Given at the Asian Art Museum, August 25, 2018
You know what annoys me? People who won’t see the through line from Joe Bataan to Bruno Mars. You ever wonder about the sound of a poet rappin’ with ten thousand carabaos in the dark? You ever eat fish and rice with your hands, off styrofoam plates, in a hole in the wall, south of Market Street? You ever roll down your windows while speeding down Highway 101, to smell the Pajaro River? What if that’s the poem, and you missed it, because you were looking for something roseate, effete, something that smells like prestige.
I’m Barbara Jane Reyes, and I am a poet. I say all of these things to you today as a poet, one who works with line, lyric, and language — my concerns and values are conveyed and contained in these. Something I have been learning throughout the course of my formal and informal education as a poet, is that we can and must make many spaces to tell our stories in many different ways. These are the stories I tell.
When my parents immigrated here, they lived in a tiny apartment in the Mission District. They soon moved to a tiny apartment in Daly City. A couple of years later, they bought a home, and we moved to Fremont. I grew up in Fremont. I went to kindergarten, and had eight years of Catholic education in Fremont. I went to Catholic high school in Hayward. I went to college in Berkeley. I went to grad school in San Francisco. I bought a home in Oakland. I am of here.
In Fremont, in the late 1970s, the tiny handful of other Filipinos that we knew were family friends, folks who knew my parents from way back. We called them cousins. In the 1970s, one of the priests at Holy Spirit Church was Filipino — Father Flores blessed our house. He also blessed my mother’s brand new Toyota Celica. It felt like outside of our family parties, no one knew what a Filipino was. We lived by apricot orchards. I had no idea that our still agricultural Fremont, that California, that the West Coast, that Hawaii, were cultivated by thousands of Filipino laborers, who had been here for decades. If you return to Carlos Bulosan’s America is in the Heart, see where Allos’s train stops in empty grape fields in Niles. That’s Fremont. He wakes up in San Jose. Fourth grade California History never mentioned us. American History mentioned the Spanish American War in passing, but did not say anything about our having come here. I never read anything a Filipino had written. How could I have possibly become an author under these conditions.
If I were to revisit Bulosan’s “I am not a laughing man,” I would see something of myself there, angry because no one ever told me or taught me that I could write what I could write, that it was not impossible, that it could have meaning larger than myself — the words I did not know I needed to commit to the page. No one ever told me that I could find my life in letters. Imagine that, the girl child of immigrants, an omission in literary and historical texts, thinking she could write books.
When I discovered I loved poetry, I didn’t know that I had a right to. I didn’t know poetry could ever be mine. Imagine, this scrappy little immigrant girl who was always ignored or shushed, who was always told to leave it and to do something more practical, who had come to believe that no one would ever be interested in the stories of her life and her family, who trekked to City Lights Books in North Beach and stayed for hours at a time, who dreamed she could one day have a place there. Who could imagine that.
I found Jessica Hagedorn’s novel Dogeaters when I was 19. This was 1990. I learned that Hagedorn was once a scrappy young Filipina immigrant, who lived in San Francisco, who hung out at City Lights Books, who was mentored by Kenneth Rexroth. I learned that Hagedorn’s first couple of collections of poetry — Dangerous Music, and Pet Food & Tropical Apparitions — were published by the indie publisher, Stephen Vincent’s Momo’s Press, here in San Francisco. I learned that Hagedorn was one of Ntozake Shange’s colored girls in the choreopoem, for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf. I learned, this is poetry.
I met Ray Orquiola in Professor Ronald Takaki’s Asian American History class, in the Spring of 1990 at UC Berkeley. Ray told me he had just started Maganda magazine, and he was looking for young Filipino Americans to come and be a part of this thing. Imagine that; Filipino Americans publishing themselves and their own. Perhaps this is why I trusted him enough to hand him a stack of my handwritten poems in final versions, when only a few people very close to me had ever seen my poems.
I did my first poetry reading on April 29, 1990, for Maganda magazine, at the Faculty Glade on the UC Berkeley campus. We sat in the grass and I shared poems. This felt exactly how a poet should share poems, sitting in the grass on a lovely spring afternoon. There were perhaps seven or so people there, all Filipinos. My dad drove up from Fremont for this. His hay fever was so bad, he stood under a tree in the shade faraway but within eyesight. I don’t know if he actually heard me speak. It would be easy to say, the rest is history. But let me say this instead: Publication enables your words to travel outside of yourself. It finds others like you, others who have been looking for someone like you. Because of Maganda magazine, I found Kearny Street Workshop and BAPAW. Or Kearny Street Workshop and BAPAW found me. That was the beginning of my public life in letters.
I found myself sharing the mic with Jaime Jacinto, with Jeff Tagami, with Shirley Ancheta, with Al Robles himself. Once, we read poetry in the Chinese Culture Center overlooking the hole in the ground on Kearny and Jackson Streets. It was like reading poetry to ghosts.
I wrote this poem in 2002. It’s so old, I can’t find an actual Word file of it; I suspect it’s on one of the floppy disks I’ve held on to, though I have no computer that can read a floppy disk anymore.
[Read: “Placemarkers,” Gravities of Center.]
I attended Intimacy and Geography: The National Asian American Poetry Festival in New York City in 2003. There, I met the Filipino American poets who would later go on to create Kundiman. They asked me over dinner, what was it like, the Filipino American poetry scene in San Francisco. I told them, it’s deep, it’s DIY, and lineage is everything — if Al Robles remembers who you are, then you have made it. Their eyes were so big in their faces. Who knows what they were thinking. How were they supposed to know what it meant, and how was it supposed to have any value to them. They were in and of a different world, one that at the time I wasn’t so sure whether I could, whether I even wanted to be a part of. Back then, I felt, if I didn’t adopt their definitions of success, one that front my vantage point, centered prestigious publishers and book awards, then I would always just be some scrappy brown girl from this far corner, this unruly margin of the country, and that wouldn’t mean anything to this body called American Poetry.
I never wanted my writing education to take me away from this place, and from this community. I wanted my writing education to make me stronger at writing about my, our being here. I was the only Pinay in my poetry program at San Francisco State. Imagine that. Where roughly 2000 students in the entire student body identify at Filipino. In the Bay Area, where over 450,000 Filipinos live. Those odds could stop a Pinay, erase a Pinay, silence her before she’s even learned she has a voice.
But there are so many of us, Pinay and Pinoy writers and artists, aggressively, courageously creating bodies of evidence, even master works, of our being here, living and breathing and struggling here. We’ve been here. We’re still here.
Not alien, we are of here.
Not alien, have come, am here –
Among the xenophobes,
The deadbeat dads and gangstas
Among the white liberals,
People who mind colored folks
Among the dirty hipsters,
Over-schooled armchair activists
Among the sex traffickers,
White supremacists, wife beaters
Among the day laborers,
Among the inalienable,
The PTSDed, the evicted
Among the emigrated,
The refugees, the polyglots
Among the accented Taglish
Speaking, have come, am here.
In this fast and gritty place, we are creating spaces for us to congregate, to explore and hone our craft, to amplify. We are defining our own literary and artistic traditions. We are not asking for anyone’s permission.
I write here, in this place my family and I have found and made our lives. I write to discover the complexity of our lives in this place. In poetic lines, the details of our lives reveal themselves, and here, we make meaning. When we buried my father here, I wrote like hell; that was all I could do.
[Read: “The Day,” Invocation to Daughters.]
I’m an elder now, yes? Grieving has made me go gray. I’ve been at this for decades. Poets have come up with me, Arlene Biala, Tony Robles. Poets continue coming up. Aimee Suzara, Janice Sapigao, Rachelle Cruz, Jason Bayani. In the South Bay, in the suburbs, in Oakland, in San Francisco. We’re not stopping anytime soon. We’re pushing. There will always be a 19 year old Pinay who comes through my classroom, a young Pinay who finds our books and feels a little less invisible, who feels emboldened to commit her words to the page, who feels emboldened to tell her own stories. I write here, grounded in the world and the community which has nurtured and sustained me and challenged me, the very writers and authors who first said to me, “We see you, sister. We see you, and we got you.”
Hella indigenous, which does not mean gone native. Kakayahan umunawa sa damdamin ng iba, for real. You know, like Ruby Ibarra and one hundred Pinays giving you resting bitch face. You know, like those syndicated, full color photographs, of boys and men in LeBron James and Steph Curry jerseys, thinned flipflops on their feet, one body together, shouldering a nation. One bamboo hut at a time. One set of lungs breathing. One heart. Isang mahal. Isang bagsak.