The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Barbara Jane Reyes about her new collection Invocation to Daughters (City Lights, November 2017), poly-vocality in poetry, the Tagalog term kapwa, and the importance of centering women’s voices.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month the Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts an online discussion with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To join the Rumpus Poetry Book Club, click here.
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This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Brian S: So my first question about your book has a little to do with your last one, To Love as Aswang. I remember on Facebook you saying something along the lines of having to write that one in order to write this one, and also that you thought of it as a failure in a way. Can you unpack that a little?
Barbara Jane Reyes: Sure, I can try. I think in To Love as Aswang, I was trying to figure out how to hone in on that collective Filipina voice. How does she speak, what language, to whom. I think I was starting to get to uncovering some layers of her voice, or rather, third person plural their voice. In terms of “failure,” I just think maybe I sacrificed a little bit of complexity of tone, or I didn’t get there soon enough. Does that make sense?
Brian S: I think so, though I think the word failure was a little harsh. But we’re always hardest on our own work, I guess.
Barbara Jane Reyes: Yes! So maybe instead, I should have said something more like: To Love as Aswang may have been like exercise, to prepare for writing Invocation to Daughters.
Brian S: Right! I think I see more poly-vocality in this book than in your previous ones, both in the sense of multiple languages and in multiple voices within the same poem. A lot of people telling the same story from their various points of view.
Barbara Jane Reyes: I would add—there’s a Tagalog term, “kapwa,” I have been trying to get my head around. It means something like shared self. I think of that shared self as the book’s POV.
Brian S: Oh, okay. I was having some trouble figuring out what that term meant, but I think I have a better idea now. Like the multiple voices from a group represented by the same body, maybe? That collective third person you mentioned earlier?
Barbara Jane Reyes: Something like that, where the group and the I have little to no separation.
Brian S: Reminds me a little of the Greek chorus, or am I missing it?
Barbara Jane Reyes: I think thats a great Western equivalent! Except the chorus in Greek is off to the side somewhere, whereas my Pinay kapwa speaker is at the center.
Brian S: Which is a great turn because the Chorus was there mainly just to move the action along for the main characters. Who were mostly powerful men.
Barbara Jane Reyes: Exactly. Here, we are the ones at the center of the action. A big challenge for me was making this poetic “we” proactive, despite having to respond to so much abuse.
Brian S: Yes! That’s one of the things I responded to most of all in this book. I was just looking again at “Invocation to Daughters 4,” and the closing lines, “Daughters, the word, ‘no,’ has been pried from our jaws. We will wrest it back, and guard it, and wield it as our sharpest tool.” That’s more than a call to arms. That’s a punch in the throat.
Barbara Jane Reyes: Yeah, the speaker is pretty resolute! And there’s another poem where she is saying I speak though my bravery wavers, though you tower above me. I think it’s important she acknowledges her fear.
Brian S: And I think about the number of collections I’ve read just in the last year by women who take a similar tone, who are speaking especially about sexual assault—like Khadijah Queen’s I’m So Fine, which the club read earlier this year—and while they might seem particularly apropos to this moment, the reality is that this assault has always been happening, so they’ve always been timely. It’s just that now there’s some very limited payback happening.
Barbara Jane Reyes: True, I was thinking about that, too, the timeliness of it. I actually was afraid, before the book came out, that folks would think it too aggressive, but now I see how much people seem to need this tone.
Brian S: I mean, I mentioned in the piece I wrote about selecting this book that I thought Donald Trump’s election had something to do with this explosion of women outing their abusers, this sense that if the country is going to elect a serial sexual harasser and laugh about it, then there’s really no point in holding back. How much worse could it get?
Barbara Jane Reyes: OMG, once we ask that, then we hear of something even more heinous. But yeah. I think there’s a big exhale happening, at least in some places.
Brian S: There’s an erasure in this book, which I don’t think I’ve seen before in your work. Is that a form you’re playing with some now?
Barbara Jane Reyes: I’ve thought about erasure, but I don’t have a lot of experience with it. I did want to try, see what happens. In To Love as Aswang I had some grayscale text, so I thought it would be similar. But i think erasure is a lot more… abrupt
Brian S: It is. A lot more stark, too, the way you did it here, blacking out the lines as opposed to leaving white space. But given the source text, that choice made a lot of sense.
Barbara Jane Reyes: Yeah, I was thinking of Philip Metres’s Sand Opera. That is some intense shit. I think I may revisit erasure, but I do want to think a lot about it.
Barbara Jane Reyes: I think it’s all about what the source document is. I want to look at more historical documents about Westerners encountering Filipinos or legislating empire, but more contemporary—Filipinas’ testimonies in a lot of these legal cases against their abusive employers
Brian S: There are a lot of religious tones in this book, and that’s always been the case in your work. Can you talk some about how that affected the voice and tone in this book?
Barbara Jane Reyes: Sure. I’d been talking to my students about how I gravitate towards prayer and that I kept stopping myself from this. But my mentor, Stacy Doris, encouraged me to embrace it, remember that prayer is poetry, and that seems to be a natural music for me, especially when recited as a large body, and then in procession—so that affects my lines as well.
Brian S: That’s where the title comes from, right? Invocation as a synonym for prayer, but instead of being directed at a god, it’s directed at daughters.
Barbara Jane Reyes: Correct: an invocation is prayer, and calling to other Filipinas, to other daughters addressing them directly is important as opposed to them being talked about.
Brian S: Right. The tradition is that a prayer is directed by a supplicant toward someone/something powerful who can grant a favor, and by putting daughters in that position, you place them in the position of power.
Barbara Jane Reyes: Hey, I like that! I definitely wanted them in a central position, one of visibility, and one in which they can speak, rather than be spoken for, shushed, silenced.
Brian S: I also like how the book’s speaker moves from a collective we to a third person from poem to poem, and sometimes even inside the poem. Is that part of your attempt to capture that kapwa you mentioned earlier?
Barbara Jane Reyes: Yes, I think that’s a good way to put it. I also want to address the reader themselves, call their attention to someone they might otherwise ignore, or not know to look for, so that the reader can know who I am elegizing, and why.
Brian S: What are you working on now? Or is it too early to ask?
Barbara Jane Reyes: Oh man! I think my ‘some brown girl’ is starting to feel like exercise again, before I open myself up to writing in an intense emotional state again! I have been writing brown girl epistolaries but I definitely feel I am holding myself back.
Brian S: Does something come along in your writing process that breaks the dam and gets you into that intense emotional state?
Barbara Jane Reyes: Yes I think so. I write and write and write until I start uncovering more layers, and/or until I eventually get to the heart of the thing.
Brian S: Who are you reading right now? Anything new we should have our eyes out for?
Barbara Jane Reyes: Just finished work by Layli Long Soldier, Javier Zamora, Janice Sapigao. I also just picked up Tongo Eisen-Martin.
Brian S: Is it just me or has this been an unusually good year for poetry?
Barbara Jane Reyes: It’s been a great year for poetry! I think it’s a lot of what we were saying earlier about timeliness. I think presses and editors seem to have opened themselves more than I have previously given them credit for! Also: there is a lot of noise, then this amazing stuff rises above the noise.
Brian S: Yeah, I don’t know if poets and presses are ahead of the curve or if this work would have always been relevant and the world is just noticing, but it’s been fire this year. Including your book!
Barbara Jane Reyes: Thank you!
Brian S: Okay, last question—how has City Lights been to work with?
Barbara Jane Reyes: City Lights has been so great. They really know how to work with an author to reach both the author’s anticipated/imagined audience and then their own established readership.
On the evening of my book launch at City Lights, I first met with the bookstore staff so they could ask me their own questions about the work. There was so much care there.
Brian S: Well, I can’t tell you how pleased I am that we were able to make this happen. I’ve been trying to get you for the Poetry Book Club since forever, it feels like, and I’m glad you’re here.
Barbara Jane Reyes: Thank YOU for making this happen!
Brian S: Thanks for joining us tonight and for writing this amazing book.
Author photograph © Oscar Bermeo.