Forms and Formal(istic) Choices in Letters to a Young Brown Girl, by Barbara Jane Reyes

Editorial Note: In the Fall 2020 semester, Barbara Jane Reyes visited (by zoom) my class on Poetic Forms at the University of Tampa to talk about her latest book of poems, Letters to a Young Brown Girl—which, I believe, we were the first class ever to read. After our class conversation, Reyes generously sent me notes she prepared, elaborating on the forms and formal aspects of her book. I found these notes illuminating, specifically for reading her book and more broadly for studying poetic form and Filipino American or Fil-diasporic poetics. I am grateful for her permission to publish them here.

1. Al Robles, Amerasia Journal (UCLA), “Hanging on to the Carabao’s Tail,” (1989) is a lyrical essay in which Robles describes his poetics as a “tribal” poetics rooted in community struggle, his community’s cultures and his community members’ memories. He challenges readers and listeners not to overthink and intellectualize the poetry, but to accept and embrace poetry’s contradictions and lack of rationality (he likens it to Zen koan: “what seems nonsensical or nothing at all, may have a deeper meaning because of its utter stupidity or emptiness”), as coming from these places – neighborhoods where we have lived our lives collectively and with improvisation, speaking and singing together, praying together and eating together, working in the struggle together.  

2. Epistolary: I am drawn to the intimacy of the form, (pre-email, pre-internet) private and personalized correspondences. Something like Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, though I admit my title’s resemblance to Rilke was more coincidental than intentional. Before writing these poems, I asked other Filipino women via social media, “what kind of questions do you have for me.” I did not limit the subject matter. The intimacy was so interesting, the stuff from their own personal lives they trusted me with, I don’t think I had expected. I was also reading Diane di Prima’s Revolutionary Letters at the time, and one thing I think of this work as is a feminist handbook for living. Also epistolary is the diary (pink, with lock and key), which I write about as that private place where we (girls) learned to write down our true and secret thoughts and feelings, as we were discouraged from voicing our opinions and ideas in public forums. 

3. Mixtape: personal/personalized curation, gifting. Some adolescent nostalgia is involved. I am thinking about the actual painstaking creation of cassette mixtapes from so many different sources — friends’ LPs and 45s, local radio stations — and crafting these into an organized body with a certain tone or message. Creating handmade cover art, liner notes. For myself, this included magazine and newspaper cuttings, different pens and markers, maybe stickers when I was younger. Moving into mp3s downloaded from Napster and then eventually from iTunes and burned onto CDs. Not the same tactile quality. But the sentiment is still there, the curated playlist as a personalized object of gifting.  

4. Prose poetry. I love because of the long lines, and because of the density. You can cram so much emotional content into a small space. So then the appearance of the prose unit, but still poetic lyric, still containing poetic musical properties. The author Sesshu Foster said at one of his City Lights Books events, that he was drawn to the prose poem because he didn’t have to think about enjambment, have the cuteness and cleverness of enjambment take over the initial intentions of the poem. I think of the prose poem as a continuous line and hence, one continuous thought or meditation, broken only by the limitations of the physical page. 

5. More formal(istic) choices include diction or register. I do love writing in/using poetic diction and writing hella “poem-y” poems, poems that are deemed “poetic.” But I have also been interested throughout my writing life, in writing in the languages and “vernaculars” spoken around me — in my family, my local community, the languages of the people, what I hear in the streets and on trains and buses. People’s living languages. Whether it is hybrid/code switching Tagalog/English, and some Spanish, much of which has become a part of modern Filipino languages. I believe poetry can have room for these different registers. The Chilean poet Nicanor Parra wrote: “In poetry everything is permitted. / With only this condition of course, / You have to improve the blank page.” So then for me, it’s important to think about what I am doing with these languages, why I am using them. It’s important to use these with intention and focus.

6. Kapwa, Loób — using these terms in Sikolohiyang Pilipino, commonly translated as “Indigenous Psychology” pioneered by Professor Virgilio Enriquez in the 1970s, are also very conscious choices I’ve made, in terms of trying to imagine a different type of poetics more fitting for the world views I’ve inherited, which have informed my instincts and the way I interact with family and others, but that I did not formally learn about until I was a young adult at University of the Philippines. The gist of Sikolohiyang Pilipino is using Filipino terminology and frameworks to understand Filipino personalities and behaviors. How … common sense is that. So I’m interested in bringing kapwa and loób into discussions of specifically Filipino American or Fil-diasporic poetics, a collective “we” poetics. I am also aware that readers may view my exploration of these Filipino terms in English language poems as a contradiction. See Al Robles above, re: contradictions. How do these things manifest in our “Western” lives, and are they still relevant to our everyday lives. Do we still prioritize these, and why and how. 

7. Serafin Malay Syquia, on political poetry, not as poetry that is “oversimplified, rhetorical and temporary.” Syquia was so eloquent, I prefer to use his own words: “If poetry is to reflect life as it is, it must concentrate on the symptoms of the sickness that have necessitated the various escapes that artists are forced to take in order to separate themselves from reality. Poetry should not nurture the symptom that created the sickness in the first place. It should help to cure the problems of the world by exposing and offering a sensitive response to the causes of the failures in society.”

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