#AswangPoetics, Redux

I’d had this wonderful vision in my head, of a cadre of fierce Pinay writers and authors taking this #AswangPoetics thing, and running with it. Where? Well, wherever they needed to go. That all these fierce Pinay voices would unleash themselves fearlessly into curses and prayers. That so much amazing and necessary work would be written, published, and shared.

Lots of things have ended up taking a backseat to the constant outrage of this administration and its nonsense, shenanigans, and corruption. Lots of folks have ended up publicly shutting down, because social media has made these times unbearable to be connected.

That was something I was hoping would not happen.

I am a poet, I am a citizen, and I am a witness. I am an educator, and I am a mentor. I am a worker. My work consists of asking questions. My work consists of questioning convention and institution, social standards and expectations, and power. I am thinking about “problem.” I am thinking about complexity. What is explicit and implicit in language.

I am looking inside most of all. I am examining my work. Why I work. What I work for. What do I believe. This is one of my only remedies to clickbait, disinformation, and internet outrage.

This is what I believe. That our power as Pinay writers and authors is in our bravery to write what needs to be written, how it needs to be written, free of apology and pander. And if it is scary, that’s because it’s supposed to be scary. It has always been scary to speak, to voice the unpopular viewpoint, and to fight for its space. People ignore you, and so you must amplify. People want to be obstructive and destructive (thereby wholly bypassing constructive and instructive), and so you must either find another way — your own way, or you must move that shit right out of your path.

This is what I have tried my best to do. This is what I will continue doing.


On Teaching Filipina Literature

Texts pictured above are this course’s required readings: [top row, L-R] M. Evelina Galang, One Tribe. Erin Entrada Kelly, The Land of Forgotten Girls. Lynda Barry, One! Hundred! Demons!  [bottom row, L-R] Angeles Monrayo, Tomorrow’s Memories. Barbara Jane Reyes, Invocation to Daughters. Janice Sapigao, microchips for millions.

On Teaching Filipina Literature. On Curriculum Development.

Janice Sapigao’s microchips for millions, and my forthcoming volume, Invocation to Daughters are additions to this 2017 syllabus. I had originally included Diwata, but I think, even though we do begin the semester discussing women’s pre-literacy and where these women’s narratives reside and thrive, the poetics of Diwata were a lot more than I could handle teaching this time around. This may have been the first time I’d brought this book into a lower division course. By contrast, I was teaching To Love as Aswang at SFSU, for upper division Filipino Literature class there. The response was energetic, and I believe this has to do with the book’s accessible poetic lines.

So then, Invocation to Daughters, I believe, will be the better alternative, because its lines are similarly clean and tight. Although, I would love folks’ input: is Invocation “accessible,” do the lines “help” with/for an undergraduate (lower division) reader who is not a literature major?

I think once the discussion of poetic line is in effect, once discussion of relevant languages/languages utilized is also in effect, then we can read microchips for millions, and discuss Janice Sapigao’s use of binary code, in poems set in the belly of Silicon Valley’s tech industries. And continue with discussions of women and labor, consistent throughout the course.

So these poetics discussions, and discussions about the lyric “I,” the lyric “we,” the Pinay lyric “we,” I always reserve for the end of the semester, once we’ve gotten the hang of more accessible narrative structures. Narrative, period. After spending the semester immersed in Pinay prose narrative “I,” in Filipino Core Values, Pinay bildungsroman, Pinay hero(ine)’s journey. We discuss Pinay graphic narrative and visual self-representation. We discuss Pinay YA literature, and then in general, how many young, liminal Pinay protagonists populate these works. The cultural and historical significance of this. Young Pinays speaking, telling their own stories, some in secrecy, some risking social consequences.

I believe I under-assigned the last time I taught this class! That’s a first for me, though it was timely, since we were experiencing the collective trauma of the last presidential election. I had some space for adjustments and accommodations to the class discussions.

One of the major adjustments I made was to jump into “decolonization,” “patriarchy,” “white supremacy,” and “intersectionality,” a lot more abruptly than I normally do. What can literature and art do? What can we do now that we don’t live in an Obama “paradise.” How can we take what we learn in university classrooms, and take action in our own personal lives? As one of my students wrote, “Who is Pinayism accessible to?” In other words, outside of our university communities, can we truly practice Pinayism, including pedagogical work, mentorship, teaching folks about what it is, why it’s important to discuss critically.

So it’s an intense class. it’s unapologetically feminist and Pinayist. I know a lot of students enroll in these classes because they claim to know little about being Filipino, and think of literature as a “way in.” Perhaps it is. Perhaps the “way in,” must always be intense like this.

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.

Poem for Today: Carlos Bulosan, “Song for Chris Mensalvas Birthday”

Something I often think of, as a poet, this binary social attitude that poetry is both frivolous, excessive, then that poetry is so necessary, especially in times of strife and turmoil, such as now. As poets, we are tasked with taking the temperature of the room, and putting it down on the page with eloquence. And then as poets, we are accused of being too little in the world, too much in our own indulgent heads, not doing anything of social relevance because we are seen as sitting in our safe little writing studios, agonizing over muses and love. In the academic world, we aren’t seen so much, because we’re not perceived as doing any heavy lifting like those who toil over producing factual, institutionally sanctioned bodies of work.

If we are regarded, it is with disdain for being so “poetic,” elliptical, flippant, somehow un-serious because of the relative brevity of the poem, because of tone, because of the artfulness of the genre. And because of the oft-made error that even many academics make, that the “I” is not lyric and expansive, but personal and individual, hence small. And that the love poem is always a poem of personal and self-serving eros, certainly not of larger social significance, even when we are talking about Filipinos, guided by kapwa.

“At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love. It is impossible to think of a genuine revolutionary lacking this quality… We must strive every day so that this love of living humanity will be transformed into actual deeds, into acts that serve as examples, as a moving force.” ~ Che Guevara.

That said, today’s Valentine’s Day poem is “Song for Chris Mensalvas’ Birthday,” by Carlos Bulosan.

Song for Chris Mensalvas’ Birthday

How many years did we fight the Beast together,
You in your violent way, in your troublous world,
I in my quiet way, with songs of love?

Over the years we fought apart and together,
Scarring our lives, breaking our hearts,
For the shining heart of a heartless world:

For the nameless multitude in our beautiful land,
For the worker and the unemployed,
For the colored and the foreign born:

And we won, we will win,
Because we for truth, for beauty, for life,
We fight for the splendor of love…

They are afraid, my brother,
They are afraid of our mighty fists, my brother,
They are afraid of the magnificence of our works, my brother,
They are even afraid of our songs of love, my brother.

So on this day of your birthday,
I am happy that the glissando of time has compacted,
At last,
Our early promises in that faraway city of our youth,
That I alone can totally remember,
That I alone can destroy with stroke of my hand:
So joy to your world and all that lives in it,
Joy, joy to your coming years,
Joy to your unrelenting heart and mind,
Joy to your brown hands that suffered so much,
More than mine did, having suffered another terror,
The terror of the mirroring soul:
Joy to your wife,
Joy to your children,
Joy to your friends,
Joy, joy, joy,
Joy to all the world,
And for all this joy let me have one little joy
To guide my mind that remembers her always,
The quiet little one that moved my heart
To remember, always to remember, the song of love…

They are afraid, my brother,
They are afraid of our mighty fists, my brother,
They are afraid of the magnificence of our works, my brother,
They are even afraid of our songs of love, my brother.

Essay: What Does It Mean to be an APIA Author in “These Times.”

I am seeing a lot of folks — educators and authors — checking in on social media. They want to know how are we all writing, being productive, working in these times. It feels apocalyptic, and given the word’s etymology — to uncover — yes these times are apocalyptic.

With teaching, I am always “taking the temperature” of the classroom. How hard can I push, or how gently in tone must I speak to say the things I must say. About Empire and Filipinos. About America and Filipinos.

As an educator, I strive not to be an evangelist or a fanatic, not to judge my students on their “wokeness,” or lack thereof. I negotiate and I nudge, towards thoughtfulness, critical and creative thinking, towards articulating complexity. I always refer to the texts and their authors, rather than my own agenda (and of course, being the professor, I have curated the selection of texts, so that’s where you may speak of my agenda).

As a less experienced educator in the past, I have aggressively pushed my own ideas with little regard for where folks are at, and that has only served to close some learners. Hopefully, these closures were not permanent ones, but I see how that is more damaging than it is a learning opportunity.

It’s in my own writings that I may push and shove as hard as I see fit. Even as I know my aim is to reach that Pinay readership, the ones I have been saying have never seen themselves in literature as protagonists and addressees, the ability to sit with a written, published work, gives even the reader space and time to work it out. I know there are authors whose works I was not ready for upon my initial reading. I know that as I matured, I know that over the years and decades, I have been able to return and return again to literature, finding new ways of reading.

I have been writing essays, many of which have been commissioned or requested by various editors. As I have been reading a lot of Carlos Bulosan’s essays in On Becoming Filipino, my essays, I suppose, approximate aesthetic statements, or manifestos. I get quite blunt in my essays. No reason to veil my own beliefs.

And then, with poetry, I know my own can be quite blunt, but we also have the strategy of operating in the figurative realm, which enables a reader to have a layered experience with a text.

That said, my latest essay, still in progress:

What Does It Mean to be an APIA Author in “These Times.”

Let’s be clear on this: Xenophobia and racism are not on the rise just now in 2017, in the United States of America. Xenophobia and racism have been here, as our ongoing condition, and many of us APIAs have benefited from it.

What I would like to think is changing is our consciousness, and the willingness of some in our literary communties to address institutional violence directly in our literary work, in our use of language, and also in our literary career ambitions.

When I am most optimistic, I believe I see an eroding of reticence on the part of some in our literary communities, to interrogate our relationship to the State, to the Corporation, to USAmerican institutions and power structures that perpetrate violence and terror that are based in gender, sexuality, class, race, religion, ableism, ecology, immigration.

How may we foster in ourselves and one another a willingness to soul search, to ask ourselves why we have been so in denial, going about our lives and writing careers as if we have nothing to do with any of this violence and terror.

How can we critically examine why have we consented to the role of the well-behaved, respectable Good Colonial, resigned and relegated to apery, when we truly know this will not keep us and our loved ones safe.

How may we hold ourselves accountable, and do the hard work of calling out those in our communities who inflict these violences upon our own.

I would love to see more poetry and literature, more community-based grassroots publishing and mentoring arise from that critical self-examination, more prioritizing and centering resistance, dissent, and defiance. I have been returning to Carlos Bulosan frequently, to remind me to be present, engaged, vigilant in the world, to remind me not to take “American freedom” for granted.

“I read more books, and became convinced that it was the duty of the artist to trace the origins of the disease that was festering American life.” ~ Carlos Bulosan

“…the writer is also a citizen; and as a citizen he must safeguard his civil rights and liberties. Life is a collective work and also a social reality. Therefore the writer must participate with his fellow man in the struggle to protect, to brighten, to fulfill life. Otherwise he has no meaning — a nothing.” ~ Carlos Bulosan

You may want to argue with me, that poetry is personal, not political, that poetry is about beauty and beautiful things. And I would respond that resistance, dissent, and defiance are beautiful because when we stand up for what we believe is right, we expose our rawest, truest selves, and who and what we love most in the world are all laid bare. Because especially during the most volatile times, compassion, hope, and light are beautiful.

I would also add, that under the rule of tyranny, there is no luxury of neutrality, of just being.

“…always art is in the hands of the dominant class – which wields its power to perpetuate its supremacy and existence.” ~ Carlos Bulosan

“…in which to be is to to be like, and to be like is to be like the oppressor…” ~ Paolo Freire

So then, what does it mean to be an APIA author in these times? To learn well the necessary activist history of our forebears, to understand why activism and art have no tidy dividing line between them. To meaningfully resist white supremacy and patriarchy, to meaningfully resist the historical pressure and desire to conform to bourgeois ideas, which do not reflect our own lived realities, and therefore do not benefit our communities. More insidiously, they mean to undermine and erase our efforts at self-determination.

Finally, we must meaningfully resist appropriation by institutions that would skew and defang our words and work, via tokenism and celebrations of diversity, for example, for their own edification.

The work is daunting, and it is neverending. The smallest start is to read. Here are some recommendations: Tarfia Faizullah, Solmaz Sharif, Tony Robles, Janice Sapigao, Sarith Peou. Brandy Nālani McDougall, Rajiv Mohabir, Cheena Marie Lo, Bhanu Kapil, Craig Santos Perez, Aimee Suzara.

“a million brown pilipino faces
chanting: makibaka, makibaka, makibaka
makibaka, makibaka, makibaka…” ~ Al Robles