Barbara Jane Reyes is the author of Diwata (Photo by Oscar Bermeo).
By BRYAN THAO WORRA
AAP staff writer
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.
She received her B.A. in Ethnic Studies at U.C. Berkeley and her M.F.A. at San Francisco State University. She has taught at Mills College, and at University of San Francisco’s Philippine Studies Program. She lives with her husband, poet Oscar Bermeo, in Oakland, where she is co-editor of Doveglion Press.
Her chapbooks include Easter Sunday (2008), Cherry (2008), and West Oakland Sutra for the AK-47 Shooter at 3:00 AM and other Oakland poems (2008). Her poems, essays, and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in Arroyo Literary Review, Asian Pacific American Journal, Chain, Filipinas Magazine, Hambone, Hyphen, Interlope, Kartika Review, Lantern Review, Latino Poetry Review, New American Writing, North American Review, Notre Dame Review, XCP: Cross Cultural Poetics, among others. Asian American Press had an opportunity to catch up with her recently.
Asian American Press: We often talk about how writers got started, but what keeps you going as an artist?
Barbara Jane Reyes: Deadlines, ambition.
Seriously, I wonder sometimes whether I’ve got another book in me. But as I gain more experience teaching poetry and literature, and mentoring emerging writers, I find that young folks’ wonder and enthusiasm for ideas and literature to which they’ve not previously been exposed can be contagious. A new set of eyes on ideas I thought I’ve exhausted can be so refreshing. So emerging writers keep me going.
My fellow artists also motivate me. It’s wonderful to be privy to their creative and intellectual processes, to see what informs and influences their work. It’s also inspiring to be a part of a prolific community of authors. My reading list has grown exponentially as a result of exposure to the poems, essays, and stories of their literary idols and forbears, as well as their newly published work.
AAP: Tell us a little about Diwata. What can we expect that’s different from your previous works? Where do you feel you are you really trying to push yourself?
BJR: Well, I think of Diwata as much more gentle than my previous book, Poeta en San Francisco, which I have been told is unflinchingly in your face. I’ve taken my poetic speakers into the realm of myth, mythic and historical time, which isn’t radically different from my previous work. There have always been glimmers of Philippine mythology in my poetry, and a sirena/mermaid persona who insists upon speaking. Diwata is where I expanded upon those mythical voices, and where there were gaps in my knowledge of my family’s and community’s narratives, I gave myself the permission to fabricate and speculate.
In Diwata, I’ve pushed myself into personae who speak in voices different enough than my own, inhabiting worlds unfamiliar to me. I’ve had to learn to be a better listener to others’ stories, folks from different generations and geographies, literally speaking different languages in which I am not fluent and barely proficient. So then, listening has become something other than spoken narrative.
I’ve also had to consider what I’ll call here a more indigenous world view which is truly not my own, and write from there while doing my best not to fetishize it.
From Diwata, I want to explore more deeply a world view and practice that is collective, in which that poetic “I,” is de-centered and really a poetic “we.” I’m challenged in figuring my way into this. While a fully collaborative and collective first person is appealing in the abstract, and as “tribe,” I’m also quite fearful of it because I really value my autonomy!
AAP: Do you have any big projects coming up?
BJR: None that I can talk about openly! Seriously, things are in the works.
What I can talk about is my ongoing work with the Philippine American Writers and Artists (PAWA), and the collaborative work we’re doing there with other local APIA arts orgs. In addition to continuing on with the reading series (which we have been running monthly since 2008), we will be offering more writing and publishing workshops.
As co-editor of Doveglion Press, I can also tell you about a collaboration with fellow APIA poet Lee Herrick’s In the Grove, dedicated to California writers. We are working on a special print issue of In the Grove, featuring Filipino American writers from California. While the issue is already quite comprehensive, it’s also still only a tiny snapshot of our community’s talent.
I am also creating a Pinay Literature curriculum for the Philippine Studies Program where I teach; I’m super excited to have an entire semester course solely dedicated to the writings of Filipinas, which to me is just phenomenal. The only time I have ever taken (much less heard of) a class like this was at University of the Philippines.
AAP: Has your artistic process changed over time, or do you feel you’ve found a specific approach that works for you now?
BJR: I would like to think my process is always growing or evolving. I used to keep Moleskines and rollerball pens with superfine points with me at all times, but that was when I was actually in public spaces for hours — parks, cafes, bars — people watching, eavesdropping on conversations, wandering slowly through art exhibits and gettin’ ekphrastic.
These days, I don’t have that kind of time, so I am now dong my best to multitask in efficient and concentrated bursts, starting with an idea, a line, a question. I am also writing less with pen and paper, so perhaps that’s why I’m nostalgic for those Moleskines and superfine point rollerball pens.
What’s been working best for me is to write within specific projects (and I know some poets hate it when you call your poetry a project). I am focused not so much on individual poems, but on bodies of poems which will one day become books of poems.
AAP: What do you deplore in poetry?
BJR: Inability and unwillingness to risk, to learn, and to grow. Unwillingness to read and write outside of one’s comfort zone. Lack of imagination, lack of curiosity / inquisitiveness. Selfishness.
Mostly, I deplore uncritical deployments of privileged narratives that portray women, women of color, people of color, and native people as objects, caricatures, backdrops, and foils/contrasts to reinforce their own dominant/centered whiteness and maleness.
AAP: How important is risk for Asian American artists?
BJR: Very. I think, if you don’t risk, then you are in danger of re-treading what you and others before you have already written.
AAP: What advice would you give to emerging writers?
BJR: Push your boundaries. Read everything! Write outside of your usual sets of aesthetics and politics. Let yourself be inspired by the diversity of literature, art, and cultural productions out there. Be open.
Be generous and supportive of your fellow writers. Share with others the opportunities that have presented themselves to you.
Be DIY and participate in the gift economy. It’s great practice to produce your own chapbooks, to swap work with others, to build a network of working artists this way. The kinship, camaraderie, and empathy you cultivate is necessary and irreplaceable.
Blog! It’s a wonderful public space in which to work out your ideas on process; to discuss who and what is informing your work, as well as why and how; to flesh out work in progress and receive feedback from others.