, “I am the maid of the world, and the world has made me dirty.”

I write about Third World women in war and military occupation — Filipina brides, the gang rapes of Iraqi women, the Comfort Women of WWII, linking these power dynamics to pornography.

We are American poets and we are American feminists.

I don’t think we are reticent.


Oakland, CA

Author pre-publication notes on Anxiety and Reticence

Friends, we’re getting close! Invocation to Daughters is due for release November 14. It’s going to come fast.

I’ve just proofread the galleys, and sent my feedback back to the editor. It looks really great, very simple, which is my usual preference. It’s clean. Add this super clean design to the vibrancy of the cover and its colors. I am so pleased. This book is exactly what I want it to be — the publisher I want (and the chillest, most polite editor ever), the content I want, the aesthetics of the design that I love. (Does this ever happen? I’m not sure.)

Maybe the more relevant question though, is why I’m feeling really anxious about this. Specifically, why I’m feeling anxious about this book being released into the world.

Well, readers don’t always love your work. I’ve been raked over the coals before, especially for Poeta en San Francisco, which had some readers not enjoying my “reverse racism,” and “anti-whiteness.” Other readers have gotten catty and bitchy about my work just being published (presumably, in place of theirs — hello, scarcity model) in the first place. Other readers have gotten catty and bitchy about critical acclaim my work has received. Other readers are Filipino Americans who claim I have gotten Filipino-ness wrong, that my work “does not properly represent them,” and especially “the beauty of our culture.” These are things to which I have grown much accustomed.

Some thoughts.

I think part of my pre-publication anxiety has to do with timing. I’ve recently blogged about Lola Eudocia Tomas Pulido, as we’ve read through the narrative/narration of Alex Tizon. So many of my questions and concerns about this story — perhaps they are solely or primarily “writerly” concerns — have to do with Tizon’s narration, versus Lola Eudocio’s narration.

These are not new issues to me or my fellow Pinay writers. We discussed this at our Critical Pinayisms panel a few months ago. How do you tell the stories of these women, and not perpetuate/further the victim narrative. What does it mean to “humanize” a person via your writing. How do you do this. How do you tell these stories, and not appropriate them.

I’ve been thinking and talking about a lot of these things. I was recently interviewed for the NEA Art Works Blog, and one thing we talked about there was my assertion that there is no singular narrative that encompasses our ethnic experience. The same can be said of any individual person. Does/can a single narrative ever do justice to a human being’s entire life lived? My students and I talked about this at the end of the semester — how even a trail of official documents does not sum up the human being’s life. There are so many gaps, so much substance beneath the surface of a label or official status. There are different points of view. There is translation. And so then, how can one book speak for us all, and get it all right. What about the dissent, what about the contradictions, what about the silences and secrets. What about the non-verbal clues and cues.

I return to the discussions I have with my Pinay Lit students about the many ways in which women tell their own stories. That we must ask. That we must listen. Even when we hear something we don’t want to hear.

There is narration, and there is dialogue.

We do not own these stories, so do we have the right to tell them — this is a question that comes up a lot. One response — if we do not tell them, then who will ever know. Alex Tizon told a story (in an enormous venue), and because of this, Lola Eudocia becomes known to us.

I am still chafing from the terrible stuff our community has been processing in the wake of her story. I am overwhelmed with it, the responsibility to “get it right,” in which “right” means what exactly?

I think a large part of it has to do with position in relation to the subject. Are we speaking too much, too loudly, drowning out the voices of others. Have we left space for others to speak their piece. And have we opened up space for others to speak.

There’s this other story at the Philippines-based The Rappler, in which the writer interviews the surviving family members of Cosiang, which is what they called Lola Eudocia. Many things about this story are making me think. There is so much more in this story, including the fact that the writer of The Rappler article gives space for the surviving family members to speak for themselves, in their own native language — printed in Ilocano, with English translation in parentheses. Perhaps for The Atlantic that would not be an option, I don’t know. So I go back to “getting it right.” We get to read the questions they are asking, and the stories they know. There are so many other stories of Cosiang. We can only hope for even more stories, more points of view, more voices. And perhaps that will contribute to a larger picture, with more depth and dimension.

So I am thinking about how to go about “getting it right” in our own writings in/about our community. And for myself, for Invocation to Daughters, I am hoping I am getting my poems right. I can only say I am doing my best to make space for other voices. Which, of course, you may point out is a contradiction, given that this is a work of my authorship. I hope I have asked enough, and I hope I have listened enough. I hope it contributes to a larger picture of “us.”

I also understand why so many writers I know are so reticent, why their writings never leave their notebooks and their closest circles. The blow back is so painful. But we do have to try. Even if we fail spectacularly.




Aswang Poetics

Image: Pacita Abad.

What is Aswang Poetics? Well, it’s not a new thing. As I’ve been engaging in discussions with fellow Pinay writers and authors, and with Pinay students, there’s something about this creature that appeals to us as American Pinays.

In 2017, I would love to get a working group blog going, in which we flesh out what Aswang Poetics is, or can be. For now, notes:

  • Poetics, on the art of writing poetry. Or, thoughts on how and why elements of a text elicit certain (emotional) reader response. So then, the construction of a work itself, form, parts, purpose, complexities, before even getting to “meaning.”
  • Re: decolonization. Something about poetic voice, authorial voice, speakers and narrators whose ability to self-reflect upon her/their historical circumstances. Something also about relationship to the literary industry. Something also about our relationship to readers and audience. Examining our relationship to the White Gaze.
  • Re: Pinayism. Something about our relationships among ourselves. Something about our speakers, narrators, characters, and their relationships to one another as self-identified Pinays. Something about their position in relation to center and margins, and their/our relationships with those who would subsume us.
  • Re: our relationship to Judeo-Christian Western value systems.
  • Re: treatment of gendered social behaviors, speech, subject matter.
  • Historical continuity of Pinays as monstrosities! Transgression, witches, hags, all-in-all examining what it means to be well-behaved (see above, re: gendered social behaviors, et al).
  • So then, this is about our being woke against patriarchy.

This is not new. But it is needed. I am personally tired AF of being expected to make nice, to sit the fuck down, to shut the fuck up, to defer to everyone else when I know that I know what I am talking about. I and we are constantly told we are not authorities on anything except the things we are told to master, in the service of patriarchy.

That’s all I have for now. I will get the blog up soon, so we can write.