Notes: Asking, Community, and Poetic Work

First, this: I’m disliking FB communications more and more. It’s the quick impulsive reactiveness versus the ways in which we, as thoughtful human beings, need time to process complex ideas and concepts, to think about work’s specificities and strategies.

In case you did not already know this about me, I tend towards misanthrope and skeptic, and am biased against spectacle, clusterfuck, and flamewar.

I also very much dislike the collector and marketer, those who collect, market, and spam, with apparent shallow understanding of you, your work, your concerns; who exhibit a sad disregard for the quality of the work in question; who jump on bandwagons because there are bandwagons upon which to jump; who habitually request social network connection with no intention of interacting with you in discerning, thoughtful, human ways.

That said, I have been appreciating “old school” means of connecting. I’ve received telephone calls from friends, colleagues, and collaborators, and for the quality of the conversations, I am very grateful. I’ve been sitting down and having face to face conversations with people, with tea, with meals, and this has been fantastic.

Now. One thing a fellow Pinay educator and I were talking about the other day is this: the act of asking. We frequently find ourselves in these authoritative positions, where we tell the community what its issues are. We do the diagnosing and prescribing. Surely, finding ourselves in these authoritative positions comes from years, decades of producing work. Folks in the community have confidence in our works and our ability to speak.

But there is also push back. And this is healthy, because each one of us is a specific subjectivity. I cringe when someone responds to my work by saying, writing, expecting that I represent them, their voice, their concerns. To me, this takes away a person’s agency and responsibility. To me, this person has consented to letting go of his/her agency and responsibility. So then I understand the push back; when a Pin@y reacts adversely to my work as not representing them, this can only be good.

I can only hope this is both an opportunity for dialogue, and an opportunity for others to write thoughtfully and produce work better representing themselves and their concerns.

As an aspiring writer, I came to writing to represent my own experiences. I was encouraged, emboldened to do so because I was able to see other Pin@ys writing, publishing, and teaching. I learned that Pin@ys, Filipin@s in America were not content to remain voiceless. This is where I came to learn learn about activism, in which our communities collectively empowered themselves to act upon their concerns.

I am troubled when hear folks claim to be “a voice for the voiceless,” because I know now that doing so is not really activism, if you are with me on my interpretation of activism as collective self-empowerment towards action. Claiming to be a “voice for the voiceless,” silences those others’ voices, and it feeds into essentialism and constructed binaries. As we indict the mainstream in its treatment of Pin@ys as a homogeneous, and even monolithic body, we need to look at how we do this to frequently ourselves, for sake of ease and simplicity.

Interviewers have asked me many times, about writing The Pinay Experience, an essentialist question. I tell them I am writing the things I know and want/need to know/find out. The work of reading, asking, researching, then drafting is an active exploration of a variety of Pinay experiences; I then write the pieces of it that resonate most, that trouble me the most, that I understand the least. My most recent manuscript was that kind of exercise in asking. similarly, my anthology project is an exercise in asking. In receiving responses from brave and willing souls, I hear in very substantial ways, concerns that I did not previously consider, lived experiences I do not share.

So where am I at now. Needing to really talk with people, needing to get better at hearing and listening. I am continually frustrated by disconnect and by assumption and defensiveness. I’m saddened that I am mansplained when I try to voice my frustrations about where and why I think disconnects are happening. I am also trying to be very clear about my subjectivity and epistemology, very clear about outlining my place, upbringing, political and artistic origins, (formal and informal) education, and intentions. I think about Harryette Mullen discussing problematizing black female subjectivity. I am surely interested in doing the same with Pin@y subjectivities. As an author, as an educator, as a community member, this is everything to me.

So then: Epistemology is very important to me. As I have been discussing with my students in Fil Am Lit at SFSU’s AAS Dept., we must examine the institutions and structures of power, which represent systems of knowledge in operation, in the works we are handling this semester. We must examine, make sense of the complex relationships our characters, narrators, speakers, and artists have with institutions and structures of power, which represent systems of knowledge.

These self-examinations bring to the surface all kinds of uncomfortable contradiction, and really, contradictions are a part of our daily lives. As I was discussing with one of my grad students yesterday evening, this is not something that should paralyze us with guilt, resentment, defensiveness, rage, blaming. If anything, knowledge of our embodying and living contradiction should really enable us to be more thoughtful, more mindful of the decisions and negotiations we make on a daily basis. Yes, this is rigorous, but I think it’s important to become accustomed to the rigor.


Spoken Word, Poetry, and Poetics: Work, Writing, Rewriting

There’s the poetic project I think I am getting fleshed out, slowly but surely. It began with “And the word was a woman,” and it’s had to grow itself from there. There are a lot of pieces here I am negotiating. The language of my project, and its lines are becoming something very interesting to me. I blogged recently about poetic difficulty, and the poetics of hip-hop — something I’ve previously avoided discussing, as I have not really considered hip-hop to be part of my cultural, hence poetic foundation.

I am thinking about it a little differently, as with our poetics, we stretch from our initial frames into others’ frames. We build from our foundations and into the cultures that surround us, and which we now inhabit. As a poet frequently referenced for my code switching/operating in multiple registers, this is a no brainer; there’s a language that’s introduced itself into my repertoire. As poets, we sponge up languages, from everywhere.

One more aspect I’d like to introduce here is allusion, something that Roger Reeves, author of King Me, discussed on the hip-hop poetics panel at AWP. Reeves’s discussion of what (in MFA workshop language) is “acceptable” allusion and what “doesn’t quite work,” (the implication here being that the “mainstream” does not “get” it) perplexed me a little, if only because in my own MFA workshop experiences as a student and a teacher, all language, and various cultural frames are on the table, based upon what is appropriate for the contexts of the works being discussed.

I had to be reminded that everyone else may still operate within much more limited and oppressive MFA frameworks, in which the Western-Euro-centric, Judeo-Christian, hetero-male perspective is always the unbudging standard by which we must gauge ourselves.

I don’t live and work in that world. I am a fortunate soul. Or maybe, it’s better said this way: that world does not break me or tell me what I should do. I am interested in the fact that parties I think of as inhabiting (and maybe even representing) that world come seeking my opinion, input, and work. Why, I am not exactly too sure.

As an author, I know the subject matter of my work may be considered “foreign,” and particular to a specific group. Then, I am surprised by the kind of responses I receive from people who do not share my foreign-ness and specificity. They tell me they are responding to the poetry, what the poetry is doing, how what the poetry is doing allows them entry.

So then, back to forms, lines, languages, allusions. I wanted to add this excerpt of a course proposal I’m currently drafting:

Contemporary APIA poetry is deeply personal and deeply political; it is both simultaneously. The poet’s aesthetic choices are also political choices. Contemporary APIA poetry has roots in our communities’ verse traditions, for example, the tanka, haiku, renga, tanaga, ghazal, balagtasan, et al. Contemporary APIA poetry may be performative, a continuation of our oral traditions, accessible in social and political movements, and meant to communicate with the broadest bases of our populations. Poetic techniques, such as rhyme, meter, and repetition, as well as compressed and figurative language and wordplay, draw in the audience, and facilitate the delivery of “meaning” and “message.”

This too, should be a no brainer. Poetry accomplishes a lot on multiple levels and media; poetry accomplishes possibly monumental things, given multiple constraints. I think of poetry as successfully executed when you do not see the “seams.” I think of the the wires used in filmed epic martial arts battles. Sometimes you see them, but then sometimes the fights are so well choreographed and executed, your willing suspension of disbelief kicks in and all you see are human beings in gravity defying magic.

And this is probably why, I believe, lots of people think poetry is just words dumped on a page in quizzical and emotional ways. How reductive is that. I mean, Pablo Neruda wasn’t just some schmuck working out his emotions on paper.

I’d recently been thinking about the rudeness, the abruptness, the subject matter of my work, that it upsets others’ sensibilities. But I know, really know deep inside, that I must write how and what I write. In fact, that’s precisely what I work towards — abrupt, upsetting poems. Surely, I can even dig deeper, push harder, be more upsetting.

And the writing, rewriting, revising, compressing will continue. Every word choice, every line, every line break, every piece of punctuation.

We Spoken Here: Poetry Community and Work Redux


Community, as I write about a lot, is a tricky animal, with all the hurt feelings and ego clashing and emotional damage. I have to return to the things that make the most sense, which is concrete work -- production, product, performance, publication. What do we have to show for all of our intentions and planning. Not how well we spin our own hype or collect followers or gang up on one another and shit talk. In the most cliche terms, I'm hella tired of the coulda woulda shouldas in my world, and the people who express entitlements for our efforts, people who think it's OK to siphon us dry and never give back. Always say they mean to, and never do. That's not community.

The Writer Is Also a Citizen

stage five

[Photo credits: Center for Art + Thought]

With Noël Alumit, Rachelle Cruz, Giovanni Ortega, and Chris Santiago, I just participated in a wonderful literary community event down in Los Angeles yesterday afternoon: The Writer Is Also a Citizen was the closing event for the exhibit, I Want the Wide American Earth: An Asian Pacific American Story, at the Japanese American National Museum.

From the JANM website:

I Want the Wide American Earth: An Asian Pacific American Story was created by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center and curated by Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center Initiative Coordinator Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis. The exhibition is supported by a generous grant from the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, and is a collaborative initiative with Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES).

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