For AAAS: “Gaps” between Asian American Literary Scholars and Literary Community

So, I am on a panel this Friday re: the above-mentioned “gap” between Asian American Literary Scholars and Literary Community. So I want to step back from any emotional arguments that as an educator, I usually hear/am the recipient of: “I am an Asian/Filipino American writer; why don’t you teach my work?” Similarly, any “list” I put out there for a literary body, or even on my own website/blog is met with a “You didn’t include so-and-so,” “You didn’t include me.”

There’s a lot of assumption and expectation loaded into those statements/complaints.

I used to feel obligated to respond to each complaint, to explain in painstaking detail my process, my criteria I have for the works I ultimately select for course adoption. And I do believe it’s important to be very clear, transparent with criteria, parameters.

This is, I guess, the gist of my spiel for tomorrow.

I accept that the interests of the scholars and the interests of the artists don’t always intersect, nor should they necessarily intersect.

Our industry, specifically as American poets, is a fast-moving one. We can publish pretty rapidly. But even before tackling the relative velocity of poetry publishing, let me say I see in contemporary poets on my radar, how fast their/our poetics and bodies of poetry can also grow. Whether it’s because of being open to constant pop culture and social media exposure, or being open to the constant onslaught of new publication and new media, poetry, “Contemporary American Poetry,” grows and changes fast.

Is it just “what we do” as poets. I think of “taking the temperature,” of a current moment, what informs the current moment, what language is being used and changed in the current moment. How is this all linked to the larger condition.

I can’t assume to know what scholars do, and why they do it. Some work in historical recovery. Some work in specific historical periods and specific historical and social phenomena. Those kinds of scholarly works would not necessarily include contemporary poetics and contemporary literature.

I can say a few things about literary scholars who have engaged my work. To date, the work most frequently engaged, most currently engaged, is Poeta en San Francisco, a book which I wrote around 2003-2004, and which was published in 2005. Timothy Yu and Jane Wong are two Asian American literary scholars who have engaged this work. And perhaps it’s more accurate to say, literary scholars who are Asian American, for whom my poetry coincides with their research. I also think that because Yu and Wong are also poets in addition to being scholars, we have intersecting concerns. Thea Quiray Tagle is another scholar, though not specializing in literary scholarship, who is Asian American, specifically Filipino American, who has written about Poeta en San Francisco. Craig Santos Perez, a Chamoru poet and scholar, has also written about my work via interview and book review, and I feel like he has done so outside of his academic research’s scope, as a poet engaging another poet — i.e. as the way we practice poetry community and literary citizenship.

Since the publication of Poeta en San Francisco, over a decade has passed, and I have had three poetry chapbooks and three full length poetry collections published, all of which have built upon some aspect of Poeta. Who knows if my subsequent work will ever be so actively written about.

I know of only one scholar who’s taken on my body of work in some kind of trajectory — Martin Joseph Ponce, who had included Poeta en San Francisco in his Beyond the Nation: Diasporic Filipino Literature and Queer Reading. He has written about a substantial cross section of my work for the forthcoming American Poets in the 21st Century: Poetics of Social Engagement, after being specifically solicited to do so. I feel like this is a rare thing, this larger cross examination of the work of a living, mid-career, contemporary poet.

And so, I think what I am coming to is that what we two different parties do are wildly different things. Any expectation to be included without any consideration for the specifics of one’s work would be based on identity politics. And this will only take you so far.

Brown Girl Consumed: Filipino Food Poem

Dear Brown Girl,

This is just to say, motherfuckers love your food!

Bon Appetit says the latest craze is popcorn and Gummi Bears® in your halo-halo, and you’re looking at this sideways as others nod in gratitude,

Andrew Zimmern also swears by sisig, you’re the latest craze, you’re an episode of Bizarre Foods,

He says Americans can’t get right with creamy pig brains, so he alters your recipe to make it acceptable,

He exits the metropolis in search of the authentic, he slurps worms dipped in vinegar, pulled straight from a fucking tree, and then he pales at your “dirty” ice cream. What a dick.

You are Parts Unknown, and so Anthony Bourdain also comes to bat for your balut. He throws back his head and swallows Emily Dickinson’s beaked and feathered hope,

Next time, he’ll sip this strange little salty bird, he’ll crunch this little baby’s bones, wipe his mouth, and the world will learn Filipinos are so poor they’ll eat anything, a people with so much resilience —

Your archipelago is a culinary adventure! You should be so grateful, you are on our map!

Remember when your classmates teased your stinky lunch, your marrow bones, soup, patis, and rice, your spoon and fork,

Remember when they told you that you eat dog food, and you didn’t know how to go home and cry to your mom because she was just too busy working —

Well, fuck all that, because now you’re cool,

you’re pork bellies sizzling in cast iron cool, you’re organic free trade leche de coco simmering cool,

you’re edgy piquants and aromatics, you’re umami, you’re pricy speciality grocery items, spilling out of the suburban supermarket’s ethnic aisle,

you’re urban food trucks at an art show cool, you’re vegan man bun hipster cool, you’re deconstructed lumpia cool,

you’re wine pairings lightyears from the go-to passé Rieslings (yawn),

you’re cooler than California rolls, than chop suey, and people freaking the fuck out over kung pao chicken at Panda Express don’t know how cool you are (they’re gag reflexing at the innards we third worldlings eat) —

They’ll never know the 12 hour workshifts of TNTs sweating into high end catered meals for lesser than minimum wage, under the table, nevermind subsistence,

they’ll never know about street kids scrounging for pagpag,

they’ll never know the recipes of our cataracted grammas who stayed home and never learned to read, or the ones who can still recite José Rizal’s “Mi Último Adiós,” from the heart as the nilaga stews,

Dios mío! The tsismis around tables of itchy gabi leaves and roots and malunggay fronds, elders’ manicured hands like luya (sige na, anak, they say, clean these tables and we’ll play mah jong later),

Dios mío, talaga! Our spinster titas, who singlehandedly took the sharpest machetes to the pigs’ (and to some men’s) throats, bled those tasty motherfuckers, flipped handrolled tobacco with their tongues, with their chorus of boning knives, these works of art no metropolitan museum would ever show,

Dios mío! All the breaking necks and bleeding, all the flaying and the cutting, in pambahay, tsinelas, gold rings, anting-anting. All this after morning mass, all this before noon. This is where you told them about your broken heart, this is where they said, ay babae, he was never good enough for you. This is where they wiped away your tears, and said, anak, you are a good girl,

Fuck these first world gourmands swearing Filipino cuisine is the next big bandwagon to ride to the bank, fuck their rebranding for bourgeois Western palates,

Fuck all that, girl, go on get down with your kamayan and your banana leaves, your slurping fish heads, your extra rice to soak up the crab butter, your chicharon and San Miguel with your crooning titos, your dad’s canned Ligo sardines, salted eggs and tuyo cooked on the backyard grill, your green mangoes with ginisang bagoong, dear, deep red, so sweet, so cool.

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With Praise for the Work of the Poets

There has been an ongoing theme in many of my poetry and poetics discussions — one of transformation.

Much of this comes up as we talk about process, at the same time we talk about ways of resisting consumerism, objectification. Ultimately, we try our best to keep in proper perspective this thing called “market,” and “industry,” which is ironic given that little money actually changes hands in the poetry industry.

But it’s also very real that we have a perception of capital and “worth,” in this industry. We have hierarchies of value in this industry. We acknowledge those we perceive as having “cachet.”

So, where does transformation, and transformative experience “fit” in this industry.

My grad students and I had been hinting at these things all semester, sensing that some works did something to us, and we tried our best to give that “something” words. Work that was “meaningful,” respectfully engaging its constituents, thoughtfully crafted and executed, had implications larger than what was presented on the pages, that had emotional resonances, such that readers came away from the work with more than when they entered it.

One of our senior faculty members came to visit our class, to observe my teaching this semester. We were reading Philip Metres’s Sand Opera that evening. Before our mid-seminar break, one of my grad students asked for their thoughts on Metres’s work — it’s an important distinction, our senior faculty member responded, the poet who transforms an experience, versus one who merely transcribes.

And all of our light bulbs went bright with our collective, “Aha.”

We already know of the kind of poetry that merely transcribes. We describe it as underwhelming and even pretentious. We describe the work ethic as lazy. I want to be generous though, and understand transcription as a preliminary part of the process. Yes, we do transcribe, the things we hear, words that strike us, that come from mass media, social media, popular culture, phrasings that make our ears perk up, clever bits of language we mishear or overhear in the world.

I keep a notebook full of these glimmers, intimations. Sometimes real gems of poetry come in these bits of brevity. Those are gifts.

And sometimes they remain just glimmers, with nothing added to them. Bits of untapped potential. Ephemera maybe, at best. Maybe the writer did not know, maybe the writer doesn’t know yet that the glimmer is just the beginning, and that in order for a glimmer of an idea to become poetry, the real poetic work must be done.

This is where I make my confession. I have a major peeve — those who pass off as the most profound poetry what are really just their clever bits of language and observation, transcribed onto the page like mass printing fortunes to stuff into cookies, those who think these fortune cookies are enough; poetry is that cheap, easy, and mass produced for immediate consumption and utility.

Poetry is art object, this I believe. Art objects, exquisitely crafted — here, I think of Jaime Jacinto, Fatima Lim-Wilson, Marjorie Evasco, Merlinda Bobis, Angela Narciso Torres. Just gorgeous to behold, and insisting on being rooted in our social realities. But it’s also true a lot of exquisitely crafted art objects are beyond our reach, inaccessible. That’s not necessarily my cup of tea, though also, “inaccessible” is a relative term.

There are found objects whose beauty and intricacies others have discarded/disregarded. The poet elevates this, transforms it into art or transforms our perception of it by offering different angles/views. Here, I think of the deceptively simple, street-level poetry of Al Robles and Tony Robles. And I also think of Amanda Ngoho Reavey’s re-purposed official documents, and Janice Lobo Sapigao’s rewriting of Silicon Valley. I kind of think of myself in this category as well.

And then there is kitsch. I won’t name names, because that would be mean. And it would be equally mean to not include these as a kind of poetry, though I am tempted. I suppose “kitsch” is also a relative term. But I feel like kitsch, stuff that takes up space, is akin to this transcription. Little risk has been taken.

As a palate cleanser, I will end with this poem from Fatima Lim-Wilson, from her collection, Crossing the Snow Bridge (Ohio State University Press, 1995).

The Dangers of This Craft
by Fatima Lim-Wilson

For your own good, do not claim to be a poet.
-Advice of a well-meaning friend.

How we sing, even as we are boiled alive.
Those who torment us strain to sustain
our last notes. In a landscape
of sameness, our crooked towers scrape
sensibilities, the well-trained eye.
Why, when starved, do we thrive?
Remembrance of childhood’s bread
rising. The taste of dulcified
droppings of air. Our well-
meaning friends beg us, please,
speak in the measured tones
of the mediocre. Show off
our mastery of muteness,
the ambidextrous virtuosity
of work-stained hands. Let
those knitting needles, heavy
handled axes fly. Why must
we hear voices? See the moving
parts of still objects? And so,
we insist we no longer see
through white-washed walls.
We confess our dreams of flying
have ceased. We scheme,
the miracle of money keeping us
awake. Our pleasure lies
in memorizing the exactness
of recipes. We are found to be
most eloquent when quiet, even
as we argue happily with the teeming
inhabitants opening doors in our heads.
We stare seemingly unmoved at the fire
of our burning books, all the while
enthralled, reading secrets in the flames.
They think they’ve killed us off
even as somewhere, everywhere, a child
recalls the beat of the ocean womb.
They dance upon our tombs, unaware
of how they have fallen
victim to the rhythm
of our singing bones.

Dear Poeta, Dear Pinay, Why Do You Want To Write Books?

I remember once, some years ago, I and other authors came as guest speakers to Willie Perdomo’s VONA Poetry class. A couple of the questions from students that I remember, and the discussions that stayed with me were as follows:

Why do you want to write books? Why is writing and having books published important to you? For me,  my initial reaction was, why is this even a question? One of the other guest authors, Roger Bonair-Agard, responded by saying, “because it’s tradition.” Yes, this made all the sense in the world to me then, and it continues to be one of my go-to responses. I did think hard about why this tradition is important to me. Here’s my go at it:

As young people who think we have a knack for telling story, for composing verse, we inherit so much of this from our families. I don’t know if it’s because we have a particular “ear” for story, or sensitivity for where and how stories are being told in our families and by whom, but I think/I believe we grow up with something pulling (or pushing us) in that direction.

I remember all my little notebooks full of ditties and rhymes. I don’t know if this was actively encouraged, my keeping these notebooks, but it was surely not discouraged. Regular visits to the library and the bookstore were definitely encouraged. We had some books in the house. Not really “high literature,” but I don’t think that part mattered so much.

I just knew I came from a family who did read some books, and who did actively, enthusiastically make kuwento.

When I started to feel simultaneously attracted and frustrated by canonical literature in middle school and high school, I don’t know that I was feeling “pushed out” of the world of books and high literature, but I do remember trying so hard to find ways in. I don’t remember being particularly “good” at English class. I wanted to be an insightful reader, and to say deep, profound things about what I had read. I wasn’t there yet.

And when, in college, I found myself immersed in literatures of folks of color, immigrants, feminists, indigenous communities, things really clicked. I understood. I learned to articulate those deep profound things I’d always wanted to. I wanted this. Whether it was books by Amy Tan, or Maxine Hong Kingston, or Leslie Marmon Silko, or Gloria Anzaldúa, or Jessica Hagedorn, or Carlos Bulosan, or Audre Lorde, I wanted that. I was hungry for that.

Tracing some of these authors’ lineages brought me to The Beats, to Whitman, and so forth. And I was opened. I wanted that. When I finally connected with other aspiring and emerging writers of color, one thing we had in common was that hunger. We struggled to find our way into multiple literary worlds. Some of us struggled to better our craft.

The books I was reading became increasingly diverse (ethnically, aesthetically, etc.). I didn’t know much about the publishing industry, but I did know what poetry books I was actively seeking out and drawn to — poets whose books were published by New Directions Publishers, poets in translation published by Copper Canyon Press, and the City Lights Pocket Poets. I also knew that a lot of my literary Manangs and Manongs were getting published by Kearny Street Workshop. When Jaime Jacinto’s Heaven is Just Another Country dropped, I was there on the mic, a young college drop out serving as guest poet dropping some spoken word, thinking, I too could one day do what Jaime had just done.

When I was selling my first Kinko’s produced DIY chapbook out of my backpack at Bindlestiff Studio, before I ever went to grad school, Jaime Jacinto, along with Eileen Tabios and Marianne Villanueva, were there to receive it and to encourage me to keep at it.

A few years ago, I was in Seattle, and Jon Pineda and I were finding our way to a Seattle Filipino American literary event. We were talking about what our publishing prospects were, and I told him about City Lights. We both went, they published Howl. And then we had a fan-boy/fan-girl freak out. Though, today, I would also say, they published Juan Felipe Herrera. They published Diane di Prima’s Revolutionary Letters. They are here, on the Left Coast, in San Francisco, the place which has defined me and my poetic voice and political values, and the city whose shadow I always felt concealed me. Right next to Manilatown. Boom. I am telling you where I would like to place myself in literary tradition.

Yes. Wanting to become a writer of books has everything to do with tradition. And everything to do with our love for the object called the book. Its thick card stock matte covers and thick off-white/cream stock interior pages, super clean serif font for the body text, spines’ perfect binding.

Keepsakes. Gifts. You always take them with you.

My home is filled with them. My ceilings are nine feet up. my walls are entirely covered with book shelves.

I was educated by veterans of the Third World Liberation Front, mentored by Kearny Street Workshop elders. I have made my home where the Black Panthers were birthed. I am here, in Oakland, working for the health of a growing, changing Chinatown community, especially its children, girls, and women. I am educating young Pinays to find their voices, and not to be afraid of how capable they are of working towards social change.

All of this is why I am an author of books.