~ after Remedios Varo, “Icono” (“Interior”); Óleo y nácar incrustado/madera; 1943
Of the insides, we know only
the feel of invisible pulleys,
the ways those tethers feel
connected to the milkiness
of moons or doors that shut
and open according to
the quality of light or
landscape. Light pours
down a stairwell tinged
with the green scent
of fields and farms. Where
are we in that checkerboard
of overlapping days and nights?
There are windows and doors;
wheels, elaborate contraptions
that are more than just wings.
Light, air, motion, the density
of darkness: even in this world
we’re made to succumb to the laws
of physics— to land a machine
that’s clearly made for transport.
Today marks the 8th year of my daily writing practice— I’ve written at least a poem a day since November 20, 2010; and Dave Bonta has generously shared space on Via Negativa, where I’ve been free to post and archive the earliest versions of these poems, which at the outset I wrote in response to Dave’s posts at The Morning Porch. I also use what I read of Dave’s posts here at Via Negativa, and everything else at large, to help jumpstart poems. At least four full-length books of poetry and three chapbooks have come out of this daily engagement with words and poems.
After all these years, I think I’ve found a working and comfortable rhythm to my daily writing practice. I look forward to that part of the day when I can write my daily poem/s— it is time that feels like a reward I give myself, and it gives me the incentive to try to finish up as many items on my To-Do list in order to get to it more quickly.
Some of the most valuable things I’ve learned are simple, but they’re not always easy to do: learning to write against the “noise” of everyday life; learning to write wherever and whenever I can find even a precious half hour relatively free of work and other distractions; learning not to obsess about those “perfect conditions” that we sometimes think are the only moments when writing can happen. Writers, and I am no exception, are always wrestling with things like that “impostor syndrome”— which is really rooted in the idea of some supposedly higher standard against which one is made to continually measure oneself and one’s achievements in order to feel validated or “true.”
This past Friday, I was in New York for a reading and the launch of my chapbook What is Left of Wings, I Ask. During the small reception, one of the audience members asked to see my book The Buddha Wonders if She is Having a Midlife Crisis (which I’d also read from), then one of the poets there asked if it was my first book. When I told her it was my 13th, she turned to me with such a look and said something to the effect of “why did they let you join this contest then?”
So in my case, impostor syndrome doesn’t exist in a “purely” literary or artistic context. As a writer of color, a woman, and an immigrant, I can’t count how many times my credibility and output has been called into question, even after I’ve done everything that’s required, and often beyond. Once I was also told I should not list on my resume that I have four National Book Awards, because it “is misleading”— even if I also clearly indicate these are from the Manila Critics’ Circle in the Philippines— “since no American writer has won but one National Book Award” (which is by the way untrue because several men have won the National Book Award for fiction more than once, including William Faulkner and John Updike; and Jesmyn Ward made history by being the first woman to win the National Book Award twice).
In any case, the reading part of the program itself was a good experience; we had a warm and receptive audience, and it was a gift to listen to the two Honorable Mention honorees, Elly Bookman and Jason Baker, whose work contest judge Natasha Trethewey described thus: “There is a compelling voice in these poems rendering the ordinariness of our days extraordinary. A ‘furious rhythm’ undergirds the poems in Mixtapes Were Made [Baker]. And the deft play with language is more than wit; it’s a kinetic force that pulls the reader toward each new revelation and delight. Even more arresting is the way Stay Mine [Bookman] reminds us that the senseless tragedies of our world are commonplace— and in that acknowledgement, a necessary grappling for meaning.”
It is such an honor, and I’m very grateful to former US Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey for selecting my manuscript for the 2018 Center for the Book Arts Letterpress Chapbook Prize. Natasha wrote, “What Is Left of Wings, I Ask is a lovely, piercing book of distances, the longing engendered by displacement, resilience in the face of sorrow, of ‘gathering darkness,’ and the nature of home—what it means to leave one for another. These are poems rooted in a haunting and quintessential American experience.”
It was wonderful to share the event with some people who mean a lot to me: my youngest daughter Gabriela, my old friend Myrielle Falguera from Baguio, and my former grad student and now anthology co-editor Amanda Galvan Huynh and her partner MD Huynh. It was also great to meet in person poet Aaron Fischer and his lovely wife Lauren. And of course, after the event, we ate our weight in fabulous Indian food and ice cream at Pondicheri, and congee with toppings at Congee Village; and went for the obligatory Shake Shack burgers and fries, after a long leisurely afternoon at the MoMa taking in the Charles White retrospective exhibit.