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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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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Lyle Daggett’s review of Poeta en San Francisco

Thank you to Lyle Daggett for his very thoughtful write-up/blog review of Poeta en San Francisco. It’s great to know that a few years after its initial publication, the book has got legs —

The book is organized in three sections, “orient,” “dis orient,” and “re orient,” with short prologue and epilogue sections. Written on the page sometimes as prose paragraphs, sometimes in the linebreaks of poems, this is writing that constantly shifts perspective, moving through a landscape of viewpoints, speaking in a chorus of voices. I described the book as epic. It’s the average length of a typical book of poems, not a massive volume to pick up; it’s epic in every other sense. The great variation of the poems never wanders away from the book’s central subject: the nature of life, and death, and love, in the heart of the beast of empire.


At times the voice in the poems is clear and accusing, other times quiet and abidingly tender, and again coolly analytical, and yet again public and declamatory. Reyes’s poems move with insistent rhythms and concentrated power that evoke the movement of the sea, the tectonic plates of the earth.

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Poetry Reading: Fabulous Folks at UC Merced

Wow! Abundant thanks to Jared Stanley for inviting me to read at the Kolligan Library at the brand-spankin-new (to me) UC Merced campus. The library is ultra-modern, vast and airy, and the lounge where I read was comfortable and casual with these awesome couches, a lot of windows, some great light and acoustics. Already, this kind of couch-y setting set up the vibe for the reading and the kind of rapport I felt I could establish with the students and professors there. Jared tells me that the audience was quite large, and I think it was; there were probably about 40-50 people there, and the space was so large that even those lounging in its farthest corners appeared to be listening in.

I realized I’d spent two hours in the car with Oscar driving, and I hadn’t thought about what I planned to read. This ended up being a good thing, as pre-set set lists I do not think are based upon what we think the audience would be interested in hearing, but rather, what we think the audience should be interested in hearing, before we’ve even encountered them. One quick look around at folks told me the audience was diverse in so many respects, and so young! This, of course, is relative, as I am pushin’ 40. But I have started to think more about performing a healthy cross section of work beginning at Gravities of Center, all the way to the West Oakland poems, providing historical, geographical, literary context for the work in between poems, and hopefully a sense of evolution or growth over time, as the work progresses.

[Set list after the jump…]

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Poesia: Mga Tula en Inglés

Salamat y gracias to Camille Dungy for including Poeta en San Francisco in her Poetry Foundation blog discussion of multilingualism and Englishes in American poetry (link is here). She discusses Keith Cartwright, M. NourbeSe Philip, Cathy Park Hong, and myself. An excerpt:

Though [Cathy Park Hong’s] Dance Dance Revolution contains no glossary, the Historian serves as a sort of translator for some of the book’s more difficult passages.  On the contrary, though parts or all of Barbara Jane Reyes’s Poeta en San Francisco are written in languages including Spanish, English, Tagalog, and Baybayin, the book includes no translation guides.  We come to understand the script in the book in three ways: as image, as sound, and as signifier.  For fluent readers of English these three modes of understanding usually align in a manner that sometimes causes over simplified readings.  When we are forced out of our comfort zones, the three modes of understanding separate and the results can be particularly exciting and informative.  I can’t read the Ancient Filipino script Baybayin, but I sure do love how it looks on the page.  In the context of Reyes’s book, I have to question what my de-contextualized objectification of the script reveals.  I don’t understand Tagalog, but I love to hear people speaking it. In the context of a book that directly investigates the fetishization of Asian people and lands, a response like, “That sounds so pretty and nice,” adds a layer to what we come to understand about the book and its subject matter.

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Poetry: New Hot and Relevant?

[Edits below.]

I was just thinking about what I ended yesterday’s blog post with: this sense that po-biz/poetry world/the Poetic Industrial Complex is always on the lookout for the next new hotness, which means the newest crop of newly published poetry collections, written by the newest crop of MFA program graduates. That after a poetry book’s first year in publication, its relevance fades, and interest in it fades until no one is reading it or talking about it anymore, much less teaching it. Maybe we can call this New Syndrome, the belief that anything new is bigger, better, and more bad-ass than its predecessors. I am wondering if this is really true, and whether we authors have a hand in making this so.

[Addendum and/or afterthought: In the above model, poetry becomes this disposable/consumable throwaway thing, not built to last, and not meant to grow attached to or keep. In a way this is subverting our own (poetry’s and poets’) chances at “greatness.”]

In an interview from a few years ago, the interviewer asked me about some poems that I’d written over ten years ago, and which were published in Maganda magazine. Apparently, these poems had been her and others’ way into my work. For me, the poems are a little “cringe-worthy,” for their being so didactic and full of post-colonial terminology. Apparent in the poetry is the kind of young indignation and pride as I came into my “Brown Power” stage of political education and development. This coincided with my having “Kayumanggi” in baybayin tattooed into my right arm. I chose to use the cross kudlit under the “nga” symbol. I am not a purist. I am not ridiculing my past self, my younger self, except to say that at the time, I could never have known that any of my poems would have staying power, that anyone would still be reading them over a decade later and finding their way into Filipino American poetry through them.

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UC Berkeley: Contemporary Narratives on the US and the Philippines

I am talking about Poeta en San Francisco again, this week in Catherine Ceniza Choy’s class. I’ve been preparing a presentation that I am trying hard not to make overwhelmingly literary, as I realize this is an Ethnic Studies Department course, in which poetics, in which “the literary,” is part of the conversation, but certainly not privileged over discussion of historical, cultural, political themes.

Still, I can’t help but want this presentation to be about how my work is in response to, or in dialogue with so many other artists’ works. In addition to a rather extensive list of source texts (The Book of Revelation, Lorca, Murguía, Conrad, Williams, Pound, Eliot, Coppola), explanations of why I’ve tapped into each of these source texts, and works in dialogue or works in which I find intersection with Poeta (Jimmy Santiago Baca, Frances Chung, Craig Santos Perez, Suheir Hammad), I have this:

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Some thoughts: poetry, work 2.0 (too)

OK, I’m done with being bothered with all of last week’s annoying e-discussion. I think I get caught up in other people’s issues because I don’t have a lot to complain about, because things actually go pretty well over on this end of the poetry world, on both a national and local level, and I mean “pretty well” in ways that are a result of concrete work (imagine that!).

This is my year in review:

Poeta en San Francisco went into its second printing in 2008, which is not bad at all, especially considering that the book actually started to sell in the beginning of 2006. So, “Word!” to Tinfish Press, and “Word!” on selling out an entire print run, and for continuing to be a course-adoptable and relevant text.

While I was rather disappointed that I did not bag a book contract for my third book Diwata in 2007, it all turned out just fine, given that my second of two Philippines trips in 2007 facilitated a manuscript overhaul, another mild flurry of manuscript submissions in 2008, and ultimately, a book contract with BOA Editions, Ltd. as a part of their American Poets Continuum series.  I realize that I need to stop trippin’ on being called an “American Poet” by orgs and bodies that represent American literary institutions. The conversations I’ve had with the editors so far have been energetic, respectful, and positive, and even when they told me that revisions and edits were going to happen, I’ve become assured that we would indeed learn to work together.

I had two print chapbooks and one e-chapbook published in 2008. Brenda Iijima of the Brooklyn-based Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs took on Cherry, the beginnings of my truncated, spammy porn/war project. Carrie Hunter of the SF-based Ypolita Press took Easter Sunday, which were the poems I rejected from my own manuscripts, and which still, in their loveliness or specific experimentation, needed a home, and ended up being pretty cohesive as a body of work. Stephanie Young and David Horton of Deep Oakland proposed an e-chapbook after following the poem drafts on this here blog. The e-chapbook became West Oakland Sutra for the AK-47 Shooter at 3:00 AM and other Oakland poems, which is a series of litanies based off poems by Juan Felipe Herrera, Bob Kaufman, Anne Waldman, and others.

Speaking of Juan Felipe Herrera, we (a bunch of us) nominated him for the position of California Poet Laureate, and that was great, having so many folks’ input for the write-up, help with logistical stuff, and all. And while he didn’t get the position, he was one of four finalists, which made me happy that we could even accomplish this much. At any rate, 2008 was quite a year for him, with two PEN awards and a NY Times notable book.

I was invited to become a board member for the SF-based Small Press Traffic, which I accepted, and so far, this has been an interesting experience. I’ve gotten to co-host readings for Sesshu Foster and R. Zamora Linmark, and Edwin Torres. One thing: I do wish that these readings were attended by more outwardly enthusiastic poetry enthusiasts. I mean, even for Aaron Shurin’s and Anne Waldman’s reading, the general mood in the place felt restrained and a little formal. This criticism of course comes from my own experience of poetry reading attendees hootin and hollerin when they feel it, voicing affirmation precisely because they are feeling it. I’ve heard this kind of rowdy behavior is looked down upon by some as base; I’ve heard of people I’ve never heard of talk shit about me because when I attend readings, I tend to respond to what the poets are saying if it speaks to me. I continue to be a proponent of voicing affirmation at poetry readings, of loving poetry, and of living and being in praise of poetry.

Oscar and I started attending the PAWA, Inc. meetings, and have been actively involved in event proposal and planning. I started the PAWA blog, which their members and many others appreciate very much. We also proposed and started the quarterly literary reading series, which involves the SFPL Main Library, Arkipelago Books, and Poets and Writers, Inc. We were fortunate to have the first reading be a celebration of Luisa Igloria’s latest book, Juan Luna’s Revolver, and to have Joi Barrios of UC Berkeley’s Southeast Asian Studies Department read with us. Karen Llagas brought PAWA, Inc. into SF’s Litquake, and with the release of the Field of Mirrors anthology, 2008 was filled with readings at various public libraries and local bookstores. These readings will continue on into 2009, starting with the UC Berkeley Ethnic Studies Library in March.

So unless something radical happens in the next few days, I’d say 2008 was a pretty good year of work and rewards for my work. There are some plans germinating for 2009, and these I will talk about soon. For now, we continue to work.