As I was saying (writing) the other day, it takes a lot of faith.
My first book was published in 2003; I’ve been in this for a long time. I know that when I first started thinking about book manuscripts, as my mentor Eileen Tabios had noted back then, it was fortuitous how far removed I was from the “First Book Prize” culture. I didn’t know at the time what it meant. I remember around that time, talking to a fellow Fil Am poet in NYC. They — and a few other Fil Am poets — were stuck in some kind of finalist blues. That is, you submit your first book manuscript and submission fee to x number of presses, and while your manuscript has merit enough to garner finalist status, the ultimate prize, the actual book contract, is still not in your hands.
This poet said to me, and it was emotional, “There’s got to be another way,” as if those other ways of finding publication were so unforeseen and foreign. I didn’t really understand then what that was about. All I knew was that all kinds of small and indie publishers were and are all around me/us. And sure, the “prestige” of the “prize” isn’t associated with being published by all these little publishing bodies. But now, I also think — if there are a million prizes out there, then how “prestigious” is prize. Really.
I also came to hear of poets setting out specifically to write prize-winning poems. What does that even mean.
I also understood that being so deep set in book prize being the alpha and omega meant parting with a lot of money. At that time, I didn’t have the luxury of parting with money.
I still hear from other writers today that they spent much more than $100 per prize season. That’s about as much money as I’ve spent on manuscript submission fees my entire career as an author.
I want to say that faith in our own work is most important. Remembering, knowing deeply why we write what we write, is important. I want to say that excavating what we write and why we write is important, but most of all, for whom we write. How are we addressing, directing ourselves towards them. What languages, what music. How can we truly honor them if we have allowed Po Biz and prize culture to take over our what, why, and how. Especially as WOC, especially as brown girls. Nobody cares about some brown girl. Nobody cares that nobody cares about some brown girl. We write despite this. We have to care for ourselves.
Self-respect is non-negotiable. I want to say it takes tremendous lakas loob to be in this industry, when folks around us are clamoring and clambering to be noticed if only briefly. How sensational, how clever, how hip, how sexy, how now. Until the next crop of sensational, clever, hip, sexy, and now comes around.
Ultimately, what I would love to see is more publication from within our communities. And more respect and support for publication within our communities. And solid editorial work. And solid infrastructures for sales and distribution. And more mentorship and rigor — holding ourselves and one another, as contemporaries, and intergenerationally, to high artistic standards — in publication within our communities. Poetic, artistic kapwa.
Yes, and alas, if only it were that simple. This morning on the way to work, I was thinking to myself, what if I’d never entered the “Po Biz.” Would the work be “pure.” And then I thought, what does that mean anyway, for the work to be “pure.” The poetry itself? The sincerity with which each poem is written? That it is unsullied by ambition?
People ask me all the time about how one becomes an author. I’ve held workshops on how to seek publication. I’ve talked at length about researching publishers, those who would be a “good fit,” for our work. I’ve talked about what that “good fit,” means.
Sometimes, these discussions are the sobering discussions that an aspiring author says she needs, that she is ready to jump into the hustle. Sometimes, I am grateful for those times.
I’ve also talked about the process of “killing your darlings,” jettisoning dead weight, making the hard decisions of what to keep and what must go. That maybe something we wrote at the beginning of it all no longer serves its purpose, though it might have been the germ that spawned dozens of poems.
I’ve also talked about the kind of long and involved writing and growing, writing and growing which making a manuscript entails. That I may have started in a certain place with a certain plan or vision in mind. That this certain plan or vision has metamorphosed over time, with realization after realization, with new facets of the original vision being unearthed, with muddles and clarifications, and with new pieces of inspiration along the way. New information. New language. New form and uses of page.
Yes, we start in a certain place, and then as we read, and write, and rewrite, as we live our lives in this world, things move and drive us. Sometimes we can’t readily articulate in specific language what has happened. Maybe duende is happening here, propelling us.
I’ve been thinking about what it means to write for my community, envisioning them as the readers, not institutional approval as my primary audience. I’ve been thinking about how this discussion feels so binary and reductive. If you write in the language of the community, in terms they will understand, in verse they will immediately “get,” is the work unsophisticated and oversimple? Somehow, this attempt to write concisely and clearly in an effective and emotionally accessible manner means you’re oversimple. How to do this, without “talking down,” or stripping/robbing the poem of its necessary complexity and music. I would think this requires more literary mastery rather than less. Maybe a writing of the heart’s language is happening here. Maybe duende is happening here too.
Is speaking of “poetic instinct” permitted? I have used this term a lot, when I read emerging poets’ works, and they already know how to execute metaphor, how to break the line, how to negotiate the page, how to say, how to versify with minimal awkwardness. I love nudging these emerging poets, just a tad bit, to the margins of their comfort zones/known universes. I love nudging away from what is expected.
I do this to myself too, remind myself to honor my poetic instinct rather than what’s “correct,” and vogue, and I nudge myself a lot.
I have also been thinking that too much time in Po Biz spoils poetic instinct. Because it can make writers unduly timid and insecure and neurotic, and because it can derail them, heap too much business and not enough poetry. Make folks die to fit in with the “right people,” the acceptable people who can be used to get you in the “right places.”
I want to always be not the right people.
What does any of this have to do with making a book happen. I am so tired of Po Biz cliques and people who demand you fit in their little box. I do my absolute best when I note that they can all go fuck themselves over there somewhere far away from me; I’ll be immersed in writing my next book over here, doing the hard work of growing my own poetic world, fostering relationships with other like-minded writers and editors, finding places and communities and venues where my work it respected on its own terms.
A friend recently wrote on Facebook that publishing has made them really learn about respect. I add that publishing, being in this place, has also taught me a lot about self-respect. And faith.
“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).