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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Yesterday at the Poetry Center: Rigoberto González and Bhanu Kapil

So I am still processing yesterday’s reading and talk with Rigoberto González and Bhanu Kapil at the SFSU Poetry Center. This is just to say there was a lot of strong presentation of work, and really good process talk.

Some partially formed notes and thoughts:

It’s interesting that one of the Creative Writing classes in attendance was reading Bhanu’s first book, The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers, which was published in 2001, and which I think shows the beginning stages of Bhanu’s ongoing concern for body, women’s bodies, human bodies that are animal bodies. This is both deeply intimate and impersonal; how we desire, discussing how we desire, the more “dangerous” elements of desire, and the flipside, I suppose, of denying the body’s desires. And how these desiring or desirous bodies occupy social spaces, behave and interact (or fail to interact?) in social spaces.

Of course, the above description of desire also comes from a discussion of Rigoberto’s work in Other Fugitives and Other Strangers, where desire and sexuality are very much tied to violence, sadomasochism, tenderness, power dynamics. So given that his work is dense with these themes, we feel the energy it takes for him to read these poems to an audience. He is such a great reader, no fat, no additives, no fillers in the work or in the performance of them. There are these really select words and their corresponding musics/meters, internal rhymes, and he ploughs right through them.

Same is true with Bhanu; her work is very literal and very specific, and her reading of it very steady and assured. And I think this comes from how focused her projects are. Disease in diaspora — schizophrenia as psychological disease and domestic violence as perhaps “social” disease — and the healing that takes place in certain sectors of these diasporic communities. I believe she discussed the breaking down of the body in order to reconstruct it anew.

I think it’s interesting too, that as she discussed The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers, she told us that she did not think of the project as poetry, but as a document, like a compilation and polishing/finishing of a “notebook life.” It’s invariably become labeled as poetry as it’s entered the literary industry. Her second book, Incubation: A Space for Monsters, is labeled “experimental fiction,” so it’s unclear who’s decided to call it that.

Rigoberto also discussed working between genres, in response to a question from D.A. Powell, who was in attendance. Rigoberto discussed how his concerns shift between genres, that when working in prose, he is concerned with plot, whereas in poetry, even though poems also “tell stories” or “forward narratives,” he is more concerned with language, and presumably the way language forwards the narrative. Then there is that in between poetry and prose place, as he discussed his 300 word or less poetic prose pieces, not sure really what to call them. I think maybe some of us get stuck with that flash fiction versus prose poem distinction. I know I’ve stopped trying to figure out what to call them.

So that’s what I’ve got. Good times hanging out with Rigoberto, Camille Dungy, Craig Santos Perez, and Oscar afterward at the Filipino restaurant Palencia between the Mission and the Castro, SF. Oh, what we ate, you are wondering? Ginataang sitaw, kalabasa at hipon, kare kare, two kinds of lumpia (vegatable and Shanghai), sisig na baboy, palabok, pan de sal, sinangag, and a round of San Miguels. Oscar had dalandan juice.

This evening, Junot Diaz will be at Barnes and Noble at Jack London Square, and a bunch of us will be there.