The spring quarter here at UCR started today, and I need to write this post before I forget.
I was invited by the University of Victoria to present my poems on the aswang and the St. Louis World’s Fair a few weeks back. It was great to meet with other graduate students and Ph. D candidates from all over Canada and the U.S. and hear creative and academic work on fantastic literature.
For me, the keynote speaker, Hiromi Goto (Japanese Canadian fiction writer) was the highlight of the conference. She presented on race and representation in Ursula Le Guin’s Wizard of Earthsea. I haven’t read Le Guin but Goto did an excellent job of contextualizing her work. She spoke about misreading the protagonist Ged (a young wizard) as white though he is described by Le Guin as a dark skinned man. Goto reflected on her own childhood of reading stories about mostly white characters by mostly white authors. She talked about a moment of recognition when she read A Cricket in Times Square by George Selden when Sai Fong, Chinatown shop owner, appears in the text. No matter how essentialized Sai Fong’s character was, she was still struck by the inclusion of an Asian person in the story, since it was so rare to see.
Goto emphasized that the sense of place and body can’t be neutralized in reading, that the reader is reading from a context not a state of neutrality. When Goto asked, “Is race an issue an when race is not an issue?” I couldn’t help look around the room, a habit formed from attending a nearly all-white college on the East Coast. I had an idea that I was probably one of the only students of color but no idea until that moment that I was the ONLY one. I couldn’t help but think about the First Nations and immigrant poets and writers who weren’t at the conference but deeply rooted in the landscape of Victoria.
As I mentioned earlier, I read poems from my project on the aswang and the World’s Fair, which are very much poems about the body politic. It was strange to read these poems to a practically all-white audience.
Barbara Jane Reyes is talking about the role of pinayism and feminism in the poetry world over at her blog, and I’m thinking, too, about the role of the woman writer of color as critic, workshop presenter and scholar.
Hmm. I’m still processing all of this. I’ll write more later.
Just a quick update. I’m heading to the University of Victoria in British Columbia for “Curious, If True: The Fantastic in Literature” Conference. I’ll be on the “Family, Childbirth and Death” creative writing panel, presenting my poetry on the aswang and reading poems from the manuscript. I’m excited. This will be the first time sharing my work at a conference, and many of the other panels look fascinating.
In poetry workshop today, Juan Felipe mentioned a mediation podcast about the trunk and the branches. (I think it’s this one.) He said, the trunk is, of course, the body of the tree, and the branches are out there, but still part of the tree. In poetry terms, the trunk is the soul, the deepsong (I think of duende) of the poem. The branches are the decoration, or the experimentation, the tools in which we poets use to play. He suggested we ask ourselves after we write poems, “Is the trunk speaking? Or the branches?” I think these are essential questions to ask. As poets and artists, of course, we are responsible for craft but we must access the trunk that lends gravity to the work. The trunk should speak to the forms we use. I’m striving for balance in my work, though, this week, I feel like I’ve been writing a lot from the trunk, in both poetry and non-fiction. Part of this comes from the fuel I mentioned in my last post. I love playing with form and being meticulous with the words on the page, but I’m realizing now that living in the branches means ignoring the trunk, the deeper stuff. My first inclination as a writer is to preoccupy myself with the conceit of a poem, rather than what’s fueling it. I believe listening has a large part to do with accessing the trunk.
Yusef Komunyakaa talks a bit about this in a video interview by Sampsonia Way Magazine, which is on the Rattapallax website. He says, “Listening is the most important thing in creative arts and life… In a highly technological society, instruments are there to steal what we call bits of information. But it isn’t knowledge before us… Any interesting, complex dialogue comes out of silence and listening. I listen for the music, as opposed to the ideas. The ideas are there because language is really a composite of symbols that which come from the body as opposed to that abstract vental space.”
I thought that this quote relates to the trunk and the branches. Komunyakaa says, “Come to a piece not to perfect a voice, but to discover a voice. Many people have lots of things to write about and they don’t. They have silenced themselves through programmed experimentation to seem heady. Only a few people are brave enough to say what has informed their psyche.”