A BURNING QUESTION FOR THE WORLD AND THE POETRY FOUNDATION TOO

Filipinos jpeg

So here’s a really big one, Barbara Jane Reyes. Isn’t the looseness in the creative souls of your Filipino poets, the flexibility, the disorder even in their language, isn’t that actually an advantage? And don’t they get that freedom precisely by being part of a marginalized, deracinated culture? Isn’t that their big reward as artists?

When you’re shut out, can’t you also feel liberated by not having to make sense in the eyes of the establishment? Can’t you even survive better by realizing you’re your own Cirque Soleil, and the sky is your tent and anything you say way up on a very high, and very shaky, high high wire?

Like Cockney humor when London was such a God-awful place to be a worker, or Puerto Rican street talk when so-called ‘Latinos’ were just a Westside Story? Or Gypsies anywhere in Europe, even now, or the really great Yiddish in the Ghetto. None of those people wanted to be understood, their language was their hidden treasure!

And isn’t the creative nonsense-genius you get in English from Latinos, Cockneys and Filipinos just the opposite of Flarf, for example, or Stephen Burt’s  ‘New Thing,’ both of which are so studiously the product of too much money, too much leisure, too much education, too much self-regard, and cultural cabin fever?

I hope you’ve had a chance to read Thomas Brady’s two essays on the Not A Radical Treatise thread (click here, and here). Isn’t the role of what he calls “Limits” applicable to all ‘overly-racinated’ cultures, not just mainstream American poetry — bound feet in China, for example, what a heart-breaking limit that was? And if you begin to feel too privileged with Franchisement, might you not begin to affect Disenfranchisement today, pretend to be a Revolutionary, and start another very self-conscious, very rarefied, very hard to understand and therefore very deep New Movement? (I almost said “fake” there, but the tragedy, of course, is self-delusion. Yes, it’s “new” alright,  but so what? The question is, is it genuine? Does it have any genuine human value?)

And the real thing, the diamond, Desmond Swords, isn’t he just the opposite of a Stephen Burt? I hope you’ve read Desmond too — he writes about his struggle as a working class Irish poet to get accepted by the British blog establishment (click here). He also reflects specifically on his experiences on Blog:Harriet  (click here)  and goes international on the Guardian Blog — quite a read, including the flabbergasted responses!

So what do you think it did to Desmond’s voice when he found out it was just being read as “blather,” Or getting booted off The Poetry Foundation’s site for that matter? How much pleasure did that give him do you think? How high did that make him fly?

Or even in a tiny little way, the three of us here on Scarriet, Tom, Des and myself, uprooted from Harriet and cast adrift by The Poetry Foundation of America? Aren’t we sort of lucky?

Christopher Woodman

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6 Comments

  1. thomasbrady said,

    September 30, 2009 at 7:55 pm

    A polyglot environment is a terrible challenge to literature, for literature requires a certain amount of universal understanding, without which the poet cannot make herself properly understood.

    Poetry departs from ordinary language; the reader must know THE language to appreciate departures from IT.

    For instance, if every citizen in a nation spoke the ‘language’ of ‘Finnegan’s Wake’ (Joyce), that nation could have NO literature; the polyglot nature of the people would smear the template; no common language upon which a literature might grow could possibly exist.

    Intellectuals always err on the side of polyglot rather than simplicity, but it is precisely this–simplicity–to which the Filipino writer MUST aspire.

    Yet this simplicity would be rebuked at every turn, by intellectuals, since it is in their nature to do so, as intellectuals.

    The Filipino who is able to make a kind of literary sense to outsiders– Americans, Englishmen, Spaniards, etc–would inevitably be ‘explaining’ the peculiarities of Filipino culture, and the burden of ‘explaining’ always weighs on those who would create literature.

    Models are necessary, but which models?

    A common language is necessary, but which common language?

    And this is all necessary before any literature can even begin.

    What are the most wildly popular literary works in the Philippines? The great 19th century writer, Jose Rizal, who wrote in Spanish, studied in Spain, France, and Germany, and was a phenomenal polymath, as might be expected.

    Rizal, also not surprisingly, wrote against the Philippine’s Spanish, Catholic regime.

    Colonization is a bitch, especially for literature.

    Literature works in eye-lash subtlety; its hands must be free. Complexity needs to inform its processes, but should not belabor its freedom.

    But human ingenuity works in unseen and magnificent ways; I’m sure the Philippines is loaded with genius; but the question is, what does it look like?

    What can it look like to you–and me?

  2. thomasbrady said,

    October 1, 2009 at 2:16 am

    Arlene Babst wrote last year in the Philippine Daily Inquirer:

    “Through the ’80s, I was among many Filipinos who believed that if we could just get rid of the Marcos regime, the Philippines would transform itself into the nation we dreamt of, where the law treated everyone equally whether your name was Marcos, Aquino, Ayala or Sy, or (fill in the name of the farmer, janitor, nurse or teacher, etc., as well as Bernabe Buscayno).

    We imagined a country where valuable entrepreneurs didn’t have to pay extortion “fees” to a procession of thieves before they could get their licenses or contracts; where government officials weren’t regarded as personal attendants by their bureaucratic bosses or by the Philippine President; where kidnappings and murders weren’t so run-of-the-mill that newscasts breezily squeezed them in between gossip about movie stars, and where the average citizen didn’t harbor such deep distrust of the police, the military, the judges, and most of all, the politicians.

    Many of us fervently wanted Marcos out, but we weren’t naïve enough to expect changes to happen overnight. But my exasperation gains context when you remember that hey, more than 20 years have passed! More of those changes should be in place now.

    Consider what Japan accomplished between 1945—when the country was on its knees, two of its cities eviscerated by atom bombs–and the mid-60s when it had already taken giant steps towards becoming the world’s second biggest economy. Observe how Thailand tackled problems similar to those of the Philippines within the same time frame of two decades—and compare where it stands today.

    What I didn’t understand then was the power of Filipino culture. More than the dictatorship— which it made possible—it is Filipino culture that keeps the Philippines down.

    No one need look far to find intelligent, honest, industrious Filipinos—we know innumerable stories of self-sacrificing, courageous Filipinos who beat incredible odds to rise above the poverty and corruption that drown the rest of the country.

    But neither do we have to look far to find Filipinos who think that the law applies to everyone—but them. Anyone born in the Philippines, myself included, has acquaintances, friends and relatives, who don’t pay their taxes, steal, cheat in business or elections, or even commit murder. The fact that we all know scoundrels and criminals, and let them get away with their crime, is one of the most common manifestations of the diseased culture that keeps the Philippines in a dismal state.

    I use the word culture to mean that discernible pattern of behavior in a group of people or a nation, including those values that are manifested again and again by individuals and the group as a whole until they become the dominant traits, the culture, of that group.

    Japanese culture values the hardworking team player. Respect for privacy and egalitarianism are prized in Swedish culture. American culture emphasizes the pursuit of happiness. Italians are proud of the gusto for style in their culture. A strong sense of individual rights and civic responsibility marks British culture.

    Even with the inevitable exceptions, there is such a thing as a national culture. And the culture that most Filipinos accept as theirs is (as a much-vilified American writer once wrote) a damaged culture. I call it a diseased culture.

    I don’t say that all Filipinos personify the diseased culture of the nation, or that all aspects of Filipino culture are perverse. There’s much that’s positive in Filipino culture, such as the helpfulness innate in most Filipinos; their love for the arts, especially music, dance and painting; their distaste for conflict; their ability to enjoy themselves even under oppressive conditions; and their generosity even when they have little themselves. But I do say that Filipino culture is diseased in some of its fundamental aspects.

    Start with the widespread disrespect for law in the Philippines. Too many Filipinos do not hold the cultural value that abiding by the law is essential for nation building, or even for their own self-respect. To cite a common example, many Filipinos laughingly say that traffic lights “are just a suggestion.”

    Property and lives are endangered or destroyed by such cavalier attitudes towards even basic traffic laws, yet Filipinos don’t recognize the connection between respect for the law and fewer victims. They don’t see respect for law as each citizen’s chance— and duty—to foster the vitally needed sense of community responsibility. With corrosive, disastrous effects, the same attitude is taken towards those laws that govern the very foundation of every nation: the justice system.

    Another perverted value: For most Filipinos, family, right or wrong, is more important than law, hence nepotism, political dynasties and unpunished criminal acts flourish; there’s always some relative to spring the family felon out of jail or install the incompetent in-law in public office.”

    These are pretty harsh words, and it all seems to come down to that old phrase, ‘a nation of laws, not men,’ or in this case, ‘a nation of cheating people.’

    To put it more bluntly and crudely: “My beloved country is a stinking third world country, whether Marcos rules or not.”

    A foetical side note: U.S. po-biz behaves like a stinking third world country. Corrupt poetry contests and unseemly prize-giving, grubbing for creds and recognition–as communication, literature and art suffer. Jorie Graham and her awards = Imelda Marcos and her shoes.

  3. cowpattyhammer said,

    October 1, 2009 at 7:30 am

    Oh Tom, oh Tom, oh Tom. Where to begin — every word of this article is so important and so applicable to almost every country in Asia, and particularly in the South East where these so-called “diseased” tendencies are endemic.

    And yet?

    And yet, I tell you, Tom, on another level it’s all different. What you think you see in the Philippines or Indonesia or Thailand is not what you’re seeing at all, and indeed the only real moral failure in what you say in your post is not in the Arlene Babst Philippine Daily Enquirer article at all! It’s in the U.S. PoBiz, and specifically in Jorie Graham!!!

    Yes, I’m going to address just that, so please hear me. And I hope you’re listening too, Barbara Jane Reyes — I would so have loved to write this as a response to one of your fine articles on Harriet, and thus had a chance to hear your reply!

    So let me start by saying that I can never understand when people ask me, “Why are you so enraged by Jorie Graham? It was so little what she did, and there are so many much worse examples of corruption! Why are you so fired up by this woman’s failures?” And I hear them — and I’m going to answer that while at the same time defending, yes, Filipino culture — which is NOT diseased, I say. It’s just different, and in many ways superior!

    But let me start with a glissando: let me say straight off that since I’ve never been in the Philippines I’m going to concentrate on the mainland which I know really well, and Thailand in particular. But don’t worry, since I’m talking in such huge general terms, I know that what I’m saying is applicable everywhere in Asia, and the South East in particular. You can trust me — ask anybody who lives there.

    The journey toward democracy, including transparency, accountability, and above all equality, is totally different in this region from in the west, and you simply can’t compare them, like chalk and cheese. But take notice, by saying this I’m not suggesting that the West is superior either — on the contrary, I’d say they’re actually like night and day, in the balance. Indeed, the reason almost anyone who can afford it in the West travels as a tourist to Chiang Mai, Bali or Manilla is because there’s something there so sparkling, so life-affirming, so precious that it’s worth the arm and the leg it costs to get there. Because, in a nutshell, there’s a freedom in those places that we law abiding citizens in the West are deprived of, there’s a security that despite all our police and our lawyers we lack, there’s a sense of well-being that no amount of drugs or therapy ever gives us, and a rich old age that cannot be guaranteed in our country regardless of how much money we have in the bank or the size of our insurance.

    Just look at the Filipinos in the staff house behind the huge Miami mansion, or down at the end of the Sunset Boulevard manor park? Who’s having the better time, the rich owner or the servants? Who’s freer, who’s healthier, who sleeps better? Who’s more beautiful, better adapted, more skillful as a human angel as well as a survivor?

    Call the culture “diseased” if you must, but it would be like calling a woman an underachiever because she can’t lift the same weight as a man or pee standing up. Or calling a man barren!

    The endemic corruption in these South East Asian cultures is not about what Jorie Graham did at all, because she betrayed her own values when she cheated us, which Thais and Filipinos and Hmong and Vietnamese almost never do. Yes, Jorie Graham is a good poet, but that’s precisely why her self-betrayal is so egregious. A Filipino would never have done that if he or she had had the chance to become a respected poet what is more Professor of Oratory and Rhetoric at Harvard. A Filipino is far more proud than that, a Filipino has far more self-respect!

    No, the endemic corruption arises from the simple fact that people in Asia feel that who they are is who they are, and even though the Philippines are not a Buddhist or Hindu region like the mainland, the same sense of acceptance lies at the heart of their culture. If you’re rich you’re rich, and that means you’re free to use the money you’ve got however you wish, and in doing so you’re even demonstrating that you’re morally superior to the poor. And the richer the better in every sense of the word!

    Wow!

    Which Jorie Graham certainly wasn’t. She was only demonstrating that at heart she’s really stupid — all Filipino’s, on the other hand, are born with intelligent hearts!

    End of Chapter One. I’ll be back with irrefutable arguments and more details — tomorrow!

    Christopher

  4. thomasbrady said,

    October 1, 2009 at 3:46 pm

    Christopher,

    Maybe Arlene Babst is not being fair. After all, she’s lived in Canada for a long time, now, even though she’s Filipino. And she WAS invited to Paul Engle’s International Writing Program, which is funded and supported by the State Department. When I worked for the IWP, there was always a lot of whispering and grumbling about the secret ‘offical’ nature of the IWP–and now a Harvard doctoral student is writing a book on Paul Engle and the CIA.

    Real interesting stuff…looking forward to more from you on this….

    Thomas

  5. cowpattyhammer said,

    October 1, 2009 at 4:13 pm

    Tom,
    I’d love to have a date and even a URL for that article if it’s available. It does feel old to me, like out of another epoch.

    That’s not to say that the corruption, tax evasion, irresponsibility, gap between the rich and the poor, and the hit-man killings are getting better — I suspect they’re even worse. But I also think there is a greater appreciation of the other values, the ones that say, quite literally, you don’t really have to buckle up, drive down the right side of the road, wear a helmet or even have a drivers license to be a valuable human being, are also very positive. It’s so exciting to live here in S.E. Asia — there’s never a dull moment! It’s good for the metabolism never to know what’s going to happen next on the road or anywhere else, and considering the chaos there don’t actually seem to be any more accidents. Just sort of Samurai driving, and a whole lot of fun. Like bumper cars!

    That’s a metaphor as well, of course — life as a 3 ring circus and no safety net!

    And the answer can only be Enlightenment — transcendence is the only hope, whatever that might mean, like becoming a fakir and then on to a saint. Any redistribution of wealth, better governance, more respect for the individual, grants for the arts and research, all that sort of Good Stuff, just leads to ulcers, guilt, and prozac.

    So there.

    C.

  6. thomasbrady said,

    October 1, 2009 at 7:49 pm

    Christopher,

    I know you sailed a small boat across the Atlantic, but this is the first time I’ve really heard you express yourself like this:

    “But I also think there is a greater appreciation of the other values, the ones that say, quite literally, you don’t really have to buckle up, drive down the right side of the road, wear a helmet or even have a drivers license to be a valuable human being, are also very positive. It’s so exciting to live here in S.E. Asia — there’s never a dull moment! It’s good for the metabolism never to know what’s going to happen next on the road or anywhere else, and considering the chaos there don’t actually seem to be any more accidents. Just sort of Samurai driving, and a whole lot of fun. Like bumper cars!”

    Whooooooo! The funny thing is, Arlene Babst is no mouse, but the two of you are really expressing very different philosophies.

    Your polis is not her polis.

    The following is bound to get you into trouble with Amercian liberals:

    “Any redistribution of wealth, better governance, more respect for the individual, grants for the arts and research, all that sort of Good Stuff, just leads to ulcers, guilt, and prozac.”

    Your point of view reminds me of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters.

    Did you know that Kesey was a graduate creative writing student at Stanford? And also volunteered for U.S. military LSD experiments? And also worked at a V.A. mental hospital, where he got the idea for ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest,’ which he wrote in Stanford’s creative writing workshop, run by Wallace Stegner?

    The older Stegner and Kesey did not get along.

    Stegner Fellows are everywhere in po-biz today. It’s like an MFA in poetry from Iowa. It’s a foet cabal, or something. They go on to teach at Harvard, etc. I have it on good authority that fully half of the ‘thumbs down’ votes on Harriet are by Stegner Fellows.

    Recall that Ken Kesey and his Pranksters traveled about in a SCHOOL bus.

    It’s all about the school. Where’d you go?

    Are you on the bus, or off the bus?

    We’re off the bus, Christopher.

    Or, perhaps we’re on the bus? In the 60s, the ‘outsider’ became the ‘insider.’

    But it sounds to me you’re saying in SE Asia these terms have all been exploded because EVERYONE is ‘living on the edge,’ everyone is IN ON THE RIDE.

    In the West, it’s about the school.

    Thomas