Barbara Jane Reyes

By Melissa R. Sipin

Photo: Oscar Bermeo

Barbara Jane Reyes is the author of Diwata (BOA Editions, Ltd., 2010), winner of the Global Filipino Literary Award for Poetry and 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. She is also the author of the chapbooks Easter Sunday (Ypolita Press, 2008) Cherry (Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs, 2008), and For the City that Nearly Broke Me (Aztlan Libre Press, 2012).
An Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Fellow, she received her B.A. in Ethnic Studies at U.C. Berkeley and her M.F.A. at San Francisco State University. She is an adjunct professor at University of San Francisco’s Yuchengco Philippine Studies Program, where she teaches Filipino/a Literature in Diaspora, and Filipina Lives and Voices in Literature. She has also taught Filipino American Literature at San Francisco State University, and graduate poetry workshop at Mills College, and currently serves on the board of Philippine American Writers and Artists (PAWA). She lives with her husband, poet Oscar Bermeo, in Oakland, where she is co-editor of Doveglion Press.

Your poetry centers around myth-making and rendering Philippine mythology in new, transformative ways. We would love it if you could talk a little about myth-making and the importance it has in your writing.

Myth making has always been important to me, especially as I learned more about Philippine mythologies, and about our pre-colonial, pre-Catholic heritage, and the power of women in these societies.

When I was very young, my mother’s mother would tell me stories that really stayed with me; I mostly remember the story of the god who formed people out of mud, and baked them in a large earthen oven. You know this one, right? The undercooked ones were Caucasians, the overcooked ones Africans, and the just-right ones were us. This meant something to me, and my world view was formed around her stories. By contrast, my father’s mother unapologetically favored her most light-skinned grandchildren, I was one of very few brown girls in school, and standards of beauty did not include us.

It took me a long time to learn how to mine these old stories, how to write from them and not fear them; they were that powerful to me, that I didn’t want to mess with them. I started reading Filipina literature at UP Diliman in the 1990’s, where I took this wonderful class in the Comparative Literature Department, Filipino Women Writing in English, in Love, War, and Exile, taught by Cristina Pantoja-Hidalgo. I saw how these Filipina writers handled mythical elements and the old stories. Of note is Maria Elena Paterno’s “A Song in the Wind,” written from the point of view of a mermaid, and a few of Marjorie Evasco’s poems, ”Acquainted with Lightning,” and “Caravan of the Water-Bearers.” What I remember about these poems was a self-assured woman voice, and a strong sentiment of woman power.

What inspired you to write Diwata? Where did you start? What advice can you give to beginning writers who have trouble with the beginning (with a story or poem) and discovering their voice?

I started writing Diwata, really by revisiting the mythic women voices and personae which have always populated my work. In Gravities of Center and Poeta en San Francisco, a mermaid speaks. I wanted to give her more space to tell her version of the story, just as Paterno’s mermaid does. This led me to think more about the brown woman/third world woman storyteller, the woman as bearer of culture and wisdom, and her story being wildly divergent from what we read in Western history books, the “master narrative.”

There is a poem I tried to write almost two decades ago, in which a mermaid encounters young revolutionaries, executed and thrown into the river. I scrapped the poem because no matter what I did with it, it just wasn’t working. I was not pleased with the speaker’s voice; it felt too forced, and her emotional range was too much like my own, a 20-something year old brown girl in America, versus that of a being older than time, which is what a mermaid would be. I was trying too hard to write something I didn’t know yet how to write. I was really disappointed at myself for not being able to make it work. Years later, the mermaid continued to make her presence known in Gravities of Center and Poeta en San Francisco. And this mermaid who encounters the executed revolutionaries made her way into Diwata in my “Duyong” poems, where I’ve written five different mermaid personae, who speak with a certain amount of emotional maturity, distance, ambivalence that she’s cultivated over her long, long life and mythical status as an observer/witness of human lives.

So then, in terms of advice to beginning writers, if the story is meant to be written, then it will be written, and it’s up to you to figure out how to get to that point that you’re ready to write it. For me, it meant years of practice, and going to school to continue my education as a writer, immersing myself in a structured, professional environment with writers and professors who would push my aesthetic and literary boundaries, and oftentimes push them hard.

It’s a matter of time and practice, trial and error, experimentation, during which you will grow as a person and as a writer, and learn exactly how to tell the story, what tools you need, and how to wield them.

Do you believe in the mantra, “Write what you know?” What are your thoughts on this? Is there a particular way that you can describe the balance between the personal and universal in writing, or specifically, utilizing the necessary distance and vulnerability in your writing?

I write not necessarily what I know, but rather, what I want to find out. Much of what I write begins with a question, or a problem, or a visual in my mind that I need to unravel, give depth to. I recently saw the poet Douglas Kearney read at SF MOMA; he’d written a series of poems from a single painting by Chinese-Afro-Cuban artist, Wilfredo Lam, and Kearney gave the piece not only three dimensions, but speculated a context, characters with motivation, movement with a beginning, middle, and end. I don’t believe he started out knowing exactly what the painting was about, or where his writing would take him; he wrote precisely to figure that out. This, I would like to think, is what I strive to do in my writing as well.

I try my best not to think about “universal” or “personal” when I’m writing; this is too abstract for me. I think about the specific voice or persona I’m trying to mine, what would she really say and do, versus what can I make her say or do. I typically take my autobiographical self out of the work, because I believe it limits me; there’s only so much about myself and my private life that I am willing to share with readers, with others. So if there were ever something in my own life that I feel the need to write about, I would assign this to a persona and open it up beyond myself. This way, I am not hung up on feeling so exposed such that it hampers my writing, or adhering to the actual, factual details. I could use these as a point of departure, or a foundation upon which to build a body of poems.

As an inspiring poet, what advice can you give to our readers about attending an MFA or MA program in creative writing? Is it necessary to attend an MFA/MA? Could you give your own personal experience in juggling your writer’s life and your own life?

I always say that one need not get an MFA in order to be a writer, and I truly believe this. I chose that route for myself because I needed critical and involved feedback, which I was not getting from my own community. I was receiving much validation and affirmation, which is important, but this stunted my growth. There was no challenge here, no critical eye on the work, and no language to help me better understand my process so that I could hone it, improve upon it. So in this way, the MFA was necessary for me, in order to be challenged and pushed.

Some people receive substantial critical feedback in community arts writing workshops, or in their own writers’ groups. I think that’s great, and I think they’re fortunate. But for all of the anger and outrage in my work, specifically in the poems which became Poeta en San Francisco, I needed to move past my own assumptions, to know how to give specific names to that anger and outrage. I needed to know exactly what/who my personae were angry and outraged about, and to whom my personae should direct their outrage. Ultimately, I needed the space to learn the discipline of refining these poems to be artful, to have form and nuance beyond catharsis and rant. The experience of writing Poeta en San Francisco gave me the discipline to write Diwata, to take a very painful history and write it with a certain amount of focus, concentration, distillation of emotion and language.

As far as my own juggle of professional and personal, it’s a challenge. I put on a public face when I am out there, physically and virtually, keep most of everything relevant to the arts and the arts community, and I try to keep most of everything else out of the public. I write and edit in short and intense bursts, and get back to the tasks of my everyday life.

Certainly, the boundaries are blurry, because I am married to a poet who also has a public life, and so poetic discussion happens with us in the course of our everyday, in our morning commute, at the grocery store, at the dinner table. As well, one of my livelihoods is teaching poetry and Filipino literature, both of which are central to my work in the arts. I respect my students’ privacy, and my husband’s, and hope that people respect mine!

Have you ever felt any expectations thrust upon you as an Asian-American writer? As a Filipin-American writer?

I always feel expectations thrust upon me! I receive emails all the time, folks asking me for stuff, even demanding stuff from me! Sometimes folks rant at me because it seems they want me to hear them. I am generally good with this when folks are reasonable; it’s a privilege to be respected as an author in the community, to be invited to speak, to be invited to teach, to share my knowledge and experiences with others in the community. I do not take this lightly. I do find myself pushing back though, trying my best to elevate the literature, and the practice of writing, editing, and publishing, constantly encouraging folks to challenge themselves and take it to the next level.

The worst part about community expectations is when others try to demand I speak in their voices, and this is because they want to be heard the way it’s perceived that I am heard. But my speaking in their voices isn’t going to happen. I am not a mouthpiece for others. I will always speak with my voice, and am always pleased that I can grow community this way. If others want their voices to be heard, then this is when I push hard the practice of intensive and thoughtful writing, editing, publishing, and promoting oneself. You can speak in your own voice, and you can be heard, listened to, and respected. 

Fill in the blank. Writing to you is: ____?

Writing to me is the way I continue to try to understand.

In your opinion, what role does art play in the 21st century (and specifically, what role does poetry play)?

Arts and poetry will always be important to us as a society. People claim to devalue the arts all the time precisely because it requires a thinking, non-passive mind, and isn’t always a lucrative venture. Specific to poetry, I know poets and poetry organizations constantly lamenting poetry’s lack of relevance to American society. But I also know that poetry is where people continue to go when they are in the shit and/or exhiliaration of life transition or rites of passage, or experiencing grave loss and are seeking comfort. Poetry also has a major place in social and political movements, and this will continue to be the case.

Also, I’ve been thinking about having recently watched Eminem on 60 Minutes; my husband has been telling me about his reading of Jay-Z’s Decoded; and we have also just watched Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest. All of these are timely, confirming and affirming for me things I have and continue to believe about the appeal of language mastery, wordplay, oral tradition, an interest in form, possibilities of intersecting with popular culture and community building.

How about a more personal question. What’s on your iPod?

On my iPod! About six or seven different David Sylvian solo albums and and collaborations (including Japan and Nine Horses), Ryuchi Sakamoto, Nine Inch Nails, Soundgarden, Ozomatli, Si*Sé, U2, Joey Ayala, Grace Nono, Pinkipikan, Emm Gryner, Guns n Roses, Midnight Oil, Peter Gabriel, Duran Duran, Jeff Buckley, Christina Aguilera, War, Joe Bataan, Rasputina.

The iPod is conjugal property, so let me also add A Tribe Called Quest, Afrika Bambaataa, Art of Noise, The Jimmy Castor Bunch, Pedro Pietri’s Loose Joints, Fania All Stars, more U2, Gang Starr ….

What makes you angry?

Misogynists and racists. Selfish people. People who don’t listen. Anti-intellectualism.

What inspires you?

Language. City. Nature. Art. Story. Storytellers. Storytelling. Having a community of artists who are engaged in experimentation and are always psyched about creativity. 

What’s your favorite city in the whole world, and can you write there?

Oakland is one of my favorite cities in the world, precisely because I’ve chosen to make it my home! Manila is also; I love it and I hate it so much.

Why can / can’t you write there?

I can write in both. Oakland is home, and so I must be able to write in/from my home, so this becomes a matter of discipline for me. While I enjoy travel, I can’t be a jet setter, because home is such an important thing for me — home and stability, a strong center. I can’t subject myself to instability and tumult just so that I’ll have drama to fill my notebooks.

Manila is intense for me, sharpens my sense of history and mythology, and this forces me to confront a lot of historical and cultural contradictions.

But I’ve decided no matter where I am in the world, I must be able to write, wherever I am.

And lastly, what does being Filipino / Filipino American mean to you?

This is a tough one! It means embodying and living a crazy mix of colonized, decolonized, multilingual, transnational, indigenous selves. It means always having with me an expansive family, with all the nuts and beauty that family entails. It means being a part of a tribe.

Above artwork by Kristian Kabuay  | Previously printed in TAYO Issue 3