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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Me We: Nathaniel Mackey and Muhammad Ali Poetics

“We, Spoken Here,” which Nate Mackey discussed at his de Young Museum performance in 09/2007: his discomfort with the poetic I, his tendency to write the poetic we, and his deep understanding of that historically, culturally, and politically determined we.

“Me … We,” Muhammad Ali says. In the Forbes magazine article he wrote in 1999, he discussed “convergence,” his individual accomplishments earning the title of the heavyweight champion of the world, and what these accomplishments meant for the African and African American people of the world, what he could do, given his accomplishments, for the people. Coming off watching When We Were Kings (1996) yesterday evening, digging through the theatrics of his bravado, this point is so clear, his membership with the Nation of Islam, his Black Nationalism, his unapologetic anti-war stance: “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong … They never called me [N–].”

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Some thoughts: poetry, work

When Nate Mackey read at the Holloway Poetry Series at UC Berkeley early this year, we’d already seen him perform at the de Young Museum in SF, in which he and Hafez Modirzadeh collaborated on this almost seamless word and music/percussion presentation. What we learned there was that music could aspire to word and word could aspire to music, and that transcending one’s own individual boundaries was one of the gifts of artistic collaboration.

At Nate’s Holloway reading, in which he performed solo, i.e. without accompaniment, he did so with that same confidence of leaping over the confines of “genre,” and having his voice aspire to sounds and rhythms above and beyond human voice. During the Q&A, a student asked a question that I thought was curious to ask an elder artist so accomplished, who’d spent what seemed like his entire life on the project of enlarging human poetry. The student asked something to the effect of what he hoped to be remembered for.  At the time it felt like such a strange question. Nate responded that he was going for the whole she-bang. This is what I wrote back in February 2008:

And finally, additional thoughts on Nate Mackey’s reading last week. Actually this is about the Q&A, in which he discussed the career-long writing of serial poems. He talked about how he just had more to say. And isn’t that it right there, just continuing to write because we have more to say. This having more to say is what seems to have made Mackey’s career, such that the serial poem (and novel) continue to be written, to gain momentum, to reach farther out, as he told us that for him, to be successful in poetry is to continue to write, to be able to keep writing.

He and I were able to talk a bit about performance, the things you can actually do with a human voice, such that it approximates music, beyond speaking, and conveying a narrative with that music. My brief encounters with Nate at performances and via e-correspondence have led me to believe that he will be making poem until he is no longer physically able.

I am writing this blog post to remind myself of the people who have fed my soul and spirit as a poet living poetry, writing poetry, sharing poetry with community. There have been elders whose paths have intersected with mine, and that has propelled me forward. The first time Manong Al Robles remembered my name (took a decade). Having my book taught by Nathaniel Mackey, by Karen Tei Yamashita. Being praised by Anne Waldman. Meals with Willie Perdomo (homemade chicken adobo in coconut milk at the sexy loft), with Jimmy Santiago Baca (Oscar was responsible for these). A brief phone conversation with Martín Espada (Oscar was responsible for this too). E-exchanges with Juan Felipe Herrera. Performing in the same spaces with Jessica Hagedorn (the first time in 1995 in SF, the last time in 2006 in NY). Meeting Bob Holman and knowing firsthand his infectious enthusiasm for poetry. Meeting Ninotchka Rosca and knowing firsthand her fierce feminism. Finding much validation, guidance, kinship, and volatility with the Flipsters.

I am writing this post to remind myself of the reach of poetry, how it grows community, how we do this, live lives of poetry because that is what we were born to do, because we are descendants of storytellers, because we have something to say, because we will always have something to say. For me, these are the things that drive me to write, to continue to write, to have my work reach far beyond my individual me, to find new readers thanking me for putting my words into the world, to witness younger writers of color recognize that they could do this too.

I just don’t believe anymore in investing in this paradigm (as outlined here):

Most MFA programs of which I’m aware want a poet to produce a collection of poetry by the end of his or her tenure. Said collection should fit one or more of the criteria above, which also tends to include publishing in journals, which are considered more ephemeral. But let’s be honest – most of the books, despite their seeming permanence, will not last to the end of a calendar year. Now, you, dear reader, might rightly say that that’s what reviews and best-of lists are for. Determining the best published books of the year. And yet the best book of the year almost certainly will not come from an MFA student, at least judging by the major awards.

I waste much energy being caught up in others’ problems. I don’t want to do that anymore. There is enough discouragement and unkindness to be had in the world, and as a result of my work, I’ve encountered my share of racists, flaming misogynists, and assholes in general in the poetry world, and who’ve deliberately belittled me for having done nothing but written a book that continues to travel far outside of my familiar spaces.

But poetry, I’ve been told, is an act of faith, and so we continue on.

At this point, the only thing I can add to any discussions of relevance is what Nate Mackey has already said, to be invested in poetry for the whole she-bang. Because of Nate and the rest of the folks I call my “elders,” I have a blueprint for how to proceed with what I am understanding is a lifetime of poetry.

Adding to the February Poetry Schedule, and additional thoughts on Nathaniel Mackey

Wow. Here’s a couple of intense events I will be participating in this month:

  • February 20: Literary Death Match! Thanks to Parthenon West Review editor Chad Sweeney, who’s somehow convinced me to represent them there. Details here. Please come out for this, to offer lots and lots of encouragement and moral support (and/or to buy me whiskey).
  • February 23: Zapatismo! Thanks to Rupert Estanislao, who I believe will also be participating in this series of events, which are in celebration of the release of The Fire and the Word, A History of the Zapatista Movement, by Gloria Muñoz Ramírez, to be published by City Lights Books. We’ll be reading in Oakland, somewhere on International Blvd. Details are forthcoming. But for now, I’ll say that I’m so interested in this organization’s inclusion of Filipino poets.

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Quick Thoughts: Nathaniel Mackey at UC Berkeley 02/07/08

Nathaniel MackeyThis would be the second time I’ve seen Nate Mackey read; the first was at was at the de Young Museum in SF (re-cap here), in which he performed with Hafez Modirzadeh, and in which the collaboration not only made a little more apparent or accessible the music of Mackey’s speech, and then I think also added another layer of narrative to the listening experience.

To hear him read solo this time was different, and in some ways, a more intense listening experience. I understand more now what he meant when he spoke of speech aspiring to be music, which obviously (or not) can be detected in his repetitions and refrains, or what I am thinking of as reverse litanies, and then on top of these repetitions, an elaboration, as in “Song of the Andoumboulou: 58″: “… Nub’s raw republic / absconded with we thought, Nub short / for Nubia we thought, though we / thought…”

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OCHO 16 is now available!

OCHO 16: MiPOesias Magazine Print Companion

Guest Edited by Barbara Jane Reyes

Featuring: Tara Betts, Brian Dean Bollman, Ching-In Chen, Sasha Pimentel Chacón, Linh Dinh, Sarah Gambito, Jessica Hagedorn, Jaime Jacinto, Nathaniel Mackey, Craig Santos Perez, Matthew Shenoda, Jennifer K. Sweeney, Truong Tran, Dillon Westbrook, Debbie Yee

Cover Art: “Imperialism, 24″ by Juan Carlos Quintana.

Buy your copy here.


elsewhere in poetry e-world: ron silliman on the needs of poetry and poetry community

I admit it; I’ve been lurking a lot lately at others’ e-places. And Silliman’s post today on what poetry communities need has got me thinking more on supporting or promoting poetry. Some thoughts:

I do not believe poetry is experiencing a crisis.

I believe poetry should garner as much regard as other arts. I am well aware that poetry “does not sell,” or that people “do not buy poetry.” Though I do believe people do experience poetry very deeply, and whether they are able to articulate the experience is another thing. I believe with more poetic or poetry experiences, the ability to articulate response grows, maybe even hones itself. I believe we each find a critical language with which to articulate poetic experience, and I believe this honing of critical language is something that should be encouraged.

I am finding myself much more interested in the local, and the diversity or divergences within the local. I do not believe in the local being equated with smallness or with lack of ambition.

I am OK with poetry as a national scene being splintered or disunited. In fact, I believe it’s OK that I as a poet and as a reader may not have connections to poetry from other places (geographical, political, aesthetic, etc.). Still, I believe in expanding our own poetic worlds and finding intersections.

I am finding myself much more critical of external markers of career success in poetry, other people’s prescriptions for our own poetry careers. I am also finding myself much more critical of “community,” especially when these preset categories are imposed upon us. I am much more interested in actively finding or forging communities. This way, “community” actually holds meaning in non-abstract ways.

That said, tomorrow being my day off (Yes, I get Chinese New Year off), I am hitting two UC Berkeley readings of a couple of great poets: upon reading Arthur Sze, as upon hearing Nathaniel Mackey, I immediately thought to myself, “This poet knows something about poetics that I need to know.” I am still figuring out how to articulate what those somethings are.