The UCSB Filipino American student organization, Kapatirang Pilipino (KP), were such awesome young folks who took such good care of me. And I actually worried I wouldn’t be able to offer them anything valuable for all their time and effort. There really is only so much you can do in one hour of poetry workshop. I tend to want to give so much background that it really does take ~15 weeks to unravel everything I mean to say.
I’ve been told by some that in poetry workshops taught by poets of some level of renown, you wish for more engagement with texts rather than abundant time to free write. Anyway, I do try to have space for both. That said, I was able to discuss to some extent the music of the poetic line, and the orality of a good musical line, and how poetic form is a container for this music and a way to organize “expression” in order to commit to memory, and in order to drive the narrative forward.
And since the term, “spoken word” was coming up everywhere I was speaking at UCSB, I got to the point that I was saying to students:
That line between spoken word and poetry – erase it. It’s the same thing.
Poetry has always existed in human cultures, and its many musics are culturally and geographically specific, and based upon orality and performance. I know folks also make the distinction between orature and literature, but I am not going to make that distinction because some measure of value invariably gets attached to either term.
We discussed Nellie Wong’s pantoum, “Grandmother’s Song,” for what the progression and repetition of lines accomplishes within this metrically consistent poem. We discussed the shift from the golden pomelo days to peeling shrimp for pennies a day, working in the mud and the erosion of tradition, etc. That shift just kind of sneaks up on us, and so as readers, what do we do with this? As poets, especially poets wanting to write politically relevant work, how can we make these devices useful to us?
What I asked the students to write was based off Huu Thinh’s “Asking,” and Oscar Bermeo’s “I’m Jus Askin”; questions that they want answered, questions whose answers they haven’t been satisfied with hearing, rearticulations of these questions aimed at/indicting different parties, each question its own line. And then to go about either answering those questions, or to write lines that are reasons why they are asking those questions. Given that each of the sample poems are written from culturally, historically, geographically specific spaces, what are our specifics? I told them to throw conventional grammar to the curb and just write lines. What came out of this free write was defiant, pointed, philosophical/lofty as well as concrete and practical.
We ended with a pretty hefty conversation regarding R. Zamora Linmark’s “They Like You Because You Eat Dog,” which, even when fully aware of the poet’s use of irony, is still a tough read: worshipers of blue passports, machine gunning your own kind, unable to fill out an application form. It elicits all kinds of questions of colonial mentality, self-hatred, economic necessity, and perceived cultural and moral deficiency, given the power relationship between the “they,” those of the dominant American culture, and the “you,” the allegedly colonized Filipino. Even the sentences’ grammar places the “they” in the power position (the viewer and doer) and the “you” in the viewed, receiving position. “They like you because,” “They like you because,” over and over again is relentless, until the final line when the refrain ends and the, “when the time comes [that you are more and more like them], will they like you more?”
I asked the students what their poetic responses would be to this poem. Some possibilities they brought up: Changing the sentences’ grammar so that the “you” is no longer in the viewed, receiving position. Responding to each indictment without irony but with a pointed message of we do these things to survive and you don’t have to like me/us. In this way too, I see how “they” become “you,” and the Filipino becomes the “we/us,” taking front and center.
OK. That’s what I got for now, and I do hope that the students have gotten the message that thoughtfully composed poetry with structural integrity can be a very pointed weapon.