The Rumpus Interview with Barbara Jane Reyes

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Barbara Jane Reyes is the author of Diwata (BOA Editions, Ltd., 2010), recently noted as a finalist for the California Book Award. She was born in Manila, Philippines, raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, and is the author of two previous collections of poetry, Gravities of Center (Arkipelago Books, 2003) and Poeta en San Francisco (Tinfish Press, 2005), which received the James Laughlin Award of the Academy of American Poets.

Rumpus Poetry Editor Brian Spears conducted the following interview via email.

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The Rumpus: I love the way you work with creation myths in Diwata, especially because you pull from multiple backgrounds. What drew you to that concept, and what were the big challenges you faced in working that soil over?

Barbara Jane Reyes: Thank you for reading Diwata, first of all. I’ve been influenced by Filipino writers and artists whose source material are the indigenous arts and cultural productions of the islands. The musicians Joey Ayala and Grace Nono were my “way in.” Ayala introduced me to the term, “Bagong Lumad,” the “new native,” or the “altered native,” or “the alternative,” as he wrote in his liner notes to one of his albums. In other words, how have the “natives” survived modernization and urbanization, how do they continue their cultural practices now, in the 21st century. The themes in Joey’s songs also espouse values we could call “indigenous”—environmental advocacy, reciprocity, et al.

Nono, I believe, is an ethnomusicology teacher at University of the Philippines. She’s recorded various chants, songs, and other orally transmitted narratives in different communities. One of her albums which has had a profound affect on my poetics is Isang Buhay, which means, “One Life.” So the songs on this album are a life cycle, a series of rites of passage, and they contain some wonderful call and response, incantation, praise, and lament. The quality of her voice as well is just tremendous; it embodies “diwata,” a strong woman voice that is elemental and otherworldly.

Of course, both of these artists are Philippines-based, and I have lived most of my life in this country, so I admit to a huge experiential disconnect. That is always a challenge.

Being faced with an alternative to the colonial and post-colonial Philippine cultures with which I am more familiar, how not to fetishize the native cultures, and how to maintain perspective? The indigenous people have been forever altered by centuries of war, colonial invasion and Spanish catholicism; a century of American education, Christian mission work, American military presence, military and multinational corporations’ environmental waste, deforestation, overfishing, export processing zones, agribusiness, globalization, technology.

I do not believe in a return to a pure, idyllic indigenous Eden, nor do I wish to perpetuate the stereotypes of the Noble Savage and the native as our primitive foils/Dark Others, which are so ingrained in our Western literary traditions, and continue to manifest themselves in literary work and the arts today. If anything, I am interested in writing against or messing with notions of Noble Savage and Dark Other.

Rumpus: Not to mention pop culture. Avatar is now the highest grossing movie of all time, and it’s all noble savage mixed with (disabled, in this case) white dude can out-native the natives. And yet I saw precious little criticism of that aspect of the story in the reviews of the movie. As artists, we have a responsibility to push back against that sort of thing, don’t we?

Reyes: It’s hard for me to know how much to push against popular culture, because certain trends are fleeting. But absolutely, yes, popular culture, which of course is influenced or informed by our literary cultures, continunes to be rife with problematic protrayals of natives and people from other cultures, which we can and should push back at, or work to reclaim. I think of Basquiat’s griot images, as working to take back the “magical negro,” who is/are the supporting cast to the white hero, and the ones whose mysticism or insight aids the white hero to accomplish his hero journey. The “magical negro” exists in cinema, in literature, in real life. Apparently, President Obama has been referred to as such. I think also of the wise oriental (“ancient Chinese secret”) and the native shaman-led vision quest stereotypes.

You are right about the white hero who goes native, out-nativing the native! This is actually why Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, which were big on my mind while I was writing my previous book, Poeta en San Francisco, continue to be so appealing to me. And certainly, in the process of writing Diwata, I also was wary of my own position as an American writer (albeit of Filipino descent), and whether or not I was guilty of appropriation in my own efforts to flesh out and center these “other” narratives and voices, stories I knew second- and third-hand, or via speculation.

Rumpus: There’s also the question of how much effect the pushback will have. After all, you’re writing poetry (or speculative fiction, since Diwata was just nominated for the Carl Brandon Parallax Award), and the reach for those genres combined is probably less than even a SyFy Original Movie. Does the smaller audience for poetry in general free you up to test the boundaries a little more?

Reyes: I’d like to think it does! I started writing for a very specific and local community, Filipino Americans in the Bay Area, where our poetry is deeply rooted in our political and social movements, which are nowhere on the American mainstream’s map. My role models were out of necessity, very indie and very DIY. In some cases, my role models were also intensely anti-institution, and uber-masculine. I had to find my voice in this context, where the poetry was from the rough San Francisco streets, fierce activism, and explorations of Filipino mythology and culture as a decolonized alternative to Western cultures/cultural reference. In Amerasia journal, Russell Leong discusses the poetry in this context as writing in and as a tribe, and the practice of tribe was a strong consideration in writing Diwata.

Still, people who have come to this community’s poetry, have come for its social and political uses, and so it’s challenging to immerse myself in issues of craft, much less to push boundaries, with aesthetics, language, and attention to form.

The consequence of pushing this community’s boundaries is to lose them..

In terms of a more general (but still small) poetry readership, it is also challenging to push their political sensibilities, cultural and historical knowledge bases. Diwata is “foreign.”

Thank you for mentioning this recent nomination. The thing about speculative fiction from writers of color, which I hadn’t previously thought of as the genre in which I am writing, and which is what the Carl Brandon Society represents, is that despite its being a “smaller genre,” people like Neil Gaiman may pay attention to the work associated with it. And that’s not small!

Rumpus: Who do you look at as your influences?

Reyes: Now, in terms of the multicultural influences in Diwata, I am a huge fangirl of the Uruguayan author, Eduardo Galeano, who is a monument to me! What I love about his Memory of Fire trilogy (which I will always be in the process of reading) is through use of form, how manageable he’s made this massive historical timeline, all the while maintaining his focus on that encounter between the native and the colonial invader—the atrocities, and the resistance.

As well, another couple of formative texts for me are Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera, and Leslie Marmon Silko’s Storyteller. Anzaldúa’s “mestizaje” debunks the racial and cultural purity which I’ve previously mentioned, and speaks also to Joey Ayala’s “alterned native.” I think of the main character in Silko’s Storyteller as the oral tradition itself. Storytellers, such as my speakers in Diwata, are vessels or keepers of our narratives, but of course, they’re mortal. After our elders pass on, the stories remains with us. And then we become the keepers and tellers, and we alter these with each retelling.

The blending of multiple traditions into the poems of Diwata felt both natural and logical to me; my time as an Ethnic Studies major at UC Berkeley profoundly affected my politics and poetics, and I was immersed in literary works by folks like Anzaldúa and Silko. I couldn’t help but forge those connections between their narratives and struggles, and those of my own community.

Rumpus: We’ve talked, in other places, about the financial realities of the poetry world, about the need to hustle our own work, and it’s made me wonder: is poetry the only fine art where the artist is made to feel like a sellout for pursuing payment for their work? It seems to me that everyone else—visual artists, dancers, musicians—expects to get paid. Any ideas as to why poetry is different?

Reyes: Ha, if I only knew the answer to this one! I can tell you only what I hear, that poetry is a “pure” art that should not be sullied by marketing and business transactions. But, the folks I hear this from also want people to buy their books, to teach their books, and they want to be paid honoraria. So it’s an obvious contradiction.

I don’t know if there’s nostalgia and romantic ideal there, for what we envision when we say “poet,” an elevated, transcendent human being, moved by muses to create great and moving works. I think many of us want to believe in that still.

Rumpus: Maybe what needs to change is the idea that just because artists make a living by selling their work, they’ve sold out their ideals. It’s hard to make good art when most of your energy goes toward paying the rent, whether you’re doing that by teaching classes or slinging drinks or driving a forklift (all of which I’ve done in my life). The real question, it seems to me, is how do we make people outside the world of writers willing to pay for what we do?

This is a timely question, as I’ve just looked at a portion of an interview on small presses, and one of the interviewees is Susan Schultz, editor and publisher of Tinfish Press, who published Poeta en San Francisco.

What can we do about it being so hard to publish books (books that everyone loves and needs)? Can we imagine more sustainable models?

SMS: We do what we can. There is no model that works perfectly, whether it’s based on contests or donations or author assistance or collectives (which also fund books that sell and books that do not). We need more reviewers, more readings, more virtual connections. And we need to destigmatize (again) the kind of work that offered us models in the first place, the cheap and dirty mimeograph or xerox. It’s the work that counts, ultimately. I’d rather use the language of “getting the work out” and “sharing work” and “building community” than of “marketing” and “selling,” but in some sense I feel uncomfortable with—even as I troll university websites late at night looking for professors who might like Tinfish’s work—they may boil down to the same thing.

Reyes: I like Susan’s answer, and also prefer “sharing,” and “building community,” which I think is Art’s and Poetry’s ultimate function. Maybe this is skirting answering your question, but I think about being actively outward reaching, that is, outward from our insular poetry scenes. In these spaces, we have to be ego-less (and I know, this is a challenge); I recently participated in a pretty spectacular Filipino Book Festival in San Francisco, and in these spaces, no one cares who MFA’ed and who didn’t, who won what prestigious award from what American Poetry institution, and who’s published by what prestigious press.

They care about seeing themselves and something of their lives in books and stories, which rarely happens when perusing the shelves at the dwindling major chain bookstores. I sold a copy of Diwata to an older Filipino man whose daughter was named Diwata, and who had listened to my book talk about how important my elders’ stories were to me—my grandfather surviving the Bataan Death March, my mother and aunts imitating the old ladies who smoked their cigarettes backwards—such that my grandfather’s death brought me to re-envision and revise the manuscript before I sent it out for a second round with prospective publishers.

I think there’s also a problem of equating our worth and legitimacy with dollars. While it’s important to have good business acumen, aren’t we supposed to be resisting commodification?

Another answer to your question has to do with major social change, and a complete re-scripting of our cultural ideals, so that funding for the arts is abundant, and so that arts are largely regarded as having value despite not being profitable.

Rumpus: I just heard you have a new chapbook coming out. Here’s your chance to hustle it. 🙂 Give us some details.

Reyes: Yes, I do have a chapbook forthcoming, around spring or summer 2012. The title is For the City that Nearly Broke Me, which came from a writing prompt the poet Rachelle Cruz posted on her blog while she was still a PEN Emerging Writers fellow—“Write about the city that saved you. Write about one that nearly broke you.” Poems about two cities—Manila and Oakland, came from this prompt. I’m not so sure which city has saved me, and which has nearly broken me. Maybe both have done both, as I think I am both an insider and outsider to each.

The press publishing my chapbook is Aztlán Libre Press, an excellent new independent press located in San Antonio, and dedicated to [email protected] literature and art. They are starting a new series or imprint, and my chapbook will be a part of that.

Yes, I am a Filipina poet who will be published by a [email protected] press. For years now, Latino communities have been so interested in and open to me and my work, and have invited me and other Filipino American writers to participate in their artist communities. I am so grateful for the inclusion, and I think there’s also a great conversation about community and belonging to be had, about where Filipino artists “fit,” and with whom our work resonates.


Brian Spears's first collection of poetry, A Witness in Exile, is now available through Louisiana Literature Press, and at his personal website. He is the Poetry Editor for The Rumpus, and teaches poetry at Drake University. More from this author →