Wow, going to SFSU is always like a reunion. I was there yesterday to present my work within the context of history and expanding community, to Oscar Peñaranda’s Fil Am Lit class, and as per my usual M.O. these days (teaching Filipino American Arts with sign language interpreters in the classroom will make you rethink how you transmit information and how you translate), I had a power point presentation of ~60 slides all ready to go. I love that the first person I saw on campus was Ben Kobashigawa, and then Larry Salomon, both professors in the Ethnic Studies Department, a tad inquisitive about what I was doing back on campus.
Anyway. Some highlights include contrasting Rudyard Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden” (1899) and Carlos Bulosan’s “If You Want to Know What We Are” (1940), which, along with “I Want the Wide American Earth,” I firmly believe places Bulosan in the tradition of Whitman. Now I didn’t know this until I read it on the Fordham University Modern History Sourcebook, but Kipling had written “White Man’s Burden” specifically as a response to the Spanish American War and the USA acquiring the Philippines, a colony populated by the “sullen peoples / half-devil and half-child.” I’d originally thought Kipling wrote the poem as a general statement about how the civilized suffer and sacrifice in order to civilize the rest of us.Yeah, they’re the ones who sacrifice. Fucking missionaries.
I figured that if the questions are, “Who is writing about us, how are we being written about, and to whom?” contrasted against, “How are we writing about ourselves, and to whom are we speaking?” then discussing those two poems was a good place to start. Other key questions:
- Are there Filipino American literary traditions? What are they?
- In what American literary traditions have Filipino Americans been writing? (If Filipinos were only introduced to English ~1898, then where/from whom did we learn to write adeptly?)
In discussing Jaime Jacinto’s poem, “Just Before Waking,” we were able to discuss not only the history of Fil Am laborers and the I-Hotel, and Al Robles’s community and poetic work of keeping those stories as work against forgetting and erasure, but also poetic tone, and that waking/dream state referenced in the poem’s title. That place, deep in the subconscious, is where these memories reside.
I talked a little bit about Jose Garcia Villa, his manifesto on reverse consonance rhyme, his marginal inclusion in modernist circles, some Philippine literary criticism of Have Come, Am Here as “effete,” and “bloodless.” From there, the questioning of country and the emergence of Doveglion, the comma poem, then into Catalina Cariaga’s “Ten Twenty-Six.” Reading this poem aloud to the class was laborious, as was their hearing of it, and some students were able to articulate some idea of why this poem was written this way, and why it was necessarily difficult. I always look forward to discussing “avant-garde” Filipino American poetry; at least on the surface, Fil Am students are open to the idea that learning as many ways of telling our story as possible is a good thing.
Let me skip forward. The true highlight of yesterday’s visit was the writing exercises and the students bravely sharing their brand spakin’ new work: (1) writing the “we” poem after my “We, Spoken Here” (“We, Malakas and Maganda…”) and/or Bulosan’s “If You Want to Know What We Are,” and (2) writing the “No, I am not” poem, modeled after Bob Kaufman’s “I, Too, Know What I am Not.” On Kaufman’s poem, I was thinking that it’s almost impossible not to write with a tone of defiance. “No, I am not a gang member.” “No, I am not your side dish.” “No, I am not your maid.”
I want to end this with something Larry Salomon and I were discussing, whether we as politicized educators (and in my case, politicized artist) live in a bubble. We exchanged experiences dealing with colleagues, in which the political, any notion of political, is just so divorced, so consciously absent from the work, of teaching 20th century American history, for example. I just can’t conceive of this.
I realize more and more I actively buffer myself from having to deal regularly with poets for whom political poetry is either distasteful or overly abstract. I told him that for me, even the act of publishing itself is a political act, and he agreed with me, though I wonder if this is also abstract, though a Pinay-authored book in the hands of many is visible and concrete. Certainly, there are more “rigid” definitions of “political,” that entail actual “social change” (though, how do you quantify this, and can’t we say that over time, artists do indeed change the collective consciousness), or that equate political poetry with protest poetry.
OK, here is my April:
- 04/02: Transnational American Studies Working Group poetics panel at UC Berkeley with Javier O. Huerta and others.
- 04/10: AWP panel, “Poets in the World: Building Diverse Communities through Independent Poetry Centers, Blogs, and Radio” with Camille Norton, Oscar Bermeo, Jan Beatty, Tim Kahl, Susan Kelly-DeWitt.
- 04/22: Identities and Influence: A Panel of Emerging Asian American Writers at USF’s Lone Mountain Reading Series with Anita Amirrezvani, Kathryn Ma, and Shawna Yang Ryan, moderated by Marianne Villanueva.