“Imagine an entire culture that is passed down for thousands and thousands of years through the spoken word and narrative, so the whole of experience is put into narrative form — this is how the people know who they are as a people, and how individuals learn who they are.” — Leslie Marmon Silko
I immigrated to San Francisco in 1973; I was two years old. My parents had previously moved here, in 1969. They rented a small unit in an apartment building near Mitchell’s Ice Cream in the Mission District, decades before the area became hip. My mother flew back to Manila in 1971 and gave birth to me. She returned to San Francisco, leaving me and my older sister in the care of our grandparents, aunts, and teenage uncle, who we thought was our older brother. My parents dove into the American grind, saved up, and two years later, my sister and I arrived here, into the arms of our parents, two people we did not know.
The story I’ve always been told is that back in Manila, and sensing our impending departure, I hid my uncle’s car keys under my grandmother’s spinster sister’s bed, and that upon arriving in a dreary and rainy San Francisco, I cried for days and days. A trip to Disneyland did not assuage me. Other stories of that time entail me throwing up and ruining the interior of my mom’s brand new Toyota Celica.
My parents, hardworking immigrants that they were, bought their first home a couple of years later. We moved to the suburbs, Fremont, to be exact, just north of Silicon Valley before it became widely known as Silicon Valley, and where we had a backyard, a cat, and a garden. My grandmother came from the Philippines, lived with us, and took care of us as both my parents worked. In the 1970s in Fremont, among my classmates’ parents, my mom was one of the only moms who actually worked full time. My sisters and I attended private schools, took Honors English, Advanced Placement History, and Calculus. We scored high on the SATs, attended big (maybe even prestigious) universities. Decades later, we are paying mortgages and property taxes.
I tell you this story, not to brag, but to give you an idea of what I think was my parents’ American Dream. And I am thinking about this American Dream, and American Dream as mythology, because I am thinking about being an “immigrant poet.” Stories about my family and the English language, of my parents being apprehensive to speak English in public spaces, of me being tongue tied hence shy and bookish around my American classmates, all of these stories belong in the realm of mythology now.
And that’s what’s happened to my poetry. It’s entered the realm of mythology.
My interest in writing about “the homeland,” and “my culture,” has not faded in my four decades of privileged American living, or in my two decades of writing and publishing in this country, or in my three years immersed in my MFA program, and not because of nostalgia or familial obligation.
My history, and my family history have always had documents and artifacts: posed and candid photographs, home movies, report cards, detention slips we forged with my parents’ signatures, diplomas and degrees, marriage certificates, evidence of immunization, naturalization papers, Philippine and American passports, Facebook posts, and Instagram accounts.
My family history also has its share of lore and folklore. Oral tradition has ruled our self-knowledge, and with oral tradition has come multiple, sometimes quarreling, versions of “truth”; has come hearsay, from which all those wonderful stories that begin, “I wasn’t there, but I heard that…”; has come this wonderful phenomenon called tsismis (chisme, gossip), in which everyone gets to speak, some with authority, some with the power of speculation, some only under the condition of anonymity.
This is the largely subjective, undocumented substance that interests me — the quarreling, multiple versions and interpretations of events, reliable and unreliable narrators, secret tellers, disavowers, eyewitnesses, fabricators, yarnspinners. Rather than dismiss any of these artful tellers, I think of how much they must know, what wisdom they contain and how much they withhold, either because nobody has ever asked, or because the message they have accepted and internalized is that their stories are not legitimate, that they are petty and superfluous, because their stories do not conform to the master narrative.
Oral tradition has made me suspicious of single, authoritative texts and master narratives. Instead, I am drawn to what persists and survives despite mainstream cultural insistence upon single, authoritative texts. I love and value the stories in which asides lead to more asides, tangents lead to more tangents, oftentimes with no hope of returning to the original narrative. Consider that sometimes, the narrative asides and tangents are indeed the point of the story.
To be a poet is to be a very good listener. To be a poet is to piece together some kind of musical or artful narrative from official and unofficial documents and undocuments, and to do so in all languages available to me.
Most importantly, I have come to know that some stories take decades before they are ever told, and that in order for me to ever have access to these stories, I must offer something to initiate the exchange. I recently told my now retired mother about one of my dreams, in which her deceased father appeared. I told her this, not in any kind of formal setting, but while she was sweeping the kitchen floor. In return, she told me about how her mother, my grandmother, once had dream foretelling her own miscarriage. This miscarriage was not something I ever knew. Some stories must wait decades to be told, and when they arrive, they do so spontaneously.
None of what I have written here is specific to Filipino immigrant poets in America. But perhaps it can be said that my work ethic and aesthetic preferences as an immigrant in America emphasize exchange/sharing, hearing and writing multiple voices speaking simultaneously.
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.
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.
Part of my work progress and process on the Some Brown Girl: Notes on Pinay Liminality manuscript will be a refocus of this blog space, hence the website title change. I will be writing up a concise explanation of what “Pinay Liminality,” is, as I have been teaching it in my Filipina Literature class in USF’s Yuchengco Philippine Studies Program, as I have been working on it in my own writings and mentorship.
Speaking of mentorship, please have a look at this phenomenal work my students have done on Pinay Liminality. I love this so much; they deserve so much props and shout out for taking this classroom work into their own lives and spaces.
I want to post this following essay here: “Towards a Pinay ‘We’ Poetics,” which I had submitted for publication, though it sounds like — after some email correspondences with the editors — this project was cancelled or placed on indefinite hiatus. I had “rediscovered” this essay while searching my Google Drive for other works, and it is well worth putting into the world. It will be included in the Some Brown Girl manuscript.
Towards a Pinay “We” Poetics
I am interested in a “we” poetics. “We” is a persona in which I’ve been writing for a long time now, and even my “I” is a “we.” This came to my attention fully when poet Nathaniel Mackey articulated this “we,” in his discussion about the ongoing emergence journey of a people in his serial poem, “Song of the Andoumboulou.” This “we” appeals to me as a Filipina; I was raised in a culture of “we.” There are two Tagalog terms, pakikisama, and bayanihan, which speak to the social value of this “we” in practice. We are valued as members of a larger whole, in interaction and relation to others within this larger whole. We know ourselves as members of a larger whole, in interaction and relation to others within this larger whole.
Poetically, I also come from a tradition of a “we”; think of the community organizer, activist Filipino American poets Carlos Bulosan and Al Robles. While Robles wrote in Rappin’ With Ten Thousand Carabaos in the Dark, about and in the voices of the Manongs, the West Coast Filipino American migrant laborers of the early twentieth century, a socialism-oriented Bulosan invoked Whitmanesque multitudes of working men in “If You Want to Know What We Are.” I, too, have attempted to write as “the people,” this Filipino multitude:
We, Malakas and Maganda
We, Moluccas and Magellan
We, Devil and Dogeater
We, Starfruit and Sampaguita
We, Malakas and Maganda
We, Pepe and Pilar
We, Devil and Dogeater
We, Coconut and Crab
We, Malakas and Maganda
We, Eskinol and ESL
We, Devil and Dogeater
We, Igorot and Imelda
We, Malakas and Maganda
We, B-boy and Bulosan
We, Devil and Dogeater
We, Subic Bay and Stockton
We, Malakas and Maganda
We, Gangsta Rap and Galleon Trade
We, Devil and Dogeater
We, Comfort Woman and Carabao
We, Malakas and Maganda
We, Lea Salonga and Lapu-Lapu
We, Devil and Dogeater
We, TnT and Taguba
We, Malakas and Maganda
I think of this poem as conventionally “masculine”; I am acutely aware that I have already cited more male poets speaking as “the people,” in an essay about Pinay “we” poetics. I have previously written an essay on women of color and reticence*. I reject reticence as a natural state, and instead witness women writers of color ignored, or bullied into the interior provinces of the domestic, the personal, and private, while the men charge themselves with handling the “official story,” representing “the people,” addressing the outside world. Ultimately, many women are barred from being so ambitious as to speak on that “too big” outside world, effectively silenced. This is one contradition I am trying to unravel; the fine details of our everyday lives comprise a human being, communities of human beings, and the cultures of communities of human beings in the world. Writing these details then, should be regarded as ambitious.
With my third book, Diwata, I was centrally concerned with myth-making, and writing the Pinay version of Leslie Marmon Silko’s Storyteller. Indeed, Silko’s Storyteller was, along with a stack of books by Eduardo Galeano, a springboard for Diwata, as I tried to write in the voices of elder storytellers, to remember the stories they told, and the ones they never told. What intimate, unwritten knowledge, what “unofficial story,” do we hold in our memories and private spaces? What stories do we know in our bones, from having heard them so many times? What stories do we all collaboratively participate in telling? As women, how do these old mythic stories of mermaids and aswangs still hold relevance in the 21st century? Do we still need them (the stories, the tellers, the mermaids and aswangs)? What responsibility do we have to be the bearers and tellers of story, especially since many of these these elder storytellers have passed away?
Now, we are in danger of becoming disconnected, brown-skinned, immigrant American girls and women, living in American cities, besieged by a technology in which I find so much noise and so little wisdom, and which facilitates so little meaningful interaction or coming together of community and family into our sacred gathering spaces, our kitchen tables, our campfires and hearths. Revisiting Joy Harjo’s poem, “Perhaps the World Ends Here,” reminds us why these spaces are so important:
This table has been a house in the rain, an umbrella in the sun.
Wars have begun and ended at this table. It is a place to hide in the shadow of terror. A place to celebrate the terrible victory.
We have given birth on this table, and have prepared our parents for burial here.
Discontended with thoughtless and passive online “community,” I want to demand something else. As an author, I have to ask whether the book can become our table and hearth, our sacred gathering space in which we may all collaboratively participate in the telling.
As Pinays, we constantly resist silence; many of us know the pain of having been mothered by silenced women. From within a culture of we, silence can be construed as consent, and dissent as an inconvenience, an alien, undesirable element undermining consensus and community. To dissent and to demand is to be a bitch. We dissent, are privately thanked and publicly alienated, as other women police the boundaries of acceptable thought, social behavior, and speech. This reprisal breaks my heart, because we know experientially that we cannot afford not to speak our piece in a world that so casually mistakes us Pinays, no matter how distinguished or accomplished, for nannies, maids, “bar girls,” mail order brides, various girls who service you. This is obscene and offensive, identifying all Filipino women as consenting, purchasable bodies in this commerce.
My second book, Poeta en San Francisco, rails against the international commerce of Filipina bodies, that expectation of being serviced, as has emerged from military, Christian, cultural, economic invasions of the islands. This commerce relies upon the denigration of the Pinay from her original position of social, religious, and civic power, and it relies upon her silence (construed as consent). Poeta en San Francisco rejects that silence (negates that construed consent) by aggressively indicting the Christian missionary, the American soldier, the sex tourist, the Asiaphile, those benefiting from our dehumanization; my position here is often called, “white man hating”:
[why choose pilipinas, remix]
the answer is simple, my friend. pilipinas are noteworthy for their beauty, grace, charm. they are especially noted for their loyalty. their nature is sun sweetened. their smiles downcast, coy. pilipinas possess intrinsic beauty men find delightful and irresistible. pilipinas are family-oriented by essence, resourceful, devoted. what’s more, english is the true official language of the pilipinas, so communication is uncomplicated. and even though some believe in the old ways, the majority of the pilipinas are christian, so you are assured they believe in the one true god you do. foreign, but not too foreign, they assimilate quickly and they do not make a fuss. in short, the pilipinas are custom tailored to fit your diverse needs.
now will that be cash or charge?
I culled the above text, “found poetry” from a Filipina mail order bride website; it is actual testimonial from satisfied customers, serving as marketing material for those men on the fence about purchasing a Filipina over girls from other impoverished nations.
I am a poet because I believe poems can effectively resist silence, and I believe in, as June Jordan has written, poetry as a humanizing project. In writing against the Filipina mail order bride dehumanization demonstrated above, the self-representation should be truly collective, not spoken in an imposed, singular Pinay voice silencing other Pinay voices.
If we collaboratively participate in the telling, then what does that look and sound like? That’s what I wanted to try to write next. I began to wonder whether overcoming Pinay silence could be as simple as asking a group of Pinays a series of questions, and opening up the space to answer. I have followed Bhanu Kapil’s example of gathering questionnaire responses from other South Asian women for her book, The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers. In her introduction, Kapil writes, “Is it possible for you to say the thing you have never been able to say, even to the one you have spent your whole life loving?” She aimed for an uncensored “honest and swift” text, and I’d wondered if any conditions we set up could really ensure such pure, unbolstered results.
I was also influenced by Claire Kageyama-Ramakrishnan’s poem, “One Question, Several Answers,” in which an unseen speaker asks the same one question, “Where did your father live?” again and again. The addressee appears to have no choice but to keep answering. From her responses to this persistent questioning, a picture of her father’s life in the WWII Japanese internment camps emerges, gains color, dimension, detail, and sadness.
I posted a call for participants on various Filipino artist and community listservs, and many Pinays wrote back to me, not to participate or to voice any opinion on the project. They wrote to me to make their presence known, either as private gestures of solidarity, or so that I could acknowledge them, which confirmed for me the need to be visible (or to overcome invisibility), and to be heard (or to overcome silence or being silenced).
I was disappointed but not surprised at the small number of Pinays who voiced interest in participating, and in the smaller number of Pinays who followed through, and responded to my questions about body, self-image, mothering, daughtering, home, voice, worry, and ritual. What I wanted to know: If we can speak for ourselves, then what are we saying about ourselves, how do we represent ourselves, what is privately and socially important to us. What’s really eating at us when we’re looking in the mirror, preoccupied with applying lipstick, dreading going on a diet (think unforgiving full-length mirror here) before we rush off to the next errand, task, or chore.
In the spirit of Anne Waldman’s “Fast Speaking Woman,” and her predecessor María Sabina, I have come to craft these Pinay responses into trance-like, incantatory bursts. In the spirit of Diwata, woman’s voice is wind, woman’s body is earth; woman is muse, deity, and poet, and these responses become woman-centric genealogies, prayers to our mothers and to ourselves:
Daughter of reinvented selves, she of the new names.
Daughter of Evangeline la Reina, daughter of Eve.
Daughter of Maria la China, she of the rice powdered face.
Daughter of Praxedes Adviento, she with the tree trunk arms.
Daughter of Trinidad y Adoracion, storytellers who do not speak.
Daughter of Everilda, lady of sharp tongued gossip.
Daughter of Rufina, maker of dresses, lover of orchids.
Daughter of Florentina, pursued by American soldiers.
Daughter of Leyteño peasant, daughter of .22 long rifle.
Daughter of Morena, we lift our eyes to the sun.
Daughter of Kayumanggi, we warm ourselves in your earth.
Litany, participatory prayer and procession, has been one of my organizing principles; repetition as affirmation, reinforcement, assertion, and public demonstration.
Mother of mother’s compassion.
Mother of are you eating enough.
Mother of put that away.
Mother of clean this up.
Mother of make your bed.
Mother of do your homework.
Mother of shut off the lights.
Mother of you’re so beautiful.
I am interested in these prayer-like forms elevating the domestic work which has been used to debase and silence us, as in poet Irene Faye Duller’s words, “I am the maid of the world, and the world has made me dirty.” Can we also be Whitmanesque multitudes of Pinays, speaking for ourselves, living, working, in which the voices and work of women are elevated, in which we are not just humanized, but even deified. This is the gist of the book I am currently writing.
As I have been blogging my thoughts on Pinay poetics, writing this essay, and thinking more about this book project, I have just heard from Tina Bartolome, a Pinay writer and San Francisco native, now finishing her MFA at Indiana University. I clicked over to her blog, and have found a treasure of thoughtful writing on her “literary universe,” as a politicized Pinay writer. I appreciate and need this resonance; certainly, now as I write more and more about this Pinay “we” poetics, I want to be able to articulate clearly what storytelling can do. Here are some points Tina has outlined:
Storytelling as taking inventory
Storytelling as collective memory
Storytelling as paying homage
Storytelling as a comrade to social change (a conversation in progress)
She elaborates on the last point by quoting Martín Espada’s Zapata’s Disciple: “Any oppressive social condition, before it can be changed, must be named and condemned in words that persuade by stirring the emotions, awakening the senses. Thus, the need for the political imagination.” And then further down in her post, Tina tells us she wants writing to “mess with hegemony.”
I recall Hayan Charara’s essay, which was his NEA Author Statement, “Animals: On the Role of the Poet in a Country at War,” in Perihelion:
And while I don’t believe that poems will keep bombs from falling on schools, or bullets from entering bodies, or tanks from rolling over houses, or men or women or children from being humiliated, poetry insists on the humanity of people, which violence steals away; and poems advocate the power of the imagination, which violence seeks to destroy. Poets change the world. I don’t mean literally, though some try. I mean with words, with language, they take the many things of this world and make them new, and when we read poems, we know the world and its many things differently—it might not be a better or worse place than the one we live in—just different—but without the imagination, without poetry, I don’t believe that the world as most of us know it would be tolerable.
This is messing with hegemony, to insist upon poetry as a humanizing project, through which we may imagine, envision something other that what we’re given, and inspire others to do the same — to think, to speak, to write, and to act in ways other than what is officially sanctioned. This is storytelling as transformative experience. Imagine Pinays transformed in international perception from consenting, silenced, servicing bodies in commerce into dignified human beings in the world; this transformation is facilitated in large part by art, literature, and cultural productions that we create, centering the Pinay, and portraying ourselves as speaking and acting human beings exercising free will and demanding to be heard.
Concerning “activism,” I fear I am abstract; poems will not, as Charara writes, “keep bombs from falling on schools, or bullets from entering bodies, or tanks from rolling over houses.” Still, considering the silences and noise of our everyday lives, I want neither of these. I want and need something else. Pinays are capable of so much bravery, and I need to connect with other Pinays who are brave, emboldened, who have opinions about the world, about art, about cultural movements, who are willing to engage in civil public discourse about these things—not just “thumbs up,” not just “like,” not just link. I believe these are the beginnings of a Pinay “we” poetics that messes with hegemony.
04/28/2011 Oakland, CA
* My essay, “On Feminism, Women of Color, Poetics, and Reticence: Some Considerations,” was first published in XCP: Cross Cultural Poetics #20, and reprinted in A Megaphone (Chain Links, 2011).
Some Brown Girl: Notes on Pinay Liminality! It’s taking shape!
I’d said I wanted my next manuscript to be more prose poetry and poetic/lyric essay. So prose poems in the first section, essays in the second section.
My current trajectory is about creating bodies of work that are accessible, not because they are dumbed down, but because the “I” and the form offer familiarity, and therefore create entryways for the reader. And because the language is generally more grounded. And as a poet, I get away with not having to write scholarly work. Thank goodness.
I’ve done a not so good job keeping track of all my published essays. I had to go dredge my oldest blog (that dinosaur blogspot blog!) for this particular essay, “On Feminism, Women of Color, Poetics, and Reticence,” which I wrote in 2007, and which was published in XCP: Cross Cultural Poetics #20, then reprinted in A Megaphone (Chain Links, 2011).
I wrote this essay in response to Juliana Spahr’s and Stephanie Young’s “Numbers Trouble,” which was published in The Chicago Review in 2007. I was trying to give white American female experimental poetics some perspective on WOC. My essay name-drops almost every woman of color author I knew of in 2007. I am re-posting it here with this lovely WOC Rosie the Riveter intersectional feminism image.
On Feminism, Women of Color, Poetics, and Reticence
Subsequent to the Chicago Review’s publishing of Juliana Spahr’s and Stephanie Young’s now notorious essay, “Numbers Trouble,” on gender disparity in the US experimental poetry scene, these two authors initiated a project entitled “Tell US Poets,” and issued a call for information on feminism as it exists for women writers in the world outside of North America. I responded to Spahr and Young, and to my relief, they were both receptive to my criticisms and questions. I asked if they were interested in hearing about American feminisms from the perspective of women writers from communities of color, for I was troubled by what appeared implicit to me in their request for non-North American information: that all women in North America experience and define gender relations, power dynamics, and feminism in the same manner.
This is a dangerous assumption, for Third World conditions exist in North America, in North American countries that are not Canada and the USA, among Native Hawaiians and the First Peoples of Canada, on Native American reservations, in the prison industrial complex, in urban, inner cities, in rural and agricultural settings. I suspect that women in these communities do not have access to the feminism which exists in white American middle class households and their corresponding professional workplaces and educational institutions.
As well, North America is comprised of many immigrant communities (one of which I am a part), who have different beliefs and practices of gender relations, and who live in varying degrees of integration into and isolation from mainstream institutions and popular culture.
And so I have come to both appreciate and resent this, “Tell us what we need to know about feminism in _____,” (fill in blank with a name of a place that isn’t in America) coming from white American women who are middle class and professionals.
Perhaps a “Please,” and a withholding of any initial assumptions would have made me appreciate the request a little bit more. This “Please,” would have made the request sound like a request and not a command. I would have also appreciated an explanation of why the requesters feel they do not know enough or anything at all about the feminism of “other” women, why this information is not something they have found, where they have looked, to whom they have spoken as they have attempted to gather information.
I am critical of the assumption that communities of “others,” or those of “other” places deemphasize feminism because of these “other” communities’ inherent or essential misogyny.
I am critical of the assumption that “other” communities’ misogyny is essential.
I am critical of the assumption that “innovative” poetry coming from these “other” places will abide by the same standards by which “white,” “avant garde” American poetry abides; I find this problematic precisely because these standards are determined by this same “avant garde,” their cultural values and their relationship with English.
As well, I would ask that this American “avant garde” reconsider that we of “other” communities may not group ourselves in the groupings set up for us by those who do not live in our communities.
Consider that Filipino American poets may have more historical and linguistic commonalities with Chicano and Latino poets.
Consider that Filipino American poets may have more aesthetic commonalities with African American poets.
Consider that Filipino American poets may have more oral tradition/storytelling commonalities with Native American poets.
In thinking about what is “innovative” poetry for women of color poets, and in thinking about this alleged reticence of women poets to submit their work to journal and anthology editors for publication, here are a couple of my reference points:
(1) Chris Chen, who curated the Asian American Poetry Now reading at the Berkeley Art Museum in October 2007, discussed “post identity poetry,” for contemporary Asian American poets, as a process of movement and negotiation, between the already used and overused tropes of cultural artifact and sentimentality, and its binary opposite of blanket disavowal of any ethnic identifiers.
Cathy Park Hong’s Dance Dance Revolution reenvisions the American city and American language. Bruna Mori’s Dérive witnesses, engages, and participates in American city and its farthest reaches, via public mass transit. Sarah Gambito’s Matadora persona is full of rage despite her apparent delicacy. Yoko Ono, Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge, Shin Yu Pai, and Eileen Tabios write from visual and conceptual art.
(2) On the Harriet blog of the Poetry Foundation, Rigoberto González reminds us that not all poets are published (yet), or seek print publication. This may be interpreted as reticence but let me offer this possibility: Many poets not widely published are perhaps invested in live and recorded performance, which makes sense for communities for whom oral tradition is underscored over written tradition.
Harryette Mullen’s Muse and Drudge draws from scat’s improvisation, verbal games such as playground rhyme, and the dozens. The chanting of Mazatec curandera María Sabina, and of Tibetan Buddhism, Anne Waldman borrows and utilizes in her incantatory long poem, “Fast Speaking Woman.” In a similar vein, Genny Lim’s incantations draw from and expand her Buddhist traditions, and from Jazz.
Cecilia Vicuña draws upon the quipu tradition of the Andean people, elongating her words as she intones, as one spins fibers into thread. She incorporates actual string into her performance, tying herself to the space, and to her audience. She writes threads of words upon the handwritten pages of Instan.
In Storyteller, Leslie Marmon Silko writes that words set into motion, much like the casting of a spell, cannot simply be taken back. There are consequences to speaking, and so it should not be done lightly or carelessly. Here, word is the thing and the representation of the thing.
Spanning or blending poetry and theatre, Ntozake Shange’s choreopoem, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf, is performed by an ensemble of women. Jessica Hagedorn, one of the original Colored Girls, has performed her poetic work with her rock band, the West Coast Gangster Choir. We can consider the ensemble poetic performance productions of Aimee Suzara’s Pagbabalik, and Maiana Minahal’s Before Their Words as descendants of Shange’s Colored Girls and Hagedorn’s Gangster Choir.
An emphasis on oral tradition in part explains the popularity of Def Poetry, slam poetry, poetry performed with music, not because it’s “new” and “innovative” a thing to do, but because certain types of music are simply a part of the oral tradition. We see Hip-hop poets as descendants of the Black Arts and Jazz Poets, Gwendolyn Brooks, Jayne Cortez, Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni. This Hip-hop generation includes such poets as LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs, Ishle Yi Park, Tara Betts, Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai, Aya De León, Staceyann Chin, and Chinaka Hodge. We see many of these poets actively pursuing publication, literary awards, graduate degrees, writing and teaching fellowships, acceptance and participation in artist in residency programs, and professorships.
Still, another reason for this perceived “reticence” of women writers of color to publish also has to do with a general and justifiable distrust of American letters and Western institutions. I say “justifiable,” for the historical exclusion women of color voices from American letters, but I am also wary of blanket rejections of poetry written by women of color who are products of MFA programs, erroneously thought of as not ethnic enough, not political enough, not invested in, not informed by the communities from which these writers come.
A member of an Asian American writers’ list serve some years ago attempted to make the argument that the poetry of Myung Mi Kim did not speak to the Asian American experience because Kim was a “Language Poet.” Here, I interpret this list serve member’s inaccurate use of the term “Language Poetry” to describe Kim’s fractured usage of language, narrative, and expansive use of white space. But it is precisely these fractures and caesurae in Under Flag which embody and enact some Korean Americans’ experiences of war, American Occupation, and subsequent displacement from their homeland, of struggling to learn new language and culture, and of negotiating between what is native, acquired, and imposed.
Catalina Cariaga’s Cultural Evidence, in using white space and invented poetic form; Tsering Wangmo Dhompa’s In the Absent Everyday, in questioning English words’ conventional meanings; and Heather Nagami’s Hostile, in examining translation and in criticisms of Asian American tropes are descendants of Kim’s numerous works.
What is “innovative” in our communities then includes various permutations of code switching, translating, fracturing language, polyglottism, vernaculars; integrating performance and music onto the page presentation; integrating our own cultures’ art, oral, and poetic forms into written English and Western poetic forms.
Debra Kang Dean’s Precipitates synthesizes koan and haiku with American Transcendentalism. Michelle Bautista’s Kali’s Blade integrates the movements of the Filipino martial art, kali, into written free verse. In Teeth, Aracelis Girmay pays very close attention to poetics rhythm and meter which mimic those of the African slaves who worked the American South’s sugar cane fields. Evie Shockley writes sonnet ballads in a half red sea, in the tradition of Gwendolyn Brooks.
Do editors of American publications recognize these innovations? How do these editors read or deal with the “foreign” elements in this work, and especially “foreign” elements that do not abide by these editors’ preconceived notions, assumptions, and prejudices? For example, not all Asian American poets are East Asian. Not all East Asian poets have Buddhist sensibilities. Not all Hip-hop poets are African American. Not all African American poets are Hip-hop. Not all Spanish writing comes from Latino/a and/or Chicano/a poets. Not all ethnic “innovative” poets disavow ethnicity; many enact rather than simply tell.
What happens to the work of “ethnic” poets who do not conform to some American editors’ expectations? How is this work received? Where does that work go? Who publishes it? And so is this reticence when we do not see this work in print?
One major theme I find in the poetic work of women of color is body politics, and its intersections with war, imperialism, race, and ethnicity. Combine these issues with the above explorations of language, vernacular, bilingualism, oral tradition, and performance. How is this work read and received by predominantly white, maybe predominantly male American editors?
Tara Betts and Patricia Smith write about the racially motivated abduction, torture, and extreme sexual abuse of Megan Williams. On the Harriet blog of the Poetry Foundation, Smith posted mug shots of Williams’ assailants, telling us, “This is where poetry comes from.”
In Trimmings and S*PeRM**K*T, Harryette Mullen writes of femininity, fashion accessories, advertising, marketing, and reproduction, in ways that verge upon pornography.
Invoking the spirit of Harryette Mullen’s Sleeping with the Dictionary, Ching-In Chen’s “Ku Li,” utilizes strategies of sound association and wordplay, and in the process, tests her readers’ sensitivities at hearing this racially derogatory term in repetition.
Elizabeth Alexander writes of Saartjie Baartman, popularly known as the Venus Hottentot, whose prominent buttocks and sinus pudoris (elongated labia) placed her body in the Western world as a living display piece or artifact. Her preserved genitals remained on display in Paris, after her death in 1815 and until 1974.
Evie Shockley writes of the Middle Passage, of rivers in the tradition of Langston Hughes (this talk of rivers which influenced Jean-Michel Basquiat), and women who navigate these rivers: Phyllis Wheatley, Gwendolyn Brooks, Sally Hemmings, Billie Holiday, and Anita Hill, to name a few.
Suheir Hammad writes of the plight of Arab women negotiating tradition and war, surviving tradition and war, and of finding and forming alliances and communities with women across ethnicity.
In the largely imagistic, “Spanglish” and “Chinglish” poems of Crazy Melon, Chinese Apple, Frances Chung has written about the inhabitants of New York Chinatown, pushed off the sidewalks and forced to walk in the gutters, Oriental curio objects gazed upon by white tourists.
Maile Arvin writes also of tourism, which continues to push native Hawaiians off their land and away from their depleting natural resources. Arvin also writes of Hawaiian Sovereignty as it permeates every aspect of her poetic speaker’s daily life.
Irene Faye Duller, in considering the global perception of Filipino women as sexual commodity and servant, has written, “I am the maid of the world, and the world has made me dirty.”
I write about Third World women in war and military occupation — Filipina brides, the gang rapes of Iraqi women, the Comfort Women of WWII, linking these power dynamics to pornography.
We are American poets and we are American feminists.
This post is a revision and/or a reiteration of a previous blog post — actually a reiteration of many different blog posts I’ve got on the subject of becoming an author. It comes from a place we call “the gift economy,” which is related to the uncompensated labor we are expected to do as writers. It comes from the numerous responses I give to everyone who asks me how they might become an author.
Thing is, I am loath to give this kind of blanket advice, because there is no single, correct path to authordom, but people come out of the woodwork and ask me all the time. A lot of people are looking for some quick tips, little hacks to hasten the task, and they bristle when I tell them about the work involved. I don’t have any life hacks for you. I just have a list of recommendations, things to think about if you think you are serious about becoming an author.
NB: these steps privilege the small presses and independent publishers. I have never gone the agent and the corporate route, and so if you want that advice, it’s not here. Also, if you are looking to go the book contest route, that’s not something I cover here either.
Take writing classes. Some of the advice seekers who approach me have never taken a writing class and have never shown their writing to another human being. In the very least, writing classes bring your work to the eyes of other human beings. There are community workshops, local community college classes, university extension classes. Something here will fit your budget. Poetry Flash has a list of local workshops and writing conferences. There are probably publications like this in your area. Why take writing classes? Well, even if you think you have natural talent as a writer, we take classes to seek guidance, to find mentors, to improve and expand our skill sets. Classes are structured learning. Classes can build your discipline. Classes will enlarge your knowledge bases. Think about it. When you are learning ballet, your teacher is a trained dancer who teaches you the five positions at the barre. These positions are the foundations of your art. Mikhail Baryshnikov did not spring from his mother’s womb a master.
Read. I don’t know how many times I have heard aspiring writers publicly and proudly proclaim that they do not read because they do not want their unique voice influenced by others. Don’t be one of those people. Read. What is out there in the world of books? Who are folks who exhibit mastery in their craft? Think about this. When you are learning how to play the piano, your teacher, the trained pianist, teaches you to play works by Mozart, Chopin, Beethoven, Bach, Gershwin, et al until you are proficient. And then you keep playing the works of those who came before you. You do this before you ever compose your own work. And so, as an aspiring writer, what you read is work that is showing you what is out there, what’s been out there, who has written what, how, and why. What can you learn from them.
Find your writing community. Perhaps these are your writing class classmates. They are learning just like you are. Perhaps in your circle of friends, there are a couple of aspiring writers. Strength in numbers here. You can hold one another accountable. X number of poems or pages per week. Ground rules for providing feedback to one another. This means, yes, you too are providing feedback to others; they are not there solely in the service of you. This is community. You are learning how to read critically, and you are learning the language of critique. you are learning sensitivity to other writers’ strengths, weaknesses, and needs. They are learning yours. You are learning how to be articulate and constructive. Be open about this.
Cut your teeth in public events, readings, open mics. Here, you learn to read your work aloud. You get to hear how your work sounds. This can be a great editing tool. You can hear the clunkers and transitions that need work. You can hear words, phrasings, order, redundancies, leaps in logic that need to be rethought. Perhaps you will also expand your community here. Whose works do you like hearing? Why? This is you, listening and thinking critically about your preferences.
DIY. If in your classes and with your community, you’ve been working on a body of work, then you’ve probably got all of this writing saved either in individual doc files, or altogether in a large doc. if the former, I encourage you to try the latter, because in doing so, you are now thinking about how your individual pieces work together — thematically, aesthetically. You are now envisioning your work as/in a collection. Maybe you have eight, ten, fifteen pages. Make a cool cover. The internet is full of public domain images and creative commons images which may be reused. Lay it all out in a booklet form, print, copy, staple and take them with you to your next public event, reading, or open mic. Perhaps you would like to DIY as a writers’ collective; this is also a totally great option.
Work in publication. In your classes and community building, perhaps you are presented with the opportunity to work with publications. Perhaps your teachers/mentors need interns. Perhaps a class or community org has publication as one of its activities. Participate. This way, you can learn how the process works. Submissions come in from aspiring writers such as yourselves. There’s a selection process. Participate in this. See what gets in and what doesn’t. Think about, discuss why this is — you learn so much in these conversations among your community about what you all like and don’t like. You learn there are numerous answers to why a piece is ultimately rejected. You also learn what constitutes a literary submission, what submissions guidelines are, and what happens when one does not abide by submissions guidelines.
Submit your work. In your classes and community building, perhaps you’ve met someone who produces a zine, or a publication either online or print. Perhaps you are working as a publication intern (see above). Perhaps your teachers/mentors know venues that focus on students’ and/or emerging writers’ works. Perhaps your teacher/mentor thinks your work might be a “good fit” in a particular publication — here, you get to learn what “good fit” means and why it is so important. These are places you learn how to submit your work. Or you could take a class or workshop specifically geared towards the submissions process, if you’ve got the resources to do this. Once you submit your work to enough publications, you will slowly but surely build your publications cache.
Receive a rejection letter or two. Or more. Not every publication you send your work to will accept your work. This is OK. As you would know from your own experience and participation in publication work, there are numerous reasons why a work is not selected (see steps 6 and 7 above). Take the time to acknowledge the rejection, and then move on. Find other places to submit your work; ask your writing community, ask your teachers/mentors where they recommend.
Revel in your acceptances! Not every publication will reject you! If they say yes, celebrate this. If these publications do release parties, participate in these. In addition to celebrating, you may be invited to share your work on the mic.
Once you’ve done steps 7, 8, and 9 ad infinitum, perhaps you will have the confidence to compile chapbook length bodies of your work, or straight up, your full length manuscript, and perhaps you will revisit the possibility of classes and workshops to focus yourself and to level up, and perhaps this leveling up maybe include exploring graduate writing programs.
Submitting full length manuscripts to prospective publishers is kind of like submitting to publications (journals, magazines, anthologies). In other words, you’ve already had dress rehearsals, though if you still feel like you’re apprehensive, try submitting chapbook length projects. Discuss with your mentors and community, do your research thoroughly for what “good fits” there may be for a body of your work. The New Pages website has the best compilation of independent publishers and small presses; there are also publishing/author cooperatives — do learn about this industry. At the very least, find out when certain publishers accept work, what kind of work they are looking for. Read the submission guidelines and follow those to last letter. Write your cover letter and keep it professional. Send your properly formatted submission — query letter, manuscript excerpt, or complete manuscript via letter or email if that is what the publisher asks — via US mail or Submittable, as per their guidelines, and then take a breath. Repeat this step for as long as you’ve got the stamina for it; take a break when you have to. If editors give you feedback on your manuscript, do listen. Also: My recommendation is to not break the bank about this, i.e. do not put yourself in economic hardship over submissions.
Remember step 8. Rejection happens for various reasons. If editors give you feedback on your manuscript, do listen.
Acceptance will eventually happen. In this case, ask yourself: Can you work with these editors? Will they hear/listen to you? Prioritize. What are the absolute most important things to you at this point, in getting your book into the world? And can this publisher give you that? And what can you let go? And what will you do to help them get this book as far into the world as you can?
If acceptance is not happening, then perhaps it’s time to reexamine the manuscript and also where you are sending it. Go back to your community and talk about the work. Think about alternatives to going this route. Maybe this isn’t the route for you. There are so many others.