For #APIAHeritageMonth, A List #3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OK, more to come!

For #APIAHeritageMonth: A List #2

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

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

People, Poetry ≠ Po Biz.

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

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

That said, list installment #2.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For APIA Heritage Month: A List

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

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

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

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

Nope.

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

That said, my list, part 1.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Critical Pinayisms: Panel of Pinay Artists and Writers at SFSU

Critical Pinayisms. Photo by Valerie Francisco-Menchavez.

Thank you to Maria Vallarta for curating this fantastic panel of Pinay/Pilipinx writers and artists for the National Association for Ethnic Studies Conference at SFSU.

My co-panelists were Angela Peñaredondo, Melissa Sipin, and Karen Villa, and all of us discussed our processes of critical thinking, about practice and praxis in our respective genres. There is so much here, so rather than rehash the amazing and important work each of us is doing, I wanted to talk about a question from Professor Valerie Francisco-Menchavez, about the burden of representation, the reticence and difficulty in telling stories of Pinays — lives and bodies — that have endured trauma, some that have not survived. If you look closely at Valerie’s photo above, you will see in the bottom panel, a list of names that I wrote on the white board:

Jennifer Laude

Izabel Laxamana

Norife Herrera Jones

Julieta Yang

Mary Jane Veloso

I told the attendees/audience to Google these names. And I said a few things about each of them. These are some of the Pinays who inhabit the pages of Invocation to Daughters.

Some background: when I was in college in the 1990s, the names were Flor Contemplacion, and Sarah Balabagan. Filipino women who had fought back against their abusive employers and suffered the consequences of doing so. I told the attendees that when I was an aspiring writer, there were so few Pinays publishing; a full length book authored by a single author who was Pinay was so rare, and so when Jessica Hagedorn became known to me, her very existence made my career as a Pinay author possible. And then some years later, Catalina Cariaga’s book Cultural Evidence was published. Her poem, “Excerpts from Bahala Na!” had Flor Contemplacion at the center, as the speaker sifted through media sound bytes, advertising, emails, and ethnographic text, for any tiny bit of information about Flor’s fate.

I am part of this continuity of Pinay authors, artists, and scholars, working to sift through both the noise of mass media, and its sensationalized and biased reporting of these Pinay lives and/or deaths. If they are reported at all.

To the list of the Pinays I provided, we may add the two Pinays who were central to Karen Villa’s work:

Jacqueline Toves

Abigail Tapia

The challenge is always going to be in the telling. There will probably always be disagreement about how. But it is always necessary that telling happens. This is a point I will not negotiate.

Valerie’s question ultimately came down to how we tell these stories without perpetuating the victim narrative, the suffering Pinay stereotype. In response, Angela talked about complexity and nuance, we all agreed it was about honoring their humanity in our work. I discussed the stereotype being that of erasure, silence, and invisibility. Are these Pinays’ stories ever even told in the first place? I said also it becomes about perspective, and direct address. Asking, addressing. Placing these Pinays in the center of the narrative not as objects to be examined and spoken about, but as people to be asked, to be spoken to as humans are spoken to.

I think this is something we can “get away with” in creative work. We can speak to our “subjects,” cast them as heroines, open space for them to speak.

I am thinking of Valerie’s question some more, and am troubled by the assumptions of thesis and dissertation advisors to caution our Pinay scholars about perpetuating victim narrative, especially when there’s so much erasure and invisibility, and young scholars really trying to figure out how to do right by these Pinays. There’s the horrible truth of their experiences that must be spoken, and we must get past our fear of, aversion to unpleasantness — here, I would like to add the discussion of the ugliness that was a common thread in all our presentations. And as we hone our skills as writers, as we become much more adept at craft, we can better handle this terribleness with compassion and sensitivity — otherwise the work becomes suffering porn and cliché.

Do we own these stories? I don’t think I do. Their stories don’t belong to anyone but them. We are all just doing our part in their telling.

Pinay Poetics, Persisting, Persisting, Walang Hiya

What I’m doing these days.

Well, I am starting to get itchy, restless again. Either from my addiction to jumping into shit and doing, related to my aversion to folks who are (culture that is) perpetually talking about what they’re planning to do. Or because where we’re at as a nation is vile, trashy, intolerable. Being an educator, and being in a field that is about coaxing people into creativity and thoughtfulness means something I should not be taking for granted or squandering.

I have been editing (curating) e-chapbook anthologies of political poetry; I — and many others — have been trying to open what “political poetry” is, what it means to write from a place of political consciousness, from a place of critical and historical awareness, from a place of personal inquiry and intersectionality. So far, one poetry e-chapbook anthology of Pilipinx political poetry, one of women’s political poetry with one more on the way. I want to take this  e-chapbook format to PAWA.

I like this “small” venue, and in general, I like the “small” poetry venue, the DIY ethic, independent of institutional prestige. I like the kinds of intense convergences of aesthetics and poetics that can happen there. Perhaps the term is cross pollination. But am also thinking of the metaphors I’ve been using for my students to understand some elements of the postmodern — mosaics, collages, fractures and fragments that force you to step far back to assess and understand the larger, more apparently cohesive picture.

I have poems and essays forthcoming in a whole bunch of diverse maybe even disparate types of publications both print and internet based, and it’s a matter of patience. I am grateful to be sought after by editors, to have my words mean something especially during such political difficulty. I was told that my bluntness, my clear calling out to the community to be accountable to one another is welcome. Yes, I am grateful, and I also think, finally, and if only this appreciation for my brand of honesty lasts.

Abigail Licad of Hyphen has just written high and critical and personal praise for Poeta en San Francisco, over a decade after its release, and I am reassured that my work is doing good things, reaching the people it needs to reach.

Invocation to Daughters is due for release in November, and its book description continues to floor me. It’s a tall order. I’m up for it. Can poetry matter. I have to believe it can.