"Poem Tree" is modeled after a rite in Filipino and Latino weddings wherein guests pin money on the bride's and groom's outfits. The ritual symbolizes how guests offer financial aid to the couple beginning a new life together. For "Poem Tree," poems are pinned onto the dress to symbolize how poetry, too, feeds the world.
To reflect my belief that a poem transcends its author's autobiography, the performance uses my dress to reflect my "I" in the poem, but a different poet wears it to symbolize how the poem transcends the author's autobiography. Further expanding on how a poem's persona is more than just its author's, the poems used during the happenings were written by other poets. During 2001-2002, I sent out an open call for poems. Over 100 poets representing 13 countries and about half of the U.S. states responded, mostly through e-mail. I printed out the poems; then, from the print-out I cut out sections along the same dimension as a Filipino peso (to reflect the cultural origin of the ritual). During the happenings, audience members pinned my dress with the peso-sized segments that featured the titles and authors of each poem. As wedding souvenirs, they retained the portions of the pages that featured the poems; indeed, I hope that many of the poems written for "Poem Tree" are now hanging against refrigerator doors throughout the Bay Area.
Consequently, "Poem Tree" also integrates the world into its poetic self through the audience's participation. I consider the audience's role to be a metaphor for the kind of proactive engagement that I hope also occurs when a reader psychologically invests one's self in the act of reading and experiencing a poem. I believe this interaction is important because I feel that it is the reader (or audience) of the poem, not its author, who finishes or completes the poem.
At Pusod, Six Directions Brides Dori Caminong and Barbara Reyes in wedding outfits. The yellow pieces of paper are some of the poems pinned during the "Poem-Tree" happening. (Photo by Mike Price)
As with everything I try to do as a poet, "Poem Tree" contains the sub-text of promoting poetry by encouraging people to engage with poetry. Recently, I wrote to friends (and, with this article, make this same suggestion now to OurOwnVoice's readership): "One pins poems, not just money, on a newly-wed couple's wedding outfits because Poetry, too, is a source of sustenance. If some of your friends get married and their festivities include this rite, you might bring poems to pin on their outfits! Poetry is not just to be read and written but also to be lived!"
I was delighted to hear almost immediately after circulating my suggestion that it will be used in a forthcoming wedding. This result, along with others having shared that "Poem Tree" caused them to look at poetry in a new way (or even pay attention to poetry for the first time), reflects my desire to expand poetry's involvement in people's lives. It is part of a cultural activism I practice because, as the Danish poet Paul la Cour once said, "Being a poet is not writing a poem but finding a new way to live."
Relatedly, the interactive aspect of "Poem Tree" also reflects my poetics as one of interconnectedness; I believe in reaching out to others through poems. I would come to be blessed when a poet I met because he shared a poem for "Poem Tree" ended up introducing me to the publisher of my latest book, Reproductions of the Empty Flagpole (Marsh Hawk Press, New York, 2002). Poetry, too, has taught me just how karmic it is: when you take care of poetry, poetry will take care of you.
For the Pusod exhibit, artist Mareafatima Urbi created a poster featuring her interpretation of the Six Directions concepts. (Photo from author's files)
Six Directions began also because I was trying to create a poem in a new way. For years, I had written "abstract" poetry (such as many featured in Reproductions of the Empty Flagpole) as a way to avoid traditional narrative poems. This relates to how English was used as a colonialist tool in the Philippines; it is a history that has made me reluctant to rely on narrative in my poems because, for me, narrative evoked how English as a communications tool served the expansion of American imperialism in the Philippines.
In 2001, however, I wanted to try something different than abstract poetry, and yet didn't wish to fall back on narrative. This resulted in my creation of about a dozen mixed-media sculptures whose processes engendered verse-poems. Because I consider myself a poet (not a sculptor), this process only worked for me if, ultimately, verse-poems resulted which, if published, could stand on their own as text on page. Happily, some poems since have been chosen for publication by editors who read them as texts, not in terms of their backgrounds as sculpted poems (some examples available on the internet are the poems "The World is Yours" in ShampooPoetry #11 in www.Shampoopoetry.com, and the poem "Dear Daddy" in xStream #0 (http://xstream.xpressed.org/issue0.html).
Unexpectedly, the sculpting process made me focus for the first time on working with physical material. As a writer working mostly with imagination and words, I experienced a pleasurable frisson in feeling the tangibility of the found materials that made their way into my sculptures (e.g. old coasters, used magazines, ribbons, used cardboard and so on). The sculpting process for Six Directions created a simmer in my belly, similar to the physical effect that I often feel when I can feel myself successfully chasing down a poem into a verse. I, therefore, decided to try my own hand at working as a visual artist. I hadn't planned to go this route, but I allowed myself to follow the impulse as I realized that this opening manifested what is also wonderful about all Art and Poetry: that is, how they can lead its maker and viewer/reader into new experiences.
I began by simply trying to draw. Because I was new at this, I didn't have any drawing-related materials like sketching pads. I began by drawing on what was available to me: brown paper bags that were piling up in my kitchen. I also appreciated the use of the paper bags because they are found objects. As with the found material that comprised my earlier sculptures, the inclusion of found objects symbolize how I integrate (elements of) the world into my work. The paper bags came to form a visual art installation, "The Brown Paper Bag Series," consisting of 19 paper bag drawings hung together as a group. The installation also includes a portrait painted of me by Venancio "V.C." Igarta. The painting by the leading artist from the Manong Generation served to extend the idea of using a "found" object (it's a portrait of me but not a self-portrait) to symbolize my "I" within the installation that I still considered another way of manifesting a poem.