livingstone, victoria falls, zambezi river, bovu island
“litany of no pattern except trouble and escapism,” Five Quarterly, issue no. 3
tanga, amboni caves, sisal factory, pangani, sand bar, morogoro
conference at lake malawi/nyasa with the sun, sand, mountains, moon, stars. activities: sunrise yoga and meditations, hammock-lounging, swimming, playing, purchasing fresh samaki and dagaa at the shore, trips to the local market for clay pots, stargazing–both at the sky and the water where fisherman boats light up the horizon. objectives: simplicity, gratitude.
Highlights: Arabic lessons from my driver, horseback riding (and galloping) at the pyramids during off-hours (Ramadan), kissing the Sphinx, sweet treats at the Nile during dusk, falafel at Tahrir Square.
I’m reminded of one particular class discussion during my graduate studies that pursuing writing is like trying to climb an invisible fence, per a 2007 NY Times essay by Jim Harrison called, “Don’t Feed the Poets,” which reflects on Karl Shapiro’s “The Bourgeois Poet” (1964). Among other things, Harrison brings up the concepts of social class and purpose. I wrote this:
As Harrison discussed the “heroic notion of the poet,” I considered my own experiences and if I ever felt this way—some romantic, idealistic goal of achieving immortality by writing a single great poem. I came to poetry through some form of idealism, but I never conceived of immortality. In today’s world, a name is merely that. And in the field of poetry, who but my colleagues and students would know my work? I must have thought, or expected, as an aspiring poet, that I would end up teaching. To become published was another goal, but I came to a realization early in my graduate studies about the amount of sheer luck it would take.
This made me question, then, why exactly I was driven to pursue poetry. Why did I want to reach for this invisible fence? I thought about other careers I considered (or were suggested to me)—doctor, scientist, chef, schoolteacher, journalist, linguist. All of them seemed limiting—definable, constricting, of this materialistic world. Somehow, I expected poetry to defy all of the agendas this world had thrown at me since birth. I wanted to be outside the realm of the routine. I wanted to be an artist—but not just any artist, a poet, a weaver of words, of emotion and intellect. Perhaps, in doing so, I could attain a self-actualized contentment with this insane world and make things tolerable.
As Harrison stated, though, I was struck by the “cruelty and lack of democracy in the arts.” I have since doubted my path into this indeterminable and subjective journey. I have made my peace with poetry’s avocation but perhaps I’m losing faith in its purpose in my life, at least at this point. I’m sure that I will never completely leave it alone, but for the time being, I lost my footing, trying to climb the invisible fence. Maybe I’ll look for another fence, one less canonized, critical, and well, impossible.
Five years later, I’m grateful that I’ve come to a better understanding about pursuing the fine arts. I’m now focusing on helping heal through narrative, rather than spending my time trying to climb this fence. Creativity is not a fence; it’s an integral part of our existence. I was reminded by a guest speaker, Gabriel Vockel, whom I invited to class yesterday to show his work, that all of us are indeed artists–the challenge is to remain as we grow up (per Picasso).
I’ve said multiple times in recent conversations that I probably wouldn’t be alive had it not been for poetry. It was and continues to be my form of therapy. Somehow, being enticed by the illusion of the poetry business, I lost sight of that for a few years.
I wish undergraduate creative writing programs and MFA programs were a little more honest and offer a broader perspective about what exactly pursuing this field entails. It’s an investment in apprenticeship, as one mentor states. It won’t guarantee you a job. Some try to package it as “Oh, you’re getting a terminal degree in your field” and “Oh, you can teach at universities.” These programs are very good with presenting a romantic idea: NYU’s undergraduate creative writing program, for instance, offers a month in Paris as part of their workshops. My question is, are these students told about invisible fence? Or do they simply think their chances are better if they pursue creative writing degrees? Do they know that the return on their investment is pretty much nil? (The only way I can justify an MFA now is if the program offers full fellowships to all students.)
Some honesty about the likeliness of one getting a secure job in the field would be nice, or how adjuncts have increased from 20% of faculty in the 1970s to 70% now. Sure, you can teach at universities–if you’re independently wealthy, don’t need job security, have a spouse with health insurance, and don’t mind waiting around for someone to die before you can be offered a full-time teaching position. And oh, you’re also competing with PhDs in your field, so you might consider spending another 5 years of your life getting one and living under “sustained poverty” through stipends.
It would be even better to offer students the opportunity to acquire skill sets that will help them actually survive in the world without being demoralized in the process. We pursued writing because we are sensitive to the world; help us function in it. (This statement goes beyond writing programs but higher education in general.)
While our family will never be same without you, we are at peace that you are in a better place. Your job here was done, and we’re all equipped now to handle whatever the world brings our way. You’ve taken care of this family—our Ayes clan—the best way you could, and for that, your legacy remains, deep in our hearts.
You tried to piece a life together, after being broken by it, and you returned to our home in San Jose to live a simple, quiet life. Some would think that living “back to the basics” is a kind of failure, but they do not see the beauty in it—to be free of society’s expectations for what makes a man, a good man, a father, a good father. These are not dictated by material wealth but solace in having done what you could for your loved ones and giving us a way to achieve our own dreams. Many more people fail in ways that you didn’t and never have—support, presence, and guidance for all of us. You’ve taught us that family values and integrity matter over everything else. Thank you for preparing us; thank you for being an example of love, integrity, and compassion.
We have always been close, so much so, that I wouldn’t let you leave me during the first week of kindergarten. You stayed in the back of the classroom until I was ready to let you go. And while I don’t remember the times as an infant when you took me on your tricycle to the beach at night because I couldn’t fall asleep, my soul remembers how soothing it was to be held and loved and have the ocean’s breeze to calm my worries. It was going to be a difficult life, and I had you there to help me be stronger.
I was the spoiled one—the one whose nickname was painted in big red, rusty colors above our store, the one who wouldn’t leave your side and preferred the floor next to your bed instead of her own room. We only had one fan, and you would direct it on me so I could sleep. Some years ago when I was twenty, you remembered this. I visited you in Houston, Texas, and before heading to bed, you turned on the fan, although it was 40 degrees Fahrenheit outside. I asked, “Why did you turn that on?” You said, “So you can sleep.”
I am grateful for the few months last summer, when you and I were “re-united” again, after “our separation” when I was ten years old. I decided to return home to write and travel, but I gained much more than I could imagine, which was precious time with you and our family.
I’m grateful to know that your early morning ritual included old love-songs that you played on a stereo from your side of the house.
I’m grateful for you accommodating my Filipino and American requests—puto AND kuchinta in the morning, please, and only fish (no meat) during lunch and dinner, and extra vegetables. You said, “The least I can do when you return home is to be able to feed you.”
I’m grateful to have been there as you pursued one of your dreams: to finish college. You never had the chance to pursue because you were taking care of us. You were so excited, although you didn’t show it. You bought a new wooden desk and got a haircut. On your first day, you were dressed in a white polo shirt and white pants, as the college requires. You had your yellow book-bag and hopped onto your motorcycle, and out you went through our red gates to go to a nearby town for class.
You would complain later about the 60 students packed in the classroom, without air-conditioning or a fan, or even textbooks. The last reason—the lack of a textbook—is the reason you cited that you needed my help: to find a poem and write an analysis of it. I laughed about the irony: I’m helping you with homework—or rather, doing the homework for you because you claimed not to understand poetry. And at your age, you said, you didn’t have the patience.
I would help you with other subjects, too: clarifying concepts for a business class, which you understood more clearly, as I asked you specific questions about your own business experience. I couldn’t have asked for a better opportunity to connect with you.
We also learned together this summer, that your attempts of being overprotective wouldn’t work now that I’m grown up. You said to not talk to politicians around town—not to meddle in political affairs—in order to help clean up our hometown and preserve its rural beauty. I didn’t agree about fearing consequences; and I attribute to you some of this fiery spirit.
I indicated that I’m old enough to know what’s best for me, which is to pursue what I believe in, being an agent of change rather than complying with the status quo. The best thing that a parent can do is to enable the child to learn this.
And likewise, you didn’t agree with my beliefs when I criticized you continuing to smoke: “I’d rather die happy,” which showed me that you will be the same stubborn, beautiful father you’d always been.
I remember a conversation one rainy afternoon, when the water generator had spewed dark smoke and ended its 25-year reign. You talked about digging a hole under the mango tree, near the well, a “jacuzzi,” where you can rest in cool water when the sun would be overbearing in the summer. I could just imagine you, content and resting.
Daddy, there is never a way to repay you for your sacrifices. We could only honor you by not wasting away our lives on frivolous things and not being afraid to love and dream.
I’ll close this letter with the poem that we chose for you to recite in class. The only criterion you gave was that it should be short because you had to memorize it. I chose a translation of “Despedida,” meaning “Farewell,” by Federico Garcia Lorca. I explained to you that the speaker of the poem is contemplating eternity, the next passage, and how he’s not afraid of it. He welcomes what’s to come, because, perhaps, he’d already lived a beautiful life and has no regrets. He requests for the balcony to be left open so he can appreciate both this dimension—the boy eating oranges in the street—and the next—the reaper harvesting the wheat. Perhaps, our spirits were preparing our goodbyes then—
If I die,
leave the balcony open.
The little boy is eating oranges.
(From my balcony I can see him.)
The reaper is harvesting the wheat.
(From the balcony I can hear him.)
If I die,
leave the balcony open.
Original post: DREAM SCHOOL COMMONS
Over the last few years, I’ve taught in a variety of classrooms: developmental courses at community colleges, adult-education accelerated programs, traditional athletics-motivated universities, and an honors college. Past students wondered about the purpose of taking English composition courses in college. Common retorts from them included, “I already know how to write,” “Who cares about grammar?” “How will this academic research paper help me in the job market?” Students, it seems, are more utilitarian these days: how was this writing class to benefit them in the real world?
We would discuss writing as a way to learn, which in the abstract sense will always be the objective—no matter what degree they are pursuing, we as humans will always learn new things and writing is a tool we can use to process our experiences and improve our critical thinking skills. Writing, in this sense, has value. But for practical students with microeconomics or organic chemistry on the forefront of their minds, learning to write better is not necessarily priority.
At times, the only answer I could give them was “Because it’s required.” As an idealist who routinely questions purpose, I needed a better answer. What is the purpose of taking rhetoric and composition, if students already know how to communicate effectively and do not plan on going to graduate school wherein extensive research papers will consume their life?
As an instructor, I tried to see their needs and structure the class so that it was at least somewhat relevant to their daily lives or eventual goals. Certain classes warranted relevant writing projects: in a technical writing course, my students wrote proposals and feasibility reports. Because this course was directly correlated to their technical degrees, the purpose was straightforward: to prepare them for the workplace. Other courses, such as developmental ones, also seemed to have a clear objective: to further develop their literacy in preparation for the rest of their college courses.
The purpose of writing courses becomes a bit murky when the level of literacy does not diminish the student’s ability to learn or when it is not directly relevant to the student’s degree. The issue of “need” no longer applies, so it feels as if we are wasting each other’s time, simply to meet a requirement. Of course, for the most part, these classes end up being of some use—research writing skills, further developing their critical thinking skills, etc. For the freshman composition instructor, however, it’s a daily battle for students to put in effort.
In thinking about ideals regarding post-secondary education, how can we improve our approach to required curriculum so that it addresses the current needs of our students? What value are we adding to the lives of students?
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about a response from a Blackbird editor that didn’t sit well with me. Something so blatantly condescending never sits well with me. I shot off a reply to the senior literary editor, saying that while I respect their editorial decisions, publishing my two poems may be an issue, once they read my thoughts about the exchange. Of course he didn’t respond. People generally do not like confrontation. It’s nearly unheard of in literary circles, as conflict is reserved for the lower echelons of society—the less educated, perhaps, or those consumed by reality television. Literature is synonymous with refinement, depth, cerebral/rhetorical ponderings, but conflict? Hardly ever.
When I posted that blog on Facebook, I received sympathetic, if not tenuous, responses. Most mirrored my frustration with the poetry business, but the consensus was that alienation from the academy is the status quo. I get why it’s this way—in order to maintain their identity of elitism, academics must use some means to separate the good (those who think like us and warrant our traditions) from the bad (those who want to be one of us):
There will always be stratification in any democratic process [like selecting poetry for a journal issue]–a way to differentiate merit/credibility/prestige from the next Joe Schmoe wanting to be noticed. … What I would appreciate from the academy is a bit of acknowledgment about how subjective (therefore biased) its aesthetics are, that perhaps they can’t differentiate good from bad until they get clarification from the author…
“It’s permanent high school,” the satirist John Queenan said from the People like Us PBS series. The series is about social stratification, and here is another example of it—a nuanced, almost invisible battle that goes on between dusty offices throughout the country and those thick-skinned poets who continue to submit to journals, hoping for some luck that could expose their poems to a larger, appreciative audience.
Even knowing the structure of the system, I ask, must writers feel demoralized in the process of trying to share their work? In an attempt to resist the silence that accompanies literary pursuits, I posted the blog to create some dialogue between editors and writers. It was a means to say, “HEY YOU—WE’RE HUMAN OVER HERE. WITH REAL, BEATING HEARTS. DON’T FORGET TO LOOK UP FROM YOUR OWN ASS ONCE IN A WHILE.”
I didn’t expect the senior editor to respond. I’m a young woman of little influence. I don’t know the big players in the game. I don’t have many blog followers. I’m a proletariat poet with other interests besides poetics. I’m not changing how things are done in these literary circles, but it’s necessary that I don’t stay silent, despite, what others have said, as a sure way to blackball myself from further publication.
Today, I received an email from another editor, saying my two poems will be in Blackbird’s Spring 2012 (v11n1) issue instead of this fall’s (v10n2). Let’s shuffle this irate person’s poems to the next “slot in the schedule.” A nice sweep under the rug. Blackbird, why not just stick to your guns and renege my previous acceptance?
He continued, “If there is a conflict with a forthcoming book, please let us know as soon as possible.”
Is that an additional jab? Of course, publishing a whole collection of poetry through a credible publisher is just SO EASY these days. (In fact, one colleague only spent $4K on contest fees over a period of 7 years to publish her first collection. Most others never publish anything.) Seriously. Fuck you, Blackbird. There won’t be a published book any time soon, certainly not by Spring 2012. My poems are not being read ANYWHERE at the moment because I’m a lousy poet who’d been too busy teaching the past year, then too wrapped up in continuing to live her life. Don’t patronize me. I’m aware of how small I am, compared to you.
[Photo modified: Idea go / FreeDigitalPhotos.net]
A few weeks ago, a senior editor at Blackbird sent an email requesting commentary on a sequence of poems that I submitted last year and if any of the other 4 poems (as they had already accepted two) were still available. It seemed that they wanted to feature the sequence:
I was very impressed by the tonal and imagistic cohesiveness of all the pieces in your original submission which arrived under the singular (& suggestive) title colors of cities [now called diffuse]. I admire the delicate way they explode/fragment language at the sentence level but then use a fairly restrained (in terms of overall text-length) assemblage of couplets to balance this effect. They feel almost like a mosaic–broken shards or tesserae tiling over a pre-determined surface.
I was honored and shot off a quick, honest reply:
These poems are from a collection entitled diffuse, which started out as an attempt to explore my aesthetic boundaries. I had previously written another collection that was predominantly narrative, which put me in an aesthetic rut—so much so that I wrote only two poems in a period of six months. During that time, the only indication that I was a writer was an immense log of fragments—images that I couldn’t escape, ideas that I wanted to revisit, disparate bits of information, etc. I referred to them as gobbledygook. I began to experiment, employing techniques suggested by some mentors to let poems “leap” in terms of logic. The idea was to trust the reader to follow you, and in return, the reader would trust you enough to experience the poem and subsequently make distinct/individualized connections. It opened up an exhilarating way to approach language and allowed for a sustained period of time in which I could (re)discover my craft.
For a while, I over-analyzed my response. Was it too simplistic? Were they looking for more theory/poetics? Am I not academic enough?
I had written a similar but more direct commentary for FRiGG, a few months prior:
These poems are part of a manuscript tentatively called diffuse, which started out as an attempt to explore boundaries–love, culture, nature, art, logic, etc. That these turned out to be disjunctive, nonlinear, fluid was a positive consequence, I think. Previously, I’d held on to ideas that poems should make sense and be accessible because ideas should not be limited to specific audiences. Poetry–especially academic poetry–tends to be abstruse, so for many years, I fought the idea that poems should be something only a few can grasp. Well, in attempting to explore my own boundaries, I decided to leave the audience to fend for itself, to figure out how to grapple with these ideas, to make conclusions or connections only she/he/they can. I did, however, provide some structure in terms of form (10 lines), refrains, and themes. Still, people don’t know how to respond to these. A friend who’s an engineer read this manuscript recently. (She previously read another manuscript that was mostly narrative.) Her reaction to diffuse: “Picture me balled up in a corner, reaching for something in the air that doesn’t exist.”
Yesterday, the senior editor responded, declining the other poems, citing that it no longer fits with the other sequences:
After reviewing the statement that accompanied your last email and deliberating a bit on your project, the Blackbird editors feel like it does not quite align with the other sequenced work we will be presenting in v10n2. We are happy to have the poems we’ve already accepted and we thank you for your response to our request for some elucidation of that work.
I understand their editorial needs and am grateful for the two poems they have accepted, but what changed, exactly? Did the poems become less poetic after I clarified my intent and process?
The rest of the email hints at my lack of craft, apparently:
Maybe this close call with the idea of sequenced poems will inspire you to work more deliberately in that direction?
So, because my poems did not fit the journal’s editorial needs, it means that the editors can define them as non-sequenced? Hm.
Thanks for the “inspiration.” As expected, this left a bitter, slimy aftertaste—a reminder of academia’s elitist, maniacal standards and intangible expectations. They want an opportunity to see magic, to be floored by poems that they wish they could have written, believe these poems somehow come organically from the gods—or if not organically—through precise craft and technique that mirrors, thus validates, their own scholarly pursuits. They want a circuitous elucidation on meaning when sometimes it’s just simple, human experience.
D.A. Powell recently said (well, tweeted) that poems just are—that attempting to deconstruct them through literary criticism kills the original intent: to be experienced, to reach another person’s soul. [Of course, he's not alone in thinking this, and please do pardon my source of poetics--through tweets, nonetheless.] How the poems came to be written is not important. Our experiences are disparate and fragmented, with stretches of narrative; sometimes we encapsulate them in this art form. Sometimes, we have the balls to share them with others.
So thank you, Blackbird, for the reminder. Please feel free not to publish the other two, if they no longer fit either, after you read this post.
To finish out our adventure in the Philippines, we are currently on a 4-week stay in Boracay. Hard to imagine a place more beautiful than this with its mountains, crystal waters, karst formations, and spectacular sunsets. Even during low season, there are a lot of people here–the privacy of the Perhentian Islands nonexistent. Here, every other step is a vendor or commissioner asking if you want a massage, a souvenir, or an island hopping trip. Thankfully, we are in Station 3, which is the quieter side.
We’ve sampled a variety of cuisine, which is a welcome change from San Jose, but vegetarian and healthier, gluten-free options are still hard to come by. Prana–the only vegetarian restaurant, located in Mandala Resort–is closed for the season. Too bad because it was rather tricky to find (through back roads in the mountains and through some private property or through the busy town, up a steep hill). We do like a number of places: True Indian (a bit pricey), Yellow Cab Pizza (not gluten-free), Casa Pilar Restaurant (mostly Filipino cuisine), Arwana’s Restaurant (good salads, fish burritos), Epic (a little more pricey), 888 (some veg), El Centro (best mango shakes), Treehouse Da Mario (salads), etc.
Island hopping and snorkeling trips can get pricey, but a group trip through Allan B costs only P700/pax, including a decent buffet lunch. Nightlife includes fire dancing, beachfront bars, live music, etc. We’ll definitely return to this place.
These poems, recently published in Lavender Review, are from my first manuscript claims at the edge, which I haven’t quite decided if I will dismantle, revise, or burn. At this current state, the collection is not cohesive, as I wrote it during a span of three years in grad school. The abstract that I wrote (and hated that I had to write) for this manuscript clearly shows the need to focus my approach:
CLAIMS AT THE EDGE, a collection of original prose poems, explores the intricacies of what is familiar, discarded, peculiar, and tempting to the author, who is a young, immigrant, queer woman. This collection begins with a history of sorts, documenting the speaker’s dual displacement as she exists along the margins of American culture and battles with physical and linguistic estrangement from her Filipino roots. The author also studies a difficult, yet infinitely vital want—love—which elicits vulnerability and genuine optimism. In these poems that range from the obscene to the sublime, there is restrained anger, subtle intimacy, and indelible violation of the spirit. She approaches language just as she would a perfectly formed fruit or the ephemeral body—with speculation and want.
Ugh. Sounds pretentious, which does not match the poems therein. No wonder I didn’t write much the year after graduating. I’m glad to be in a different space now, but I’m not sure if revision is worth it. How does one revisit the same poems without completely changing the original intent, especially when the original intent no longer seems to be suitable?