Blackbird, the inspiration

[Photo modified: Idea go /]


A few weeks ago, a senior editor at Blackbird sent an email requesting commentary on a sequence of poems that I submitted last year and if any of the other 4 poems (as they had already accepted two) were still available. It seemed that they wanted to feature the sequence:

I was very impressed by the tonal and imagistic cohesiveness of all the pieces in your original submission which arrived under the singular (& suggestive) title colors of cities [now called diffuse]. I admire the delicate way they explode/fragment language at the sentence level but then use a fairly restrained (in terms of overall text-length) assemblage of couplets to balance this effect. They feel almost like a mosaic–broken shards or tesserae tiling over a pre-determined surface.

I was honored and shot off a quick, honest reply:

These poems are from a collection entitled diffuse, which started out as an attempt to explore my aesthetic boundaries. I had previously written another collection that was predominantly narrative, which put me in an aesthetic rut—so much so that I wrote only two poems in a period of six months. During that time, the only indication that I was a writer was an immense log of fragments—images that I couldn’t escape, ideas that I wanted to revisit, disparate bits of information, etc. I referred to them as gobbledygook. I began to experiment, employing techniques suggested by some mentors to let poems “leap” in terms of logic. The idea was to trust the reader to follow you, and in return, the reader would trust you enough to experience the poem and subsequently make distinct/individualized connections. It opened up an exhilarating way to approach language and allowed for a sustained period of time in which I could (re)discover my craft.

For a while, I over-analyzed my response. Was it too simplistic? Were they looking for more theory/poetics? Am I not academic enough?

I had written a similar but more direct commentary for FRiGG, a few months prior:

These poems are part of a manuscript tentatively called diffuse, which started out as an attempt to explore boundaries–love, culture, nature, art, logic, etc. That these turned out to be disjunctive, nonlinear, fluid was a positive consequence, I think. Previously, I’d held on to ideas that poems should make sense and be accessible because ideas should not be limited to specific audiences. Poetry–especially academic poetry–tends to be abstruse, so for many years, I fought the idea that poems should be something only a few can grasp. Well, in attempting to explore my own boundaries, I decided to leave the audience to fend for itself, to figure out how to grapple with these ideas, to make conclusions or connections only she/he/they can. I did, however, provide some structure in terms of form (10 lines), refrains, and themes. Still, people don’t know how to respond to these. A friend who’s an engineer read this manuscript recently. (She previously read another manuscript that was mostly narrative.) Her reaction to diffuse: “Picture me balled up in a corner, reaching for something in the air that doesn’t exist.”

Yesterday, the senior editor responded, declining the other poems, citing that it no longer fits with the other sequences:

After reviewing the statement that accompanied your last email and deliberating a bit on your project, the Blackbird editors feel like it does not quite align with the other sequenced work we will be presenting in v10n2. We are happy to have the poems we’ve already accepted and we thank you for your response to our request for some elucidation of that work.

I understand their editorial needs and am grateful for the two poems they have accepted, but what changed, exactly? Did the poems become less poetic after I clarified my intent and process?

The rest of the email hints at my lack of craft, apparently:

Maybe this close call with the idea of sequenced poems will inspire you to work more deliberately in that direction?

So, because my poems did not fit the journal’s editorial needs, it means that the editors can define them as non-sequenced? Hm.

Thanks for the “inspiration.” As expected, this left a bitter, slimy aftertaste—a reminder of academia’s elitist, maniacal standards and intangible expectations. They want an opportunity to see magic, to be floored by poems that they wish they could have written, believe these poems somehow come organically from the gods—or if not organically—through precise craft and technique that mirrors, thus validates, their own scholarly pursuits. They want a circuitous elucidation on meaning when sometimes it’s just simple, human experience.

D.A. Powell recently said (well, tweeted) that poems just are—that attempting to deconstruct them through literary criticism kills the original intent: to be experienced, to reach another person’s soul. [Of course, he’s not alone in thinking this, and please do pardon my source of poetics–through tweets, nonetheless.] How the poems came to be written is not important. Our experiences are disparate and fragmented, with stretches of narrative; sometimes we encapsulate them in this art form. Sometimes, we have the balls to share them with others.

So thank you, Blackbird, for the reminder. Please feel free not to publish the other two, if they no longer fit either, after you read this post.

–O. Ayes



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To finish out our adventure in the Philippines, we are currently on a 4-week stay in Boracay. Hard to imagine a place more beautiful than this with its mountains, crystal waters, karst formations, and spectacular sunsets. Even during low season, there are a lot of people here–the privacy of the Perhentian Islands nonexistent. Here, every other step is a vendor or commissioner asking if you want a massage, a souvenir, or an island hopping trip. Thankfully, we are in Station 3, which is the quieter side.

We’ve sampled a variety of cuisine, which is a welcome change from San Jose, but vegetarian and healthier, gluten-free options are still hard to come by. Prana–the only vegetarian restaurant, located in Mandala Resort–is closed for the season. Too bad because it was rather tricky to find (through back roads in the mountains and through some private property or through the busy town, up a steep hill). We do like a number of places: True Indian (a bit pricey), Yellow Cab Pizza (not gluten-free), Casa Pilar Restaurant (mostly Filipino cuisine), Arwana’s Restaurant (good salads, fish burritos), Epic (a little more pricey), 888 (some veg), El Centro (best mango shakes), Treehouse Da Mario (salads), etc.

Island hopping and snorkeling trips can get pricey, but a group trip through Allan B costs only P700/pax, including a decent buffet lunch. Nightlife includes fire dancing, beachfront bars, live music, etc. We’ll definitely return to this place.

Leaving you again, San Jose

Prior to leaving the States, we planned a 10-month itinerary to stay abroad–longer if we could find suitable jobs to further fund our travels. Mostly, we wanted to get a lot of writing done with bouts of traveling in between. The first month was easy–lots of beach bumming, spending time with family, acclimating. We got very little writing done.

In June, due to trouble finding the immigration official in San Jose, we decided to take a visa run–a 3-week trip to Singapore and Malaysia. July was more productive, as monsoon rains prevented us from enjoying the beach. I finished my second poetry manuscript and began an exercise regimen using p90x. But, as busy-minded, young Americans, we needed more activity. One can only be a beach bum for so long. The most activity we had were day trips to nearby islands, a night of bar-hopping with my cousins/aunt, or a stroll through the plaza on a Saturday night.

We considered traveling by train in Vietnam, volunteering for two months in Cambodia (where our housing was secured), then, upon finishing, more train traveling through Thailand. It worked out that returning to the States in September would be the most feasible option, as international job searching is a bit of a hassle. Even finding teaching jobs required documents with apostilles, which is not easy to coordinate remotely.

I considered staying abroad until November to continue writing and job searching, but we heard news that several islands in the region would have no electricity by Aug. 25th. How is this possible? We cannot fathom such an administrative failure in the US (maybe sarcasm, here–as it is exactly possible). The details were murky, but it has something to do with contracts and region-wide debts. How exactly politics work in developing countries is not any more depressing than developed countries. They just have fewer resources or banks to borrow money from.

My father decided to prepare for the worse: not replacing the 25-year-old water pump/generator after it began to emit smoke. We would now have to use the outside pump to bathe. While I appreciate and admire his motto of “back to basics” (I promote the romantic, Thoreauan ideal of simplifying one’s life), I had grown accustomed to running water and electricity. I do not write longhand, so I need my laptop to write. I deemed the place no longer habitable, so I decided that I would return to the US as well. If I’m going to stay abroad, I would do so employed with my own housing, in a more developed country. I did hear back from a recruiter in Thailand and Korea, but I’d like to prepare a little longer for such a commitment.

I appreciated this time to rediscover my hometown and see how it’s morphed. The changes are moving in the direction of more unsustainability–overpopulation, Western-obsessed and capitalistic drive. Every other store is an internet cafe. Favorite TV shows/radio channels mimick Western celebrities. It was hard not to sentimentalize simpler times. One afternoon, we took a walk along the beach near the estuary, which was recently opened to accommodate the monsoon season, and found examples of this in young kids who happily played in the water, a couple carrying a load of caught fish, an older man smiling in his hut, a grandmother collecting clams with her grandchildren:

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Perhaps simplicity is still here.