PINOY POETICS Ed. by NICK CARBOABIGAIL LICAD reviews
Pinoy Poetics, A Collection of Autobiographical and Critical Essays on Filipino and Filipino-American Poetics Edited by Nick Carbo
(Meritage Press, 2004)
In the introduction to Pinoy Poetics, editor Nick Carbó observes that “When one sees himself/herself in a respected work of literature, it is a powerful and validating moment.” Given the paradox between the few and sporadic appearances of Filipino authors in mainstream U.S. publications on the one hand, and the far-reaching and enduring interlock of Philippine history with American history on the other, where then do Filipino poets turn for inspiration in the paucity of such powerful and validating moments? In many ways, the essays in Pinoy Poetics provide different approaches to this question, and yield illuminating and often surprising insights on Filipino experience.
For those seeking an introduction to Filipino literature, the anthology serves as a good starting point from which to discover writers across the diaspora past and present and further explore the themes that animate and haunt the effort to deliver onto the printed page the variegated experiences of Filipinos. The reader, for example, learns about the formation of a Filipino-American writing movement through Oscar Peñaranda’s account of the initial endeavors by Mango generation, Flips, and Liwanag writers in “The Filipino American Sensibility in Literature.” Alfred A. Yuson in “Taking the Litmus Test” surveys the developments arising from up-and-coming poets in the Philippines. Eileen R. Tabios in “A Poetics of “Everything, Everything, Everything”” provides a peek into the current Filipino-American activist scene and the written collaborations taking place among Filipino poets across the Pacific.
While these essays establish the existence of a rich Filipino literary heritage, the process of self-identifying as a Filipino poet remains on occasion a process fraught with ambivalence. In discussing its initial strangeness, Patrick Pardo in “On Being a Filipino Poet” says: “I never wore my ethnicity on my sleeve… being a Filipino American is to be aware of my cultural determinants and at the same time know that I am not beholden to them.” Catalina Cariaga in “A Poetics of E Pluribus Karaoke (Out of Many, Minus One)” admits that thinking of herself as a regional poet “sidesteps [her] having to explain [her] parents’ immigration to the United States, the history of U.S. and Philippine relations, and the development of discourse on diasporic writers and writings, Asian American literature… etc.” She goes on to express a frustration common among cultural minority writers:
In my first year of graduate work, I felt I was constantly in the position of having to explicate my work, and give historical, cultural and social context and commentary to each piece I offered in workshop. I noticed my white colleagues did not have to do this – because their social/cultural context was not only assumed, but a given.
Interestingly, Alfred A. Yuson attributes what he views as the greater maturity and depth of writing from U.S.-based poets to the difficulties of “rootlessness,” an aspect of which is described above. However, the reader remains ill-equipped to judge Yuson’s statement as the anthology is disappointingly tilted toward Filipino-American writers, with only six of the forty contributors being based in the Philippines. And while almost all of the writers have had the experience of either growing up or living in the Philippines, the question of promoting a uniquely Filipino expression takes a more complicated turn when use of the English language is taken into consideration. Lani T. Montreal in “Poetry and Bonesetting” stands out as the only writer in the anthology to claim Tagalog as her language of choice while at the other end of the spectrum, Ricardo M. de Ungria in “An English Apart” makes the rather discomfiting claim that Tagalog “has not yet proven its worth… as a literary language.” Claiming that “[w]riting well in English is [his] best revenge against English,” De Ungria searches the various polemics that surround the English debate:
But why do I want to take revenge at the English language?
… Because it taught me, among other things, to think poorly of my native language and exclude this from the discourse of my deepest needs and joys and aspirations? … Because it foisted upon me a rich heritage of writing that I could never be a part of nor even closely relate to…? Because it left me inside a wonderful labyrinth of a symbolic world whose exquisite emblems and implements only heighten my sense of helplessness and futility at being understood…? Because it has opened me up to a fascinating world where I am condemned forever to live as a stranger?
While it remains to be seen whether the creation of a decolonized literature must necessarily occur through a non-English language, several poets offer hope in building a unique expression through subversive uses of English. Kristin Naca in “The Cult of Language in Pinoy Poetry” bends English to Tagalog intonations and rhythms. Other poets such as Paolo Javier in “Marginalia” reject the use of narrative form to undermine any totalizing effects of the English language. He explains: “… narrative reflected (for me) how colonialism spread through English as the tool for communication.” Leny Mendoza Strobel in “A New Twist on Decolonization: Eileen Tabios’ Poetry” discusses the poet’s use of abstraction, surrealism, and collaging of “”found words” from other texts” to deflect the reader’s reliance upon narrative and authorial intent, thereby insisting that she engage with the poem not just through language but through the totality of her frameworks and histories. Luis H. Francia in “Meditation #1 & 2” suggests the inevitable re-appropriation of the English language by those writing from the margins:
I, ravisher, thief of language’s virtue, denier of its chastity yet stalwart defender of its inviolability. I need to be faithful to my infidelities. Count on me then to betray you. In the morning I expect to be bemedalled. In the morning I expect to be shot.
Whatever the outcome will be for the negotiations and efforts described in the anthology, whether Filipino literature will move from remotest peripheries and transform mainstream literature, whether writers will continually find new ways to reconcile their conflicting estrangements from both Filipino and American forms, the reader will surely derive a current grasp of Filipino poetry from this collection.
Even the most desultory reading of the anthology will certainly come to remark upon the range and originality of the forty essays. Contributors consist of writers across all walks of life, as varied as ex-Communist Party member and anti-Marcus dictatorship protest poet Clarita Roja (Mila D. Aguilar, “The Poetics of Clarita Roja”), National Endowment for the Arts recipient Rick Barot (“The Nightingale and the Grackles”), assistant professor Oliver de la Paz (My Unwritten Book: A Poem Disguised as a Narrative on Process, But Not Cleverly Disguised”), acupuncturist and herbalist Rene J. Navarro (“After the Shih Hua: Poetics”), and hip-hop enthusiast Patrick Rosal (“A Pinoy Needle in a B-Boy Groove: Notes on Poetry and Cross-Genre Influence in the Generation of Hip-Hop”). The anthology contains ample examples of the poets’ work, biographical information, and a selected bibliography which serve as useful springboards for further study or research.
The only way I found the anthology wanting was through the additional explanatory force that visual aids would have provided. For example, Timothy Yu’s brilliant essay “Asian/American Modernisms: José Garcia Villa’s Transnational Politics,” which explores the ideological and political tensions surrounding Garcia Villa’s problematic inclusion into the modernist and/or Asian-American canon/s, leaves the reader’s curiosity hanging over the repeatedly referenced photograph taken in 1948 of the Filipino poet alongside other literary luminaries such as W.H. Auden, Elizabeth Bishop, and Tennesee Williams. The photograph in its metaphoric significance would have spoken to the condition of many Filipino poets writing today whose great potential withstand the threat of being silenced by orientalist determinations that beset the publishing industry. It would have also been nice to see stills from video creations described in Eric Gamalinda’s “Language, Light, and the Language of Light” or photographs from productions mentioned in Remé-Antonia Grefalda’s “Lyricism and Poetic Vision in Playwriting.”
These are admittedly frivolous asides, however, and one can’t really complain about not having more than enough of a stimulating read in Pinoy Poetics. Carbó chooses wisely in arranging the essays in alphabetical order of authors’ names, resisting the imposition of thematic or geographical groupings and allowing the essays speak for themselves. The result showcases a breadth of talent and promise rather than endorsing any unifying aesthetic, echoing more loudly the cries against Filipino invisibility expressed by Carbó in the introduction.
Sadly, Carbó’s sentiments in the introduction are nothing new and have been expressed by many other cultural minority writers before him. While momentous and hope-inspiring, the publication of Pinoy Poetics slides into a kind of second-place finish, not because of the achievement it reflects, but because its very appearance lags behind the relatively established critical acceptance of the postcolonial and ethnic studies movements, chasing still after repeated exclusions by contemporary anthologies of “world poetry.” Carbó painfully details in the introduction what increasingly appears to be the undeniably systematized invisibility of Filipino literature. The historical timeline provided after the introduction, a CV of sorts outlining the basics of Filipino history and accompanying literary accomplishments, further serves in its very usefulness as a stark reminder of pervasive ignorance. Perhaps aware of the irony resulting from the need to yet again reformulate sentiments first said some forty years ago, and the impinging awareness that this by now should hardly bear repeating, Carbó takes up an arch tone:
Can we fairly asset 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.
Carbó’s use of the word “paranoid” likely anticipates the view that Filipino writers should take solace in the publication of several other cultural minority writers, as though this signified the end of certain prejudices and were the exact same thing as partaking of their success. But doing do would only repeat the same homogenizing transgression inflicted upon Filipino culture. How indeed very sad that after all the historical and literary triumphs that should have secured mainstream exposure at the very least, Filipino writers are still hard at work in asserting the very legitimacy of their expression.
It comes as no surprise that amid the cries of cultural invisibility and historical amnesia, the theme of recognition – its elusive and hidden faces, its tangled processes, its narrow paths and its enemies – emerges as the anthology’s overarching preoccupation. Whether private or public, treated as catalyst or objective in the creation of poetry, the difficulties and joys attending recognition largely shapes Filipino poetics in the anthology. That there are Filipinos who embark on poetic careers at all and persist amid invisibility becomes something of an heroic accomplishment considering the tiring impositions of a Western publishing apparatus which largely subscribes to exoticizing assumptions, as described by Joel B. Tan in “Brown Faggot Poet: Notes on Zip File Poetry, Cultural Nomadism, and the Politics of Publishing.” Before the decision to embark on a poetic career or even to write the very first poem, many poets recall feeling immediately stymied by having “few sources to reference from.” It is rare that poets in the anthology speak of having had the kind of seamless instant of validation described by Mike Maniquiz in “The Essence of Us” when reading José Garcia Villa as a college freshman in the Philippines (“I’d like to say there was illumination, as if someone broke all the windows in my mind and let the light flood in… a moment of clarity.”). More common was the experience of having had lukewarm reactions to available role models, mostly Asian American writers, whose voices did not quite resonate fully with the experiences of aspiring Filipino poets. This reality, coupled with the legacy of assimilation after the Philippines’ repeated colonizations by Spain and the U.S., opened Filipino poets to diverse influences, but also had the counterproductive effect of appending them to scattered cultural movements, thereby erasing the very uniqueness and autonomy they strive for. Carbó captures the difficulty in seeking literary predecessors from other movements in saying simply: “They did not embody the culture I carried in my blood.”
In the absence of direct references, many of the writers look to the past, to different historical, familial, and cultural origins to connect with the culture they carry in their blood. Vince Gotera in “Love and War, Contrapuntal: A Self-Interview” expounds upon the crucial, “experiential moment” of a poem-in-progress, the horror of war in his poem “Guard Duty,” by tracing its appearances through several generations of U.S. military service in his family. Bino A. Realuyo in “Dear Warrior” sees his efforts as a continuation of his war hero father’s ideals, as “a daily task of accomplishing missions, dreams, moments to capture...” Eugene Gloria in “On Memoir and Poetry” juxtaposes stories of his parents’ ritual outings in the Philippines with his own visits to the homeland in search of emotional truths behind his inherited sense of nostalgia.
Many who find their poetic beginnings in the confluence of American and Filipino histories also discover that this confluence informs the relationship between content and style in their writing. Moved by the Vietnam War’s effects on her family, Cristina Querrer in “Volcanic Laughter, Pacific Words” realizes upon beginning poetry: “…to my amazement, my writing shared a tone similar to other Filipino writers from all over the world.” Joseph O. Legaspi in “Boys in Skirts and Other Subjects that Matter” evokes the storytelling of his elders by writing in narrative free verse because “[p]resenting the basic nature and beauty of a foreign culture to the Western world is an effective way of immersion into the larger society.” In deliberate and aggressive contrast, Barbara J. Pulmano Reyes in “The Building of the “Anthropologic”” discusses how the openly political intent of her work to reveal shameful moments in American history resists narrative forms and translations to better engage an unsettled reader into a confrontation with their own assumptions. In re-writing history, in tracing Filipino participation in America’s past, and in insisting upon a continuity between the past and the present moment, these writers forward promote a sense of cultural agency capable of changing society at large.
Some of the most enjoyable essays to read in the anthology come from poets who root their work within indigenous Filipino structures and sources. These works aim to fill in gaps in the current cultural awareness of Filipino traditions and histories, and effect a collective self-examination. Jean Vengua in “Abilidad and Flux: Notes on a Filipino American Poetics” figures the impulse to write poetry as “messages from the dead”:
What do I, as a Filipino-American, bring with me into this life? I think I bring the dead, especially where old family, historical and political issues are unresolved and have been suppressed. In this sense, I draw from the traditions of the babaylan or catalonan, someone who mediates between the spirit world and the material world.
J. Neil C. Garcia in “Of Legends and Poetry” re-writes childhood legends and folktales in verse form and in doing so, re-examines Filipino values:
What fascinates me about the idea of retelling legends, indeed of any story already well-known (whose truth otherwise lies beyond question), is that it lays bare elements in the narrative that had been smoothed over, elided, in their traditional tellings… in retelling the many tales I’d heard as a child, I came face to face with the systems of valuation, the unquestioned principles, the cognitive and affectional home in which I was raised, and which had come to determine who and what I was.
The review and reformulation of the past in Remé-Antonia Grefalda’s “Lyricism and Poetic Vision in Playwriting” turns a similarly critical eye to the present, as an anachronous confrontation between José Rizal and modern everyman Fredo suggests a rupture and discontinuity between revolutionary Filipino history and current consumption-driven values. Efren Noblefranca Padilla in “Binalaybay: Soul of the Island” reminds us of the transformative values of poverty and grief in Hiligaynon verses which he views as the foundation of Filipino creativity. The recognition of parallel and intersecting themes across generations allows the poets to appraise the collective decision-making that informs the ever-changing nature of Filipino tradition and suggest new directions it could take.
Successful recovery of the past often finally seeks its final destination in the way of connecting with readers. Paramount among the types of recognition sought by the poets is the recognition infused by the reader into poem’s meaning. Michelle Macaraeg Bautista for example in “Kali Poetics” draws upon the Filipino notion of kapwa or the capacity “to be like the other” to characterize the gesturing and anticipatory techniques she deploys her poems. For many Filipino poets who began writing in a state of starvation for validating moments, the desire to provide opportunities for readers to recognize fragments of themselves and their experiences in the poets’ works proves an all-important task. The following passages emphasize different aspects of the ongoing reciprocal recognition with their readers that Filipino poets strive for:
… my poems become lyrical letters to others, or letter to myself about others and the way I see them. (Ruel S. De Vera, “Otherworldly”)
I write to offer possibility to those looking for a home. I write to build a home between borrowed language and silence, in the movement of moments. (Leslieann Hobayan, “Mo(ve)ments in Silence: Constructing “Home” in the Gap through Poetry and Letters”)
For me, it has always been the attempt at a union… between what the reader knows of the world and the world of the poem, as influenced by the poet. (Jon Pineda, “At the Fence of the Experience”)
I would much rather think of the relationship between poet and reader as a transactive, dialogic one, therefore one that has the potential to unlock its various capacities for expansiveness of meaning and relevance. The poet, it seems to me, proposes a journey: proposes that the reader come along on a journey, explore a point of view, open himself or herself up to an experience that the poet wishes to share. (Luisa A. Igloria, “Considering [A Poem’s] History: Sources and Point of View in “The Incredible tale of the Ice Cream Cone Dog””)
… the task of the poet is to create space between words where the poet and reader/listener can have an emotional engagement of some sort. (Leny Mendoza Strobel, “A New Twist on Decolonization: Eileen Tabios’Poetry”)
Rather than facile mirroring, the reciprocal recognition sought by the writers involves first and foremost a destabilization of existing identifications by both poet and reader before finally finding the coordinates that link both. This process is carried out in several ways. In his poem “Isla Del Fuego,” De Vera voices objections by an unwilling reader while at the same time already blurring first- and second-person distinctions that separate them through repetitive use of the same pronouns:
You are afraid that, once joined,
we can no longer be sundered,
can no longer tell who is who,
what is what, whose is whose.
Hobayan seizes upon conceits of liminality to embrace the shared ability for empathy in her poem “I Am”:
I am a woman
dancing a path she makes up as she goes along
maps burned, pavement broken
I am the click in the lock
I am the sky divided by telephone wire
by sunset and moonlight
I am a woman who knows
exactly who I am:
a collection of this.
The ubiquitous quality given to the poem’s “I,” its interchangeability with aspects of its surroundings and its move from subject to object in the penultimate line above follows the elliptical movement of reciprocal recognition that continually multiplies in meaning according to the reader’s contexts. In the same vein, Pineda begins “Memory in the Shape of a Swimming Lesson” with a metaphor for the closely personal narration to follow:
If anything, it is like water. Taking the shape of what surrounds it.
A concrete pool, or even walls of a throat…
In using commonplace objects that effect a movement from the reader’s external environment (water, pool) to inside his body (throat), Pineda solicits the reader’s familiarity, warming him up to the potentially not-so-familiar Filipino references to follow. In “The Incredible Tale of the Ice Cream Cone Dog,” Igloria’s (presumably) suburban poet-narrator draws associations between the distinct historical moments of the immediate present, the 1904 Missouri World’s Fair, and the invention of the “all-American” ice cream cone by an immigrant named Doumar. The poem is representative of many others in the anthology which, in an effort to open readers up to the overlapping exchange of experience, unsettles and breaks down the supposed impermeable distinctions normalized by homogenizing assumptions. Finally, the plenitude in Tabios’s poems which employ fits of seemingly indiscriminate cataloging and collaging invoke an expansive inclusiveness that negate any passive engagement with the poems’ meaning. In their demand of various types of recognition by readers, the writers enable the work of cultural and historical recovery to unfold beyond written completion of the poem.
After going through the ways in which Filipino poets look to history, to indigenous sources, and to readers in asserting themselves against cultural invisibility, the question remains – why desire recognition? What drives the poetics which revolves around its absence, burden or incompleteness? Why this importance placed on feeling validated? What does validation contribute anyway? And perhaps most importantly, validation by whom? Again, we can only piece together tentative answers from the essays. It appears that validation counteracts the paralysis brought on by the endless vacillations of rootlessness or by the apathetic inducements of assimilation. The process of writing, of giving voice to the particularities of one’s journeys, of posing one’s questions, becomes for many of the writers a cathartic experience. As R. Zamora Linmark conveys in “Big Trouble,” there is just something freeing and glorious in for once being able to operate from within one’s given frameworks, without needing to borrow presumptions, shift one’s aesthetic, bend one’s viewpoints, or, as it were, “stretch your imagination all the way to Williams’s South or Albee’s New England.”
Of course, these efforts are inherent responsibilities in today’s globalized world and certainly lend an integral dimension to poems by Filipino authors. However, the poets in the anthology seek a fair balance in the chance to demonstrate that their backgrounds and realities have shaped society at large just as much as it has shaped them. They seek not only the chance to freely reference from their contexts, but also to impart that these contexts have already been shared from the start. The readership seems therefore open to all those willing to broaden their perspective, or perhaps more accurately, diminish their ignorance. In writing, poets not only recover their origins, their cultures, and their contexts, but also goad readers into viewing themselves as active participants in the recovery of a collective inheritance. It is within this continuous process that a sense of community is strengthened. And as witnessed by writers in the anthology who owe the success of their first published works to the support of grassroots organizing and small press publications, more can be done through communal effort than by any individual alone. And so now a return to the question – why desire recognition? Above all, because recognition and validation spawn new possibilities and unmask hidden potentialities that marginalization otherwise prevents. Sarah Gambito puts it another way in her poem “Scene: A Loom” (from “Essay 2356 on Poems”):
Children are the imminent sojourn
A maybe of love.
Brilliant persuasion from the stands.
The products engendered by the contributors’ labors present the possibility of eliminating social rifts and historical lacunae through mobilization from the stands, someday leading to (what else but) “love” – an equal, profound, reciprocal regard with society at large. It is fitting, too, that such a call should take place through poetry, “the common denominator of the world community,” according to Tony Robles in “A Poetics of the Common Man(ong).” For indeed, unlike fiction or prose which both require a room of one’s own and costly reams of paper, poetry surpasses class differences for it can happen at any moment and requires little raw material. As such, the anthology’s broad appeal, its urge to transform a fundamentally shared experience into a widely shared effort, is what finally earns the informal endearment of “Pinoy” in the title.
So apparent are the vitality and dynamism in the essays that they render more inexplicable the pervasive invisibility of Filipino poets. If Gemino H. Abad is correct in claiming that the remarkable quality in a poem involves “a moment that is lived, an insight into our humanity, a new use of language,” then society at large would be remiss in obscuring such crucial contributions from Filipino poets. “Imagine all the possibilities,” says Aimee Nezhukumatathil in “The Ocean at Night: An Inside Look at the Poetry Process,” “in poems, in language, in colors we have yet to see exist.” While Carbó certainly succeeds in forcing the literary mainstream to confront its longstanding exclusion of Filipino authors, perhaps the greater bulk of anthology’s achievement lies in its power to galvanize members of the community to take part in the task of cultural and political recovery. As Marlon Unas Esguerra in his essay “The Poetry of Rebolusyon” more eloquently states:
There is that moment when you realize that this is all connected. That the six degrees of separation among Filipinos is really just two degrees. That in the end you do have a story to tell that is worth telling. Somewhere between your identity politic and consciousness, your contradiction and critical analysis is poetry.
The publication of Pinoy Poetics is exactly “that moment.” The anthology promotes a formation of cultural memory and literary history, a critique and reformulation of traditions, and a connection with cultures and histories that have shaped the Filipino diaspora. There lies in each essay a validating moment to spark a host of changes which one hopes will soon render the cry of invisibility obsolete.
Abigail Licad grew up in Antipolo, Rizal and immigrated with her family to California at age fourteen. She received a B.A. from UC Berkeley and an M.Phil from Pembroke College at Oxford University, both in literature. This is her first time writing on Filipino authors.