Towards a Pinay “We” Poetics

[This is a draft of an essay I’m currently writing for an anthology on women and creative process. Indeed, I am surprising myself with this not-so-sudden burst of productivity; I’d recently been asked what inspires me to write, or what do I need to continue writing. I’d responded that I needed external impetus, and thankfully, this came in the form of an invitation to submit new work to Hambone, from Nate Mackey himself. I say this because I am pleased to be acknowledged by him, and because being acknowledged by someone I deem important to my practice meant that I really had to produce work. I submitted new poems, and they are scheduled to appear in the journal’s next issue. It’s a happy by-product, that there is momentum for me to continue writing.]

[Some edits below.]

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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 journey/emergence of a people in his serial poem, “Song of the Andoumboulou.” This “we” is appealing to me as a Filipina; indeed, 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 about and in the voices of the Manongs, the West Coast Filipino American migrant laborers of the early twentieth century, in Rappin’ With Ten Thousand Carabaos in the Dark, 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 multitude of Filipinos:

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”; indeed, I have already cited more male poets speaking as “the people,” in an essay about Pinay “we” poetics. I also see how many women have found themselves pushed to the interior, in the province of the domestic, the personal, and private, while the men are charged with handling issues of representation of “the people,” addressing the outside world. Ultimately, many women find themselves pushed so far inside, discouraged from speaking on that “too big” world, efffectively 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.

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In Between My Brain and Other Pinays' Brains

I am increasingly feeling this need to move my writing outside myself. I’ve been writing these “she” and “we” personae which are way too rooted in my own brain. I am feeling the limitations of my own imagination, my direct experience and what I know of my family’s, and reading of others’ voices and experiences, such that my next “she”/”we” project needs to incorporate the words and lives and souls of other Pinays who are not myself and not my world. So I am in the process of compiling a list of “questions,” perhaps along a similar vein to Bhanu Kapil’s The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers.

I am interested in expanding and plumbing the depths of the Pinay voice in my work, creating a remixed Pinay narrative in the form of a long poem. I am interested in debunking what assumptions I am certain I have made over time, and I am especially interested in the kind of exceptionalism which other Pinays over the years have constantly bestowed upon me, my work ethic, my gender relationships. This has led to another kind of othering and distancing with which I have been terribly unhappy and disturbed. This is an othering I would like to think I have been trying to undo, though as I continue to work at my work with the kind of bluntness and grit that are terribly improper for a Filipina lady, I am sure I have been doing a really shitty job of undoing the othering. I am sure I am reinforcing it.

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