I recently and very happily received a comment from Tina Bartolome, a Pinay writer who’s a San Francisco native, and who’s now finishing her MFA at Indiana University. I clicked over to her blog, only to find a treasure of thoughtful writing on her “literary universe,” as a politicized Pinay writer. These are some things I definitely can afford to remember; certainly, now as I write more and more about this Pinay “we” poetics, I want to be able to articulate the things storytelling can do. Some points Tina has outlined:
- Storytelling as taking inventory
- Storytelling as collective memory
- Storytelling as paying homage
- Storytelling as a comrade to social change (a conversation in progress)
She elaborates on the last point by quoting Martín Espada from Zapata’s Disciple: “Any oppressive social condition, before it can be changed, must be named and condemned in words that persuade by stirring the emotions, awakening the senses. Thus, the need for the political imagination.” And then further down in her post, Tina tells us she wants writing to “mess with hegemony.”
I am currently rereading “Animals: On the Role of a Poet in a Country at War,” an essay by Hayan Charara, whose poetry anthology, Inclined to Speak, my students are reading, and which we are discussing in class this week. Already, my responses to the poem which opens his essay are complicated. This is also true of much of the poems in the Inclined to Speak anthology which I have assigned. We will be discussing Suheir Hammad, Matthew Shenoda, Sinan Antoon, among others. With Antoon’s spare and sharp poems, we are deep in Baghdad, and war is all around individuals who have lost everything. With Hammad, a necessary purge immediately post-9/11, as a witness, an American, a New Yorker, and an Arab.
So I want to go back to my previous blog post, regarding my dissatisfaction with ahistorical and depoliticized discussions of Asian American poetry, the oblique derision of “protest poetry,” and political poetry as arcane and irrelevant. What I told my class was that ultimately, my largest criticism of it was how low the stakes are set for our writing; why we write is portrayed as no longer about survival and necessity, but about prestige and mainstream acceptance and assimilation. This does not sit well with me on so many levels, especially as I read in it this insistence upon perpetuating the “model minority” myth. The portrayal of Asian Americans having nothing in the world to worry about, except publication in prestigious journals or admittance into prestigious MFA programs, is inaccurate, and it is dangerous.
As if all of us as citizens of the world weren’t living in a continued state of all-encompassing war.
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.”