For #APIAHeritageMonth, Drafting My Keynote Address for UC Berkeley Pilipinx Graduation

Image: Illustrator Wendy MacNaughton and writer Courtney E. Martin.

The theme for this coming Sunday’s UC Berkeley’s Pilipinx American commencement ceremony is, “araw,” which means both sun, and day. I admit, I have been at a loss for a “message,” I may impart upon young Pilipinx American college graduates. Part of it is my exhaustion from teaching and working, but a larger part of it has to do with the need for quality time with young people for exchange, and for dialogue. And a larger part of it has to do with a certain cynicism that the current political moment has got me in. How do you tell young people to fight for what they believe in, when we are living in the now that we are living in. What longterm good are inspirational memes and their vapid clichés.

I am combing through my own essays and interviews for glimmers of sunlight. I am clicking through so many literary websites to see what others are saying. I found the above image over at Brain Pickings, and this is helping me tremendously.

Perhaps I start by recounting this experience to the new graduates. It is challenging to find these moments, these glimmers of light during such cynical and corrupt times. We lose our faith. We want to crawl inside of ourselves and into our own darkness, at first to escape, and then, to heal, and then to incubate. These moments, these rites of passage are acknowledging that we now enter society as grown-ups, and decide how we are going to work. We have to reaffirm our belief systems; do we really believe what we have been saying we believe, in the vacuum of the academic institution, in which consequence is intellectual. How do we become thinkers and doers in the real world, and can we become agents of social change in that real world?

The work is day-to-day, and we can fall into the drudgery of the longest days. It is more often unromantic, bureaucratic, and it feels the obstacles and setbacks are more frequent than the successes. This is where we must put our work ethic to the test. Changing the world, changing our communities, changing our families, is a glacial, incremental process, every day a new setback, another closed mind we must attempt to open, another person sitting in darkness, to whom we must bring that light. People will resist, they will dismiss you. They will tell you, you are young and so what do you know — you with your fancy new college ideas, what place do they have in the real world, where people struggle, go hungry, become homeless, lose their loved ones, and so they have no time for your ideas. Or they may not recognize that they have been sitting in darkness (they’ve been there for so long); they’re just fine where they are.

So that’s where I am this morning. Contemplating light, and change.

For #APIAHeritageMonth, Ongoing Thoughts on Teaching Filipino American Literature

Reminder. Never, ever underestimate what our predominantly Filipino American students are capable of. They are young, resilient minds, in a place of critical and intellectual inquiry. Give it to them. Open up the space for them to do this, to ask questions, to grapple with ideas and concepts with which they may not have any previous exposure. Facilitate their inquiry. Ask them questions. Coax and push, bit by bit, past their social, political, historical, cultural comfort zones.

I always start with what they claim to know. I ask where and how they came to that knowledge. I go from there, excavating, examining pieces very closely, proposing alternative points of view, presenting other existing knowledges. (One of the things that I appreciated most in this semester’s recent weeks was how my students said of Cheena Marie Lo’s A Series of Un/Natural Disasters, that the poetry affirmed, solidified what they already suspected or thought they knew.)

I discuss concepts, always doing my best to discuss them in real life contexts. After it’s clear they are understanding what’s being discussed, after they have contributed themselves to that understanding, then I offer them the terminology. We all contribute to meaning making, to defining.

We read. We read critically. We hone in and pull way back. Here, Amanda Ngoho Reavey’s figurative tesserae and mosaic in her multigenre work, Marilyn, are useful. Examine the individual pieces closely, reflect upon their “fit,” with/among one another. To what larger picture is each tessera contributing.

I am saying all this, because I am tired of our community underestimating our young people’s capacity for literary, poetic rigor. I think we resort to what is most simple when studying our community’s literary work, because we are compartmentalized — we believe intellectual work belongs only behind the closed gates of the highest echelons of the academy, and then we resent that intellectual work exists only in singular form, only behind the closed gates of the highest echelons of the academy.

We want to be passive and just watch a performance. We want to be entertained. We want meaning spoon fed, glossed over, and given to us in memes. We don’t want to engage what we don’t already know. We don’t think we want to expend the energy or invest the time. We dismiss complexity in literature as “colonized,” as literature for “white people,” and in doing so, we dumb down some pretty amazing work that folks in our community are creating.

The obvious problem is that the above logic is saying, only white people write and read complex literature; we are saying to others that our own people are not capable of literary complexity. So when others come and treat us in a simplistic, reductive, and imposing manner, why be offended? This is the message we’ve put out there, that we are incapable, that we are passive.

We think of reading literature as a “bourgeois” activity and pastime — “Filipinos don’t read,” remember? But seriously, even the most so-called “street” or “everyman” poets and authors in our community are avid and sophisticated readers of literature.

When I was very young as a writer, back around the year 2000, I remember arguing on a listserv with a fellow aspiring APIA writer, about “straight forward,” “narrative” poetry, versus “experimental,” “inaccessible” poetry. This person chided me about my being so influenced by “experimental” poetics, telling me no one would read or “get” APIA authored work that was “experimental,” because it was “irrelevant” to “The APIA Experience.”

I wonder where this person is now. I haven’t heard from them or heard their name in 17 years.

(In the meantime, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee is canon in Asian American Literature.)

I want to say that suspicion of those who wield English is legitimate. This is part of our colonial legacy. I also want to say that as we collectively work towards decolonization, we have to look very closely at our use of English. Nothing of what I am saying is new or revolutionary, by any means.

Do be critical of our mastery of it, the language and its literary forms. But yes, strive towards mastery of it. Not to be in its thrall, and not to oppress our own, but to complicate it, to hybridize/mongrelize it, to transform it.

And yes, rather than replicating those same oppressive systems, rather than perpetuating inequality among our own, let’s wield our Englishes to communicate well our complexities, use it in our everyday liberatory practices.

I believe the finer we communicate our complexities, the more painstaking work we invest in our literature, the much more long term its effects. Cheap and easy = disposable culture. I do not want my poetry to become a victim of forgettable, throwaway culture.

Ultimately, I come back to the reasons why I chose to dedicate myself to the arts. Art opens us. Art makes dialogue happen. Art and literature stay with(in) us, having entered through our pores, our hearts, our brains, our ears, our eyes, all at once. They reside in our memories, as if they reside in our cells. We feel and experience their effects for years to come. We pass these down to the next generation, that they would in turn, do the same.


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. 


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.

On Teaching Filipinx Lit to Non-Lit Majors

The above flier is for this semester’s class (which we’re 10 weeks into), and which I am already thinking about how to amend for the next round.

Is three novels too much? Especially when the first two novels are America is in the Heart, and Dogeaters, both of which call for copious amounts of scaffolding. Certainly, in the case of Bulosan, we first read a selection of his essays and poems from On Becoming Filipino, so that is appropriate scaffolding itself. With Dogeaters, perhaps I need to think about which previous writings of Hagedorn can serve as appropriate scaffolding for the novel. We did read, “Homesick,” and an interview in the Missouri Review. Still, the novel was challenging to access on its own. Anyway.

These two novels take up the entire first half of the course. “Everything else” must fit the second half. This feels disproportionate, though I get it when my (non-literary) colleagues tell me, “But those are canon,” “But those are historically important.” This is why I have been asking exactly why is Dogeaters historically important for undergrads in 2017 to be reading. And if not, then what is an appropriate substitute.

This class is an upper division course in a Philippine Studies Program (i.e. not a department). On the organizational chart, I think students can major in Asian Studies with an emphasis in Philippine Studies? I’m not sure. Anyway, so my point is that it’s a tiny little corner in any university, in the very few American universities in which Philippine Studies even exists.

This is why I worked really hard to get those CORE requirements for my Filipino and Pinay Lit classes. Even though students always voice interest in taking these classes, the largest and most insurmountable obstacle is the very real need to graduate in a timely manner, which makes taking electives in one’s personal interests impossible, unless these classes are associated with those university breadth requirements.

That said, the students who enroll in my classes are rarely (if ever) literature majors. I rarely get humanities-focused students. They are usually in accounting, business administration, nursing, et al. All of which are perfectly good majors, but then I have to shift their brains to talking about literature deeply and in detail, rather than the kind of cultural and historical sweeps to which students have grown accustomed.

Most of my students tell me on the first day of class that they have enrolled in my classes because they want to learn about Filipino culture. I always think it’s an amazing thing, that they would go about doing so via a literature class. I suspect this has to do with them needing to take classes fulfilling breadth requirements. And this is totally great; I am so relieved we got the classes plugged into the university requirements, though dealing with curriculum committees was my least favorite but necessary thing I’ve had to do in my capacity as an adjunct professor.

To add: not only must I teach literature, and all things literary. I must teach within a Philippine Studies context. Though I understand the term “Philippine Studies,” within the context of traditional area studies, what we do as a program is really more aligned with how we teach in Ethnic Studies (such as, how I teach Filipino Literature within an Asian American Studies Department within an Ethnic Studies College at SFSU). Interdisciplinary, community-based.

That said, last night, we did have a good poetics discussion, while reading To Love as Aswang. We talked about poetic lines, and the significance of poetic techniques in deepening and complicating emotional understanding. When, for example, we are reading the poems, “To Give It to God,” and “To Bless the Meek,” where we’ve got two disparate voices/speakers, are we working somehow in the figurative mode, even the way metaphor works, sticking two different things together for the reader to draw the connections between the two things.

And really, the above was my preferred method while writing/constructing To Love as Aswang, both the book itself, and the poem of the same title, the joining of multiple voices in one poem, in some kind of dialogue with one another. So my students talked about these voices, and the positions of the speakers in relation to the Filipina. Deep inside, self-representing Pinay voice? Or external, someone viewing from a distance, making assessments and assumptions of the Pinay, and these assessments and assumptions based upon whose claims?

We also had a good discussion about pronouns, specifically, the “they,” and “we,” in “To Violate Convention.” And especially when tayo/kami do not have specific English counterparts, then who constitutes “we,” in that poem? Are we a part of that “we”; in other words, are we as Americans so distant from our wars, complicit in torture and committing acts of human atrocity? Can we pick and choose which “we” we belong to as Americans?

And then we talked about “Sweetie,” and the alliterative-s in combination with the short, singsong lines. Tongue twister and nursery rhyme, appropriate forms/mediums when trying to get into a childlike mindset. But then the dissonance as the poem’s subject matter is so difficult. This is another way of thinking about the joining of different perspectives or voices in a single poem, in order to deepen and complicate a reader’s emotional understanding.

Let me back up and say that the text which preceded To Love as Aswang on my syllabus was Lysley Tenorio’s Monstress. This is a great book — to read, to teach, to talk about. The characters’ relationships with one another and with their social worlds are both complex and clear in their complexity. I had told my students before entering the book, to focus on the narrators and protagonists, and their position in relation to the stories’ central conflicts/problems. And then to think hard about the choices they make. One story that really held our interest as a group was “The Brothers,” and then just talking about why the author would title that story that way, when one of the siblings was transgender, and that the story was about rejection and possible, eventual (posthumous) acceptance. There was so much questioning of the mother’s strong sense of hiya, something that a lot of students — including many of Filipino descent — just don’t understand. While I refuse to believe that our communities have worked it out and moved past our hiya, this is such an interesting thing I’ve encountered.

I was able to take the theme of the monstress, the female monster, the wife who initially takes a backseat with her own ambitions to support her husband’s public career, but who changes into a woman in America, thinking of her own career. This is the monstress in many ways, the woman and wife who no longer puts everyone before herself. This was helpful in transitioning into To Love as Aswang, and the many ways our communities historically label women as monsters, when we decide we no longer want to comply with those rigid, self-denying social standards.

So anyway, thanks for reading this brain dump. I am exhausted. It’s week 10. Next week, we’re talking about Jason Bayani’s Amulet. I am looking forward to how my students receive and read these poems. For the most part, I think these literary discussions with non-literature majors is going pretty well.