My Year (Or Two) Of Reading Poetry

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

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

How about a good poetics talk: On translation and experimentation in Poeta en San Francisco

You know, it’s been a really good couple of days of literary discussions.

The other day, I went into Dean Rader’s Literature class, where they have just read Poeta en San Francisco. I’d originally had some anxiety about revisiting a work so “old,” in my literary life. I didn’t know that I knew how to talk about the work anymore.

I was so young when I wrote Poeta. This is not to say I am ashamed of it. Quite the contrary. I see a young poet who wrote some hella bomba, walang hiya poetry there. She was so brave. And some of the reason why she was so brave was precisely because she was young, writing from the margins of the margins, with little self-consciousness about how the “big world” would receive such a work.

With the class, we talked about how the work was received, where was there push back, how does a reader read a work that contains these ‘foreign” elements. As readers, we are already accustomed to seeing translation; we see, for example, Neruda’s original Spanish on the page, and then we see the translator’s crafted translation on the facing page. We view the languages as discrete, i.e. not really in interaction with one another.

We can, with bilingual editions, if we like, read back and forth between the two. If we look hard enough, then we see how one-to-one translation has not occurred. Then, if we look at two different translators’ translations, we see how there can potentially be two different poems that have come from the same one poem.

But what of the multilingual work which does not treat languages as mutually discrete bodies? I told the students that when I was new in my grad program, that was one of my first questions about writing. The multilingualism that exists in my life, in my head, in Bay Area open spaces (not just the bustling urban, cosmopolitan areas) — I just hadn’t at that point figured out how to put that on the page yet. It was more than opportune; it was fortune that Stacy Doris and Chet Wiener found me in grad school. I do not know that I could have written what I did, without them, precisely because they were translators.

I bring this up now, because code switching in my work is always treated as such a spectacle. Or as this specimen called poetic experiment. Which I’m like, I guess. It’s just figuring out how to put on the page the languages of one’s real life, which I think of as ongoing work on one’s craft (which could mean, figuring out how to do it well, whatever “well” means). I was told a couple of years later that Poeta en San Francisco had become an example to a group of Latinx poets of how to code switch in poetry.

(And actually, after class, one of the Latinx students did come up to me to tell me they could see why my work would resonate with Latinx writers/poets, as they were having a similar reading experience.)

I was able to also talk about the baybayin translations I included in the book. That the section called “[noo, nyoo],” (pages 43-51) was what I can now call a “failed experiment,” because (1) the parameters I provided for myself, which I adhered to, were flawed at the onset, (2) the re-translation from baybayin back to Roman alphabet yielded something entirely unreadable. But there’s also a (3) the actual visual presence of the baybayin is something to consider on its own, as producing some kind of affect on the reader/their reading experience.

I asked them to compare the baybayin in this “[noo, nyoo]” section, to the baybayin that appears later in the text (pages 95-96). That would be an example of a more successful translation, in that the original source material was in Tagalog (modern, in Roman characters), and so adhering to the writing rules of baybayin, the resulting translation is actually readable to one who knows how to read baybayin.

We talked also about the poetic form of the prayer, and how rosaries, novenas, and processions (Stations of the Cross, semana santa) do indeed come with identifiable form and lines of verse. These are the kinds of rhythms that feel like they’ve seeped into my pores, into my bloodstream. You can drop out of that life and practice, but when you find yourself there again, you know exactly where to pick up and carry on as if you’ve never left. And you can speak and move as one body with so many other bodies.

Anyway, this is a lot for now. Let me stop.

How a Brown Girl Makes a Book Happen [Part 3]

It takes so much heart.

I have been using this phrase, the “heart’s language,” for the last few days. I’m not exactly sure what it means, but my instinct tells me it’s important, and that it is one of the languages I think in, use, and write.

Where are those places where the “heart’s language,” and the technical, poetic “skill,” both happen. As you probably know (if you know me, or if you know anything about me), that is the place (places) I want to be. Or maybe that’s a place I instinctively go.

While I was writing the poem, “Psalm for Jennifer Laude,” I got myself stuck. I did not want to dwell on body, and I did not want to hover at this superficial place, a so-called neutral news report.

Why would one write a “psalm,” in a news report voice, especially when the news reports dwelt so much in the details of the horror, and the spectacle of her body’s transgender anatomy.

Psalm is song. Dwelling in reportage felt wrong. It felt low. And it felt terribly unpoetic. What happens when you decide not to write about, but for, and to. What happens when you insist on bringing the unpoetic back to the poetic.

Somehow, I found myself arriving at this line: “Draw a picture of your own heart’s double chambers, its perfumed twinning atriums.” It felt like the right poetic course. There’s that thing again, poetic instinct.

*

It is easy to forget, and this is sad to say, that poetry can be poetic!

So much statement making in American poetry, because “the times,” seem to demand it — it was like this immediately post 09/11, and it’s like this now, in the Trump era. So poetry institutions want to see this response to the times, because otherwise, those arguments about poetry’s irrelevance will nag at us, and dry up funding.

And POC in poetry demand we write our prescribed identity pieces, our pride in the beauty of our cultures pieces, our sadness at our loss of culture pieces.

Not to do this makes us little mythical monsters. Not even pretty ones like unicorns or mermaids. Just awkward, weird monstrosities.

So much statement making, with the “poetic,” artificially set up as the binary opposite. I am an in-betweener, a refuser of this either-or.

But at my best, I would like to think of myself a finder of other spaces and other ways. And my interest is in poets and readers who want to find those other spaces. And as an educator, I suggest this to my students. Because many students have been so inculcated in those binaries — if they come to know anything about poetry at all — they may never have had the space and opportunity to think of other spaces.

How a Brown Girl Makes a Book Happen

It takes so much faith, and grit.

Yes, and alas, if only it were that simple. This morning on the way to work, I was thinking to myself, what if I’d never entered the “Po Biz.” Would the work be “pure.” And then I thought, what does that mean anyway, for the work to be “pure.” The poetry itself? The sincerity with which each poem is written? That it is unsullied by ambition?

People ask me all the time about how one becomes an author. I’ve held workshops on how to seek publication. I’ve talked at length about researching publishers, those who would be a “good fit,” for our work. I’ve talked about what that “good fit,” means.

Sometimes, these discussions are the sobering discussions that an aspiring author says she needs, that she is ready to jump into the hustle. Sometimes, I am grateful for those times.

I’ve also talked about the process of “killing your darlings,” jettisoning dead weight, making the hard decisions of what to keep and what must go. That maybe something we wrote at the beginning of it all no longer serves its purpose, though it might have been the germ that spawned dozens of poems.

I’ve also talked about the kind of long and involved writing and growing, writing and growing which making a manuscript entails. That I may have started in a certain place with a certain plan or vision in mind. That this certain plan or vision has metamorphosed over time, with realization after realization, with new facets of the original vision being unearthed, with muddles and clarifications, and with new pieces of inspiration along the way. New information. New language. New form and uses of page.

Yes, we start in a certain place, and then as we read, and write, and rewrite, as we live our lives in this world, things move and drive us. Sometimes we can’t readily articulate in specific language what has happened. Maybe duende is happening here, propelling us.

*

I’ve been thinking about what it means to write for my community, envisioning them as the readers, not institutional approval as my primary audience. I’ve been thinking about how this discussion feels so binary and reductive. If you write in the language of the community, in terms they will understand, in verse they will immediately “get,” is the work unsophisticated and oversimple? Somehow, this attempt to write concisely and clearly in an effective and emotionally accessible manner means you’re oversimple. How to do this, without “talking down,” or stripping/robbing the poem of its necessary complexity and music. I would think this requires more literary mastery rather than less. Maybe a writing of the heart’s language is happening here. Maybe duende is happening here too.

Is speaking of “poetic instinct” permitted? I have used this term a lot, when I read emerging poets’ works, and they already know how to execute metaphor, how to break the line, how to negotiate the page, how to say, how to versify with minimal awkwardness. I love nudging these emerging poets, just a tad bit, to the margins of their comfort zones/known universes. I love nudging away from what is expected.

I do this to myself too, remind myself to honor my poetic instinct rather than what’s “correct,” and vogue, and I nudge myself a lot.

I have also been thinking that too much time in Po Biz spoils poetic instinct. Because it can make writers unduly timid and insecure and neurotic, and because it can derail them, heap too much business and not enough poetry. Make folks die to fit in with the “right people,” the acceptable people who can be used to get you in the “right places.”

I want to always be not the right people.

What does any of this have to do with making a book happen. I am so tired of Po Biz cliques and people who demand you fit in their little box. I do my absolute best when I note that they can all go fuck themselves over there somewhere far away from me; I’ll be immersed in writing my next book over here, doing the hard work of growing my own poetic world, fostering relationships with other like-minded writers and editors, finding places and communities and venues where my work it respected on its own terms.

A friend recently wrote on Facebook that publishing has made them really learn about respect. I add that publishing, being in this place, has also taught me a lot about self-respect. And faith.

 

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.