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.