Marías at Sampaguitas
Interview with Barbara Jane Reyes
Barbara Jane Reyes, adjunct professor in Philippine Studies at University of San Francisco, author of Invocation to Daughters (City Lights Publishers, 2017), and four previous collections of poetry, including Poeta en San Francisco (Tinfish Press, 2005) and Diwata (BOA Editions, Ltd., 2010). Letters to a Young Brown Girl is forthcoming from BOA Editions, Ltd., in 2020.
1. Among full-length publications, you have chapbooks and your works had taken place in various -and countless- journals, anthologies and magazines. Your career is breathtaking. How could you achieve this success? Do you think that magazines play an important role in a poet’s/artist’s publishing career? How did your directions take its right way on your roadmap?
Magazines and journals are very important in our writing and publishing careers; here is where we first see our writings in print. The fact that editors responded positively to my writing and gave me their space, the fact that readers also responded emotionally, passionately, gave me confidence to continue writing. Whatever I kept in my private journals was indeed worth sharing. Over time, one poem in one magazine became many poems in different magazine issues. And with each release party was an opportunity to read my work for an audience. This is all good practice, for hearing what works and what doesn’t.
I’ve been doing this since the 1990s. The first place that published me was a Filipinx student publication at UC Berkeley, where I was an undergrad. So the most important thing to remember is that successes happen over much time, with much work, and that includes the failures as well. I needed to recognize when I needed to be challenged, pushed harder — this is when my roadmap came to include producing my own DIY chapbook, then applying to grad school, reading and writing totally outside of my comfort zones, submitting my work for critique and learning how to take critique, learning about the publishing industry, entering it and navigating it knowledgeably and with professionalism.
2. In your essay given at the Asian Art Museum, August 25, 2018 “The Rule is, Do Not Stop,” the Literary Address for the Pilipinx American Library” we read these lines: “(…) 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”.
Your statements makes people think about importance of feminism again. Also in my country -Turkey- I felt like you when I began writing prose. I know there are many components here, but do you think that literary environment/current canon is still supporting white/cishet/men or a little girl like you -anyone who is not white/cishet/men- would think and feel same as same as you if she discovers her connection with poetry?
Today, I think however slowly, we continue to see more women of color, and immigrant writers published. From where I’m standing, I see scores of them, but that little brown girl you ask about, can she access all these writers’ works? Are we even writing and publishing with the hopes of ever reaching her. I say this, not to accuse anybody, but to think about how we are trained to write and publish in this country. There is a whole industry of MFA programs and book contests leading to publication, contributing to whether we get tenured in university positions. This business of prestige. Is this the goal, to write for other MFA program graduates, to write for book prizes, to write for tenure. And if somehow, by osmosis or miracle or chance or charity, that little brown girl gets wind of the work, is this good enough.
So then, representation within the existing structures of power isn’t what I’m going for, because it not only reaches a very small and elite piece of our community, it does not address why we are so invisible, or why only certain voices and stories are allowed to be told. Who decides? What is the criteria this deciding body uses? Whose value systems guide the decision making?
Decades ago, the very first Filipino American writers I ever read and met were folks writing in the local community — Kearny Street Workshop folks, Al Robles, Jeff Tagami, Shirley Ancheta, Jaime Jacinto, and others. They created an art space, in the basement of an SRO on Kearny and Jackson Streets in San Francisco, because were they invisible in school curricula, and they were invisible in bookstores. KSW exercised their own editorial control, published the writers in their own communities, and featured art and photography from their own communities, folks invisible in galleries and museums. They controlled their own product. These were my mentors.
3. In “On being an immigrant poet in America” you are mentioning “the realm of mythology” in your poetry. Can you elaborate this phrase? For example, I see “the realm of mythology” in your poem “diwata taga ilog at dagat”.
“In the realm of mythology,” has to do with us creating our own personal and family lore, hence, mythologies. We all have our family stories that for generations, we tell and retell. We don’t know if what we tell in our stories actually happened the way we say it did. That doesn’t even matter anymore; accuracy has never been the point. These stories are our truths. These stories are older than our memories, and they have been retold so many times, we don’t know how much has changed from one telling to the next, to the next, and so on. I love this, because it is ours, and no one can take those from us. We’re constantly told what does not belong to us — land, nation, language, home, religion, citizenship, culture, art, literature; our ownership of all these are constantly in dispute. But the stories our family tell are exactly ours — our creativity and/or acts of creation, our wild imaginings, and no one else’s.
As for my poem, “diwata taga ilog at dagat,” which is included in my book, Poeta en San Francisco, the repetition of “elders say,” points to what I’m saying about the tellers of story. Is this an authoritative, canonical story? Doubtful. Is this story “true”? Unlikely, but that’s not the point. Since we were young, these are stories we have heard the people tell, or stories we’d wished people would tell us. And the poem itself is evidence of a listener, hearer of story employing her own wild imagination, perhaps creating one of those stories she wishes had been told to her. In other words, she’s not just transcribing what she’s hearing; she’s already creating her own version of it.
4. How is your relationship with English, Filipino and other languages when writing? How do you connect the languages or should I ask how do you feel them?
English is the primary language in which I write. But I should also say, there are many Englishes — a term I’ve adopted from my previous publisher, Susan Schultz of TinFish Press — and we move or maneuver between them depending on who we’re addressing, who we’re trying to include and exclude. So then, formal English, standard English are languages in which I claim fluency. This enables me to work and publish within certain circles or strata — teaching and speaking in universities, and among some editors and publishers.
Vernacular Englishes, including Bay Area, East Bay, Oakland Englishes are the languages I speak and hear on the daily, in the world outside institutional spaces. I love when my publishing world intersects with this world. English-Tagalog code switching is where I feel most at home, what I speak with my family, and with the Filipino writers, artists, and educators with whom I feel the most affinity. Some Spanish has entered my working, living, everyday language, some already there from what Tagalog has nativized, and also, because my husband and his family are bilingual English-Spanish speakers. This is not the Iberian, Castillian Spanish of our Filipino elders, or even the Chicano Spanish I’ve grown accustomed to hearing in the Bay Area. He’s from the Bronx.
Baybayin, pre-hispanic Tagalog script, I taught myself to read and write; I do this, very slowly. Taking Tagalog classes when I was an undergrad helped this tremendously, since I needed to grow my vocabulary, some knowledge of root words, and how to conjugate verbs.
All of this to say, my relationship with language is as a living system; we are always moving between these systems, growing these systems, connecting with others, finding community and understanding. I use it all very deliberately when I write.
5. When you come back to your Filipino roots, whom do you relate yourself in writing in Filipino literature? What Filipino works we are missing because of lack of translation/marketing?
Who do I relate myself to? Other women, young Pinays who remind me of my past, younger self, so many of us who were looking for ourselves in literature, who felt invisible because we weren’t in the literature that was brought to our classrooms, who were silenced, because in the process of finding our voices, were told what we had to say wasn’t important or correct, who were told we were too much this, not enough that, never good enough, who feel they have lost themselves, who are trying to be brave, who try and fail, who question the status quo, who rebel, act up, fuck up, rage.
I teach Filipina/Pinay Lit, and Filipino Lit at University of San Francisco, and there’s a lot of Filipino authored work I wish were more readily available so I could share it with my students. When books go out of print, at best, they become part of our community’s lore, and at worst, these books die a quiet, unceremonious death. Al Robles’s Rapping With Ten Thousand Carabaos in the Dark belongs in the former category. I’ve heard a rumor it will go into a second edition, but nothing yet has materialized. Manong Al was of the “Flips” generation of Pinoy poets, grassroots and street poets whose verse I would love to have my students spend quality time with, letting themselves be moved, opened, and even transformed.
The works published by Kearny Street Workshop are out of print, and the press dissolved around a decade ago now. So Jeff Tagami’s October Light, Jaime Jacinto’s Heaven Is Just Another Country, and the Bay Area Pilipino American Writers (BAPAW) anthology Without Names are generally unavailable — so many voices that today’s MFA Industrial Complex would erase or bury, and claim with little hesitation has no literary merit, and no place in literature classrooms.
Works published outside of this country are also difficult to obtain enough copies for a Filipina/Pinay Literature class with 40 students. I teach excerpts of Elynia S. Mabanglo’s Anyaya ng Imperyalista, a bilingual poetry edition published by University of the Philippines Press in 1999. Mabanglo wrote the poems in Tagalog, and Roderick Labrador provided the English translations and the book’s introduction. Some students are able to read between original and translation; most are not. But this very important book is just not available in this country.
6. What change would you like to see within the writing community and why? I would love to see more community based publishing with sustainable models for production and distribution, and editorial boards that are both of/from the community, and knowledgeable of literary movements. I got my start with Pinay-owned, San Francisco based Arkipelago Books; then-owner Marie Romero, who has since retired, was the first person who offered me book publication, before I ever knew much about the publishing industry. Arkipelago Books is known and respected as an indie bookstore; sadly, they did not continue publishing. But it was because of Marie that I was able to see my first book Gravities of Center come to life in 2003, and that publication affirmed me and set me resolute on my path.
7. Are there any immediate events or publications that you have coming up that you want the readers to know about? I’m grateful to have been prolific over the past few years; I’d had an amazing burst of writing. Two of my recent books are To Love as Aswang (PAWA, 2015), and Invocation to Daughters (City Lights, 2017). My next book, Letters to a YoungBrown Girl is coming out next year from BOA Editions, Ltd., who published my third book Diwata, almost ten years ago now! I love writing books, and I love sharing the work with young women readers.