Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Interview with Barbara Jane Reyes and Paolo Javier by Eileen Tabios

We've known each other for some years--I met you both before either of you came out with your first poetry collections, and now we're having a discussion at a time when you're coming out with second poetry books! I’ve admired what I’ve witnessed in terms of your growths as persons and poets. You're both helping to prove my 1990s projection that the 21st century will be the century for a real blossoming of Filipino English-language poetry.

Let me first share the titles of your first poetry books, both of which were released not that long ago: GRAVITIES OF CENTER by Barbara Jane Reyes (Arkipelago Books, 2003) and Paolo Javier’s the time at the end of this writing (Ahadada Books, 2004). I want to note, too, that Barbara’s first publisher is a grass-roots “Filipino” press as I believe that this has some significance in the historically difficult dissemination of Filipino/Filipino-American literature. Let's start with some information about your second books.

My second book is poeta en san francisco (Tinfish Press, Fall 2005). [Editor’s Note: while the interview was being conducted, the Academy of American Poets announced that poeta en san francisco has received its James Laughlin Award.]

poeta en san francisco is a long poem consisting of many segments/fragments/movements. I am interested in the long poem because I am interested in building, and in cycle, and in a structure which is spiderwebbish, subjective, fortified, and perhaps orderly, perhaps not.

I began writing this after reading Federico Garcia Lorca's Poeta en Nueva York, in which he portrayed a surreal, spiritual, tender, and realistically violent American urban center.

I was reading Alejandro Murguía, whose This War Called Love opened my eyes even wider to the beautiful and malodorous city of angry, self-destructive, and luminous folk seething and bustling around me, whose "16th & Valencia" gave me the epigraph I needed to dive into an "epic poem" on this, the city I have claimed as mine. Ever feel like you've needed permission? Ever feel like blessing the earth upon which the one who's granted you this permission stands?

Using Alejandro Murguía’s poem, “16th & Valencia,” as my jumping off point, I decided to reexamine San Francisco, for I was raised and educated in the SF Bay Area, the child of Philippine immigrants. I soon discovered my being in this city, my family's transplanting here, had everything to do with its geographic hence historical position in relation to the Pacific Islands and Asia, where Manifest Destiny continued in the forms of wars of conquest.

Additionally, because of my upbringing not only in a multilingual family, but in a multilingual SF area, I have brought these elements into poeta en san francisco, where not only do I code switch, racial slur, and pray, but also introduce writing in the Tagalog alphabet, which was pushed out of use and common knowledge by centuries of Spanish presence, religion, etc. in the Philippines.

First of all, thank you, Eileen, for taking an interest in my new book. It's called '60 lv bo(e)mbs', the first of (what I project to be) seven cycles, & will be published in mid September by O Books. I spent a good three years generating the bo(e)mbs of this first cycle, & spent pretty much the extent of fall 2004/spring 2005 shaping the book into its final form.

My inspiration for writing the book was simple--I wanted to write a long poem. It just felt right to make such an attempt; I was in the midst of completing my first poetry book, which was a 'collection' in the true sense of the word, & I felt like I needed to move onto a work that was more sustained, yet grander, vaster in its scope & ambitions.

I wanted the work to be generative, & I decided to generate the first few bo(e)mbs (not the first set in the present book) through a homophonic & homovisual, or "sensorial" (to borrow poet Bruna Mori's beautiful term), translation of Neruda's Spanish in 'Veinte Poemas de Amor'. (Actually, I think you, Eileen, published a few of these (3) in an issue of Interlope that you edited a few years ago.)

For both of you, the manuscripts for your second books were written while you were finishing your MFA's? Please discuss the context of writing the manuscript within the MFA environment--for instance, I sense that the works were written theme-based, versus as individual poems that later got collected into a book form? And any other MFA-related details you might want to share?

Yes, an early draft of the entire cycle made up my MFA Thesis at Bard College. I actually conceived of '60 lv...' even before I began grad school in 2002, as early as the fall of 2000.

I have to tell you, though, that during such a period, both my work & presence were met with resistance & treated with ignorance by the majority of Bard's community of faculty & student body. With the exception of the few (such as Leslie Scalapino who would become my publisher through O Books), I don't remember benefiting greatly from any input from or interaction with the rest of the MFA community. That might sound a bit extreme but it's true--ask anyone who stood by my side & they'll tell you the same exact thing about my experience. It got so bad that by the end of my first semester I had to turn to the administration of Arthur Gibbons (the MFA Director) for intervention, & you know what they told me?

"We feel that it's best if you deal with it yourself".

Those are his assistant's exact words.

Yes, poeta en san francisco was my MFA thesis. That said, I worked for maybe three semesters with Stacy Doris, in the context of MFA workshop as well as in one-on-one directed writing. This meant the writing of poeta en san francisco had good continuity. Stacy knew the work quite thoroughly and had great insight into my poetic, political, historical concerns. I do not remember now when the project became a long poem, versus a compilation or collection of individual works. I suspect this has something to do with the protracted burst of energy and continuity of mentorship, and that I had this space to work out my concerns, really give them dimension. It came to the point that even poems I'd written discreetly were finding their way into this project. I was terribly, terribly inhabited by it.

In terms of my colleagues, those who provided critical input in the context of MFA workshop, there was continuity as well from one semester to the next, and some of my colleagues also developed a good, keen eye for my aesthetics, my formalistic concerns. But I was aware there was a large gap between me and many of my colleagues. And this gap I can perhaps attribute to, again, political and historical concerns, language and cultural differences. They had to figure out where their entry points were, and so rather than my taking this as unfortunate, I really took to heart their struggles with the work. They knew from the onset, given my previous poetic statements, that I would refuse any requests to self-anthropologize, to accommodate ethnic curiosities. Their responses and reactions, the resistance of some to my refusal also informed my work.

What I am really saying here: in classrooms full of a majority of white folks with little to no experience with post-colonial and ethnic studies, with literary traditions of people of color in America, in classrooms full of a majority of white folks who held a certain reverence for the great Modernists (some of whom I indict as Orientalists in my work), I was learning a certain fineness of language and form such that typical resistance towards, say, the militant, angry woman of color stereotype, the oppressed minority stereotype was generally thwarted. My second MFA thesis reader was Benito Vergara, who is a professor in Asian American Studies and Anthropology, also at San Francisco State University. He is also Pilipino American, speaks Tagalog, has written extensively on representation, exhibition of subjects of empire, and notions of authenticity, and shares with me a common obsession for Apocalypse Now. So where the gaps of historical, cultural and linguistic knowledge existed between Stacy, my colleagues, and me, Professor Vergara’s critical input was crucial in more ways than I think I can articulate.

Barbara, I’m not sure I understand what you mean by “fineness of form”. And how would that relate, if it does, to what I thought was a receptivity at the SF State poetry community to experimentalism (for lack of a better way to put it), since aspects of your manuscript clearly indicate the experimental tendency.

Regarding "fineness of form," and other poetic concerns, certainly "experimenting" is a big part of it. But let me first say that what I meant was my consideration for the line, where to break this, what to enjamb, and why. My consideration for the sonnet, the stanza, the prose poem. My consideration for the page, how is it to function, as a clean sub-unit of the larger, long poem. My consideration for metaphor, for image, especially those in recurrence, personae, the "I" in its multiplicity. My consideration for speaking in multiple registers. How am I going to make all these things work, I mean, really work. I suppose that is what "experimentation" is? If I do [this thing] will what I say be more or less clear, forceful, subtle, etc.

Contrast some well worked metaphor contained and broken within some well worked lines and pages against a straight up, didactic, stereotypical, "My people have been oppressed and it's all The Man's fault cuz he is a racist."

Which would you be more open to reading? And to which would you be more open to listening?

OK, now let me address the more conventional notion of "experimental" as it appears in my work. I think that the "new" section of poeta en san francisco, which incorporates the untranslatable elements, the baybayin, and the dictionary definition form, may be the most "experimental" thing there? I can tell you my colleagues were confounded by this, and not necessarily pleasantly. More so, they encountered this text blankly, thwarted at most entry points they could imagine. And this is in a MFA program that I am told apparently embraces the "experimental."

Then, Barbara, how about some thoughts as regards your book receiving the Academy’s James Laughlin Award. And I’m specifically curious about you feel about how poeta en san franciso, with its particular concerns that you have experienced to generate conflicted responses, will be contextualized as a recipient of such an award.

I do not know now, if it was resignation, or what, when I convinced myself that poeta en san francisco would be an obscure piece of work. Certainly, there are many who believe in the relative obscurity of poetry, irrespective of its aesthetics or issues of (in)accessibility.

One thing Stacy Doris and I have discussed was the (pro)active process of creating an audience, given that the one for whom I write may not yet exist. I honestly did not know, and I still really do not know, how my work is to be received by various communities. I worry that my tendency towards, as you say, the "experimental," and to the academic, may be alienating to my SF Bay Area Pilipino American poetry community, who, for the most part, have operated in the performative, the oral tradition, the vernacular. Those who claim some kind of lineage to Carlos Bulosan and Al Robles, working class, masculine, grassroots, which sometimes (not always) tends towards a blanket rejection of the "experimental poet," the institutional "MFA poet," the poet affirmed by the Academy, those whose work does not fall into the conventions our community has set up for itself (and I do not list these to be disparaging): ethnic identity, Hiphop, political diatribe, nostalgia for the homeland.

Certainly, the Laughlin Award is a major affirmation from the Academy, an indication to me that there are individuals and institutions who are open, and that the audience which Stacy and I discuss is truly in a process of creation.

Still, I don't know if this affirmation can tell me how poeta en san francisco will be reviewed by Pilipino American, Asian American, and mainstream media, and does the Academy's affirmation determine how my own community will accept my work? I suppose I am hoping any criticisms poeta en san francisco receives will be thoroughly considered and thought out, and not a result of knee jerk reactions to its most volatile elements.

You both incorporate translations in your work. Tell me generally how you consider translation. Then please describe your use of translation in your books.

I already mentioned how I wanted to write a cycle that would be generative, creating a field wherein, & out of which, the completion of one poem helps to generate the writing of the next.

I also wanted to write a cycle of poems that would confront my Pilipino past of Spanish & American imperialism. I wanted to write a cycle of poems that would complicate my lingual reality of living & writing as an immigrant poet in the U.S. -- 'the master's house', as a writer-friend of mine eloquently puts it.

I decided I would generate a suite poems early in the writing of '60 lv bo(e)mbs' through a phonic & visual translation of the original Spanish of Neruda's work. During friar rule in the Philippines, a method of homophonic translation called "fishing" was used during the church sermons by the uneducated, non-Spanish speaking native congregations

"for whom the priest's words rouse in [them] other thoughts that have only the most tenuous connections to what he is actually saying.It is as if they saw other possibilities in those words, possibilities that served to mitigate the interminable verbal assaults being hurled from the pulpit. To the extent that such random possibilities occur, the native listeners manage to find another place from which to confront colonial authority." (Vicente Rafael, Contracting Colonialism)

For my new cycle, I fished out discrete words & phrases from Neruda's Spanish in 'Veinte Poemas De Amor', then re-combined/configured these.

Why Neruda?

I remember as a college undergrad how I would take my dog-eared copy of WS Merwin's translation of Neruda's book everywhere I traveled, luxuriating in the poet's vision of eros while remaining (blindly) uncritical of its overt objectification of the female.

& this complication troubled me.

I'm going to skim the surface of Walter Benjamin's "The Task of the Translator," only so that I can say there is a certain responsibility which comes with being the one who takes work from its original context and brings it into a completely new context. It is the translator who determines the rules by which s/he recontextualizes this work, whether to remain true or as true as possible to the writer's intentions, or to remix it in order for a new audience to access it. I cannot say what each translator decides s/he will do with the text in question, nor can I judge what is "correct," or "right."

That said, I "experiment" with recontextualizing Ezra Pound, setting up and using perhaps an unfair set of rules -- homophonic translation from Roman characters into Baybayin (pre-Hispanic Tagalog script). I did this in order to see what remains of the original, though we know this “original” is a "translation" of Li Po.

I "translate" Cavalcanti homophonically, with the primary concern of retaining the form, rhythm, and rhyme scheme. My secondary concern was that of “meaning.”

And finally, I translate one of my own Tagalog pieces into Baybayin script. I suppose only readers of both modern Tagalog and Baybayin would be able to discern whether the translation bears any resemblance to the original. Otherwise, the reader would have to trust me when I say much of the sound and meaning remain intact.

Any other significance(s) that you haven’t yet addressed as regards the use of homophonic translations vs meaning-based translations?

What especially interests me about homophonic translation is this feeling of mimicry. As a non-native English speaker, I believe this mimicry is a large part of the process by which we come into American English. I do not think this has as much to do with "meaning" as it does with that process of getting your tongue and mouth to pronounce those sounds. And then, the subversions which arise from disregarding and/or discarding set meanings and usage conventions.

Barbara, I’ll ask one more translation-related question to you as your manuscript also contains the Tagalog script of Baybayin--which is not dependent on Roman letters (click on link to see specifically the "Baybayin Lopez" information). So when you read (or anticipate reading) out loud your poems, how do you read the sections in Baybayin? Is that to be via the Baybayin way of pronounciation?

I believe not all poetry is necessarily read aloud. This section you reference would be an example of poetry not necessarily read aloud. I believe it can exist solely on the page as a visual experience, and then perhaps an "intellectual" experience, a "what is the poet trying to do here and why" experience.

You mean like visual poetry?

Well, I do not mean "visual poetry" as much as I mean visual experience, given that it is a language incomprehensible to Westerners--I think beyond it being incomprehensible, as say, Chinese characters to Westerners, it is also unrecognizable.

In addition to translations, both of you use Filipino (and other non-English) terms in your manuscripts. Are you providing footnotes? Why/why not? Or, if there are footnotes but not as "extensive" as might have been anticipated by a reader, how come only "limited" footnotes--what was that thought process?

No, I provide no footnotes. In my first book, Gravities of Center, Eileen, you noted the absence of footnotes and glossary; these, I believe are typically expected of non-Western cultural, linguistic, and historical reference, as if these are in essence obscure (and not obscured), and as if I am meant to play some kind of ambassadorial role.

Certainly, poets do play the role of cultural representative. Edmond Jabes wrote, "Always in a foreign country, the poet uses poetry as an interpreter." This I agree with, wholeheartedly. But it is the position I hold as a "minority" poet, a Pilipina poet in America, which I don't care to overexplain in my poetic work. I do not care to be didactic, ethnographic, and especially apologist.

I’m going senile and so I’m just going to refresh my memory as to what I’d said in the Introduction to Barbara’s Gravities of Center. [Interviewer reads said Introduction] Oh yes, I do say this:

…to experience Barbara’s poems is to learn about the specifics of a Pilipina’s experience. And it is also to experience the ‘universality’ of desire and loss – that is, despite the consistency of losses, the stubbornness of never-ending desire. You need not be ‘Pilipino/a’ (or even “Filipino/a”) to connect with Barbara’s poems. But by engaging us all in the poetry of Desire, you need to be as present as Barbara is in her poems. So enter these poems and stay a while. Think. (Research those F/Pilipino/a references, just as you are asked to research French, Greek and other European references in poems that more likely comprise the literary canon.)

I have to say I’m grinning now as I’m recalling how, when I wrote the introduction to your first book, I considered the baggage associated with the notion of “universality” in poetry--and nonetheless used the term deliberately because I ultimately was interested in suggesting that your work that so clearly addresses the Filipino experience can be relevant to non-Filipinos….Anyway, Paolo--your thoughts on footnotes?

A high-ranking member of Bard's writing faculty suggested rather casually once that I italicize the Pilipino in my work, as it "traditionally" comprised the "secondary language" of a poem written primarily in English. Obviously I was insulted, not only for her Eurocentricity but breezy air of colonial authority.

Well, I feel the same way about the inclusion of footnotes or a glossary in a text that features non-European languages &/or references. I especially cringe at writing that incorporates a "secondary" language in the text, only to translate its words or phrases, a clause or a line after they first appear, into English. Why bother to include it, then, if you're only gonna sanitize it with a "primary language"?

I also find it a tad condescending for the writer to presume that her/his audience or readership would require such a coding system. How do I know that the majority of the people who read '60 lv bo(e)mbs' do not understand Pilipino already? Furthermore, how can I be sure that they care either way?

Thankfully, both of my publishers (Ahadada & O Books) have been terrific about letting my work do its own thing. But I never take this for granted, as I hear from other poets all the time about editors insisting that they make such considerations & changes to their manuscripts.

I should add here that like Paolo, both of my publishers have been great about my insistence upon non-translation. Susan Schultz of Tinfish Press did not require translations or radical, crucial changes to my manuscript in order to accommodate a primarily English speaking American readership. And this of course, made me feel very confident that Tinfish was the press most well-suited to take on poeta en san francisco. This, in addition to the fact that she published Lee A. Tonouchi's Living Pidgin, this amazing manifesto and work of art on the hybridity of language and the resistance which resides there.

I appreciate your thoughts on footnotes, specifically because I happen to love using a lot of footnotes (though not just due to translation) in my work. I think my use of footnotes nonetheless is in empathy with your points-of-view: that is, I often don't privilege the "primary" text from footnotes because I often find that footnotes are as significant as what's overtly articulated; this would relate, certainly, to the notion of invisibility of not just Filipino writers from literary canons but to the articulated textbook history/ies of the United States which often gloss over its colonial experience in the Philippines.

Moving on, both of your manuscripts also raise for me the notion of address, and specifically as relates to the intersection of politics and eros. I'm thinking specifically of how eros can dilute the didactism and actually make more accessible if not attractive the discussion of politics. Eros as a means of getting the readers interested inconcerns (political or not) which might not otherwise interest them. Thoughts? (E.g., was this a conscious literary strategy or did it just occur that way....). Hmmm...actually, to the extent that I find sweetness in several of Barbara's poems and charm in several of Paolo's poems, I could ask the same question but just substitute sweetness and charm for eros....

It's almost cliche, the phrase, "the personal is political," but certainly, this is a strong consideration in my work. I am interested in how we comes to love in this world, despite the historical circumstances, the conquests, the wars, which have created us as a diasporic people, as exiles, and refugees. When we do not have a place we can safely call home, for this home has been so ravaged and violated, I want to know where two lovers can just be in love, and does such a place exist? I think of Jimmy Santiago Baca's Martin and Meditations on the South Valley, and the home his hero builds with his own hands. Despite fires, homelessness, abandonment, it is in this home of sweat and lumber where he, his lover, his child, and his poetry can truly, freely exist.

There is, indeed, this love story that wants to be told in poeta en san francisco, but it is constantly being interrupted, duped into various farces of love between the conqueror and the conquered, the imperialist and his imperial subject (object), and this is violent, and it is perverse. I recall a quote by James Baldwin: "Love between unequals is always perverse."

I think the erotic is located more in effect rather than intention, a logical feature of a text so highly conscious about, & deeply engaged with, language & its materiality. & I believe the political, in such a choice of engagement, cannot but inhere.

So no, I wasn’t too conscious about affecting the political through the erotic, or vice-versa, as both seem to me extensions of the other.

Paolo, let me reference an excerpt from your poem “16”:

“My moody amoeba --
lying so low on the Terrace of Odes. Is it the hour for demure task?”

(Hiyain na dila! You must feed us Dolphy before we go!)
“Poor hair is inherited. Tell the others it’s true. & dis the ‘do.

Basta! Kaya ng Del Sol hukayin ang obscure race mo.
To lend a racist a hand ay hindi lang nauseous--“

               (Crescendoing Subic Destitute Alma)
“a hole exterior regresses. Unless Trysteaser’s the cause of the occult.”
(Demoted kaya ‘yun? Paliitin si Paolo, as a rule?)

This excerpt, and others, move me to wonder about the role of pure soundscape. I ask it specifically because a lot of the references would, I imagine, be closed to the readers (and not just due to the use of non-English words or translations). For instance, the reference to names of people--e.g. "Bruna", "Tina" and others--who may not be known to all readers. And I was thinking that, for me anyway, the poems still worked partly because you've created a soundscape whose sounds and rhythms draw me in, even if I don't know the references....? Is there a point where "Nietzsche" ceases to be the historical figure Nietzsche but instead just the (kind of nifty) sound of "neeet szee"?

Funny you should ask. Initially, I wanted to end '60 lv...' with a cd called 'My Public Roses', which is a mash-up of my reading of disparate moments in the text. I actually went into the studio to produce this, as well as a few shorter tracks, working very closely with the brilliant & generous sound artist Brenda Hutchinson. But due to the high costs involved in producing the EP along with the published book, we decided to nix the idea. Hopefully, if '60 lv...' manages a second printing, we may have the opportunity then to include the audio recordings with it."

But yeah, sound is primary to the work.

Then again, how can it be otherwise, given the book’s origins?

Actually, I listened to a lot of underground electronica, indie rock, hip hop, & new wave while working on ’60 lv…’ , so you can definitely hear their influences in the book. I also listened non-stop to Jay-Z’s ‘Black Album’ & its Danger Mouse mash-up while writing the latter third of the manuscript, so you may recognize a lot of the Jigga Man’s flow in more than just a few of the bo(e)mbs.

To answer the last part of your question, though--I think the multiple readings you offer here are all valid, not to mention incredibly useful. Words such as “Tina” & “Tiananmen”, or “Bruna” & “Broome Street”, may or may not have relevance to each other in terms of their (disparate) references, but their like sounds & physicality most definitely resonate.

While reading your manuscript I had imagined you reading/performing these poems--whether in public or by yourself in front of a bathroom mirror--as part of your drafting process. Given your answer, sounds like I’m not off?

You’re not off at all. In fact, the studio recording still seems to me like a logical extension of the cycle, for it makes good on the promise of the work’s soundscape by giving voice to it.

That said, I think a public performance of these bo(e)mbs would make absolute sense.

I’m just not sure that I’m the right person to give it. I kinda feel like the playwright or composer who’s suddenly expected to perform her/his play or opera, which would otherwise fall on the shoulders of a theater troupe or orchestra. Don’t get me wrong--I usually love to give readings of my work, but with a cycle as sonically complex as 60 l…, you can imagine why I’m a little intimidated by the prospect. I guess this means I’m spending the whole of September in the bathroom, huh?

What about the number of insertions of your name “Paolo” throughout many poems? What’s the significance of inserting your name?

Hmm, good question. I include a lot of proper nouns throughout the book, & not just my own. So I think that this is where the personal might enter into or arise from the text? & in the mess of the world that it purports both to gather & rail against, how is the author & his/her familiars implicated (or not)?

I can also think about the tradition of naming the self in the love poem, tracing it back to the Roman tradition & even earlier. However, I'm not entirely sure that the 'Paolo' featured in the cycle is necessarily the author.

Barbara, there is a wonderful lushness to your language, as in this excerpt from your poem “[objet d’art: exhibition of beauty in art loft Victorian claw tub]”:

he found her, guttered, fish-hook positioned. Palsied arms squeezing mottled fishtail he thought almost fetal. Febrile she felt his face eclipsed sun his halo at best. Joyless, cradled old faerie tale, this half-dead thing little foundling. But city rain gutters’ unspeakable odors, her hair matted nest of gems and dying creatures. He wrapped her in newspaper he brought her home traced spider veins’ routes where needles went in islands of abscess where flesh refused to mend itself. He suspected she had no navel. He put his hand there to find what else she lacked.

The lushness I see is something I don't observe in many so-called experimental poems (at least, until relatively recently in my experience). Interestingly, it's a type of lushness I attribute more to Philippines or Philippine-grown (versus Filipino-American) poets like Luisa Igloria and Eric Gamalinda. Thoughts?

The lushness, yes I am definitely aware of it in my work. A couple of things: while experimentation appeals strongly to me, it's disappointing that much "experimental" poetry is void of lushness. I do not believe "experimental" and "lush" ought to be non-complementary. Even as I am a non-native English speaker, even as I am of a community who was colonized by the English language, I am a poet, who loves, reveres language for how I can make it convey to a reader an optimism or fire despite darkness or brokenness, the complexity of a single emotion experienced in a single moment.

And in relation to the work of Gamalinda and Igloria, I think also of Philippine-based poet, Marjorie Evasco, whose work I first read when I was studying Comparative Literature at University of the Philippines at Diliman. I remember poems about waterbearers, and goldening, and harvest. Even Evasco's protest poetry against the Marcos Regime’s Martial Law was so lovely with language, so earthy. That said, I really do not know if there's anything specifically Pilipino about this, though I believe, especially within the post-colonial context, these poets have claimed the English language as their own.

Ah. I had forgotten (if I ever knew) you’d partly attended the University of the Philippines. I’m glad we can bring up the English-language poets of the Philippines--like their Filipino-American counterparts, they’ve been a relative secret in the English-language poetry world. In fact, I’ll note here a section from Nick Carbo’s introductory essay in PINOY POETICS: Autobiographical and Critical Essays on Filipino and Filipino-American Poetics (Meritage Press). In his editor's introduction, after going on for four pages about the lack of Filipino poets in various anthologies--with anthology representing here the, or a, canon (a topic that I believe Nick began researching for part of his own MFA thesis years back)--Nick says:

“Can we fairly assert that the problem of invisibility lies not on the Filipinos but in the Americans who continually refuse to even look in our direction? Undoubtedly there are many readers out there who innocently believe that this essay is another manifestation of a minority group’s paranoid reaction against a supposedly oppressive white dominant majority. But are these omissions of Filipino poets from international and world poetry anthologies (in the 20th century and continuing on into the early 21st century) just accidents or is there something more at work? I believe that sinister factor is pure ignorance. Yes, these American anthology editors, despite all noble intentions, are completely ignorant of Filipino poetry…perhaps the editors mistakenly thought that Filipino poets did not write in English and that their poems would fall into the ‘translation' category? No matter what reasons these American anthology editors may have for omitting the presence of Filipino poets, the end result is a stubborn invisibility. This is an invisibility that is dehumanizing a whole nation and personal identity. It must stop here!

“Does Salman Rushdie provide part of the answer when he asserts in his brave essay ‘The New Empire Within Britain’ in
Imaginary Homelands (Penguin, 1991) that, ‘Four hundred years of conquest and looting, four centuries of being told that you are superior to the Fuzzy-Wuzzies and the Wogs, leave their stain. This stain has seeped into every part of the culture, the language and daily life; and nothing much has been done to wash it out…?’ Is it fair to apply this idea to the Americans? Twentieth century American literature is well-deserving of its stature near the top of the mountain but it also carries with it this ugly indelible stain.”

As you know, PINOY POETICS is a unique forum and seems relevant here as both of you are featured in it. And to be sure I don't misrepresent Nick's views by quoting it out of context, I want to note that the issue here is not a (petty) complaining of being left out of anthologies but of a historical ignorance of history -- specifically American colonialism in the Philippines -- that's helped facilitated a barrier to including Filipinos in various "American" projects, including those that professed openness to non-Americans. This is an issue that goes beyond literary matters, but in poetry, an example of such exclusion could be something like The Poetry of Our World: An International Anthology of Contemporary Poetry edited by Jeffery Paine (HarperCollins) where not a single Filipino poet is mentioned.

Anyway, going back to the English-language poets in the Philippines, one of the more popular poems by Marjorie Evasco is her poem “Elemental” with that oft-quoted phrase, “You are goldened by my tongue." Such a great line--a fabulous spin from the Greek mythological version a la Midas’ touch. The best of the Philippines-based poets do not, to paraphrase Philippine poet-critic Gemino Abad, write in English so much as wrought from English.

Paolo, I assume certain Filipino poets also have inspired you--certainly Jose Garcia Villa, if only because “Villa” pops up several times in your manuscript. Will you please talk about Villa and other Filipino poet inspirations, if any?


Villa's presence throughout '60 lv...' is, for the most part, a ghostly one. It's kinda vain of me to even attempt it, but in this book I was really keen on raising him from the graveyard of American Lit. I have a hunch that in the proceeding cycle, Villa may serve more as a guide for the character of Paolo than a symbol or icon. But don't hold me yet to this, as I still gotta write it.

Paolo, you told me recently that you were first published in the U.S. by the Asian Pacific American Journal while I was still an editor there. I’m glad to have helped facilitated your entry onto the U.S. literary landscape, which certainly reminds me that I’m sad the APAJ no longer exists, but it was a great ride while it lasted, featuring so many wonderful writers at their very emerging stages.

Barbara, I adore the use of "::" or double-colons in the poem “calles de los Dolores y trastorno de tension postraumatica.” Here's the poem's beginning:

your methods are unacceptable :: beyond human restraint :: things get confused i know :: the heart's a white sepulchre and no man guards its doors ::

Because I'm in the midst of finalizing a manuscript that references "secret lives of punctuations," these double colons grabbed me right away. For me, they imply that phrases can be both before and after colons as they frame relationships between the phrases....? My question posits a narrative when maybe you were just doing something more visual. But what were you thinking or intend for these "::"?

Yes, I agree this is a visual experience occurring with the double-colons, as if it means to give the reader space but also suffocate that space, in addition to their functioning to slow the pace down to a struggling crawl. In terms of the logical or mathematical relationships between the phrases, I hadn't thought of this until now, but I like the idea of the analogy, as well as the if/then conditional.

The use of punctuations to slow down the pace evokes, for me, Jose Garcia Villa’s and E.E. Cummings’ commas, P. Inman’s periods, and Alice Notley’s quotation marks. What I appreciate about the double colon is that a single colon can hasten (for me) the pace (the effect of, say, A.R. Ammons' Sphere), but to go immediately into yet another colon slows down the reading. As if the second colon is visually a barrier so that you rush through the first colon only to be halted by a necessary pause as you consider, What's that second colon doing there? And, of course, one wishes to slow down pace to facilitate attention, with attention here not being irrelevant to the concerns we’re discussing. Well, excuse my blather but, as I said, I’m in the midst of being, to quote you, “inhabited” by punctuations’ “secret lives.”

Spacing in "calle de los dolores y trastorno de tensión postraumática" is as follows: word space colon colon space word. That is, no space between the two colons. I was thinking of Jose Garcia Villa's comma poems, which contain no spaces beween the preceding word, the comma, and the following word. To me, the pacing of those poems is staggering, for as you say, and as I believe Villa wrote, there's a calling deep and acute attention to the each of the words which comprise the poem. And now that I revisit my own text here, it also appears there are pieces of that "narrative" missing--however these pieces became missing, I will let the reader decide this for him/herself--as if you are reading what remains of something once intact.

And what about your poem “[assumption]” that contains a reference to “filipina crack whore”--was that written partly as a result of that poet, whose name I can’t recall at the moment, who’d written a poem with that phrase and then posted to the Suny Buffalo Poetics List?

Oh yes, this is absolutely a result of that SUNY Buffalo Poetics Listserve "filipina crack whore" offhand comment, in which I believe the speaker claimed he meant no offense or malintent. This speaker was a white man, probably a young man, neither of which surprises me. So arrogant, but also, I believe that in poetry communities in this country, there appears this intolerance for the "political correctness" marginalized folks have come to demand, and those who react impulsively against political correctness claim it stifles their abilities to wield language freely, democratically. Certainly this is ahistorical, and it smacks of white, Western, male, and English language privilege.

And it’s an old story too tedious to give more space or time to Dufusly-Disembodied-Text-Poet (such that I won’t even research to recall his name), so let’s continue. Barbara, I also vaguely recall some blogland chatter about the title of your book after you first mentioned it on your blog. Anything you want to say about the title of your book? Say, regarding the inevitable comparison to Lorca? Why Spanish, not a Filipino title? And/or did you consider it in the context of Spain's colonial history in the Philippines?

I tend to wonder if my title would be considered problematic were it in English; this is one of my responses to whether my Spanish title is problematic. One could argue that I am taking the colonized route, though I'd respond that I never claimed to be decolonized.

But another response to my Spanish title being problematic would not be the (de)colonized argument but the issue of appropriation of Chicano/Latino language, and my position as a middle class, academic English speaking MFA poet in relation to a language of resistance which exists and persists in San Francisco in the face of English-only initiative-type of institutional racism.

Fact is, San Francisco was once Mexico. But, it became Mexico through a Spanish Christianization project. We are here, in their city, so let's not forget either of these historical facts (This is also another reason why the final lines of Murguía’s “16th & Valencia” function as epigraph to poeta en san francisco).

Additionally, Tagalog is obscure. Who out there knows where it belongs linguistically? Who recognizes it when it is spoken in public spaces? Who pronounces "Tagalog" correctly? In the urban center of San Francisco, Spanish is not obscure; it is a part of our everyday lives here and we need to recognize this.

As it relates to me as a Pilipina, Spanish has evolved into an integral part of our modern Tagalog. As a Pilipina, I believe rejecting Spanish is like rejecting English, relinquishing our abilities to communicate, truly communicate with others and among ourselves. As a Pilipina, I also believe rejecting Spanish is like rejecting Catholicism completely; while this was a powerful tool of imperialist subjugation, it was and is also a faith which has led our community through wars of revolution and resistance against our dictators.

On Lorca: I cannot claim to be as great as Lorca, but I believe I have every right to claim Lorca as a poetic progenitor.

Yes, let this title, for all of the above, remain problematic.

Well, as a Filipino poet who’s poetically “married” English in prior poetry performances (including having had to drag your body into my original wedding gown, Barbara), I have to say I appreciate that answer. Paolo, anything to share as regards the title of your book? Certainly, the juxtaposition of “love” and “bomb” resonates past Iraq to other wars…?

I'm gonna come off sounding real corny here, but yes, the title may speak to the persistence of Eros & Thanatos not just in the work itself but quite possibly before, during, & after the time that I write '60 lv...'.

Let me end with this question: what are your goals, if any, for yourselves as poets?

Well, not to drown in the tub this month, for one. & to maybe resume my old writing schedule in the morning? I remember doing this for a couple of years, & I accomplished so much. I think I can get back into it. Why not?

I’d also like to either complete or make serious strides in the various projects I began in earnest this past winter--my language play, a graphic povel (to borrow Geraldine Kim’s term), my screenplay adaptation of an old anime t.v. series, & a whole new batch of poems. If I can make substantial progress in any one of these by December, I'll be one happy poet, no doubt about it.

Tough question here! Let me quote Jose Garcia Villa: “Have come, am here.” I want my work to be a part of the written work documenting our Pilipino American lives, and the historical circumstances under which we came to be Americans. I'd like to think I am participating in chiseling away at our invisibility in this country, in this country's literary scene/world/universe. I never want to hear another ignorant English literature professor in a prestigious American university say with utter confidence, "There's no such thing as Filipino literature." Fuck that.


Blogger juniper said...

A very thought-provoking interview. As a poet split in half (identical/mirror twin, half-Chinese/half-Tennessee, the poles continue) I have come across similar issues of the language of the oppressor. I am also interested in the idea of having only the colonial language of English at your disposal for discussing the effects of colonization. It also occurs to me that to say Asian-American, what does that mean? I, for example, am some mixed bag having been raised by a Chinese father, having grown up around a world of Chinese that was foreign, but where English and American idioms were just as, if not more, foreign. But I suppose, Asian American poet simply means an Asian poet writing and publishing in English, in America, and one who often has the tools of another, a different native language?

As for the question of translation, it also occurs to me that with Romance languages, often words are not translated in the text, or given footnotes. And that the disconnect a reader unfamiliar with the Filipino language experiences is PART of the experience of that poem, which seems very important an experience for one to make, have, be fuddled by.

Sorry to be long-winded. Good interview.

1:08 PM  
Blogger Tom Beckett said...


I admire the ways that Tabios' questions and Javier and Reyes's responses in this wide-ranging interview articulate the complex interactions among specific experimental strategies and, as Charles Altieri would put it in THE PARTICULARS OF RAPTURE (Cornell UP, 2003), the claims of "affect" or the emotions, the inclusion of beauty ("lushness," eros) and degrees of clarity, if not transparency, and specifically Filipino/a anti-hegemonic aims that may be called "postcolonial" but can't be reduced to that catchall adjective. Difficulty, transparency, and much between the two are subjected to political imaginative conjectures/actualities that can complicate and deepen the understanding of situatedness, translation, and contexts of representation.

(TF doesnt have a blogger account so he asked that I post this. TB)

4:23 AM  
Blogger Rebecca Mabanglo-Mayor said...

An incredibly detailed interview that goes beyond the usual So tell me about your new book...Where do you get your inspiration?...What are you working on next.

Tabios delves deeply not only into each respective text, but also how the texts and authors inform, expand, and challenge the perceived 'place' of FilAm/Pinoy Poetics, experimental poetry, and visual/performance aspects of poetry.

I was especially glad for the lengthy discussion of MFA programs in relation to community - that MFAs are not necessarily safe havens for the poet-of-color/ethnic poet/minority author (pick your nomme deplume). Instead, they can be places where cannon is imposed and the integrity of the poet-in-question placed under scruitiny. That both Barbara and Paolo held fast to their poetic visions and found what community/support they could to birth their work is a testament to patience, persistence, and perserverance.

I also found their comments on artist-as translator/interpreter of meaning/language/culture particularly interesting. I have found that it often falls to members of alternative paradigms to educate the members of the dominant in what they are all about, placing the artist in the position of having to be not only artist, but also translator, anthropologist, historian, sociologist, psychologist, apologist etc. and thereby are not allowed to simply /be/ artists. I am heartened that Eileen, Barbara, and Paolo have all found publishers respectful of each artists work enough to send it forth with no excuses, explanations, or other extraneous stuff. It gives me hope that this trend will continue.

Finally, I found Barbara's comments on decolonization-as-rejection interesting in the sense that often minorities are pigeon-holed into being either oppressed or angry and angry means not-oppressed-any-longer means decolonized. In reading the work of Leny Strobel, I am beginning to understand that decolonization is just the first step in a longer process of integration - for me this means integrating the colonizer and colonized experiences/history I possess, to own/acknowledge both the violent history of colonization as well as a future beyond the restrictive narratives of cause/reaction.

In all, I am grateful that each of these authors and the interviewer took incredible care, and made an indelible/lasting mark of on poetics and critique.

1:25 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

When I began my book, I actually wasnt formally aware of the strategy of 'fishing' practiced by my ancestors. More than anything, I felt drawn to such a strategy instinctively, and not surprisingly because it's something I do quite naturally as a Flip immigrant living between languages. And so it came as a bewildering revelation to me a couple of years AFTER I began writing '60...' to come across Vince's study on Tagalog translation, which really crystallized the occasion for this particular strategy of mistranslation and homophony within my project. I.E. why does 'fishing' make sense to me? Why am I so compelled to use it as a poetic strategy in '60 lv...'? Folks who know me always call me out on my punning, and I'm always "messing up" my idioms, always always mishearing words/phrases in English (& Spanish)--what my fiancee loves to refer to as FOBBING out. And so 'Contracting Colonialism' brilliantly connected my bad habits with language to a specifically decolonial practice.

But I thought I'd clarify here that I offer the quote above from Rafael as a historical articulation made AFTER serious work was begun on my book, and not before.

4:50 PM  

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