WE: Pilipinx Poetics, Kapwa Poetics

[L-R: PJ Gubatina Policarpio, Catalina Cariaga, Barbara Jane Reyes, Shirley Ancheta. Photo credit: Anthony Bongco]

Lookit us, how we’ve aged. I’ve known Shirley Ancheta and Catalina Cariaga since I was in my 20s, maybe younger, coming into Bay Area Filipino American poetry. I knew Shirley from Kearny Street Workshop (KSW) and Bay Area Pilipino American Writers (BAPAW). I wrote about her at the Best American Poetry blog a while back, so please do read about her there.  One of many memories I have is of a BAPAW reading we did in the mid-1990s, at the Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco. Then, the I-Hotel was a gigantic hole in the ground, one I’d known most of my life. Our venue overlooked that hole. That was the point. Shirley and I were the only women poets on the mic, and this was a very common experience in these multi-generational Filipino American poetry events, and any discussions about Filipino American history. I’ve always voiced my thoughts on that gender imbalance, much to the impatience of my male elders. Shirley always appeared much more gracious than I.

Anyway, while the other poets’ works were about the manongs, and about the I-Hotel struggle, while the other poets were descendants of manongs, I represented a newer generation, the middle class, post-1965 Filipino American immigrant, who grew up in suburban tract homes. My poems about the I-Hotel could not imagine anything but that hole in that decades-long ground — you can see this in Gravities of Center and Poeta en San Francisco. I didn’t think I had a place among these poets, but Shirley, Jeff Tagami, and Jaime Jacinto always made sure to welcome me, let me in for who I am.

In Shirley’s poems, there was a Pinay speaker, and Pinay subjects, and Pinay inner voice that I’d rarely read or heard. Surely, Jessica Hagedorn’s got some fierce and flawed Filipinas in the world in her poetry; Shirley’s I thought of as  deeply interior-focused.

Catalina Cariaga is another Pinay poet with a special place in my heart, and in my poetics. When she was doing her MFA at San Francisco State University, I started seeing her read her poems at a lot of local events, both Filipino American, and Bay Area poetics scenes. I would listen to her work, and not be able to access it. I didn’t know what she was doing, what she was trying to do. Her performance aesthetic was nothing I was accustomed to. I didn’t know what to do with/about her poetry. I did sense it was important poetry; she wrote about Flor Contemplacion, though not exactly about her. Catie wrote about a lot of noise and distance between Flor, and her poetic I. I can say this now, but I didn’t know this then.

Then one day, her book, Cultural Evidence came out. I was taking a poetry class at Berkeley City College, and slowly being introduced to “experimental” and “avant garde” poetries. I picked up her book, saw that she was doing something different on the page, and then a big fucking light bulb went on over my head. I had to experience this work on the page. And then being able to experience/interact with the work on the page enabled me to really hear her when I would see her in performance.

When I introduced Catie the other day at the Asian Art Museum, I said that what Catie taught me was what to do with the poem on the page. We generally know, instinctively, what to do with our voices, how to wield them. The page, not so much. I should have said, it takes practice, and finesse, and patience. It takes the ability and smarts and work ethic to not fall into gimmick. You have to think about the placement of the words, of course the breaking of the lines, and you have to think about the blank/white spaces. How do you balance these things, how do you negotiate the tension and harmony.

All of this to say I am still punch drunk about last Thursday’s event. I was remembering today, when Lynn Procope and Oscar invited me to read for louderARTS at Bar 13 in NYC back in the day, we agreed upon the “pinion” format, in which I got to choose my co-readers, for how I was connected to them and them to me, for how our presences are mutually resonant. I chose Jessica Hagedorn, Bino A. Realuyo, and Anthem Salgado to read with me. This is like triangulating community. This is how you share poetic space, rather than hoard it.

This is also kapwa. I love it.

Pilipinx American Library: “I dreamt of a place to gather…”

I have so many thoughts, about where and how we gather.

I have written in the past, at the Poetry Foundation blog, for example, in a blog post I can’t find, about how lively our spaces are. We bring food, we do things oftentimes palengke style, and we make a ruckus, the volume is loud, and I love it. And then, as a reader, and as an author for whom solitary time is crucial to what I do, and who I am, I need to retreat from the ruckus and think.

Yesterday, I wrote about how it was so great, to see all of these folks, sitting in the resource room, reading, picking up books that looked interesting to them, and then taking some time with these books, and then sharing with one another what they were finding. It was lovely, to have what are usually solitary moments, and moments of realization, occurring in this public space.

So, I compare this with so many of the other events in which I participate or attend.

When we did Kuwentuhan for CWF, we turned the stage into a large dinner table. The focus of the room shifted, and so did “audience” and “performer.”

For other events, literature can get lost in the fray, too much time is dedicated to speechifying, and to over-explaining to attendees why they must value such-and-such. In these settings, the work itself is no longer there for attendees to find their own meaning, or to create their own relationships. Over-explanation, the death of one’s own process of discovery.

I loved about the Pilipinx American Library opening event, that speeches were pretty non-existent — welcomes, thanks, and then the work, contextualized with discretion by the writers. And then the focus, the library, and the space in which to read. Of course, these are all mediated things, but as a friend recently said, it was elegant. I love this, the ability to move instinctively through a space without being pushed around, herded, or shouted at, without needing a complex set of instructions.

I love a gathering space that can communicate openness of minds and thinking, in which one who has come into the space does not have to be jerked this way and that, spoken at. That even those with perceived “authority” and “status,” can project openness.

Pilipinx American Library at the Asian Art Museum


I admit it; Filipinx authored books are absolutely normalized in my life, and have been for some time. But this has not always been the case. I tell this story a lot, about being 19 years old, about Jessica Hagedorn’s Dogeaters coming into my life then, when I was an undergrad adrift at UC Berkeley, and that the book in my hands meant everything to me.

It didn’t matter to me then, how well-reviewed the book was, or that it was published by a NYC “big five” publisher, or that it was an award winner, although those things are what enabled that book to get into my hands. I didn’t know that. What I knew was that a Pinay writer from San Francisco had become an author, and that her book was in the world for me to read. I didn’t “get” Dogeaters the first or second time I read it. I wasn’t ready. But that hardbound first edition has been on my bookshelf since 1990. So I had plenty of opportunity to revisit it on my own schedule and on my own terms.

This is the beauty of book. It remains in your home, in your space, and you come to it many times, oftentimes before you are ready. And then one day, you find you have grown up and that now you understand.

I say all this now, because last night’s Pilipinx American Library event at the Asian Art Museum showed me something I am not accustomed to seeing — many people, many of whom are Filipino/Filipinx, sitting down, reading Filipinx authored books. Some were quietly sitting at the big table, some in beanbags, as if in their own Ikea furnished living room, reading because they had interest and curiosity, and not because I have assigned them 200 pages to read by next Thursday.

If people are in “the industry,” then they talk about biz stuff, talk my ears off about CV items, applying to such-and-such residencies, a lot of busywork. If people are aspiring writers, they will ask me questions about how I came to write, how was I able to start publishing. I gauge their interest as I start talking about my private notebooks and MS Word files from when I was in my teens and twenties, to Maganda magazine, to Creative Writing class at Berkeley City College, to my first DIY chapbook, to SFSU’s MFA program. I tell them about finding mentors and teachers, finding a writing community, and about reading. If they’re really not interested, if they are asking me these things for various other reasons (such as, can you hook me up with your publisher because I wrote a book too and here it is), then I’ll end the story with some open-ended encouragement, and thank them.

Most people are not in “the industry.” They’re people who may read books when they can or if they find one that sounds interesting to them. At community events with multiple attractions and stimuli, books and writers can get relegated to the background because they’re not flashy and performative, and because reading is generally a solitary activity.

So to see this reading room filled with many Filipinx folks looking through books, reading, sharing what they find interesting with their friends and others around them was so great. In our super communal community, how do we take a solitary activity like reading, and make it communal.

Rommel Conclara of ABS CBN interviewed me last night. He asked me what this meant, to have our books in this space. I did talk about the recognition; how big and ubiquitous is our community in the Bay Area, in San Francisco alone, and how little representation we have at the San Francisco institution that is the Asian Art Museum (in fact, I was told the many Filipino security guards at the museum were so excited about this event; when I checked in, I gave them my last name, and they first asked with much excitement, “Reyes? Oh, are you related to the poet? We’re going to have a Filipino poet here!”) — but more so in my purview was the importance of being a young and hungry Filipinx American, holding a Filipinx authored book in their hands, seeing that someone, many someones just like them were capable of creating this thing — how they can take that with them into their lives, and how this is everything.

Thank you to Shirley Ancheta and Catalina Cariaga, whose poems, whose presence reaffirmed for me why I do what I do. Thank you to PJ Gubatino Policarpio for this beautiful and necessary Pilipinx American Library, for carrying out this vision — as Manong Al Robles wrote, “I dreamt of a place to gather,” — and thank you to Marc Mayer of the Asian Art Museum, for having us in this space, and for knowing and understanding why it was important for the museum store to carry our books. Every single copy of Invocation to Daughters sold last night. I signed so many books for so many young (and not so young!) WOC whose eyes were so lit up, so much warmth, so much heart, so much adrenaline.

To quote a fellow Pinay author, “last night was like going to church.”

#NationalPoetryMonth #APIA #Poetry Day 7: José Garcia Villa

[I am so behind on this! But here we go; I shall try to catch up.]

This month, I shall be posting one APIA poet (or book) recommendation per day, so that all of you who are asking me what to read will know what to read.

Today’s recommendation is José Garcia Villa. Know history, know self, people. I don’t get the “Art for art’s sake” label/judgment imposed upon Villa. He was a poet of immense ideas, God, divinity, the meaning of human life within this context. Poetry was his vehicle for exploring that kind of immense meaning. How is this art for sake of itself. To me, it is art for sake of humanity, no mere navel gazing affair.

Villa is also known for his invention and innovation. Here, I am referring to his comma poems, and to his reverse consonance rhyming. And actually, what interests me about reverse consonance is what he wrote: “this new rhyme method is subtler and stricter, and less obtrusive on the ear, than ordinary consonance.” Compare the music of his reverse consonance poems to his sonnet, “First, a poem must be magical,” in which his lines, meant to sing, to me, singsong instead. I wonder whether that singsong takes away from the largeness of the poem’s intent. So then, rather than just do away with poetic constraint, the poet finds other, more appropriate poetic constraints. Lesser poets would make themselves accept the singsong (or not even know they are singsonging), or abandon poetic constraint altogether. But a poem is a container for language, to house big, big ideas and beliefs.

Here’s Ned O’Gorman in 1959 in Poetry magazine: “It is perhaps true to say that Jose Garcia Villa’s vision and understanding are considerable. But his poetry is unachieved. In the end it is a failure. The artifact shatters under close study. For Mr. Villa has not yet found a language that can contain a vision so immense and theological.”

My last thought for now on Villa is the “Doveglion,” the hybrid dove, eagle, lion, whose country is not land and commerce, but the “strange country” with “no boundaries,” inhabited by “Earth Angels.” Open yourselves to the bigger implications here, rather than dwelling in surface/cliché reaction that casts Villa as a wacky artist stereotype. Also, think about why a Filipino poet, decades in America, would create a hybrid mythical identity and nation to inhabit. He was, as e.e. cummings wrote about him in the poem, “Dovegion,” looking for a new, different way of seeing.

National Poetry Month APIA Poets:

04/01 Rajiv Mohabir

04/02 Amanda Ngoho Reavey

04/03 Truong Tran

04/04 Al Robles

04/05 Kay Ulanday Barrett, Sokunthary Svay, Jane Wong, Khaty Xiong

04/06 Virginia Cerenio, Jaime Jacinto, Jeff Tagami

#NationalPoetryMonth #APIA #Poetry Day 6: Virginia Cerenio, Jaime Jacinto, Jeff Tagami

This month, I shall be posting one APIA poet (or book) recommendation per day, so that all of you who are asking me what to read will know what to read. Actually, I am breaking my own rule. Here are three Bay Area Kearny Street Workshop Fil Am authors Virginia Cerenio, Jaime Jacinto, and Jeff Tagami.

These three are revered elder poets published by a revered, historically important, San Francisco based, APIA specific indie publisher. These authors published one book apiece, and I wish there could have been so much more from them (Tagami passed away a few years ago). At the time of their publication, I, we had never seen poetry like this, necessarily Fil Am specific and Fil Am centered poetry. It felt homegrown, poems constructed from historical, poetic instinct, but don’t think this means it’s synonymous with unrefined or undisciplined. This work made me see what I could be capable of producing myself. There was a massive historical and literary void; they filled it.

National Poetry Month APIA Poets:

04/01 Rajiv Mohabir

04/02 Amanda Ngoho Reavey

04/03 Truong Tran

04/04 Al Robles

04/05 Kay Ulanday Barrett, Sokunthary Svay, Jane Wong, Khaty Xiong