Veronica Montes

Review of <I>Pinoy Poetics: A Collection of Autobiographical and Critical Essays on Filipino and Filipino-American Poetics</I>. Edited by Nick Carbó. (St. Helena, Meritage Press, $28)


When I first began to thumb through Pinoy Poetics, an anthology of essays penned by poets of Filipino origin, I was reminded of another collection whose title I could not recall. My déjŕ vu sent me straight to my bookshelves where, sure enough, I found What Will Suffice: Contemporary American Poets on the Art of Poetry, a book edited by Christopher Buckley and Christopher Merrill and published a decade ago. In both volumes, poets lay down their ars poetica and then share their work. The difference between the two, of course, is that Pinoy Poetics consists entirely of Filipino/a poets and the other includes not a one. And this despite the fact that Filipinos (yes, writing in English) have been part of the American poetry landscape since at least 1905 when, according to the literary timeline included by editor Nick Carbó, The Filipino Students' Magazine was published in Berkeley, California.

Pinoy Poetics addresses this persistent marginalization with forty autobiographical and critical essays written in voices that roam freely from the academic-such as Leny Mendoza Strobel's response to the work of Eileen Tabios-to the relaxed, "everyman" prose of San Francisco poet Tony Robles. This range is not surprising; these poets, after all, are also professors, students, cultural activists, martial artists, mothers, and fathers. They are young and not so young, Philippine-born and American-born. Some, like Sarah Gambito who received the 2004 Alice James New York Prize for her book Matadora, Oliver de La Paz (Names Above Houses, Crab Orchard Series Award 2001), and Aimee Nezhukumatathil (Miracle Fruit, Tupelo Press Judge's Prize 2002) are now being discovered by an audience unfamiliar with most Pinoy poets save-perhaps-Jessica Hagedorn or the late José Garcia Villa.

In his introduction, Carbó claims that Filipino literature is "as rich and varied as any in the world." As you read through the essays and note the manifold influences that feed the poetry of these writers-from Filipino legends to hip hop, science magazines, the martial arts of kali and Shaolin, history, love, and for Eileen Tabios, "everything, everything, everything"-there's little room for disagreement.

The widely divergent viewpoints found here do much to bear out Carbó's statement. Catalina Cariaga, for example, prefers to think of herself as a regional or "local" poet rather than a Pinay poet, which in some respects frees her from carrying any burden of expectation regarding her ethnicity. Barbara Jane Reyes, on the other hand, addresses these expectations head-on, adamantly refusing to act as anthropological tour guide to readers who equate romanticized versions of "golden mangoes, emerald rice terraces, and balmy monsoon seasons" with poetry written by writers of Asian descent. Her primary audience is Filipino, she says, and her purpose is to challenge that audience to think deeply about their experience.

I was also drawn to the contrast between two other essays. Rick Barot places the Wallace Stevens sonnet "Autumn Refrain" at the center of his graceful meditation on form. "…Perhaps something of what I love about form," he says, "…is embedded in that transaction between the present and the past, convention and newness." Meanwhile, Patrick Rosal draws inspiration from a far different source: the "deep passions" and "agile rage" of hip hop, with its "endless ways to cut shit up and then the infinite ways we can put it together again."

Other poets take an altogether different tack. Oliver de la Paz delights with his "My Unwritten Book: A Poem Disguised as a Narrative on Process, But Not Cleverly Disguised," complete with notes on various scenes he would include should his unwritten book be made into a movie. Vince Gotera, Editor of the North American Review, conducts his "Love and War Contrapuntal: A Self-Interview" with a non-existent Nick Carbó as the interviewer. Bino A. Realuyo, also a novelist (The Umbrella Country, Ballantine Books, 1999), mourns the death of his father and begins to see how his profound loss will shape his writing. And then there is Chicago-based, spoken-word poet Marlon Unas Esguerra's simple, unapologetic declaration: "I will change the world with my pen."

These poets, their creative process, and their poetry, are as diverse as the 7,000 islands that comprise the Philippine archipelago. And yet a common strand, beautifully articulated in Jean Vengua's essay, winds its way through all these pieces:

We are people of a land or lands, also a floating nation and
culture. For such people, stories, myths, poems and
histories are crucial; we take them with us, so that we will
know always where we are and who we are in the world.
The essays in Pinoy Poetics boldly represent the "floating nation" to which Vengua refers, and they lay to rest the unimaginative, ridiculous notion that Asian American poetry or Filipino/Filipino-American poetry has only a single, exhaustively played-out exotic dimension. The enormous breadth of Filipino writing awaits; this vibrant collection is an invitation to discover it for yourself.

info on the writer
to go back to the home page