Poet

OK, this here is a brain dump. I just received a comment on one of my recent Filipino American community posts, and to be clear, the commenter is also a Filipino American. This person tells me (I paraphrase) she would hate to see me limited, pigeonholed in my art because of my ethnic identification. If I identify as a Filipino American poet, as opposed to a poet (or Poet), then I am cutting off all kinds of folks from finding and reading my work.

I am terribly refreshed by this comment today.

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Diwata Reviewed in Coal Hill Review

An excerpt of this very thoughtful review by Carolyne Whelan at Coal Hill Review:

Starting with a monologue of longing from Eve, Reyes weaves seamlessly the creation myths of the Book of Genesis and of the Tagalog people of the Philippines, along with the bloody history of colonization in the Philippines and her grandfather’s role during World War II. We are offered Reyes’ own version of oral history, the history of her split heritage, the story of survival, and myths of Reyes’ own creation that add an additional emotional truth despite their deliberate inaccuracy. We leave this book both shellshocked and empowered, reborn and rib-torn.

While these poems are capable of standing alone with their musical incantations (“We bring her tobacco when she calls shrill bird trill carried upon air as though her voice were a body’s warm rib cage we could wrap our arms round tight.”), they work collectively as one long narrative that uses traditional Filipino poetic devices, including call and response, repetition, and songlike refrains. The long humming lines matched with short pulse lines (“Here I shall weave a selvedge of we.”) hypnotize us like a fire on an otherwise black night.

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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.]

* * *

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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How a Poem Happens: A Little Bit About Lola Ilang

Thank you to Brian Brodeur, for his questions regarding my poem, “A Little Bit About Lola Ilang,” at his blog, How a Poem Happens. An excerpt:

How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?

It arrived to me neatly in its digressive prose form. A great portion of Diwata occurs in prose poetry, and so the use of form of “A Little Bit About Lola Ilang” was automatic. The talk story digression I believe necessitates the continuous poetic line, rather than metered couplets or pantoum quatrains, which are other forms I utilize in Diwata. Rather than the story being ceremonial, formal, incantatory, this is the kind of story elders tell spontaneously, in the course of conversation around the kitchen table when no one is in a rush to go anywhere. Perhaps the talk story would even include a cigarette flipping on the tongue demonstration. The talk story would also include rounds of San Miguel beer, or something harder.

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Readings and Po Biz Hustle

I’ve been doing events at a more manageable pace these last couple of weeks. Last weekend, I read at Eastwind Books of Berkeley with Maiana Minahal and Veronica Montes. Veronica’s write up is here. I think that was a good event; as she says, there was some nice thematic overlap between the three of us, presenting different takes on our own respective Filipina mythic women figures. In Legend Sondayo, Maiana has queered the narrative of Sondayo, and pulled the stories into a contemporary setting. In Angelica’s Daughters, Veronica moves back and forth between present day and the historical time of foremother Angelica. I am interested in the process of writing dugtungan, how each of five co-authors approaches and treats one another’s text. How to add and elaborate on someone else’s story or developing character. And can you even afford to be of the mindset that a particular story or character is yours (singular) or “someone else’s”? As for myself, I talked a bit about simply making stuff up in these poem-stories, as storytellers do, tell what they’ve been told with some degree of faithfulness, and then straight up invent stuff. After the reading, fellow writer Claire Light, who was in attendance, told me she started to think about Diwata as “speculative poetry,” which is something I hadn’t previously considered.

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To Skype About Diwata: Talking About Poetic I and We

I’ve been reading poems from Diwata for a long time now, and just very recently from the actual physical book. I don’t know why it’s surprising, how breathless I get in the reading. The poems are dense; many are prose poems, many with quite long sentences, and many which, despite the potential amble of the form, are rather abrupt.

I realize I am now in a process of getting to know Diwata, the speakers/personae I thought I knew so well, well, I find there is still a lot to learn about them, their (back) stories, the particulars of their voices. Perhaps this is all complicated by my teaching, especially as we problematize or complicate the poetic I, and hear other poets’ takes on an I that is really a we, and that we being historical, connected to a landscape as this landscape shifts, or a we in movement, necessarily shifting between locales, national and ethnic identities and allegiances, or an I that is a we that focuses and refocuses (or telescopes) her lenses, and so on. These were the discussions we had yesterday evening regarding Matthew Shenoda and Suheir Hammad.

Indeed, Shenoda says in The Blood-Jet Writing Hour interview that he rarely ever writes in an individual/personal autobiographical I; it’s not his interest, and it’s not his project. Then in a writerly way, he tells us that writing outside of ourselves is more of a challenge (and as writers, shouldn’t we be up for this challenge). One reason is because then we have to stretch our use of language; we have to imagine how others use language. So I very much appreciate that, and I appreciate this complicated I/we, because it’s also realistic, our many conflicting ideas and alliances. These discussions mess me up talking about my own work. Still, I think, this can only be a good thing. Besides, as per Ron Takaki: “How do you know you know what you know,” anyway?

So I am getting to know Diwata (again), as if she/it and I have been apart from each other for a while, and we need to be reacquainted. It’s a trip. Today, I will be Skype-ing with two of Oliver de la Paz’s classes, one of which sounds like it’s enormous. I am looking forward to discussing the book in an academic setting, which I think is a more appropriate setting (than at, say, bookstore readings) to be working out how I experience the complicated I/we, and the particulars of their world. Talk about challenge; I am reading students’ questions, and am overwhelmed with the world that I wrote in Diwata. Is it possible that book talks and interviews just get harder and harder? I always thought it’d be the opposite.

Anyway, again a big thank you to Oliver for taking on the book, especially because it’s so new, and there is no existing critical writing. I am also very interested in Skype-ing as a viable way of connecting with educators and students who are reading my books. I guess we’ll see in a bit how it approximates the classroom visit. If it goes well (and I don’t see why it wouldn’t), then I will offer to make myself available via Skype to educators who adopt Poeta en San Francisco and Diwata for their courses.

Interview at BOA Editions blog

Thank you to Albert Abonado for such a good interview, such insightful — both writerly and historical/cultural — questions. An excerpt of the interview:

Could you give a little background about your history with writing? What brought you to poetry?

A few things. First would be my grandparents’ and family elders’ penchant for storytelling. There was an old story my mother’s mother used to tell me about a brown god who shaped people from mud, and baked them in a huge oven. The undercooked ones were white people, the overcooked ones were black people, and the ones cooked just right were us. Many years later, in college, I came across this very same narrative in a Navajo story I read in a Native American Studies course.

As far as coming into poetry, it may have been Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf, or Jessica Hagedorn’s Dangerous Music (Momo’s Press, 1975), that poetry could be loose, and funky, woman of color-centric, indignant.

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