You’ve all heard it before—“A poem shouldn’t mean but be” (Archibald MacLeish), “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” (William Wordsworth), “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world” (Percy Bysshe Shelley). But what does it all mean? There is one thing I know. A word should not be devoid from its context. The poem lives because of its traditions and backgrounds—as a person does.
I am a Filipino-American. Am I less American because I am Filipino? No, because each lineage of my being, each cultural tradition in both countries, informs this. Such is the poem. It is the negotiation of multiple complex lineages that make a poem exciting. I was raised in a strict conservative Filipino household until I made my way to America in 1997, at eight years old. I lived in America until I was 22; I attended elementary, high school, and college there. I became a mix of two cultures, though I had no clear grasp of tradition or roots of either culture yet. All I knew was that I loved the idea of democracy, individualism, and freedom, as well as the Spanish-Catholic context of my upbringing. It meant I could be heard. Yet, I didn’t know what to say yet.
When I made my way back to the Philippines, the country of my birth, I didn’t form a new identity—I found a community and a tradition. I have spent the last four years in the MA Creative Writing Program of the University of the Philippines, Diliman. I learned what it meant to come from the subject-position of both the colonizer (America, the land of the free; and Spain, the land of my great-grandfather’s own Catholic conquistador lineage) and the colonized (my family, the Filipino people). I learned that I am living in a postcolonial world, especially when I blend the Shakespearean sonnet I was so accustomed to with Tagalog phrases I picked up along the way. Most of my poems code-switch because I believe language is fluid. The postcolonial is not just in your theory books—it is everywhere, from my mom’s beef asado, to my friend’s Japanese manga, to my own Malaysian batik hanging in my room.
I picked poetry as part of the MA Creative Writing Program of the University of the Philippines (UP). I learned about Philippine Poetry in English, and the literary greats of my country such as Angela Manalang Gloria and Jose Garcia Villa. I spent much of my research on the formal poems of Angela Manalang Gloria. She mixed Filipino forms such as the Tanaga with English forms such as the sonnet. She was, in learning the New Critical tradition in the early stages of the American period, paving the way for the poets of Philippine Literature in English. She also attended UP, where I am now. This fascination with form informs my writing as well—I have spent much of my creative writing workshops here in UP inspired by the formal works of Filipino poets, American contemporary poets, and Filipino-American poets alike.
In my time at the University of the Philippines Writers Club, a university organization, I have mentored other writers, led writing workshops, and have been part of a committee that put out monthly zines. These tasks, in their own ways, showed me the value of community in the writing world. Writing is a solitary act, but there are ways to share our joys and our pains with each other. Which is why, I’d like to eventually teach in the future, and impart what I have learned from my own teachers to the teachers and poets of tomorrow.
My plan is to take what I know of the past, with what I know of the future, and make a thing that resides in the present moment—the poem. I feel there is a need to do this, with the political situation escalating in both the Philippines and the U.S., now more than ever. I believe the plight of immigrants must be heard because we are all immigrants of some sort. (The only non-immigrants are the true natives of the land, most of whom have been forced out of their lands). I believe the intensity of a poem, the dense nature of a line, the possibilities of syntax, and all aspects that make up a poem work together to become a fitting medium for tragedy. Certainly, there is a tragedy inherent in immigrant narratives, but also a glimmer of that hope that going to America could fulfill all promise.
The power of poetry is that of being within a community, within a lineage, within a tradition. Poetry does not exist without the poets who have written before us. It is within this trajectory where we as contemporary writers of poetry now stand. We cannot ignore the past if we want to change the future. We are all boiled up with our past affecting our present affecting our future at the same time.
The poem, as Yeats said in “Adam’s Curse,” should endeavor to be as simply wrought as can be. The metaphor should be a bull’s eye description. The tone alive and floating in the air. The dramatic situation is clear as a standpoint. I have been trained to write poetry in this way; for me, these are the fundamentals. Yet, they are not fixed points. All are changeable ingredients that make a poem its own. For a poem to “not mean, but be,” it’s got to live. And we each have our own different ways of living.