This is a follow-up to my original post on Gelacio Guillermo’s response to Eugene Gloria’s poem, “To Gellacio Guillermo in Iowa City.”
A fellow Filipina writer has brought up some very good points in an email discussion elsewhere, reminding me that the poem in question is an old poem, probably written in the 1990′s or so. And this is something I was just saying yesterday evening: to be fair, the poem was written a long time ago and that after reading Hoodlum Birds, I consider Eugene Gloria a virtuoso. The only reason why I am reading and responding to this older poem now is because Guillermo has just found the poem and has just written and published a response to the poem.
This fellow Filipina writer also reminds me that the poet’s audience and readership must be considered. How do Filipino American writers and other “ethnic” writers portray our cultural and historical artifacts, i.e. “foreign” words and “foreign” objects, to mainstream American literary institutions.
I am also conscious that I have asked some critical questions of a fellow Filipino American poet’s work, and that can be construed as anti-community. I certainly don’t intend this at all. I am trying to understand how we have grown or changed or evolved as a literary community.
Nick Carbó’s anthology Returning a Borrowed Tongue (Coffeehouse Press, 1995) contains a rather comprehensive introduction on English language Filipino poetry (both Philippines-based and Filipino American), and he discusses nostalgia for the Philippines as a prevalent theme in contemporary Filipino poets’ works. I think the poem in question fits neatly in this category.
Still, even in poems of nostalgia, I think the question of to whom we are writing about ourselves is important. I believe that as readers, figuring out who the poetic speaker is, and who poet and the poetic speaker are addressing is important in understanding the poem. That said, I still question why the speaker in this poem is an unnamed Filipina daughter of a colonel, and why she is addressing Guillermo. I question whether her language and how she treats the historical events she cites are consistent with how a Filipino would address a fellow Filipino, how a Filipino would discuss certain Filipino issues with another Filipino.
Carbó’s introduction also discusses the politicized/activist Bay Area 1960′s-1970′s Flips scene of which, despite my post-1965 immigrant status, I think of myself as a descendant — Liwanag, Kearny Street Workshop, the Bay Area Pilipino American Writers (BAPAW). He names Jaime Jacinto, Virginia Cerenio, Serafin Syquia, Jessica Hagedorn, and Al Robles as some of the key figures, who concerned themselves with grassroots, community-based workshops. Carbó states that these folks never reached any levels of national success, “however intensely felt and well-organized this assertion of Filipino writing was in the Bay Area.”
[Interesting that he includes Hagedorn in this part of the discussion, given that no other Filipino American writer's achievements equals hers.]
I bring up Carbó’s discussion of the Bay Area Flips to address the issue of poetic addressee. My longtime experiential knowledge of these Bay Area Flip poets tells me that they/we were/are addressing one another, transcribing what we otherwise always relied upon oral tradition to keep alive — old and ongoing stories of our communities and families. So then these Flips prioritized the vernacular, the local, or the locale, the farms where asparagus and broccoli were harvested, the crab fisheries of Naknek, Alaska, the Pajaro River Valley, the Richmond District, the Fillmore, SoMa.
I am wondering if in “talking to ourselves,” in using insider/familiar language/vernacular, we necessarily sacrifice “national renown” by lessening the numbers of readers who would be able to understand this language and these reference points. I am wondering then, if this is the opposite of what I read in Eugene’s poem, for in writing as the other and addressing the mainstream institution, our familiar artifacts invariably come to be handled as foreign objects, and that there is no place for familiar (never mind “intimate” at this point) language in these poems.
I refer to Carbó’s introduction, which was published in 1995, because I feel like Eugene Gloria’s poem belongs in that context. And both I see as rather outdated.
But I was mentored by Filipino poets of national, international, as well as local renown, and so I grew up in poetry not subscribing to the belief that (inter)national and local, elevated poetic diction and vernacular cannot coexist, or that they must negate one another.