When Kenji Liu invited me here to write about APIA poetry communities, I confess, I wanted to rant about the criticisms I have with APIA poetry communities. Liu wrote in his introductory blog post, “The nationalist framework of Asian Pacific American is at times too parochial,” which is something I needed to read another APIA poet write. Community has always felt like a muddle to me, in which too much compromise, too much silencing and distancing of dissenters occurs.
I posted on Facebook about this desire to rant about the parochialism of community, i.e. Its aesthetic restrictions, its fear of rocking the mainstream boat by producing work that is too confrontational or feminist/womanist/Pinayist or anti-imperialist, or on the community’s grassroots side, its disdain for the “academic,” the “intellectual,” the “experimental” poet. Lately, what I’ve been experiencing is old boys’ club misogyny, in which we women are expected and oftentimes explicitly instructed to withhold our opinions, to assist, to agree, to accommodate, to smile, to execute the unrecognized and uncredited labor for our male counterparts to garner the public praise.
One author posted in response to my Facebook post, “‘Communities supposedly produce a sense of ownership and belonging, but feelings of belonging and ‘ownership’ have their dark sides.” Another author asked, “Are we Filipinos even considered Asian?” Still another author responded that what we have, rather than “community,” are “small, nourishing circles of friends,” in which “friendship produces that important talk that keeps you moving when the lights get cut off.”
The only thing I could conclude was that a lot of us have a lot of anxiety and misgiving about this thing called community.
My problems with “community” have to do with two sets of questions: (1) How do APIA poets “represent” us to the outside world? Does the community agree with this “representation”? Here, we authors are expected to function as ambassadors, oftentimes with the caveat that we represent only positively, i.e. our “best,” though “best” is subjective. (2) Do APIA poets “represent” us in a way that we recognize ourselves, and (again) deem positive? Here, we are expected to be a singular and positive mirror to wildly diverse sets of communities, an already unfair and impossible task.
In practice, I have to try my best to set these expectations aside. I confess, they get the better of me sometimes. I sometimes hear from other Pinays that my work is too “painful” to read, or “too hard” to teach, and I interpret these statements as lines being drawn, the opposite of community.
So I refer back to my last post for the Poetry Foundation blog for National Poetry Month: I believe community has everything to do with work ethic, practice, mutual respect and generosity, actual concrete work. My community is not ethnic specific. The folks that make up my community are plugging away, hustling for that next book contract, teaching, mentoring, reading. We engage in dialogue—”shop talk,” sure, about works in progress, about prospective publishers. But also about the issues that inform our work.... We share resources. We inspire one another. We don’t hoard, and we don’t use one another as strategic objects. The folks in my community are doing the best they can, and then they’re doing more.
Kenji writes, “Those who help me find new ways to think and write about our world, like Michel Foucault, Cherríe Moraga, Jacques Derrida, Edmond Jabes, and others, are those I consider my lineage and poetic community.” Yes, it is the folks who continue to open our minds, folks who resist the narrowing and closing, that I consider my community.
At my recent reading with Lorna Dee Cervantes at Moe’s Books in Berkeley for Poetry Flash, she ackowledged me as a Chicana poet, for “to be Chicana is a state of consciousness and awareness of occupied land, an awareness of your history, an awareness of your indigeneity, an awareness of the Americas, that we come from the four corners, and we are here.”
Now, I’m not going into the world calling myself Chicana. But I appreciate that openness, and the openness of so many Latino/a and Chicano/a poets and artists – the kind folks at Letras Latinas, Aztlan Libre Press, and Acentos – who have brought me into their communities. It has always been about the resonance of the work, the shared histories, the critical, political and historical consciousness, the proactive reaching and bridging the borderlands/fronteras.
As a Pinay, there’s this question: does a woman (especially one from a “younger” generation) have the right and permission to “represent,” especially given the long held expectation that we hang back and let the men “represent” all of us? It’s this question that led me to propose and develop the curriculum for the Pinay Literature course I now teach at University of San Francisco’s Yuchengco Philippine Studies Program. In a space where the Pinay is the center of the discourse, as the author, the narrator, the heroine (or anti-heroine), and the poetic speaker, here’s where magic happens: students and readers work to transgress social, gender, and ethnic lines, actively work to empathize, place themselves in her position, her “shoes,” and think critically about her ethical and moral dilemmas and decisions, given her social circumstances.
This acknowledgment that there are other/multiple centers, and the subsequent hard work towards empathy are the bases for community. I would like to think it’s this simple.
Barbara Jane Reyes was born in Manila, Philippines, and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is the author of Gravities of Center (Arkipelago Books), Poeta en San Francisco (Tinfish Press), which received the James Laughlin Award of the Academy of American Poets, and Diwata (BOA Editions, Ltd.), which was a finalist for the California Book Award. She is also the author of the chapbooks Easter Sunday (Ypolita Press), Cherry (Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs), and the forthcoming For the City that Nearly Broke Me (Aztlan Libre Press). Reyes currently serves on the Board of Philippine American Writers and Artists (PAWA). She is an adjunct professor in the Yuchengco Philippine Studies Program at University of San Francisco, where she teaches Filipino/a Literature in Diaspora, and Pinay Lives and Voices in Literature. She lives with her husband, poet Oscar Bermeo, in Oakland, CA.