“The Rule Is, Do Not Stop,” To be a Filipina Writer in the SF Bay Area 3, including a very old poem, “Placemarkers”

Here is a poem I wrote in 2002. It’s so old, I can’t find an actual Word file of it; I suspect it’s on one of these floppy disks I’ve held on to, though I have no computer that can actually read a floppy disk anymore. So here is an image (click on it to enlarge):

It begins: “Kearny and Jackson, San Francisco… There’s a gaping hole in the ground in the middle of this overcrowded city; I’ve never felt I’d earned the right to write about this hole which you gave a voice and a face while all I could do was watch. I never thought it was mine…”

This poem may as well be my literary address for this month’s Filipino American Literature Symposium. This is where the title, “The Rule Is, Do Not Stop,” has come from. I end the poem with, “I have always wanted to write you poems; I just wanted you to remember my name, and when you did, I felt I had finally arrived.”

A long time ago, when I met the NYC Filipino American poets who would later go on to create Kundiman, they asked me over dinner, what it was like, the Filipino American poetry scene in San Francisco. I told them, it’s deep, and old, and when Al Robles remembers who you are, then you know you have made it. There was both uncertainty, and fear in their faces. How were they supposed to know what that meant, and how was that supposed to have any value to them. They were in and of another world, one that at the time I wasn’t so sure I wanted to be a part of. Then, I felt, if I didn’t try to be a part of their world, then I would always just be some brown girl from this corner, this margin of the country, and that wouldn’t mean anything in the larger scheme of things.

Yeah. I’m glad I got over that.

It means everything to me, to be from here, of here, to be acknowledged as such, “Bay Area stalwart poet,” Mike Sonksen called me in Cultural Weekly. The photographs above were taken at the I-Hotel on Kearny and Jackson Streets, the former hole in the ground, right down the block from City Lights Bookstore. This is much of where I have triangulated my literary existence. In the photos above, from left to right: Oscar Peñaranda, Jaime Jacinto, myself, Jeff Tagami, and Al Robles.

I never wanted my writing education to take me away from this poetry scene and this place. Peñaranda once used the word, “concupiscent” in a poem about balut, and I was like, Wallace Stevens! “Emperor of Ice Cream”! Other Fil Ams around us would be like, WTF is this girl talking about. And I thought, can I mend my poetic worlds together, however strange the seams. And then I thought, perhaps being a Filipina poet in the Bay Area, for me, will always be to Frankenstein myself.

Where I am at, as we speak — I’m an elder now, yes? I am going gray. I have five books and three chapbooks under my belt. Three of my five books were published in San Francisco, two of these are with Filipino-focused indie publishers. I know that folks in the industry don’t care much for my SF, Filipino published books. They will conveniently forget about these titles, as if those books are less legitimate, as if they are not books at all.

Isn’t that typical, erasing the efforts of SF Bay Area Filipinos, acting as if we have no right to do anything on our own behalf, as if we have no right to define our own literary and artistic traditions. Because we didn’t ask permission.

I go back to Nick Joaquin’s “A Heritage of Smallness,” and Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place. This smallness is all that is expected of us, and from this smallness, shame, especially those of us who have chosen to remain grounded in the worlds and communities which have nurtured and sustained us, the very writers and authors who first said to us, “I see you.”

To be a Filipina Writer in the SF Bay Area 2

[Continuing thoughts as I compose my literary address for this month’s Filipino Literature Symposium at the Asian Art Museum.]

  • Oftentimes, and frequently, it’s said we’re not “doing it right.” As a creative writer, I am thick in a discipline and an industry with certain sets of “rules.” Here, people will say, “discipline” is already the wrong word; it is an academic, institutional term. The logic goes like this: One just writes. Anyone can write. Everyone has a story in them that is worth telling. If you restrict this, then you are a gatekeeper, and a gatekeeper is an enemy to free expression.
  • Here, people often like to say, “rules are made to be broken,” hence this disregard and derision for poetic form, for literary device and literary technique, for editors and editorial process, for publishing. We are told, those are white people’s things. I was told that my MFA in writing was an MFA in whiting.
  • At the opening of the Pilipinx American Library event, Catalina Cariaga voiced her experience as an MFA candidate at SFSU, which she attended a few years before I did, as one in which she wanted to learn to express, though her mostly white colleagues expected her to explain. This is the rub, what so many of us experience as the few POC or WOC in so many different graduate programs.
  • There’s another set of expectations though, those coming from our own communities. We have to get the story “right.” We have to do “right” by our communities. We are so used to others telling us who we are and what we are supposed to think and be, that we are rightfully guarded about our stories. We need to define an authentic self. Hence, this insistence upon what is the “right” version.
  • Another way of saying it: As centuries-long colonial subjects, we were told we couldn’t create these things for ourselves, that we weren’t capable, and the only “capable” ones are the colonizers’ appointed ones, furthering colonial agendas. And so we have developed a distrust for those among us, who walk in perceived as elite, bourgeois worlds of editors, publishers, professors — gatekeepers. We castigate those who speak elite, bourgeois language, who hold credentials from those worlds. We do these things, and yet, we uphold the colonially fluent José Rizal.
  • I say all of these things as a creative writer, as a poet, working with line, lyric, and language — my concerns and values are conveyed and contained in these. I am not a scholar, historian, anthropologist, philosopher, or political scientist — and they would tell you what concerns them, what they know and believe from their own formal training, from their own disciplines.
  • Something I have been learning throughout the course of my formal and informal education as a writer, is that we have to insist upon many stories, many voices, reflections of many experiences, coming out of our own very diverse communities. We can make spaces tell our stories in so many different ways.

I’m just talking it out.

To be a Filipina Writer in the SF Bay Area

I am trying to write this literary address for the upcoming FIlipino Literature Symposium at the Asian Art Museum. I have so many thoughts, so many beginnings in my head, and then when I try to start typing my many thoughts, I stop. Some things I am trying to form into coherent paragraphs.

  • I grew up here, went to school — K-12, college and grad school — here. At Holy Spirit School in the late 1970s-mid 1980s, there were only two or so other Filipino families, the Baldozas and the Tatads. The Baldozas were family friends. And maybe before this, one of the priests at Holy Spirit Church was FIlipino — Father Flores. He blessed our house when we moved to Fremont from Daly City. I had a sense that outside of our family parties, no one knew what a Filipino was. I had no idea that our still agricultural Fremont, much less all of California, much less the whole West Coast and Hawaii, had been cultivated by Filipino laborers. If you return to Carlos Bulosan’s America is in the Heart now, see where Allos has jumped a train in/around Niles, Irvington, or Sunol. No one ever taught me this in school; fourth grade California History never mentioned Filipinos. How could I have possibly become an author under these conditions. If I were to revisit Bulosan’s “I am not a laughing man” now, I would see pieces of myself there, so full of anger because no one ever told me or taught me that I could write what I could write, that it was not impossible, that I could find my life in letters. Imagine that, the girl child of immigrants, told she was nothing but nothing, told she was invisible, thinking she could write books, be mentioned in the same sentence as renown, even prestigious men and women of letters.
  • When I discovered I loved poetry, I didn’t know that I had a right to. A scrappy little immigrant girl who was always told to shut the fuck up, who was always told no one would ever be interested in the stories of her dirty third world people, trekking to City Lights Books in North Beach, and dreaming she could one day have a place here.
San Francisco Chronicle, March 21, 2018.
  • During Spring semester, 1990, at UC Berkeley, I met Ray Orquiola in Professor Ronald Takaki’s Asian American History class. Ray told me he had started Maganda magazine, and was looking for young Fil Ams to come and be a part of this thing. I don’t know why I trusted him enough to hand him a stack of my handwritten poems, final versions, when only a few people very close to me had ever seen my poems. I did my first poetry reading on April 29, 1990, at the Faculty Glade on the UC Berkeley campus. We sat in the grass and I shared poems. This felt exactly how a poet should share poems, sitting in the grass on a lovely spring afternoon. There were perhaps seven or so people there. My dad drove up from Fremont for this. His hay fever was so bad, he stood under a tree in the shade faraway but within eyesight. I don’t know if he actually heard me speak. It would be easy to say, the rest is history. That was the beginning of my public life in letters.

OK, so I think this is the beginning of my literary address.

Pilipinx American Library at the Asian Art Museum


I admit it; Filipinx authored books are absolutely normalized in my life, and have been for some time. But this has not always been the case. I tell this story a lot, about being 19 years old, about Jessica Hagedorn’s Dogeaters coming into my life then, when I was an undergrad adrift at UC Berkeley, and that the book in my hands meant everything to me.

It didn’t matter to me then, how well-reviewed the book was, or that it was published by a NYC “big five” publisher, or that it was an award winner, although those things are what enabled that book to get into my hands. I didn’t know that. What I knew was that a Pinay writer from San Francisco had become an author, and that her book was in the world for me to read. I didn’t “get” Dogeaters the first or second time I read it. I wasn’t ready. But that hardbound first edition has been on my bookshelf since 1990. So I had plenty of opportunity to revisit it on my own schedule and on my own terms.

This is the beauty of book. It remains in your home, in your space, and you come to it many times, oftentimes before you are ready. And then one day, you find you have grown up and that now you understand.

I say all this now, because last night’s Pilipinx American Library event at the Asian Art Museum showed me something I am not accustomed to seeing — many people, many of whom are Filipino/Filipinx, sitting down, reading Filipinx authored books. Some were quietly sitting at the big table, some in beanbags, as if in their own Ikea furnished living room, reading because they had interest and curiosity, and not because I have assigned them 200 pages to read by next Thursday.

If people are in “the industry,” then they talk about biz stuff, talk my ears off about CV items, applying to such-and-such residencies, a lot of busywork. If people are aspiring writers, they will ask me questions about how I came to write, how was I able to start publishing. I gauge their interest as I start talking about my private notebooks and MS Word files from when I was in my teens and twenties, to Maganda magazine, to Creative Writing class at Berkeley City College, to my first DIY chapbook, to SFSU’s MFA program. I tell them about finding mentors and teachers, finding a writing community, and about reading. If they’re really not interested, if they are asking me these things for various other reasons (such as, can you hook me up with your publisher because I wrote a book too and here it is), then I’ll end the story with some open-ended encouragement, and thank them.

Most people are not in “the industry.” They’re people who may read books when they can or if they find one that sounds interesting to them. At community events with multiple attractions and stimuli, books and writers can get relegated to the background because they’re not flashy and performative, and because reading is generally a solitary activity.

So to see this reading room filled with many Filipinx folks looking through books, reading, sharing what they find interesting with their friends and others around them was so great. In our super communal community, how do we take a solitary activity like reading, and make it communal.

Rommel Conclara of ABS CBN interviewed me last night. He asked me what this meant, to have our books in this space. I did talk about the recognition; how big and ubiquitous is our community in the Bay Area, in San Francisco alone, and how little representation we have at the San Francisco institution that is the Asian Art Museum (in fact, I was told the many Filipino security guards at the museum were so excited about this event; when I checked in, I gave them my last name, and they first asked with much excitement, “Reyes? Oh, are you related to the poet? We’re going to have a Filipino poet here!”) — but more so in my purview was the importance of being a young and hungry Filipinx American, holding a Filipinx authored book in their hands, seeing that someone, many someones just like them were capable of creating this thing — how they can take that with them into their lives, and how this is everything.

Thank you to Shirley Ancheta and Catalina Cariaga, whose poems, whose presence reaffirmed for me why I do what I do. Thank you to PJ Gubatino Policarpio for this beautiful and necessary Pilipinx American Library, for carrying out this vision — as Manong Al Robles wrote, “I dreamt of a place to gather,” — and thank you to Marc Mayer of the Asian Art Museum, for having us in this space, and for knowing and understanding why it was important for the museum store to carry our books. Every single copy of Invocation to Daughters sold last night. I signed so many books for so many young (and not so young!) WOC whose eyes were so lit up, so much warmth, so much heart, so much adrenaline.

To quote a fellow Pinay author, “last night was like going to church.”

[Work in Progress] Writing (Whose) Immigrant Song

This past Father’s Day, I was overcome with this need to excavate my father (not literally, of course). During my usual walkabouts, music emerges, and it is the music of myself moving in the world, the music of heart and breathing, and the musics of many outside of me moving in and through their own worlds. I was thinking of my father, and I wanted to hear his music again. Not the kind of clipped, abrupt, chaotic or confused noise, what is caught in the throat, in the chest, held hard on the tongue, these sounds to which I had grown accustomed, but something else. What was his purest music.

The sounds to which I had grown accustomed, I think of them as having been imposed, violently upon us.  I am talking about this ugly shit we live through as tongue tied immigrants, jarred in American cities and institutions that shame us and make us small, make us afraid to speak, make us erase ourselves, make us forget, fill us with rage for forgetting, that rage so volatile, it blasts so aimless, everything and everyone is a target or collateral damage.

Not that music. I have written so much about it already, and though I am nowhere close to completely cataloging it, I needed to step away from it.

So I started to free write, in my usual 0.7 mm mechanical pencils and brand new, soft, narrow ruled Moleskine. After weeks of free writing that violent music necessary for us all to hear and know how it got there, after tiring of grieving the fact of us being bodies who hold that violent music in all of our cells (we are vessels of it), I found myself writing into an imagined past, where a boy’s music has come from the grasses and the dragonflies — these beautiful golden dragonflies hovering above a pre-industrial river, its sweet mud. Its cool breeze too, and also monsoon and typhoon.

And then I stopped. What am I doing writing this imaginary past that my father never lived. Why was I writing about a boy who did not grow up to become my father. Is that unfaithful. Is it dishonest. Is it pointless.

So now, I am writing about my writing about my father. I am writing about creating a version of him that is not true to life, or at least, not entirely true. Is there such thing as writing that is true to the intention of a person. And isn’t that what we do when we write about anybody, living or dead. We write our version of that person, or our intended version of that person. We’ll never get it exactly right. We may get aspects of it, and/or we may approach a certain familiar version. Maybe that’s good enough. Maybe.

Where I am currently at: if in our kuwento, if in our tsismis you live, then you were always my you.