On Filipino Experimental Poetics

Just some thoughts.

First, “experimental” should be in quotes, just like that. It’s a blanket term or that miscellaneous box that you throw stuff in when you can’t immediately, clearly understand or access it. And even using the term in the first place already changes the reader’s expectations for the work.

So why do/did I use the term? Well, because I wanted my students to be prepared to read and discuss texts that do not appear to give us a conventional narrative.

Some quickie history: I’ve heard all kinds of disdainful stuff said about the “experimental” poet within a Filipino American context, at least on this here side of the country. I think there may be an element of distrust involved; is the writer “tricking” us or hiding something from us. Why can’t she just give it to us straight?

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APIA Literature that Influenced Me

Seattle-based International Examiner has recently posted lists authored by APIA writers, editors, and academics, five titles of APIA literature that have influenced them. Fellow APIA writer Claire Light has meme’ed a bunch of us on Facebook, asking us the same question. I’ve left my five items as a comment on her wall, but would like to expand my list here, and talk a bit about “influence.” Sometimes for me, it isn’t about “influence,” as much as it is about resonance. These days, in the thick of reading and teaching, I find in the post-writing and publishing process that work’s out there, and my own work has connected with it. But back to the beginning, it looks something like this:

Jessica Hagedorn, Dangerous Music (Momo’s Press, 1975), and Danger and Beauty (Penguin, 1993). Jessica is THE O.G. Pinay poet, the one we Pinays all purportedly want to be. I wanted to be Jessica Hagedorn when I was 19, 20. I’m 40 now, and while I’ve long ago shed the desire to be someone else, I admit Jessica was the first Pinay I encountered in print, and in gangsta performance. In other words, she showed me what we all could be capable of as Pinay artists. And that is some powerful juju. Her poems were funky, raw, sharp, fearless, the opposite of Maria Clara acquiescence.

I realize now though, that the pieces from Danger and Beauty which have remained with me are her essays, “Papologia,” (which serves as the collection’s intro) and “Homesick.” “Papologia” is a little burst of memories/flashback, ecstatic with belonging, carving out multicultural, multidisciplinary artist communities in the hard and contested spaces that are our Bay Area urban centers. “Homesick” is perhaps its opposite, making problematic our nostalgia for the homeland to which we can never truly return, or can we? Or returning with a different set of eyes, what then of belonging?

At UP Diliman in the early 1990′s, in my comparative lit class, Filipino Women Writing in English: Love, War, and Exile, taught by Cristina Pantoja Hidalgo, so many of the women (all Philippines-based) were so resistant to Hagedorn’s “Homesick,” and the general sentiment among them was, “You’re in America now, what do you have to complain about?” I remember defending the piece, and defending the position of the balikbayan, returning to a place (as I had just done) that bore no resemblance to our memories, that we now knew more from international news reports, and from our (in)formal post-colonial political and arts education — the irony of learning about Filipino colonial mentality in our First World cultural and arts spaces, and for me, in American university classrooms.

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Starting: Source Materials

Is it just me, or do other writers and artists get this giddy and anxious feeling about starting a project. What I have in mind is barely fleshed out, but a few contributing factors to this thing I want to/have to write are these:

(1) Thomas Merton on silence, on a poet’s living in silence, on living a life of poetry rather than “ridiculous” editorialism. This is something I really need to take to heart, in the deepest way possible.

(2) Grace Nono‘s recent Bay Area visit, performance, and conversation. To read: her book The Shared Voice: Chanted and Spoken Narratives from the Philippines. And again, as she told us during her recent visit, she’s only scratched the surface of Philippine oral traditions after 15 years of finding her way in and immersing herself in it. I have noticed (it’s hard not to notice) how much tighter and focused, how cohesive as a project or cycle each subsequent CD is. Imagine what Nono’s work will be like in another five years, in another ten years. Just phenomenal.

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Merlinda Bobis's Banana Heart Summer

I finished Merlinda Bobis’s Banana Heart Summer, and am still thinking about the ending to such a neatly structured story. I think of this neatness in structure this way: sometimes form/formula is your friend, and sometimes it’s your crutch. If it’s the latter, then perhaps you’ve failed. In Bobis’s case, form/formula is her friend. I don’t know if this book was written as young adult literature; certainly the heroinne is a young adult, and the story is told in her voice. Something about this story, about this girl’s life has deeply affected me, and I am still trying to figure out what that is.

I think of these girls we see in the Philippines, so young, so poor, and so grown up but not grown up. We pass them in the streets all the time. We, in air conditioned Japanese cars with tinted windows. And then we try to forget about them, as real people with real lives. We know nothing of their lives, and any kind of attempt at abstraction, even in well-meaning ways, I do not think could ever do justice to a life experience we do not understand. So I am stuck in this place, thinking about difference, about distance, about fate.

It’s hard not to feel and/or experience compassion for her, so unwanted by her mother, so blamed though she is blameless, and so well-meaning. And the thing about her story is that, with the hunger, it isn’t just that she wants to be loved. She wants to understand, and she wants to make things right. She still believes that things can be fixed, and it’s heartbreaking for me as a reader to know that isn’t the case, not everything can be fixed; i.e. some things are so broken and irreparable.

In terms of food themes and lushness of language and imagery; is this due to expatriate reminiscence, nostalgia. And is it Bobis’s own expatriate reminiscence and nostalgia, or the character’s (as we learn later that she goes on to be domestic help in Oregon, USA). Or really, is there no other way to write the Philippines, its humidity and flora, such that what vividness and fragrance produced in the literature is so meticulously wrought.

Or is it that as Filipinos writing in English (maybe compounded by being expatriates), this is our relationship to the language. And do we always find ourselves writing meticulously wrought text in that formal voice, what Oscar calls the non-casual “declamation voice,” (as he references my writing style on this here blog) in which what we write or speak must necessarily be well-crafted and profound, precisely because we are operating within the realm of literature/high culture.

God, does that even make sense what I just wrote here. Meticulously wrought English, literature as traditionally high culture or high art, self-consciousness as practitioners of this high art, self-consciousness in using English, where self-consciousness ≠ insecurity, and rather self-consciousness = heightened consciousness of the use of language in the high arts by practitioners who have attained a level of mastery.

And finally, let the above ≠ colonized art, colonial thinking, or even elitism. It just is what it is, a particular place in which a particular set of writers write a particular set of concerns. I will leave it all at that. Declamation voice for declaimors, or orators. And orators as pratitioners of oral tradition. That mix of the two opposing worlds; Banana Heart Summer‘s neighborhood framed neatly between the Spanish Catholic church and the indigenous deity that is the volcano.

Current Reading: Banana Heart Summer by Merlinda Bobis

Banana Heart Summer Banana Heart Summer by Merlinda Bobis

I’m about halfway through this book, and so far it’s such an interesting story. Nining, the protagonist/heroine is really a very sweet girl. The story is told from her point of view, in retrospect; that is, her older self is retelling the story, and this would account for the kind of language that I am pretty sure a poor, 12 year old girl in the Philippines with a middle school education would not use.

Merlinda Bobis’s language is very poetic, and I think this is appropriate, as I knew of her as a poet before she published books of prose. As well, I think Nining’s older self, who is 20 years older and living abroad, recalls her childhood with an almost predictable nostalgia for the homeland she’s left.

The neighborhood in which she grows up is very self-contained, with its regular fisherman selling his catch, the tindahans, the poor families’ little homes squished in between the wealthy families’ larger homes. The neighborhood is also well-contained metaphorically, with the large imposing Catholic church at one end, and the volcano at the opposite end; the people have lived and continue to live squished in between the colonizer’s God and their native deity.

The narrative of Nining’s life is, again, well-contained within the book’s structure of a recipe or particular food item per chapter title. So Bobis provides us with all of these neat containers, and I don’t really have a complaint about this. It’s neat, and it’s meticulous. My only complaint so far is that there must be a way to write food preparation in the narrative without sounding like the instructional portion of the recipe. As it stands, these instructions are inconsistent with the lush, vivid, beautiful, mostly childlike descriptions of the land, the people, the food, the human interactions.

The last thing I will say for now is that this book is about the girl’s hunger. There is the physical hunger as she is the eldest daughter of a very, very poor and large family. As the eldest daughter, there is also the hunger to help support the family as her ineffectual and emasculated father cannot do so. Then there is Nining’s hunger to win her mother’s love, her mother being this rage-filled woman, who curses her fate for having been disowned by her wealthy family for getting knocked up by the poor stonemason, and who views and treats Nining as the manifestation of this fate.

More Poetry Thoughts for the Day

Patrick Rosal has a wonderful post on joy and poetry, specifically the joy which poets bring to audiences at readings and/or performances, and the joy which poets feel to connect with audiences, that this connection is most apparent in an audience’s visceral responses to a poet’s words or combination of words, to interesting, unexpected lines or images.

I tend to think it’s a very fortunate thing I did not come up in the poetry world in an institution whose constituents are bled of their joy as they are trained to exhibit a “cool” pretentious intellectual distance as a poet from an audience, or as an audience member from the poet sharing her words with a room full of interested or even just curious audience members.

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