I’m reprinting below my Editor’s Introduction to my first consciously-received sign from Babaylan anitos, the anthology I co-edited with Nick Carbo which became the first U.S.-published anthology of international Filipina women writers, BABAYLAN: An Anthology of Filipina and Filipina American Writers (Aunt Lute Press, San Francisco, 2000).
What I see now is how “Kapwa” arose in terms of the conceptual underpinnings to a poem “Corolla” which ends my essay. “Corolla” was written by stitching/weaving/knitting together various lines from the stories or poems written by all the writers in the book.
“Corolla” is also one of many poems that have been assessed (to the extent my poems garner any attention) in Western terms: e.g. collage, “found words”, creative plaigarism, among others (I implicate myself in this practice; I've also used these terms--see essay below). Also used in the past on my work is the concept of reader-response, something that's caused some folks to call me a "Langpo poet" (and I don't mind being called that, btw, except that I, as a poet (and human being), don't belong to just any one group but would hope to be accepted by all groups).
But what’s been missing (except for one exception whose value I am really just starting to understand is Leny M. Mendoza's essay, of which a version is available HERE) in prior discussion about "Corolla" and other of my poems—as well as other poems by many Filipino poets—is a contextualization of them in terms of core Filipino values,* for instance from the Value System of Philippine Psychology whose Wiki notes, among other things
Kapwa, meaning 'togetherness', is the core construct of Filipino Psychology. Kapwa has two categories, Ibang Tao (other people) and Hindi Ibang Tao (not other people).
Ibang Tao ("outsider") There are five domains in this construct:
Pakikisalamuha: act of mixing
Pakikilahok: act of joining
Pakikisama: being united with the group.
Hindi Ibang Tao ("one-of-us")
There are three domains in this construct:
Pakikipagpalagayang-loob: act of mutual trust
Pakikisangkot: act of joining others
Pakikipagkaisa: being one with others
Looking now at my Introduction to Babaylan, the first time in years that I've done so, I recall, too, my uncertainty over how people would react to my starting the essay about Filipino literature by citing French impressionism. I'm officially relieved with the readings I've been doing on indigeneity since the Conference--not only the shared Oneness concept of Kapwa but Native American poet Simon J. Ortiz specifically noting how the indigenous is not nationalistic or tribal!**
Perhaps another sign from the Babaylan anito is the poem's acknowledgement of certain favorite words, including "azure and cobalt." Both reflect how blue is my favorite color; all are colors ascribed to sky. I've long looked to the sky for many reasons, sometimes when just feeling a longing for something not yet known. I believe this to be a reaching for that "sacred time and sacred place" where Filipino novelist N.V.M. Gonzalez describes "mythic man" as walking on ground but also touching the nearby sky, so as to be in touch with all creation and at the same time.
Anyway, here’s the essay and, naturally, the ending poem “Corolla” is included in THE THORN ROSARY: Selected Prose Poems & New (1998-2010)--it was the most natural of selections for the range of a book covering the totality (so far) of a career***:
Rupturing Language for the Rapture of Beauty
“…one of the most effective ideological instruments for establishing U.S. colonial domination was the teaching of the English language”
-- from THE PHILIPPPINE TEMPTATION by E. San Juan, Jr.
"Poetry is like painting. You say you are going to paint a portrait. You start with a blob of color and then wash, and when the lines are taking shape, you see a landscape, perhaps people. You are not quite sure what you're driving at, but it means something in the end. And the first person to be surprised is the one who made it."
-- Tita Lacambra-Ayala (born 1931), a leading member of the first group of Philippine poets to write in English
It is Thanksgiving 1998, and I am in Paris looking at the Millet/Van Gogh show at the Musee d'Orsay. Images of shoes, peasant farmers tilling the fields or taking a break by napping, haystacks, star-filled nights, individual laborers, a resting woman with a shawl and cane — again and again the comparisons depict Jean-Francois Millet’s influence on Vincent Van Gogh. With stunning clarity, the show illustrates how much Van Gogh "copied" Millet. But the show also proves that Van Gogh's artistry is not due to the images but how he painted them. By the time I have finished perusing the exhibition, I have a crick in my neck, having frequently nodded in recognition as I contemplated the paintings. For me, the show validated the approach I have come to practice in writing poetry — an approach that was birthed from each of my poems's consistent insistence that the Poem transcends authorial intent.
Recognition —the presentation of the two artists' juxtaposed works confirmed what I have come to realize as a poet: originality cannot be my goal. For my poems cannot help but reflect my identity as, in the words of Filipina American writer Lara Stapleton, a "bastard of the Philippine diaspora." As a poet, this means I have no desire to be original in my use of a language that was introduced to my birthland, the Philippines, as a tool of imperialism and colonialism. I prefer to experiment with subverting their dictionary definitions or the cultural contexts in which I perceive the words posit their referentiality. With this awareness infusing my poetry, I began to write in a surrealist vein before moving to collaging fragments from other people's written works in order to begin the poem. With the latter in particular, I wanted to use "found" words to evade the conventional stress on individuality and originality and, therefore, push both myself and the poem's reader to grasp a new level of meaning and emotion. If "plaigarism" is the most extreme application of my disinterest in originality, I believe nevertheless that such "plaigarism" is as valid a way to begin writing the poem. For the Poem (or the type of poem I wish to write) surfaces as its own entity — just as Van Gogh's works transcended his copying of the images in Millet's works.
I have found this approach to be synchronistic with my exploration of "Identity" through language. Through this process, I have found a home in "abstract poetry" — that is, poetry that doesn't rely on narrative so much as my desire that it be the reader's subjectivity to complete the poem. It is also an approach that I consider consistent with my unease with the English language which, in turn, makes me avoid having to concoct a narrative before I can begin to write the poem. I write the poem only to offer a means for generating an emotional relationship between the poem and its reader. And I do not wish to supplant the role of the Poem's reader by being the one to identify the basis (the narrative’s story or idea) — and, thus, constrain the possibilities — of that relationship. (Similarly, the abstract painter need not identify the brush stroke for the viewer, leaving it to the viewer’s eye to imagine a tree, a shoreline, a human being or other images -- if any -- from the brushstroke.)
What does this have to do with being Filipina American? I was born in 1960 and immigrated to the United States in 1970. There is first the obvious effect of becoming part of the Philippine diaspora. Had I remained in the Philippines, the influence on my poetics would have been different — certainly I don't believe that I would have been unaffected by Ferdinand Marcos' Martial Law regime. Like many Filipino poets, I might have ended up writing overtly political narrative poetry; I even might have stopped writing in English altogether to write in one of the Philippines' many dialects in order to protest (by avoiding English) the imperialism that many Filipinos thought continued with the American support enjoyed by Marcos during most of his tenure. In leaving the Philippines and being raised "Americanized," my poetry came to be influenced primarily by the visual arts, itself a catalytic inspiration for modernist American poetry.
Initially, my poetry was influenced significantly by abstract expressionism. I feel I found a home in the form of the prose poem because the avoidance of line breaks facilitate my feeling of "painting" (versus "writing") the poem with lush brush strokes laden with gesture. I write "abstractly" because I wish my poem's reader to follow the painterly gesture through emotional resonance, uninterrupted by "thinking" over meaning. Nevertheless, when I also began to "plaigarize" I didn’t think this avoided the presence of my own "I." Perhaps the use of others’s texts actually requires more from me because I have to make sure the (final draft of the) poem transcends the plaigarism.
I also consider “abstract” poems to be synchronistic with how I reconcile myself to the history of English as a tool for colonizing the Philippines. On June 12, 1898, the Philippines declared its independence from Spain, its colonial master of nearly 350 years. However, on December 10, 1898, the United States signed the Treaty of Paris with Spain through which it purchased the Philippines for $20 million and, thus, became the Philippines' new colonial master. The Philippines protested against American intervention through a bloody war that's been called the United States' "First Vietnam" as about 30,000 American soldiers but over one million Filipinos died. After their military victory, the United States also won on the cultural and linguistic terrain in their colonizing efforts. In 1901, the United States transport ship, "Thomas," arrived in Manila Bay carrying 500 young American teachers. The English they spoke spread across the Philippines, becoming the preferred language for education, administration, commerce and daily living -- thus the reference among Filipinos to English as a "borrowed tongue," though "enforced" tongue is more accurate.
My awareness of English as a tool for American imperialism bolsters my poetic approach towards abstraction as a way to transcend poetically — or subvert politically — (the dictionary definitions of) English. In writing poetry, I am not simply playing with language as material — there is a political component to my work, though that may not be evident to readers who focus on the narrative content of my poems versus their “abstract” forms.
Certainly, it also seems to me that certain words are beautiful outside their meaning, like azure or jasmine or cobalt. For me, this is also the place of abstract poetry, in addition to what's happening in that space between words, lines, sentences and paragraphs. Of course, others may disagree with how I consider other words beautiful — words like centrifuge, polychrome and lothario. But it is this same subjectivity that makes interesting the response to Art, whether it's a poem or a painting; the artist Agnes Martin once said, "The response to art is the real art field."
As someone swimming in the Philippine diaspora, I realize that my personal history as a poet ranges from ancient Greek sculptors to 19th century French painters to 20th century American artists and contemporary poets who fragment text. And, it is also informed by the Philippines whose troubled history teaches me passion, compassion, hope, of hopes thwarted, perseverance, of human frailty, humor, irony, humility, pride — influences that well up during the writing process to stain the surface of my poems with shades ranging from the lightness of watercolor to the heaviness of oil. Specifically, because my people’s history teaches me hope and compassion, I wish to continue reaching out to the reader to develop a relationship: ultimately, this means my overriding goal above all else through writing poetry is Beauty. Because my goal is beauty, it also means that (unlike other poets who are interested in fragmenting text) I don’t believe in the impossibility of communication. Simply, what I wish to show through poetry is how the definition of Beauty includes the Rapture that comes from Rupture.
Sometimes, I pray. Love is always haggled before it becomes. I clasp my hands around my disembodied truth: I am forever halved by edges—in group photos, on classroom seats, at mahogany dining tables whose lengths still fail to include me. I play myself perfectly, containing a Catholic hell within my silence to preserve the consolation of hope. Hope—once, I tipped Bing cherries into a blue bowl until I felt replete in the red overflow.
If my bones were hollow, like flutes made from reeds, I might savor the transcendence of Bach flowing through me rather than the fragile movement of marrow. "These are thoughts which occur only to those entranced by the layered auras of decay," my mother scolds me. I agree, but note the trend among artisans in sculpting prominent breasts on immobilized Virgin Marys. She replies, "But these are moments lifted out of context."
The green calyx emphasizes the burden of generously-watered corollas, though beauty can be emphasized from an opposite perspective. I have no use for calm seas, though I appreciate a delicadeza moonlight as much as any long-haired maiden. You see, my people are always hungry with an insistence found only in virgins or fools. It is my people's fate for focusing on reprieves instead of etched wrinkles on politicians' brows and mothers' cheeks. We are uncomfortable encouraging dust to rise as tears.
Attempt witnessing pain as wine staining silk—a gray wing, then grey sky. "Only God," I begin to whisper, before relenting to the tunes hummed by ladies with veiled eyes. The definition of holidays becomes the temporary diminishment of hostile noise. I do not wish to know what engenders fear from fathers, even if it means one must simulate an aging beauty queen clutching photos of tilted crowns. I prefer to appreciate from a distance those points where land meets water: I prefer the position of an ignored chandelier.
When lucidity becomes too weighty, when the calyx sunders, I concede that I make decisions out of diluting my capacity for degradation. I frequently camouflage my body into a Christmas tree. I cannot afford to consider soot-faced children stumbling out of tunnels dug deep enough to plunge into China's womb. You say the rice cooker is flirting with its lid; I say, I AM DROWNING IN AIR. I have discovered the limitations of wantonness only in the act of listening. There is no value in negative space without the intuitive grid.
I am called "Balikbayan" because the girl in me is a country of rope hammocks and waling-waling orchids—a land with irresistible gravity because, in it, I forget the world's magnificent indifference. In this country, my grandmother's birthland, even the dead are never cold and I become a child at ease with trawling through rooms in the dark. In this land, throughout this archipelago, I am capable of silencing afternoons with a finger. In this country where citizens know better than to pick tomatoes green, smiling grandmothers unfurl my petals and begin the journey of pollen from anthers to ovary. There, stigma transcends the mark of shame or grief to be the willing recipient of gold-rimmed pollen. In my grandmother's country, votive lights are driven into dark cathedrals by the flames of la luna naranja, a blood-orange sun.****
* Well, how important is it anyway to conduct criticism using core values to Filipino poetry? I'm still figuring that out. But, just yesterday, I picked up a new poetry collection by a Latino poet and another Latino poet-blurber praised it as, among other things, "Whitmanic." I've been honored to have that ascribed to my work as well -- but is it better to invoke Whitman or Kapwa? And what if I, as the author, says she feels the latter is more appropriate?
But what is the point of criticism anyway? It's different from the actual art, yes? And it has separate goals from art-making, yes? And such goals often include socio-political aspects like drawing more attention to certain cultures not part of mainstream? If, as I have done, I've edited or published anthologies that draw attention to Filipino literature, why also wouldn't I use more indigenous values in criticism--not just to draw attention to the lovely literature but to address-by-diluting the Western gaze on the work? Rather than looking at Filipino art, the criticism's structure, if using appropriate indigenous values, organically presents the art so that it's not just going to be an experience of from outside-in but also from inside-out.
(What if the Latino poet-blurber had referenced Neruda instead of Whitman? Isn't using a white male reference -- even when appropriate -- by the terms of criticism rather than art-making bow down to commercialism? As in, that poetry book is not just for the Latino community but for everyone? I'm reminded now of a presentation at the Literary Panel of the conference where the academic Marie Therese Sulit had noted how Filipina-Australian writer Merlinda Bobis' short collection, The Kissing, was first entitled The White Turtle when it was previously published in Australia. The switch to a more commercially palatable--i.e. romantic--term can be considered a marketing-based decision. Unfortunately, that decision also de-emphasized "The White Turtle" which was based on an indigenous Filipino myth.)
These are some of the questions I'm considering today...
** from SIMON J. ORTIZ: A POETIC LEGACY OF INDIGENOUS CONTINUANCE (Eds. Susan Berry Brill de Ramirez and Evelina Zuni Lucero, University of New Mexico Press, 2010)
*** I often feel I'm being insufferable or overweening as I talk about my poetry here, and apologize. Please bear with me (suffer me?) as I'm using my work as a guinea pig to experiment/practice on how I hope to discuss other Filipino poets' work in the future viz indigenized criticism.
**** Yes, the poem mistranslates the Spanish phrase “la luna naranja”, but it is a deliberate mistranslation…for obvious reasons, di ba?