WE: Pilipinx Poetics, Kapwa Poetics

[L-R: PJ Gubatina Policarpio, Catalina Cariaga, Barbara Jane Reyes, Shirley Ancheta. Photo credit: Anthony Bongco]

Lookit us, how we’ve aged. I’ve known Shirley Ancheta and Catalina Cariaga since I was in my 20s, maybe younger, coming into Bay Area Filipino American poetry. I knew Shirley from Kearny Street Workshop (KSW) and Bay Area Pilipino American Writers (BAPAW). I wrote about her at the Best American Poetry blog a while back, so please do read about her there.  One of many memories I have is of a BAPAW reading we did in the mid-1990s, at the Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco. Then, the I-Hotel was a gigantic hole in the ground, one I’d known most of my life. Our venue overlooked that hole. That was the point. Shirley and I were the only women poets on the mic, and this was a very common experience in these multi-generational Filipino American poetry events, and any discussions about Filipino American history. I’ve always voiced my thoughts on that gender imbalance, much to the impatience of my male elders. Shirley always appeared much more gracious than I.

Anyway, while the other poets’ works were about the manongs, and about the I-Hotel struggle, while the other poets were descendants of manongs, I represented a newer generation, the middle class, post-1965 Filipino American immigrant, who grew up in suburban tract homes. My poems about the I-Hotel could not imagine anything but that hole in that decades-long ground — you can see this in Gravities of Center and Poeta en San Francisco. I didn’t think I had a place among these poets, but Shirley, Jeff Tagami, and Jaime Jacinto always made sure to welcome me, let me in for who I am.

In Shirley’s poems, there was a Pinay speaker, and Pinay subjects, and Pinay inner voice that I’d rarely read or heard. Surely, Jessica Hagedorn’s got some fierce and flawed Filipinas in the world in her poetry; Shirley’s I thought of as  deeply interior-focused.

Catalina Cariaga is another Pinay poet with a special place in my heart, and in my poetics. When she was doing her MFA at San Francisco State University, I started seeing her read her poems at a lot of local events, both Filipino American, and Bay Area poetics scenes. I would listen to her work, and not be able to access it. I didn’t know what she was doing, what she was trying to do. Her performance aesthetic was nothing I was accustomed to. I didn’t know what to do with/about her poetry. I did sense it was important poetry; she wrote about Flor Contemplacion, though not exactly about her. Catie wrote about a lot of noise and distance between Flor, and her poetic I. I can say this now, but I didn’t know this then.

Then one day, her book, Cultural Evidence came out. I was taking a poetry class at Berkeley City College, and slowly being introduced to “experimental” and “avant garde” poetries. I picked up her book, saw that she was doing something different on the page, and then a big fucking light bulb went on over my head. I had to experience this work on the page. And then being able to experience/interact with the work on the page enabled me to really hear her when I would see her in performance.

When I introduced Catie the other day at the Asian Art Museum, I said that what Catie taught me was what to do with the poem on the page. We generally know, instinctively, what to do with our voices, how to wield them. The page, not so much. I should have said, it takes practice, and finesse, and patience. It takes the ability and smarts and work ethic to not fall into gimmick. You have to think about the placement of the words, of course the breaking of the lines, and you have to think about the blank/white spaces. How do you balance these things, how do you negotiate the tension and harmony.

All of this to say I am still punch drunk about last Thursday’s event. I was remembering today, when Lynn Procope and Oscar invited me to read for louderARTS at Bar 13 in NYC back in the day, we agreed upon the “pinion” format, in which I got to choose my co-readers, for how I was connected to them and them to me, for how our presences are mutually resonant. I chose Jessica Hagedorn, Bino A. Realuyo, and Anthem Salgado to read with me. This is like triangulating community. This is how you share poetic space, rather than hoard it.

This is also kapwa. I love it.

For APIA Heritage Month: A List

A list, or listcicle, if you will. Today is May 1st, and not only is it APIA Heritage Month. Last month was National Poetry Month, so both April and May present me an opportunity to take stock.

I produce these lists to get me thinking about what I have read, and what works and authors I revisit. This helps my own writing process. I also produce these lists because I am asked frequently, in individual messages, for any advice I would give aspiring writers, aspiring MFA program applicants, Pinays newly coming into their identities or settling into identities more complex and liminal.

My response to advice is always to read. Make your reading lists your own personal, political, and aesthetics curricula. Think about what you are drawn to, and then start to think about why. What do you need to learn in any particular body of work that pulls you in, or perhaps more importantly, what do you need/have to learn in any particular body of work that (you feel) keeps kicking you out, or kicking you in the ass. What can you learn about your own poetic voice from any particular work?

Sometimes, this is not the advice that advice seekers want from me. Many times, what they want to hear from me is, wow, no one has ever done what you are doing before in poetry, you are so talented and you are going to be big; come, have coffee with me, and let me introduce you to my publishers like now. 


If I ever have to energy to respond substantially, it’s to say you have to work, and grind, and grit your teeth, and work some more. Through the rejections. Through the “writers’ blocks,” through the endless drafting and editing. Read like crazy. Learn to engage deeply what you read. Look deeply at what (you say, think) your influences are, and reflect hard on why.

That said, my list, part 1.

Frances Chung, Crazy Melon and Chinese Apple. From this work, I learned about distilling down to the simplest and most concrete language possible for what I mean to say. From a Chinese American woman New Yorker POV/cosmology, examining boundary lines, what interior and exterior spaces belong to whom, what spaces we may claim, what spaces we are ghettoized into, how we may navigate bustling American urban space as “others.”

Catalina Cariaga, Cultural Evidence. What can white space, what can the page do for you. If you are a poet, then where you place the words onto the page in relation to margins, in relation to each other, in prose blocks, in spare, minimalist lines, is a substantial part of what you do. You are creating visual effect. You are as a result, setting tone and timbre.

Truong Tran, Dust and Conscience. This is one of the works that got me thinking for the first time about the prose poem and its possibilities. Again, with the visual effect, and the emotional piece. Now, omit the punctuation; what happens now. Especially when writing about memory, and family history. What do you remember? The details, or the emotional content. Are memories as neatly compartmentalized as a series of discrete right and left justified prose blocks.

Eileen Tabios, Reproductions of the Empty Flagpole. This is another work that got me thinking about the prose poem and its possibilities. How may one string together seemingly disparate thoughts into something like a cohesive body. How does that make sense, when it shouldn’t really make sense. So there’s something here also about the emotional content, especially that which results from ekphrasis.

Bhanu Kapil, The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers. This book totally fucked with me, in terms of what was “real” response from strangers, to a certain set of questions, versus what was mediated by the poet. The devil’s in the details, I suppose. But what ended up being important to me was impact and surprise of the resulting “response.” Also of note is the fact or affect of the WOC being granted/gifted the space to speak on her own behalf.

Oliver de la Paz, Names Above Houses. First thing: The prose poem figures prominently on this list. It’s not a big secret or surprise that my own book, Diwata, has used this book as something of a model. They both rely heavily on the prose poem form. Storytelling is happening. Personal myth making from memory and family history is happening. And that the story of us migrating from our homes to this new place — this is indeed a remarkable story that defies our understanding, and enters into mythical space.

OK, so that’s it for now. More to come.

It’s Filipino American history Month! Do you know who the women writing in our community are?

This is #3 in a series of posts for Filipino American History Month. Here are links to List #1 | List #2.

The purpose of these reading recommendations is to assert our Pinay presence, and our important role as Pinays in documenting our history. Literature and the arts are places where our narratives are humanized and personalized. As a teacher of Pinay Literature, as a teacher of Filipino American and Asian American Literatures, I am always amazed at how affected readers are, by a story written in the first person POV, when that first person is a Pinay. They are similarly affected by Pinay lyricism, the ability of a Pinay poet to lay bare her deepest and most complex thoughts and beliefs.

I have made it a point to teach literary device — element and technique — to my students. I have always feared that doing so would bring resistance; it’s like pulling back the curtain on the Wizard of Oz, so that you see it isn’t magic after all. But I am pleased to say that students have been into it; they write back to me that it’s helpful, breaking down stories’ components, or characters’ roles by archetype. Or by thinking more deeply about figurative language. I tell them, think of literary technique as ways in which the author tries to help you deepen or heighten or make greater your understanding. They wonder how much they’ve missed in their previous readings, not taking this into account before. We get way beyond the idea of literary device as “tricks,” or surface decisions.

That said, here are more reading recommendations!

Aimee Suzara, Souvenir.

In this collection of poems, the speaker gives us a Filipina immersed in Americana. Think Pinay in Middle America, cowboy boots, Madonna, middle school sleepovers. As Filipino immigrants, didn’t we kind of anticipate we’d be fully steeped in these quintessential American images, and ways of life, where “real” Americans aren’t sure where we’re from. They suspect we’re kind of like them, but they also know we’re not. And there’s more. What about the images of other “Others,” in America. And here is where we get to the dark and obscured American history of turn of the century zoo-keeping POC, Bontoc Igorots and other indigenous, “tribal” folks, for the purposes of what? Americans see their “dark other,” and are repulsed by what they see; surely, modern Americans are nothing like these “primitives.” Surely, Americans are more evolved, more civilized. So what does that mean for our modern day Pinay in middle America?

Barbara Jane Reyes, For the City That Nearly Broke Me.

I’m allowed to recommend my own work, no? I choose this chapbook, published by San Antonio based Aztlán Libre Press, because of its Manila/There, Oakland/Here theme. The collection is split down the middle, and the speaker negotiates that same split in herself. Witnessing the violence of the American inner city, is this what our immigrant forebears ever imagined would be awaiting them here? And then returning to the city of her birth, she becomes a tourist, and outsider, also fighting her own fear of the Third World whose myths are perpetuated by her own immigrant parents, and a fear of a culture she no longer feels strongly connected to.

Catalina Cariaga, Cultural Evidence.

It’s been a while since I read this, so bear with me as I try to recall. Cariaga does some super effective things with the page. Poems here are visually spare, and you come to realize your feeling of unease is both due to subject matter (dog meat, OFWs, et al), and very much due to how much white space these poems employ. You’re stuck there, wondering why all of this “blank” or “empty” space is messing with you emotionally — silencing, erasing, being described by others from afar, clinically, “objectively,” anthropologically. You also have to sort through a lot of “noise,” sound bytes, advertising, to find the Pinay OFW lost in the static.

Rina Ayuyang, Whirlwind Wonderland.

A graphic novel! What I love most about this work is how remarkably “normal” our narrator/heroine is. American life for Filipinos can truly be “normal,” no? We grow up as the American children of immigrants, we go to school, we love our big and crazy families, we struggle to learn “where we came from,” and we fill our everyday lives with minutiae, purchases, schedules, commute, emails. We watch football. We struggle with identity. And that’s our American lives.

Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for more!