APIA Heritage Month is drawing to a close. I don’t know that I accomplished much out there, in the big world, apart from surviving my last semester of teaching an enormous Filipinx Lit class. I did a cluster of book events, readings, which were difficult for me; my voice cracking and my being breathless throughout, and so I have been thinking about this difficulty.
Invocation to Daughters is a hard book. I have so much in it I am so emotionally close to. There is also a bluntly stated brutality in it that is hard to read aloud to audiences, and to discuss with students. This brutality is contained in what I worked really hard to make poetically sound, and even manageable. Yes, this is the power of poetry, to make appear manageable what is not … and should not be?
To Love as Aswang was also filled with brutality, but my emotional stake in the material was a lot less intense, mostly political and artistic questions. The reach of this book was considerably “smaller” than Invocation and so discussion felt contained. It has also appealed to a different kind of reader of poetry, perhaps someone who never considered themselves a reader or subject of literary works.
I don’t know that I had this kind of emotional difficulty with Poeta en San Francisco, speaking of farther reach. I was so young in the industry, and at a place where I could still be so brave, precisely because I was young, and the most difficult thing happening in my life at the time was student debt. I had a lot of energy to be “out there,” defending my shit and arguing hard on my own behalf. I had a lot of confidence in rallying “allies” as well. I thought fracas made my work cool, that it was a measure of its success.
Yes, bravery and difficulty are what I want to talk about here, and “success” too. I see when other writers and authors shrink from public view. Being in the public view is not safe. It’s almost counterintuitive , to put all your shit on blast, and appear perfectly comfortable discussing this with total strangers. For me, that’s all performative. You’re on a stage, enacting your public persona. There may be pieces of that public persona that approximate your true self (whatever that is), but it sure gets difficult over time to be in that performative space.
I am going to say, that for WOC, for Filipinx Americans in public, literary spaces, it takes a toll, all of this white supremacist, all of this patriarchal crap to which we are called upon to respond. All of this, how to make people care about this work, when we know that in life outside of literature, they will never give a fuck about people like us, much less, what we have to say when we are speaking on our own behalf.
It becomes even more exhausting when you are called to “battle” against, to answer to folks in your own communities, who disapprove of your work and its execution, and in life outside of literature, they’d just as soon avoid people like you.
So I am here, exhausted by this work, and the stupid lines drawn across our so-called POC and APIA communities, where we end up being on the side of wrong, for not staying inside socially acceptable lines, as per the Filipinos who chide me for my anti-colonial and anti-patriarchal anger.
While for a while I felt like I could open my personal me to the poetry, which the readers I was trying to reach seem to respond well to, I am now here, after I read, “The Day,” having had strangers in public spaces open up to me to tell me about their grieving, which is beautiful and difficult to do in crowded rooms of people I don’t know. I have also had strangers tell me to my face that I could have done more to keep my father alive. Who the fuck are you, telling me this to my face like you know me and my family. Fuck you and your armchair judgment. Why do you think you can do this. And this too, is the beauty and difficulty of poetry.
Perhaps these are ways of telling that the poetry is effective, and perhaps you will tell me I must weigh the “good” and the “bad.” That it evens out in the end, that it is a good problem to have, people in public talking about your work, talking to you about your work, responding to your work because they took the time to listen to you. I am inclined to agree, but I also know it’s wearing me down.
I have been asking myself whether I should want to continue sharing these deepest, most honest things in my work, and it is making me uncertain, where I want my next manuscript to go when it finally leaves my hard drive. What will it, and I, go through, once it’s in the world. I see why other writers go the route of the clever and the quirky as a kind of social protection. I see it, I get it, and I also hate it, seeing POC writers having to make themselves socially neuter as a strategy, or falsely transcendent, looking obviously disingenuous. I think this too, is the opposite of bravery. I can’t help but think, might this also stunt the growth of the work.
I don’t have a tidy resolution here. I’m just in this space, and I don’t know yet what to do with it. I know readers in my community who want honesty and social relevance, not cleverness and artifice, and I love that about them. And I want to keep bringing it.