“The Rule is, Do Not Stop,” the Literary Address for the Pilipinx American Library (Given at the Asian Art Museum, August 25, 2018)

The Rule is, Do Not Stop, the Literary Address for the Pilipinx American Library

Given at the Asian Art Museum, August 25, 2018

You know what annoys me? People who won’t see the through line from Joe Bataan to Bruno Mars. You ever wonder about the sound of a poet rappin’ with ten thousand carabaos in the dark? You ever eat fish and rice with your hands, off styrofoam plates, in a hole in the wall, south of Market Street? You ever roll down your windows while speeding down Highway 101, to smell the Pajaro River? What if that’s the poem, and you missed it, because you were looking for something roseate, effete, something that smells like prestige.

I’m Barbara Jane Reyes, and I am a poet. I say all of these things to you today as a poet, one who works with line, lyric, and language — my concerns and values are conveyed and contained in these. Something I have been learning throughout the course of my formal and informal education as a poet, is that we can and must make many spaces to tell our stories in many different ways. These are the stories I tell.

When my parents immigrated here, they lived in a tiny apartment in the Mission District. They soon moved to a tiny apartment in Daly City. A couple of years later, they bought a home, and we moved to Fremont. I grew up in Fremont. I went to kindergarten, and had eight years of Catholic education in Fremont. I went to Catholic high school in Hayward. I went to college in Berkeley. I went to grad school in San Francisco. I bought a home in Oakland. I am of here.

In Fremont, in the late 1970s, the tiny handful of other Filipinos that we knew were family friends, folks who knew my parents from way back. We called them cousins. In the 1970s, one of the priests at Holy Spirit Church was Filipino — Father Flores blessed our house. He also blessed my mother’s brand new Toyota Celica. It felt like outside of our family parties, no one knew what a Filipino was. We lived by apricot orchards. I had no idea that our still agricultural Fremont, that California, that the West Coast, that Hawaii, were cultivated by thousands of Filipino laborers, who had been here for decades. If you return to Carlos Bulosan’s America is in the Heart, see where Allos’s train stops in empty grape fields in Niles. That’s Fremont. He wakes up in San Jose. Fourth grade California History never mentioned us. American History mentioned the Spanish American War in passing, but did not say anything about our having come here. I never read anything a Filipino had written. How could I have possibly become an author under these conditions.

If I were to revisit Bulosan’s “I am not a laughing man,” I would see something of myself there, angry because no one ever told me or taught me that I could write what I could write, that it was not impossible, that it could have meaning larger than myself — the words I did not know I needed to commit to the page. No one ever told me that I could find my life in letters. Imagine that, the girl child of immigrants, an omission in literary and historical texts, thinking she could write books.

When I discovered I loved poetry, I didn’t know that I had a right to. I didn’t know poetry could ever be mine. Imagine, this scrappy little immigrant girl who was always ignored or shushed, who was always told to leave it and to do something more practical, who had come to believe that no one would ever be interested in the stories of her life and her family, who trekked to City Lights Books in North Beach and stayed for hours at a time, who dreamed she could one day have a place there. Who could imagine that.

I found Jessica Hagedorn’s novel Dogeaters when I was 19. This was 1990. I learned that Hagedorn was once a scrappy young Filipina immigrant, who lived in San Francisco, who hung out at City Lights Books, who was mentored by Kenneth Rexroth. I learned that Hagedorn’s first couple of collections of poetry — Dangerous Music, and Pet Food & Tropical Apparitions — were published by the indie publisher, Stephen Vincent’s Momo’s Press, here in San Francisco. I learned that Hagedorn was one of Ntozake Shange’s colored girls in the choreopoem, for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf. I learned, this is poetry.

I met Ray Orquiola in Professor Ronald Takaki’s Asian American History class, in the Spring of 1990 at UC Berkeley. Ray told me he had just started Maganda magazine, and he was looking for young Filipino Americans to come and be a part of this thing. Imagine that; Filipino Americans publishing themselves and their own. Perhaps this is why I trusted him enough to hand him a stack of my handwritten poems in 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, for Maganda magazine, 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, all Filipinos. 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. But let me say this instead: Publication enables your words to travel outside of yourself. It finds others like you, others who have been looking for someone like you. Because of Maganda magazine, I found Kearny Street Workshop and BAPAW. Or Kearny Street Workshop and BAPAW found me. That was the beginning of my public life in letters.

I found myself sharing the mic with Jaime Jacinto, with Jeff Tagami, with Shirley Ancheta, with Al Robles himself. Once, we read poetry in the Chinese Culture Center overlooking the hole in the ground on Kearny and Jackson Streets. It was like reading poetry to ghosts.

I wrote this poem in 2002. It’s so old, I can’t find an actual Word file of it; I suspect it’s on one of the floppy disks I’ve held on to, though I have no computer that can read a floppy disk anymore.

[Read: “Placemarkers,” Gravities of Center.]

I attended Intimacy and Geography: The National Asian American Poetry Festival in New York City in 2003. There, I met the Filipino American poets who would later go on to create Kundiman. They asked me over dinner, what was it like, the Filipino American poetry scene in San Francisco. I told them, it’s deep, it’s DIY, and lineage is everything — if Al Robles remembers who you are, then you have made it. Their eyes were so big in their faces. Who knows what they were thinking. How were they supposed to know what it meant, and how was it supposed to have any value to them. They were in and of a different world, one that at the time I wasn’t so sure whether I could, whether I even wanted to be a part of. Back then, I felt, if I didn’t adopt their definitions of success, one that front my vantage point, centered prestigious publishers and book awards, then I would always just be some scrappy brown girl from this far corner, this unruly margin of the country, and that wouldn’t mean anything to this body called American Poetry.

I never wanted my writing education to take me away from this place, and from this community. I wanted my writing education to make me stronger at writing about my, our being here. I was the only Pinay in my poetry program at San Francisco State. Imagine that. Where roughly 2000 students in the entire student body identify at Filipino. In the Bay Area, where over 450,000 Filipinos live. Those odds could stop a Pinay, erase a Pinay, silence her before she’s even learned she has a voice.

But there are so many of us, Pinay and Pinoy writers and artists, aggressively, courageously creating bodies of evidence, even master works, of our being here, living and breathing and struggling here. We’ve been here. We’re still here.

Not alien, we are of here.
Not alien, have come, am here –

Among the xenophobes,
The deadbeat dads and gangstas

Among the white liberals,
People who mind colored folks

Among the dirty hipsters,
Over-schooled armchair activists

Among the sex traffickers,
White supremacists, wife beaters

Among the day laborers,
Undocumented dreamers

Among the inalienable,
The PTSDed, the evicted

Among the emigrated,
The refugees, the polyglots

Among the accented Taglish
Speaking, have come, am here.

In this fast and gritty place, we are creating spaces for us to congregate, to explore and hone our craft, to amplify. We are defining our own literary and artistic traditions. We are not asking for anyone’s permission.

I write here, in this place my family and I have found and made our lives. I write to discover the complexity of our lives in this place. In poetic lines, the details of our lives reveal themselves, and here, we make meaning. When we buried my father here, I wrote like hell; that was all I could do.

[Read: “The Day,” Invocation to Daughters.]

I’m an elder now, yes? Grieving has made me go gray. I’ve been at this for decades. Poets have come up with me, Arlene Biala, Tony Robles. Poets continue coming up. Aimee Suzara, Janice Sapigao, Rachelle Cruz, Jason Bayani. In the South Bay, in the suburbs, in Oakland, in San Francisco. We’re not stopping anytime soon. We’re pushing. There will always be a 19 year old Pinay who comes through my classroom, a young Pinay who finds our books and feels a little less invisible, who feels emboldened to commit her words to the page, who feels emboldened to tell her own stories. I write here, grounded in the world and the community which has nurtured and sustained me and challenged me, the very writers and authors who first said to me, “We see you, sister. We see you, and we got you.”

Hella indigenous, which does not mean gone native. Kakayahan umunawa sa damdamin ng iba, for real. You know, like Ruby Ibarra and one hundred Pinays giving you resting bitch face. You know, like those syndicated, full color photographs, of boys and men in LeBron James and Steph Curry jerseys, thinned flipflops on their feet, one body together, shouldering a nation. One bamboo hut at a time. One set of lungs breathing. One heart. Isang mahal. Isang bagsak.

#NationalPoetryMonth #APIA #Poetry Day 4: Al Robles

This month, I shall be posting one APIA poet (or book) recommendation per day, so that all of you who are asking me what to read will know what to read.

Today’s recommendation is Al Robles. I am beyond sad that his book, rappin’ with ten thousand carabaos in the dark has been out of print. I always suspected that if not for the intervention of key people in the West Coast/CA APIA academic and publishing communities, this book might never have been. In my mind and memory, Manong Al will always be the storyteller. The improvisation, the rhythms, the deep memory of so many people’s lives and narratives entrusted to him. Yes, folks trusted him with their stories, and so they opened themselves to him.

On the national level, APIA poets, especially those academically bound, will probably not know a lick about Manong Al, and will probably not care so much about his “loose” poetic style. But it wasn’t loose. It was a lifetime of practice, reflecting street level lived experience yes, but also recall he was a jazz pianist and a practitioner of Zen Buddhism. Those disciplines and aesthetics run deep in the work.

There’s a whole lot that attentiveness, fine tuning all senses, and living fully engaged in the real world, will give you that dependence upon an academic program or an MFA will not, and never will.

* * *

National Poetry Month APIA Poets:

04/01 Rajiv Mohabir

04/02 Amanda Ngoho Reavey

04/03 Truong Tran

04/04 Al Robles


With Praise for the Work of the Poets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dangers of This Craft
by Fatima Lim-Wilson

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

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

For #APIAHeritageMonth: A List #2

This is an ongoing list of APIA poetry collections that have informed my poetics. I am noting a couple of interesting things in social media, in response to my posting these formative texts lists.

  1. Younger APIA poets kind of don’t care.
  2. I am having really interesting discussions with “elder” poets, of different ethnicities (i.e. not just APIA) about tradition in poetry, versus Po Biz, which typically gets confused and conflated with poetry.

People, Poetry ≠ Po Biz.

I do want to continue with these lists of my formative texts. My first book was published in 2003, and my fifth book comes out before the end of 2017. I am still writing my sixth book, but am in no terrible rush to do so. My writing has grown, or changed, or mutated, throughout the years. There have been “newer” cultural influences, in which “new” really means “new to me,” and not inherently new. But I always go back to the beginning when I write, and when I teach and mentor.

Also, to be a poet is to deal with tradition. You may think you are chucking away tradition, but even chucking away tradition is a tradition.

That said, list installment #2.

Jaime Jacinto, Heaven Is Just Another Country. There is, of course, a major historical precedence for Filipino poets writing in Hispanic and Latino traditions. Hispanic, meaning, as a result of our centuries-long Spanish occupation. Latino, meaning, here in this country, Filipino Americans aligning themselves with Latino and Chicano poetics, due to our shared histories of Spanish colonialism. The poetries resulting from this are necessarily multilingual, with a particular darker, brooding tone and aesthetic. Flip gothic. Also, Jaime has always been one of my most generous mentors.

Sesshu Foster, City Terrace Field Manual. And I am back on the prose poem, thinking now of its uses in mapping city blocks, imposing order on what is not really so orderly, allowing us to see on a map/grid what is otherwise considered blank, empty, invisible, with its “opportunities” for “development.” And then the ability to jump from persona to persona, speaker to speaker, the way cities speak in so many voices. If you listen.

Haunani-Kay Trask, Night Is a Sharkskin Drum. Such fierce indigenous, anti-imperialist poetry, bringing in elements of oral tradition, very well placed on the page, with a justified and sharp as all hell uncompromising righteous anger against militarism, tourism, and settler colonialism. We are implicated.

Al Robles, Rapping With Ten Thousand Carabaos in the Dark. I have learned so much about poetics from this poet’s performances, from informal, impromptu interactions, in which all is organically story and poetry. In which all who come to the table participate. This is where so much of my #Kuwentuhan comes from. And then on the page, how the line organically comes to be, how metaphor is something you are born with. And then for subject matter, writing what is street level, what others ignore or pretend is not there. Taking the time, listening, and asking.

Jessica Tarahata Hagedorn, Dangerous Music. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A young Pinay from an immigrant family in the Bay Area, falling in with the local poetry scene, mentored there by poetic elders who saw something in her, published on a gritty, SF-based micro-press, writing in multilingual Spanish and Tagalog, influenced by, speaking the languages of counterculture and pop culture. Yo.

Yoko Ono, Grapefruit. People who don’t know Yoko, or have never considered Yoko, please read this book’s “simple,” minimalist instructions about the art that is all around us, about the art that we make in our daily lives, that we incorporate into our routines and domesticities. And/or how we may insert ourselves into the art that is all around us.

So that’s what I have today. I am so interested in conversations about traditions, and elders. And/or about generations.

FAQ 4: How do you read a poem, teach someone to read a poem, especially in Ethnic Studies Department courses?

So this is a continuation of yesterday’s blog post on teaching poetry — are these blog posts considered “essays,” or “serial essays,” I wonder….

I referenced Los Angeles Poet Laureate Luis J. Rodriguez’s definition of poetry as a special, intense, and sacred use of language. This is something I believe more and more, what makes poetry so socially difficult but (and) sought after, prized, and coveted; what makes poetry so contentious. Why do people think it’s both so cool, and so pretentious to be a poet. Why do people find themselves arriving at poetry during rites of passage and during the most trying, difficult times in our lives. And during historic times; why do we have inaugural poets. And why do we gravitate towards the works of wartime poets. And why do we have poet laureates. And then, conversely, why do people deride poetry as “precious,” socially irrelevant, lacking basis in the real world. These binaries — what they tell me is that poetry is an intense battleground, that people really feel quite strongly about poetry, that people have an emotional stake in poetry.

Surely, this is intimidating for someone just entering into the field. Perhaps the aspiring poet suspects that poetry fuels our revolutionary fervor, or provides emotional release or support, and that is why they want a piece of it. Unexposed to the ugliness of MFA workshop and the publishing industry, to them, poetry is a kind of magic. Once you teach them the anatomy of a poem, that magic fades.


I prefer to think of it this way. I remember when I was learning how to play the piano, which is something I abandoned when I was around 11 or 12 years old, because my heart wasn’t into it. I would look at sheet music like it was some kind of secret code which teachers did indeed try their best to teach me to read. I would bang on the piano keys in vain, and some butchery of Mozart, Chopin, Rachmaninoff would happen. It was an atrocity and an injustice. And then my mother would sit at the piano on Saturday mornings; I would wake up to her just running her fingers over those same keys, and something beautiful, something I could not explain, would happen. Just the most beautiful music filling all of the air in our house. She had (and still has) a relationship with those pieces of sheet music, where she can just eyeball it and understand. She had cracked what I thought of as secret code; it was now inside of her.

Sometimes I think poetry is something like that. There are cues, clues, symbols all over the sheet music, that if you know how to read them, then in your head, you know. That does not take away from the magic of attending a symphony, where an orchestra can take what’s on that paper, and punch it to the heart of you so that you are in your seat weeping. When the mainstream appropriates that music, you may lament that your favorite classical piece is now being used to sell some lame product in some unnecessarily overwrought TV commercial (Orff’s “Carmina Burana” selling Domino’s Pizza, for example). But the work is the work; it will always be the work, with both “high” and “low” cultural resonances.

OK, so what does this have to do with teaching undergrads how to read a poem.

I like to ask them what their experiences are with poetry. What poems have they read, that have stayed with them, and why? Sometimes they can recite entire lines, and sometimes it’s just a phrase or two they remember, or a symbol or metaphor. Sometimes it will be something they read and memorized in grammar school — Edward Lear’s “The Owl and the Pussycat,” Lewis Carroll’s “How Doth the Little Crocodile,” Tupac Shakur’s “The Rose That Grew From Concrete,” Nikki Giovanni’s “Ego Trippin.”

So there’s something about poetry that insists on sticking to our memories. Why? How? Now you can discuss mnemonic devices in poetry. Rhyme, meter, repetitions (alliteration, et al). You can introduce them to terminology, to poetic forms.

Now you can discuss symbolism and other figurative language in poetry. Now you can talk about whether roses literally grow from concrete. And if they do, then what are those conditions? How does it not wither and die, from all the pollution, car exhaust, garbage, and neglect, from all the violence and ruckus that could just crush it. What does it take for this rose to grow, and bloom, and open? OK, are we still talking about the literal rose? Are we sure?

In Filipino American Literature class, I try to bring in poems by Al Robles’s Rappin’ With Ten Thousand Carabaos in the Dark. And so we have the I-Hotel on Kearny and Jackson Streets, San Francisco. Are there really carabao there? What is a carabao, what does it do, what do humans use the carabao for. Where are the carabao on Kearny Street. Why?

This all feels very elementary, but you would be surprised (or maybe you’re not) how many college students feel they have not been properly taught or exposed to literary and poetic device, and to poetic forms, such that they actually understand what they are and why they’re used.

When I was in high school, and then early on as an undergrad, (1) I was taught the sonnet like it was The Word of God. That if I did not know the form immediately upon sight — and then, specifically, which sonnet form — then I was culturally deficient. (2) No one ever taught me why the form was utilized, what the form is good for communicating, whether to look at what comes before and after the volta, or to look for the building argument that culminates in the rhyming end couplet.

If I had been taught the latter instead of the former, then perhaps my journey into poetry wouldn’t have been so vexed and combative. (Then again, I can say in hindsight as an old person, that all the fight, and the stress, have made me into the author I am today.)

Still, as a teacher, my point is that focusing on the “why” of poetic form and poetic technique will likely yield better results, rather than a gloss over the “what.” This goes also, for teaching poetic forms other than western forms — the whats, hows, and whys of the haiku and tanka, of the ghazal, of the tanaga, ambahan, and balagtasan, of the pantun and pantoum, to begin with. This goes also for all of the western appropriation of non-western traditions. No Walt Whitman without Indian philosophy. No Modernism without classical Chinese poetry. No pantoum without the pantun. And perhaps even no sonnet without Arabic poetry and song.