WE: Pilipinx Poetics, Kapwa Poetics

[L-R: PJ Gubatina Policarpio, Catalina Cariaga, Barbara Jane Reyes, Shirley Ancheta. Photo credit: Anthony Bongco]

Lookit us, how we’ve aged. I’ve known Shirley Ancheta and Catalina Cariaga since I was in my 20s, maybe younger, coming into Bay Area Filipino American poetry. I knew Shirley from Kearny Street Workshop (KSW) and Bay Area Pilipino American Writers (BAPAW). I wrote about her at the Best American Poetry blog a while back, so please do read about her there.  One of many memories I have is of a BAPAW reading we did in the mid-1990s, at the Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco. Then, the I-Hotel was a gigantic hole in the ground, one I’d known most of my life. Our venue overlooked that hole. That was the point. Shirley and I were the only women poets on the mic, and this was a very common experience in these multi-generational Filipino American poetry events, and any discussions about Filipino American history. I’ve always voiced my thoughts on that gender imbalance, much to the impatience of my male elders. Shirley always appeared much more gracious than I.

Anyway, while the other poets’ works were about the manongs, and about the I-Hotel struggle, while the other poets were descendants of manongs, I represented a newer generation, the middle class, post-1965 Filipino American immigrant, who grew up in suburban tract homes. My poems about the I-Hotel could not imagine anything but that hole in that decades-long ground — you can see this in Gravities of Center and Poeta en San Francisco. I didn’t think I had a place among these poets, but Shirley, Jeff Tagami, and Jaime Jacinto always made sure to welcome me, let me in for who I am.

In Shirley’s poems, there was a Pinay speaker, and Pinay subjects, and Pinay inner voice that I’d rarely read or heard. Surely, Jessica Hagedorn’s got some fierce and flawed Filipinas in the world in her poetry; Shirley’s I thought of as  deeply interior-focused.

Catalina Cariaga is another Pinay poet with a special place in my heart, and in my poetics. When she was doing her MFA at San Francisco State University, I started seeing her read her poems at a lot of local events, both Filipino American, and Bay Area poetics scenes. I would listen to her work, and not be able to access it. I didn’t know what she was doing, what she was trying to do. Her performance aesthetic was nothing I was accustomed to. I didn’t know what to do with/about her poetry. I did sense it was important poetry; she wrote about Flor Contemplacion, though not exactly about her. Catie wrote about a lot of noise and distance between Flor, and her poetic I. I can say this now, but I didn’t know this then.

Then one day, her book, Cultural Evidence came out. I was taking a poetry class at Berkeley City College, and slowly being introduced to “experimental” and “avant garde” poetries. I picked up her book, saw that she was doing something different on the page, and then a big fucking light bulb went on over my head. I had to experience this work on the page. And then being able to experience/interact with the work on the page enabled me to really hear her when I would see her in performance.

When I introduced Catie the other day at the Asian Art Museum, I said that what Catie taught me was what to do with the poem on the page. We generally know, instinctively, what to do with our voices, how to wield them. The page, not so much. I should have said, it takes practice, and finesse, and patience. It takes the ability and smarts and work ethic to not fall into gimmick. You have to think about the placement of the words, of course the breaking of the lines, and you have to think about the blank/white spaces. How do you balance these things, how do you negotiate the tension and harmony.

All of this to say I am still punch drunk about last Thursday’s event. I was remembering today, when Lynn Procope and Oscar invited me to read for louderARTS at Bar 13 in NYC back in the day, we agreed upon the “pinion” format, in which I got to choose my co-readers, for how I was connected to them and them to me, for how our presences are mutually resonant. I chose Jessica Hagedorn, Bino A. Realuyo, and Anthem Salgado to read with me. This is like triangulating community. This is how you share poetic space, rather than hoard it.

This is also kapwa. I love it.

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