I've been forced recently to consider how the use of ethnicity as an adjective can be problematic because it opens the way for others to exclude someone from the definition. I've been thinking further about the irony of that exclusion coming from the inside, rather than from the outside, of a particular ethnic group.
This person apparently does not consider my work "Filipino poetry" and that, in fact (as if it were a horrible thing) I am a "language poet."
In 1999 I moved from New York City to San Francisco (and St. Helena), CA. I immediately appreciated the presence of so many Filipinos in the Bay Area, CA, the largest Filipino population to surround me since I immigrated from the Philippines. The move facilitated my focus on promoting Filipino literature; while in New York, I had been active in the more general Asian American literary community. The releases of my edited books, The Anchored Angel: Selected Writings by Jose Garcia Villa and Babaylan: An Anthology of Filipina and Filipina-American Women Writers (co-edited with Nick Carbo) coincided with my move and also provided ample reasons for me to meet many of the local Filipino literati. I was blessed by their welcome.
Fast forward three years. I hear through the grapevine that a Filipino editor of a Bay Area-based Filipino literary journal was discussing my work. This person apparently does not consider my work "Filipino poetry" and that, in fact (as if it were a horrible thing) I am a "language poet." I believe this person meant to dismiss (many of) my poems for how their focus does not privilege meaning. One result is that many of my poems are written to evoke an emotion without me, as author, specifying the nature of that hoped-for emotion; this has meant that these poems are not necessarily addressing particular topics but are more interested in combining words to generate some sort of energy. Occasionally, my poems have been called "abstract."
Given my obvious public interest in Filipino literature (I even published my first poetry collection in the Philippines in 1998, partly to challenge the "colonial mentality" of privileging publication in the West), I was astonished that I could be charged with not writing "Filipino poetry." I now realize, however, that the person was probably questioning why I do not write the kind of poems many Bay Area-based Filipino poets have written. Actually, I don't write the kind of poems many poets (Filipino or not) have written but, more specific to this issue, this person was contrasting my work to the area's poetic history. This is a poetry described to me by a long-time Bay Area resident poet as poetry rooted in cultural activism, hence the creation of poems that not only are narrative but, indeed, sometimes "journalistic. "
...it took theorists decades to understand that the disruption of poetic form can be as valid a way to agitate or activate as narrative poetry non-elliptically bemoaning racism and other abuses.
Recently, in anticipation of a special issue dedicated to Filipino literature to be published by MELUS: The Society for the Study of Multi-Ethnic Literature in the United States, I also shared a discussion with other poets and critics about various ways of viewing poetry. At one point, I noted that it took theorists decades to understand that the disruption of poetic form can be as valid a way to agitate or activate as narrative poetry non-elliptically bemoaning racism and other abuses.
For example, in the issue of INTERLOPE #8: INNOVATIVE WRITING BY FILIPINO/A AMERICANS (for more information see http://www.interlope.org/issue8writers.html), Nick Carbo offers what he calls "Cube Dice Poems." One poem is comprised of the lines:
Kiss along the ochre edge
Take your half of my soul
Obsidian songs sliding along your neck
An apple, an ankle, a tickle touch
I found your fragmented forgiveness under the bed
Verdigris is how I feel your shadow
The poem is a "cube dice poem" because each line is featured within a square. Squares form a pattern on the page that the reader can cut out and, using tape, use to form a cube. The reader then can roll the paper cube and each time, a different square, i.e. a different line, would end up facing upward. Carbo explains, "Roll the cube as you would a die. Repeat rolling and write down lines that are facing up. Keep rolling until you get all combinations (if you so desire)."
This means that there can be a large number of poems, even if their material is the same six lines, depending on the roll of the die and the reader's decision on how many times to roll it. While the six lines themselves do not seem political in any way, Carbo's approach to this poem is, indeed, political! It laughs (well, giggles) at the literary canon! It subverts the traditional approaches to how the poem is taught, read and written! It is not a coincidence that someone who engages in this approach is a Filipino poet who is aware of English's background as a colonizing tool used by the U.S. in the Philippines.
Let us not limit the Filipino artist to any particular mode just because it might serve a temporal political purpose. Would not such self-victimization be the greatest victimization of all?
It seems like such a basic idea but I find that I keep having to make this point in a variety of settings and contexts: art and poetry can be created in a multiplicity of ways. Let us not limit the Filipino artist to any particular mode just because it might serve a temporal political purpose. Would not such self-victimization be the greatest victimization of all?
For a related discussion on this issue involving African American poetics, I recommend the June-July 2002 online interview on Harryette Mullen (HM) available on the "Poets On Poetry" website (see http://www.writenet.org/poetschat/poetschat.html). The interview was conducted by Daniel Kane (DK) and partly addresses how Mullen's book Sleeping With the Dictionary can be read as lacking allusions to race. Here is an excerpt:
DK: You say that you're interested in "the interaction of language and identity in poetry," and that "this is evident in all of my work." Muse & Drudge alludes to a recognizably African-American history on every page, while your most recent book Sleeping with the Dictionary is not so consistently "raced." I wonder if your choice to use word games and Oulipo-inspired procedures to compose poems in Sleeping with the Dictionary was made to enhance the very constructedness of racial identity and to complicate a potentially limiting sense of Harryette Mullen as "African-American poet." That is, are these kinds of language games a way of undermining identity and associating oneself with a kind of cosmopolitanism in distinction to a regionalist voice?
...I don't know if I'm undermining identity so much as continually rewriting and revising it.
HM: Well, I thought I was working "beyond category" (as Ellington said of his compositions that mix jazz and classical influences) in [
] Muse & Drudge. A few of the poems in Sleeping with the Dictionary are older than Muse & Drudge. As language and identity come together in the work, a concern with collective experience and cultural representation may be more evident in some poems, while wordplay and poetic experiment are more conspicuous in others. I don't know if I'm undermining identity so much as continually rewriting and revising it.
Exactly. Not "undermining identity so much as continually rewriting and revising it." Oulipo stands for the Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, or Workshop of Potential Literature, a group of writers and mathematicians whose members include Raymond Queneau, François Le Lionnais, Claude Berge, Georges Perec, and Italo Calvino. Just as Mullen uses Oulipo's constraint-based technique to make poems, I often use visual art techniques to write poems; similarly, Bay Area poet Jean Gier reflects the internet's influence to write some of her recent work (see http://www.geocities.com/gier99/nightjar2.html). Since I do believe that a poet's opinion on his or her own work (including mine on my poems) is obviously biased, let me share an excerpt from a review of my book MY ROMANCE (Giraffe Books, 2002) by critic Thomas Fink (and I also share this because, notwithstanding what I say about my work, I am not blind to the fact that many people consider my work "inaccessible"):
"Form has political relevance in Tabios's poetics.... Seeking 'to avoid narrative because it had facilitated the use of English to consolidate American colonialism in the Philippines'-her native land-as 'the language for education, commerce, and politics,' she favors 'abstract' collagistic construction 'to subvert meaning.'...Poems...abound with plural meanings, juxtaposing erotic adventure, aesthetic speculation, and awareness of power relations. Perspective is ever questioned: 'Who is subject and who is observer?/ . . . . What if the observer is the controlling agent?' ... Thus, she foregrounds postcolonial emphases on the relation of language, economics, eros, and 'othering'."
One can honor, as I do, the history of Bay Area political activism and how it was reflected in its poetry. But respect for that history need not mean imitating the form of the poems written during those times. Poetry is not static and need not be stuck in derivation. Thus, a Bay Area home-grown poet like Barbara Jane Reyes can create a prose poem like "Tenderly" (which appears in Reyes' first poetry collection, Gravities of Center, to be published in 2003 by Arkipelago Books):
what divides you down your center what sets you reeling into blissfulness what shatters you irreparably what is your flow to where inside your body do you recoil during full moons who will remind you to restore the shards of you to wholeness when everyone has been driven away and if these shards of you could speak would they tell you they would rather not be restored in what fractured language do you dream when you sleep alone
i have been tenderly cautioned memory is retained in my hair now flowing in heavy black cascades below my diminishing waistline i have been warned i must take care to worship and guard memory fiercely for even the most comfortless of these have given me flight
... ('what divides you down your center," "fractured language" and so on certainly can denote the Filipino diasporic experience without alluding specifically to particular events that comprise journalistic narratives).
Notwithstanding its deliberate indirectness, I hope that the "Filipino"-ness of this poem is evident ('what divides you down your center," "fractured language" and so on certainly can denote the Filipino diasporic experience without alluding specifically to particular events that comprise journalistic narratives). Moreover, its form that obviates the use of the period may be considered, like Carbo's, to be a manner of questioning the unfolding of the English language which, when "Filipinized" as an issue, is a matter that inevitably hearkens back to English's imperialistic history in the Philippines. But let me also offer Reyes' own views on this form:
"The lack of line breaks and punctuation is strongly influenced by the poems in Dust and Conscience by truong tran. There are multiple ways to read and think about 'Tenderly'; in other words there is no one right way to read this or any poem. I think that the lack of punctuation is appropriate for the poem because the poem offers no answers for any of the questions posed. The questions posed in the poem are also unclear and hence unanswerable. The lack of line breaks is to facilitate the continuity of the flow. I don't want the reader to have any resting places as the poem builds up and pulls the reader in. Even the break before the 2nd verse paragraph, I do not believe, offers any kind of reprieve even though it cuts the flow and introduces to the reader a 'new' rhythm or 'flow.' This 2nd verse paragraph may be seen as a response to the 1st verse paragraph's barrage of questions. But it doesn't provide any answers as much as compound the uncertainty."
To be so narrow-minded about our artists' multiplicity of approaches would certainly imply how little we have learned from our own history of being perceived as, and suffering from that perception of being, "Other."
Synchronistically, Truong Tran is a former refugee from Vietnam and postcolonial writer; the development of his own poetic form certainly reflects the backdrop of his experiences. Whether one chooses to read Reyes' poem in the manner she intended (of facilitating "uncertainty," a not unfamiliar element for the diasporic), her well-considered approach warrants respect. Jaime Jacinto, whose poetry and "Bay Area" credentials are unassailable, has noted that Reyes writes poems differently from her Bay Area poet-predecessors. Yet Jacinto obviously is not being dismissive. Like Jacinto, we should be accepting of differences among our community-including our community's aesthetic approaches. To be so narrow-minded about our artists' multiplicity of approaches would certainly imply how little we have learned from our own history of being perceived as, and suffering from that perception of being, "Other."
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