I gave my For the City That Nearly Broke Me talk in Filipino Lit class yesterday evening. I’d realized, as I was preparing my presentation, that not only was I (and the collection) asking the more obvious question of “where is home,” for the immigrant woman of color poet, and even, where is home for the exile and/or the expatriate, which I have been asking in my work for a long time now.
We’re back from a few days in Seattle, just eating, book buying, spending time with family and friends. While we were away, Aztlan Libre’s press release for my chapbook came out, and the chapbook also became available at SPD Books. As with any good vacation, I’ve had some good time with my thoughts on writing and publishing.
While in Seattle, Oliver de la Paz helped us find Carlos Bulosan’s grave. Yes, we do know how young Bulosan was when he passed away in 1956. He was also destitute and very sickly. Perhaps he was able to create so much great work precisely because he was dying. He was definitely angry, as per his essay, “I am not a Laughing Man,” and justifiably so, for the racist bullshit he, his countrymen, his fellow working poor, had to live through, for what he was learning about America, not at all the America of equality, freedom, and opportunity, the America of the American Dream.
It’s been interesting, blogging and posting about teaching Pinay Lit, what materials we’re reading and discussing, what difficult subject matter we’re discussing.
What is interesting is the interest out there, many people vocalizing their admiration for the existence of such a course in the first place. Not sure where else in this country such a class is taught. As I’d stated in my first Poetry Foundation blog post this month, “I’m still in disbelief. All Pinay Literature. I always think, wow, where was this class when I was young, and when I needed it most. It seems a lot of people have been asking this question too, as I have been asked by more people than I can count, for my syllabus and reading lists.”
“How do you punch the reader in the gut? How will you take stabs at your idols? What’s the best way of setting down literary land mines?”
Rashaan Alexis Meneses has a great post today, over at Ruelle Electrique, about destroying your idols (Immediately, I am reminded of Rupert Estanislao’s “Kill All Idols” poems, which I will have to write about another time). Rashaan discusses admitting our literary idols’ “artistic weaknesses that rupture fissures within the art itself,” and hence, jettisoning those things which (could) have “negatively” affected our own art. I love her post, because it’s as necessary to think about and articulate what not to do, what we wish to avoid in our writing — just as much as it’s necessary to know what we DO want to do.
[E.M.] Forster’s work embodies compassion, which is inspiring for life, but everyday life does not make great literature.
If you’re going to spill blood, you might as well do it on the page, that’s what its for.
Indeed, my own life is not so remarkable, so when I write an “I,” it’s rarely ever me. This is what gives me the freedom to write, ignoring autobiographical details and “fact,” and to think about “truth” in different ways.
I understand there’s a danger in falling into abstraction, given what I’ve just written about myself. How then, to “keep it real?” Or is that even a true goal for me? There’s a lot of talk about taking risk as writers, how and why we must risk in order to grow, but there’s a stronger (social) draw towards our safety, as Rashaan says, “we don’t like conflict in real life.” Literature isn’t real life though, and even as I talk to folks about documenting our lives and stories on the page, surely, there is art and risk involved in that documentation. Some writers tell me they want (need) to remain faithful to autobiographical details, even though this is precisely what is weighing down the work, preventing the work from soaring.
When I was in college, I was so intimidated by the women of color who edited and published in the woman of color journal, smell this. The poetry was so raw, so open, so faithful to real life. I had never read poetry like that before, and part of my feeling so intimidated was due to the kind of strength and boldness these women emanated, so unapologetically. And there I was in my English literature classes, reading Gerard Manley Hopkins, Robert Browning (it seemed Professor Ralph Rader was obsessed with Browning), ashamed to admit that I actually enjoyed reading Hopkins and Browning. I was also afraid to admit that as an emerging poet, I could actually learn something from them.
I read the poetry in smell this, and I attended some of their poetry readings; I was the little shy goth chick from the suburbs (barely 100 pounds, lots of white face powder and black shit on my eyes), standing in the back of the room, avoiding making eye contact with any of those fierce women poets. I was afraid to admit publicly that there was a lot of poetry in the journal, and that I heard at the readings, that really wasn’t very good poetry. A lot of it was more so journal entry than poem, or over-expository, cluttered, proselytizing, filled to the hilt with Ethnic Studies jargon and cliché. I was afraid my judgment was too rigid, that I was one of those whitewashed, bourgie poetry snobs.
So I tried to write poetry like theirs — indignant, undisciplined, raw, emotional, in your face, roaring at spoken word events. I rejected editing and craft, because everything I committed to the page was the truth, and it was not going to be tempered, or rendered “safe.” This suited me for a while, got the crowds at spoken word artists of color gatherings snapping their fingers and calling me a bad ass, got the well-bred Pinays to be fearful of me. And then I stagnated. For nearly all of my 20′s, I was writing the same three or four poems for years, because I found so much safety in that spoken word artists of color community.
I hear folks also throw that term around, “safe,” as in “those writers are safe,” and this is understood to be a bad thing. But “safe,” in the contexts I’ve heard the term used, is rarely expounded upon. It usually means institutionally accepted, or widely published, or nationally recognized, or borne out of MFA workshop. Gloria Anzaldúa’s “Speaking in Tongues: A Letter to Third World Women Writers,” certainly takes on the contradiction of being lettered, degreed, published, and negotiating that against the kinds of historical and ongoing Western institutional suppression, erasure, and violation suffered by women of color, by diasporic, multilingual, Third World people.
So then, (how) is it different for women of color, we whom Audre Lorde writes, “were never meant to survive,” or for the women of Alice Walker’s “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens,” who were prevented from putting the pen to the page, whose modes of expression and creativity were thus limited to domesticity — gardens, quilting, home cooked meals. What is our criteria for great literature, that which we create to resist silence and erasure? We risk when we commit our words to the page, but today, what’s really at risk?
Please do read Rashaan’s entire post. She’s definitely got my gears turning this morning.
Whew! It’s taken me about two weeks to create a syllabus for my Poets of Color course at Mills College. Classes start this week, and as some of you may know, I very suddenly found myself being offered this Fall semester teaching position. So it’s been a scramble.
I’ve been thinking about not just poetry by writers of color, but poetics essays, and essays about writing life as well. Two that will join Carlos Bulosan’s “The Writer as Worker,” to kick off the semester:
- Langston Hughes, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” (1926). What strikes me about this essay is its relevance in 2010. I don’t know that a classroom full of emerging poets needs to be immersed so much in “po-biz,” but I believe writers of color experience this on a consistent basis — can we ever be regarded and read simply as writers, or will ethnic identifiers always take precedence. And if ethnicity will always take precedence, then how is it handled, by editors, by fellow writers, by educators teaching the work of writers of color?
- Meta DuEwa Jones, “Descent and Transcendence in African American Poetry: Identity, Experience, Form” (2009). I feel like this essay is an elaboration of Hughes’s essay; Hughes envisioned generations of African American writers into the next century, and in Jones’s essay, we see similar issues still being discussed among these generations subsequent to Hughes.
Later on in the semester, we’ll read Hayan Charara’s “Animals: On the Role of the Poet in a Country at War.” I haven’t yet read it in its entirety, but am glad to have found it. I hope it’s clear that I do want to talk about political poets and political poetry, about social responsibility, about the reach and effect of a poem upon an individual and upon a populace.
OK. I am still scanning and uploading PDF’s, and I’ve found some good multimedia. So as much as done can be done, the syllabus is done. My first class is this Wednesday evening. What a rush.
Addendum: Um. How could I forget to mention that we will also be reading Audre Lorde’s “Poetry is Not a Luxury,” from her collection of essays, Sister Outsider. Also, an excerpt of Allison Hedge Coke’s Seeds. Saul Williams’s “The Future of Language,” from DJ Spooky’s anthology, Sound Unbound. Finally, Thomas Sayers Ellis’s “The New Perform-A-Form.”
[A]s we come more into touch with our own ancient, non-european consciousness of living as a situation to be experienced and interacted with, we learn more and more to cherish our feelings, and to respect those hidden sources of our power from where true knowledge and, therefore, lasting action comes.
. . . I speak here of poetry as a revelatory distillation of experience, not the sterile word play that, too often, the white fathers distorted the word poetry to mean–in order to cover a desperate wish for imagination without insight.
For women, then, poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.
As they become known to and accepted by us, our feelings and the honest exploration of them become sanctuaries and spawning grounds for the most radical and daring of ideas. They become a safe-house for that difference so necessary to change and the conceptualization of any meaningful action. Right now, I could name at least ten ideas I would have found intolerable or incomprehensible and frightening, except as they came after dreams and poems. This is not idle fantasy, but a disciplined attention to the true meaning of “it feels right to me.” We can train ourselves to respect our feelings and to transpose them into a language so they can be shared. And where that language does not yet exist, it is our poetry which helps to fashion it. Poetry is not only dream and vision; it is the skeleton architecture of our lives. It lays the foundations for a future of change, a bridge across our fears of what has never been before.
— Audre Lorde. “Poetry Is Not a Luxury.”
Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches.
Freedom, CA: Crossing Press, 1984.
* * *
Some things I’ve been thinking lately.
I finished Suheir Hammad’s breaking poems a while back, and while I was reading her ruptured texts, ruptured and sutured by English Arabic Hip-Hop code switching, I kept flashing back to my own work with all of those broken syntaxes in Poeta. I was afraid this was a matter of my ego’s need to constantly be self-referential, hence, my need to remain relevant, so I thought about it again, Hammad’s barrages of word word word word with all of the “connective tissue” dissolved, word word word spilling onto the next line as if the only thing stopping the barrage is the page. And if her poems lived outside of, transcendent of the page, then nothing but the poet’s own breath could stop the barrage. If I may be so bold as to say that something I think I have in common with Hammad is the poetic speaker who is a young brown woman, a young brown multilingual, transnational woman fighting to (re)define self, to survive both bodily and spiritually, in a continuum of war against women’s bodies and against homelands, against the disenfranchised denizens of city.
This brings me to this recent and ongoing wave of renewed American nationalism post-Barack Obama presidential win. I do love that our fellow Americans are proud to be American once again. Through a literary and poetic lens, we can view such nation-building, both praising and critical, and straight up acerbic nation self-defining texts by Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes (“Let America Be America Again,” “I, Too, Sing America”), Claude McKay (“White City,” “White House,” “America”), and José Martí’s “Nuestra America,”/”Our America,” Carlos Bulosan’s America is in the Heart, and “I Want the Wide American Earth.” There is Joseph Lease’s Broken World, and K. Silem Mohammad’s Deer Head Nation. I can even count Lee A. Tonouchi’s Living Pidgin among these nation-building American writers, for his insistence on Pidgin being a viable American culture, language, way of life (I wonder if Tonouchi would count Braddah Barack among Pidgin speakers; Tonouchi counts Senator Dan Inouye and former Hawai’i governor Ben Cayetano among them). These are only a few examples of national identity being forwarded in American literature. I am especially interested in men of color writing an America that includes them.
My point here is that as I’ve recently read both Suheir Hammad, and then Audre Lorde’s The Cancer Journals (my write-up here), the more convinced I am that American women authors, and particularly American women of color authors who have not consented to being hemmed in uncritically by their domesticity such that national identity is not their province or only in supporting roles to primarily male nation builders, are still too busy defending our bodies from nation builders, still fighting for our bodies’ humanity against objectification, that we are not tackling nation building in our own work. Sarah Jones’ “Your Revolution,” anyone?
In addition to Hammad, Lorde, and Jones, when thinking of resistance to bodily objectification through literary production, think also of Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera, in her mestizaje consciousness, likening the US/Mexico border to una herida abierta, a wounded body unable to heal, and calling the reader in to see the complexities of the border cultures. Anzaldúa I’d always read as a response to the white masculinism of frontier culture. Think also of Harryette Mullen’s S*PeRM**K*T and Trimmings, the many ways in which a woman’s body is packaged and marketed for Western consumption. Think of Evie Shockley’s a half red sea, which I think I can safely say Shockley wrote in order to give voice, substance, and humanity to her woman ancestors and forebears after generations of violently imposed American institutional silences.
So then there is Cathy Park Hong’s Dance Dance Revolution, and there is Bruna Mori’s Dérive, both of which are well worth revisiting for me, as I am very interested in these two women poets who are API, of my generation, with whom I feel much poetic kinship. I am interested in their appearing to focus elsewhere not the body, and into the bigger world of city and nationality. Even here, the concerns of the poetic speakers are complicated, and involve many layers of interaction with the dominant culture, if not altogether decentering it.
Another thing the above mentioned works have in common I think is telescoping.
Here, perhaps Allen Ginsberg’s Howl is another text I ought to revisit. Again, another male author, but still, I am interested in women of color authors whose works are large in scope, whose works take on nation in critical and confrontational ways. I realized in my search for nationalist poetry in this time of great national pride, I want to write my own large in scope work on America and Americanism. And I want to have American women of color poet role models here.
I just finished reading this book yesterday evening, though I don’t know how interested I am in reading the tributes to Audre Lorde which follow the main text. This is a hard text, and the reason why I say this is because it truly is an unswerving example of practicing what you preach, what you say you believe in, and challenging others on their uncritical assumptions and givens.
Again, I am so interested in the various permutations of enforced silences, how clearly she articulates these silences. As a woman post-mastectomy, it becomes more and more obvious how objectified the woman’s body is. We may dismiss the fashion industry and mass media’s Botox’ed, boob-jobbed, anorexic, infantilized women for the images’ shallowness and possible lack of relevance to our real lives (and even here, this is highly debatable), but here, Lorde indicts Cancer Inc. for de-emphasizing, ignoring woman’s literal and spiritual transformation by insisting upon the normal, the aesthetically preferred, in the form of prosthesis and plastic surgery. How are these things, and the cancer industry’s insistence upon them a denial of a woman’s opportunity to heal herself, to re-envision herself, all because women are expected to “look normal in a bikini.” How cheapened, how reduced a woman is by this. This is her true value to society, as an ornament and gaze-able sexual object.
I wanted to write here that it’s in these “extreme” situations that we see the true and pervasive misogyny of our society, but cancer is not an extreme situation but a fact of our everyday lives, a reality or possibility for ourselves and our loved ones. For Lorde and for many, it is/was an opportunity to really take stock of her life and her voice as a woman, a black woman, a poet, a lesbian, a feminist, whether she’d spoken everything that she believed needed to be spoken. And isn’t there something really important to be learned here, about not waiting until we are facing our very real deaths, to start speaking what we need to be speaking, in resistance against any force that means to silence us.
There’s so much more but I’ll stop here for now.
* Colored Girls, of course, is in reference to Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf.
Currently engaged in a series of emails with another woman of color poet/author, something that’s come up, as we talk about my current book project, and in reference to the Bitch Magazine article, “The Ambition Condition: Women, Writing, and the Problem of Success,” is the question of owning and articulating our vocations as poets, writers, authors. I was asked when I was able to take ownership of that “writer” label, and whether this had to do with publication (in journals, in anthologies, etc). The given here is that in certain circles (i.e. a certain circle of us “colored girls”) we are not unwilling to own the label. We are not the type who say, “Well, I’m not really a poet, but…” as stated in the Bitch Magazine article, on how women writers publicly subterfuge their own abilities, talents, and ambitions.
Because the question arose of when it was I was able to take ownership of being a “writer,” today I have been searching my hard drive and archives, and even my old floppy disks, to find an essay I wrote for Elizabeth Treadwell’s Creative Writing class in 2000 at Vista Community College in Berkeley. I can’t find it. I have, however, found an essay I wrote for Phyllis Birch in 2002, for the one and only fiction course I took in grad school. I have also revisited my essay, “The Building of Anthropologic,” which is included in the anthology Pinoy Poetics, and which I wrote also in 2002. These essays both examined and discussed my poetic process and how it is tied to my continuing political education. Here is an excerpt from “The Building of Anthropologic”:
I had thought myself to be more of a perpetrator than a poet — a haphazard and inconsistent “writer,” (believing I had no right to that title) productive only in unpredictable phases, fortunate when something promising seemed to emerge from my disorganized journals and notebooks. I labored through revising, doubting my writing skills when a poem did not come out just right the first time around.
I’d always feared and avoided creative writing classes; discipline seemed counterintuitive as an “artist” who should just let the duende show itself, and the very real possibility of losing my own voice and being coerced to write in someone else’s terrified me.
“Anthropologic” is the “long poem” I wrote in Treadwell’s class in 2000, and which is included in Gravities of Center. The poem draws from Marlon Fuentes’s Bontoc Eulogy on the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, the Philippine American War, and the Benevolent Assimilation Proclamation. It epigraphs some difficult texts by Edward Said and Trinh Minh-ha, among others, and it required a lot more attention to construction and more thinking through language, cultural, and historical reference as well as readership or audience, than I ever knew I could, more than I ever thought I was disciplined enough to sustain. I wrote the poem after reading Catalina Cariaga’s Cultural Evidence, and started thinking on the usefulness of white space. The reason I bring this up now is because again of that belief that we have no right to the title of writer. Certainly I don’t feel that absence of right anymore, and maybe it has to do with having pulled off the task of writing “Anthropologic” successfully. I haven’t felt that absence of right for what feels like a long time. Emotionally, it was a long time ago.
This is an excerpt from my 2002 essay for Birch:
My desire to write came from my inability to speak. Whether it was because I was a tongue-tied trilingual immigrant child in predominantly white American schools, or whether it was because I was just shy, I could not speak. I became solitary, immersing myself in reading and writing in order to escape from intimidating social situations with classmates.
This is where negating the silence is important for all women, but I think particularly for us colored girls as as it isn’t just men who do the silencing and being dismissive of women of color. Here is Audre Lorde, from The Cancer Journals:
I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood. That the speaking profits me, beyond any other effect.
Death … is the final silence. And that might be coming quickly, now, without regard for whether I had ever spoken what needed to be said, or had I betrayed myself into small silences, while I planned someday to speak, or waited for someone else’s words….
I was going to die, if not sooner then later, whether or not I had ever spoken myself. My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you. But for every real word spoken, for every attempt I had ever made to speak those truths for which I am still seeking, I had made contact with other women while we examined the words to fit a world in which we all believed, bridging our differences.
For me, negating these silences, finding and making opportunities to speak have been so crucial. Certainly, Lorde was writing as a cancer patient and survivor, so mortality and regrets weighed heavily upon her. But you see her point — we will all die sooner or later, and so while we can, we must take every opportunity to negate silences. For me, this means I must write, and do so at the risk of being unpopular.
What I am constantly working through is why negating silence, regardless of what I am saying (and there is plenty to say, to speak out against, to speak out in favor of), is an unpopular stance. The act itself, writing, writing for publication, and aggressively pursuing publication, is met with disapproval, dismissal, disdain. I sometimes think it is because while I have had many mentors generously open up the space for me, I do not ask anyone’s permission to speak.
I’ve known plenty of women of color who appear to prefer to allow others to speak for them. I’ve known plenty of women of color who are waiting for permission to call themselves writers. I don’t know what permission that is, and from whom/by whom it is bestowed. I do know that it is encouraging reading Audre Lorde, to be reminded that we can’t afford to wait for others’ words. By extension, we can’t afford to wait for others’ permissions. Doing so can only come with a set of externally imposed parameters. And if somebody else gives us the permission to speak, then he can take that permission away.