Category Archives: academia

Individualist vs Collectivist Cultures

Our first assembly was so cute: parents, babies, and students from across the globe. As far as exposure, really, how amazing that these kids have a chance to inform their identities based on global perspectives.

Today went relatively smoothly–I feel prepared and aware of their needs, and how to get mutually enjoy the process of learning and meeting their goals. During our introductions, some responses from students about our purpose this academic year and how to create an environment conducive to learning: “we need to understand that we can learn from each other and that our differences should be celebrated.” At that age (middle school), I wasn’t that articulate, even though I was aware of cultural differences (moving halfway across the globe). But my experiences from 5th grade on did not promote these ideas of acceptance and compassion. Go IB (International Baccalaureate) schools!

Last week at cross-cultural training: interesting ideas were raised about individualist (i.e., U.S.) and collectivist cultures (i.e., Tanzania, Philippines) and the values that we prioritize. Essentially, work comes before relationships in individualist cultures, while relationships are priority in collectivist cultures. This is probably why I feel like I’m home. There is more to value than making money, but I do value efficiency in a very Western way. Here, it’s very easy to get frustrated, but you’re only wasting energy. Hakuna matata!

One idea that was raised made me question the idea of social change: “In collectivist cultures, rules can be broken if it benefits the larger group.” I can’t remember the example that was given, but it made me think in terms of my identity as a queer woman. I thought about how long it’ll take to overcome the hegemonic beliefs of natives that heterosexuality is the only acceptable form of coupling and that women are subservient. From the standpoint of the quote above, currently LGBTIs are not valued due to eons of influence from trade, colonialism, missionaries, etc. And of course, women being given equal rights will not benefit the larger group (because power shifts will occur). This along with suppressed levels of education makes social change seem like an impossible feat.

In other collectivist cultures, like in pre-colonial Philippines, LGBTIs were valued as part of the community. The etymology of the Tagalog word for gay, bakla, is derived from words that mean the “foundation” and “pinnacle,” which also brings up the idea of masculine and feminine energy in one body. They were revered like the two spirits in Native American cultures.

I’m always curious as to how people acquire belief, but also how to reach individuals at a basic human level that breaks down our separations. Things are continually changing; I don’t doubt that we’re becoming more accepting globally. My students give me a lot of hope!


–O. Ayes

for continuity’s sake: a silent argument in fragments


Nice issue, Blackbird (v11n1, Tracking the Muse). Many thanks for publishing my poems, after our non-existent literary debate over the last year about craft and the role of editors.

I’m reminded of one particular class discussion during my graduate studies that pursuing writing is like trying to climb an invisible fence, per a 2007 NY Times essay by Jim Harrison called, “Don’t Feed the Poets,” which reflects on Karl Shapiro’s “The Bourgeois Poet” (1964). Among other things, Harrison brings up the concepts of social class and purpose. I wrote this:

As Harrison discussed the “heroic notion of the poet,” I considered my own experiences and if I ever felt this way—some romantic, idealistic goal of achieving immortality by writing a single great poem. I came to poetry through some form of idealism, but I never conceived of immortality. In today’s world, a name is merely that. And in the field of poetry, who but my colleagues and students would know my work? I must have thought, or expected, as an aspiring poet, that I would end up teaching. To become published was another goal, but I came to a realization early in my graduate studies about the amount of sheer luck it would take.

This made me question, then, why exactly I was driven to pursue poetry. Why did I want to reach for this invisible fence? I thought about other careers I considered (or were suggested to me)—doctor, scientist, chef, schoolteacher, journalist, linguist. All of them seemed limiting—definable, constricting, of this materialistic world. Somehow, I expected poetry to defy all of the agendas this world had thrown at me since birth. I wanted to be outside the realm of the routine. I wanted to be an artist—but not just any artist, a poet, a weaver of words, of emotion and intellect.  Perhaps, in doing so, I could attain a self-actualized contentment with this insane world and make things tolerable.

As Harrison stated, though, I was struck by the “cruelty and lack of democracy in the arts.” I have since doubted my path into this indeterminable and subjective journey. I have made my peace with poetry’s avocation but perhaps I’m losing faith in its purpose in my life, at least at this point. I’m sure that I will never completely leave it alone, but for the time being, I lost my footing, trying to climb the invisible fence. Maybe I’ll look for another fence, one less canonized, critical, and well, impossible.

Five years later, I’m grateful that I’ve come to a better understanding about pursuing the fine arts. I’m now focusing on helping heal through narrative, rather than spending my time trying to climb this fence. Creativity is not a fence; it’s an integral part of our existence. I was reminded by a guest speaker, Gabriel Vockel, whom I invited to class yesterday to show his work, that all of us are indeed artists–the challenge is to remain as we grow up (per Picasso).

I’ve said multiple times in recent conversations that I probably wouldn’t be alive had it not been for poetry. It was and continues to be my form of therapy. Somehow, being enticed by the illusion of the poetry business, I lost sight of that for a few years.

I wish undergraduate creative writing programs and MFA programs were a little more honest and offer a broader perspective about what exactly pursuing this field entails. It’s an investment in apprenticeship, as one mentor states. It won’t guarantee you a job. Some try to package it as “Oh, you’re getting a terminal degree in your field” and “Oh, you can teach at universities.” These programs are very good with presenting a romantic idea: NYU’s undergraduate creative writing program, for instance, offers a month in Paris as part of their workshops. My question is, are these students told about invisible fence? Or do they simply think their chances are better if they pursue creative writing degrees? Do they know that the return on their investment is pretty much nil? (The only way I can justify an MFA now is if the program offers full fellowships to all students.)

Some honesty about the likeliness of one getting a secure job in the field would be nice, or how adjuncts have increased from 20% of faculty in the 1970s to 70% now. Sure, you can teach at universities–if you’re independently wealthy, don’t need job security, have a spouse with health insurance, and don’t mind waiting around for someone to die before you can be offered a full-time teaching position. And oh, you’re also competing with PhDs in your field, so you might consider spending another 5 years of your life getting one and living under “sustained poverty” through stipends.

It would be even better to offer students the opportunity to acquire skill sets that will help them actually survive in the world without being demoralized in the process. We pursued writing because we are sensitive to the world; help us function in it. (This statement goes beyond  writing programs but higher education in general.)

Soapbox, off.

–O. Ayes



on education: a day in the life of a humanities major


On a typical Wednesday afternoon, I’m in the adjunct office after class. I brought my lunch–a romaine salad with carrots, cucumbers, celery, and a lentil patty that my roommate made–and am contentedly eating it. I have my work laptop open and am answering questions via instant messenger from the marketing associate and new editor. This is a slow week at the scientific journal, as my current project has just been delayed a few weeks due to lack of content from my author. The previous project that I managed the past few months brought in unprecedented amounts for the company. I’m proud but exhausted. I pulled 80-hour work weeks to juggle my workload.

To my right, I have papers from my Tuesday/Thursday class, which I need to grade. I have a copy of my syllabus and am thinking about how to approach my next few class sessions on media studies and then shifting to our humanities unit. I’ve had to restructure a lot this semester, as expected when building a course from scratch. I have the pressure of a class observation soon.

When I arrived this morning, another adjunct was holding a conference with a student at my station. I unloaded the things I carried from home: a yoga mat, a laptop bag, a tote bag filled with essentials–food, travel mug, yoga clothes, books, heels, and overnight pouch with toiletries. I can survive a couple of days if I happen to get stranded somewhere.

I change from my red flats to my black heels and head to the kitchenette to boil water for my green tea. I make my way to class–one of three classrooms. Earlier this semester, I had trouble getting into the routine and actually walked into the wrong one.

The anthropology professor, with whom I’ve had discussions as we switched classrooms, warned me that the projector appears to be broken because he was unable to turn it off. He had forgotten that it was a touch screen command, and we both laugh about technology. He’s an older gentleman, and some of these gadgets are not user-friendly. He proceeds to ask another question about what kinds of writing the English department is requiring out of its students, as an anthropological “critique” he recently assigned is not going so well in his classes.

I respond, a bit hesitantly: “Why yes, I suppose so; the objectives of my course now is to prepare them to be able to analyze texts across multiple disciplines, but how this is implemented in each course obviously varies.”

Our current assignment–a rhetorical analysis–focuses on analyzing strategies in multiple kinds of texts (i.e., journal article, news article, video presentation, documentary, song) but not necessarily evaluating the efficacy of the content of anthropological research. We touch on perhaps how the data was presented, what the purpose of this text was, how to identify what the author was trying to argue, but we cannot know the nuances of whether this is significant or flawed within the field of anthropology or what specific elements students need to cover in order to satisfy the assignment. We are not anthropologists.

Even in an interdisciplinary Writing Across the Curriculum course, the disconnect exists between composition/rhetoric pedagogy and the specific needs of multiple disciplines. We have to cover all bases–teach to improve writing and critical thinking skills–which is generalized and cannot possibly cover nuance. Not all students are going to be prepared to accomplish discipline-specific tasks, but we’re trying to improve their abilities to grapple with these texts and synthesize information.

This exchange was thought-provoking and affirming that really, composition teachers have challenging jobs. Writing is so closely connected to the idea of learning that when students show an inability to process information in other disciplines, the blame falls on the English department. Learning is a cumulative effort; it involves, collectively, our abilities as educators to build on students’ knowledge, along with the students’ motivations to apply skills and knowledge. Additionally, writing isn’t just about grasping mechanics but also improving skills that are not easily assessed by standardized measures. How well students write, in short, is not the the sole product or fault of the English department.

During class, we hold a peer review workshop on their rhetorical analysis. I’m relieved that the majority of them were prepared with a 5-page draft. Some had trouble in shifting from a typical expository essay, in which they configure some thesis and support it with relevant sources, to an analysis of purpose and strategy. I gave them the extra challenge of determining their own “text” to analyze (i.e., anything from a photo, advertisement, video, song, essay, short story, poem, film, tv show episode, novel, etc.). In this instance, freedom of choice gave my students anxiety. Most come from educational backgrounds in which they are told exactly what to do. They are not usually encouraged to think and expand their approaches with independent critical thinking. A couple of weeks into this assignment, I’m glad that most have caught on.

After class, I eat my lunch back at my station while simultaneously answering emails from both jobs, posting Facebook commentaries about the education bubble, the Student Loan Forgiveness Act of 2012, and a recent panel/presentation on Asian-American experiences post-9/11 in NYC. I’m processing experiences and getting ideas for class lessons. I’m thinking about the push for utilitarian approaches to education; I’m thinking about my humanist ideals within this space.

A few minutes into my lunch, the department administrator and a full-time faculty member hover at the door. I turn around–mid-chew with some lettuce hanging from the side of my mouth. They do not say anything, after I smile and greet them. They confer for half a minute.

“Hey, would you mind if I brought a student in here to take a test?” Of course not. It’s a shared space, which I happen to like, despite the lower rung on the “hierarchy of importance” that it indicates in the department. I am assigned a computer and a desk (“C”) out of four stations. I’m grateful that I have a station at all.

In the past, I’ve been so lucky to do the majority of my work at student computer labs because it was more convenient than a dusty, cold office where they were drilling into the wall for a period of two months. In contrast, I’ve also had my own office at an honors college, complete with a shared bathroom and view of a chapel and a secret garden. At this college in NYC, I have the choice of three shared spaces, one of which has a spectacular view of the city (pictured above). (I don’t go in there often because I sit and stare instead of do work.)

I return to the kitchenette to get more hot water for tea and to wash my salad container (a takeout container that most people dispose). I’m thinking about waste and sustainability and simplicity. I’m thinking about how much freedom I have that I’m not motivated by money or prestige or security. As I leave the kitchenette, I see the decorated doors and offices of full-timers. I’m thinking about the future, about my next step.

I recently had discussions with friends and other adjuncts about being a full-time lecturer. I commented that I don’t believe it’s the best use of my energies, that I’d be able to deal with the politics. I like being on the periphery. I question my ability to conform. I love teaching and believe in the transformative power of education, but all institutions have agendas I can’t wholeheartedly promote. Sure, it’d be comfortable, but if I were ever concerned with that, I’d be a different person now, embodying a much different space.

activism and art

I often return to this poem (circa 2007). I see it every day. I feel it–if not the rage, then the guilt of not continuously being enraged.

Today, at The Vagina Monologues performance at Cooper Union Hall in NYC, I remember why I wrote it: as a reminder not to get too comfortable with my privileges as a woman in relative safety in the developed world. It was a reminder that work to end violence against women and girls–despite my every day efforts here–needs dire focus and attention in critical parts of the developing world. It was a reminder of purpose.

When I first met Eve Ensler in 2006 in New Orleans for a V-Day conference after Hurricane Katrina, something caustic shifted in my bones. Sure, I’d read The Vagina Monologues. Sure, I’d heard stories about victims of sexual violence in far away countries and my own circles and communities. Sure, I was aware of the prevalence of sexual violence in the U.S. and worldwide (1 in 3). But it wasn’t until I’d been in that room with such a powerful group of women that I felt I could do something about it.

Still, I didn’t know how I could help, besides organizing fundraiser events or writing poems or speaking for equality whenever a situation presents itself. I didn’t immediately dive into humanitarian efforts after that. I had an MFA program to finish. And life-things to figure out and pursue. I would stay in the periphery of action for a while. And I would be OK with that for some time.

Eve’s speech after the performance today was powerful and convincing, as she breathes to inspire action among us all. She began talking about her work in the eastern Congo, in which she established The City of Joy where abused and exploited women are transcending their previous situations and empowering other women. The eastern Congo–Eve emphasizes–represents the confluence of all societal forces that have led us to this present reality–colonialism, capitalism, patriarchy, racism, sexism, etc. The battle is fought for us here by countless women–gang raped, repeatedly, tied to trees for weeks–as a form of fear tactic/control, in order for militias in nearby countries to extract minerals and resources to feed our iPhones and plasma TVs. How can we not feel an overwhelming sense of moral duty to eradicate these atrocities?

But there is continued progress. Eve talked about the significance of the Occupy Wall Street movement and the like–the revolutionary energy that is circulating the globe. This energy was also mentioned by the producer/director of the forthcoming PBS series Half The Sky (Maro Chermayeff and Jamie Gordon) during a showing at Barnard a couple of weeks ago. (The multimedia campaign is based off of the book by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn.) We seem to be at the precipice of significant change globally. We are more aware now than we have ever been–of both the issues and our very own agency.

After the performance, I was telling a friend–one who is actively doing something by promoting literacy and “education in action” in the eastern Congo via The Mama Project–that I perpetually question whether I’m doing enough (per that poem) because the heartbreaking stories of these women feel so far and foreign, despite my awareness of them.

Most of my efforts have been arts-oriented–and not the activist kind. In fact, over the years, I’ve been griping about the dilution of agency of my poems–as I became entrenched in academic spheres. Today was a significant reminder of where the intersection of my energies felt the most active and powerful, where I need to return.

The very act of writing that kind of poem, the times I’d read it in public, the act of writing about this now–these actions are cumulative toward awareness and agency. The goal is to continue to transcend, to do more.

updates from the city of dreams in action

As the Year of the Dragon progresses, lots exciting changes have arose for me in this city of dreams. This semester, I will be teaching again–this time at the City University of New York. I’m immensely grateful for the opportunity to do so and even more grateful for the freedom in being able to teach a course without a textbook! It’s a Writing Across the Curriculum course that emphasizes rhetorical analysis (or the ability for students to understand a piece of writing for its craft—how it was put together). Initially, I thought that I would use theme of social inequality, as I did a year ago in St. Louis, but there were a few limiting factors: 1.) that course had three textbooks, which I didn’t bring with me, 2.) I only have two weeks to design the course this semester, 3.) the curriculum was somewhat repetitive and didn’t fully execute the potential of a solution- or action-based approach.

This semester, I’ve decided to explore the cultural relevancy of happiness within the fields of social sciences, media studies, literature, and philosophy. I’m incredibly excited to teach, learn, and interact with students again. As in the past, I’ll be using this space to write and process my thoughts and experiences regarding pedagogy and ideas that are relevant to our lives as humans.

As if this news isn’t exciting enough, I also had an opportunity to connect with a young, world-renowned, New York Times-bestseller novelist, who encouraged me to “write books that people will read,” (i.e., non-literary). I’m not sure the direction of my craft, yet—I haven’t seriously considered the commercial fiction route—but I’m grateful to have been able to witness this genius at work so far. Creativity at its peak, transcends genre–in all art forms.

Furthermore, I’m excited to be involved with global tolerance, which promotes communication with a conscience. I am amazed, every single day, to discover the amount of ground-level and high-impact work that is being done to promote global consciousness and humanitarian efforts. Please consider joining gtconnect to share with individuals doing incredible, powerful, work. We are all agents of change, even if we are currently not in a place of freedom to be able to do exactly what we want. As long as the intent is there and followed by action, we can progress toward our ideal sense of self and community, which impacts the world, little by little, and eventually changes our current “reality”—that is, a world in which not every creature is happy or free. When our internal values are in synch with our external actions, change continues to happen. Our dreams and ideals are nothing, if we don’t follow through with action.

In the four months I’ve lived in this city, I’ve met incredible people who are promoting GLBT rights (Q-Wave) and establishing literacy programs in the Congo (The Mama Project). There are also teachers and artists and writers and dreamers who are part of the solution. And prior to moving to this city, I’ve come to know countless spirits who are doing the same. I’m continually amazed and inspired. It seems clear that our current state of consciousness involves full awareness of the inequities in the world, and our young minds and souls are getting to work to eliminate them globally.


–O. Ayes

Value Added Versus Value Perceived


If, in the 21st century, K-12 schooling is to promote literacy and an appreciation for learning, what is the purpose of post-secondary education? For some it’s basic: to compete in the global economy. For others, the purpose is an abstract idea about the value of a liberal arts degree, a continuation of this appreciation for learning. 

Over the last few years, I’ve taught in a variety of classrooms: developmental courses at community colleges, adult-education accelerated programs, traditional athletics-motivated universities, and an honors college. Past students wondered about the purpose of taking English composition courses in college. Common retorts from them included, “I already know how to write,” “Who cares about grammar?” “How will this academic research paper help me in the job market?” Students, it seems, are more utilitarian these days: how was this writing class to benefit them in the real world?

We would discuss writing as a way to learn, which in the abstract sense will always be the objective—no matter what degree they are pursuing, we as humans will always learn new things and writing is a tool we can use to process our experiences and improve our critical thinking skills. Writing, in this sense, has value. But for practical students with microeconomics or organic chemistry on the forefront of their minds, learning to write better is not necessarily priority.

At times, the only answer I could give them was “Because it’s required.” As an idealist who routinely questions purpose, I needed a better answer. What is the purpose of taking rhetoric and composition, if students already know how to communicate effectively and do not plan on going to graduate school wherein extensive research papers will consume their life?

As an instructor, I tried to see their needs and structure the class so that it was at least somewhat relevant to their daily lives or eventual goals. Certain classes warranted relevant writing projects: in a technical writing course, my students wrote proposals and feasibility reports. Because this course was directly correlated to their technical degrees, the purpose was straightforward: to prepare them for the workplace. Other courses, such as developmental ones, also seemed to have a clear objective: to further develop their literacy in preparation for the rest of their college courses.

The purpose of writing courses becomes a bit murky when the level of literacy does not diminish the student’s ability to learn or when it is not directly relevant to the student’s degree. The issue of “need” no longer applies, so it feels as if we are wasting each other’s time, simply to meet a requirement. Of course, for the most part, these classes end up being of some use—research writing skills, further developing their critical thinking skills, etc. For the freshman composition instructor, however, it’s a daily battle for students to put in effort.

In thinking about ideals regarding post-secondary education, how can we improve our approach to required curriculum so that it addresses the current needs of our students? What value are we adding to the lives of students?

–O. Ayes

A Woman of Little Influence (Blackbird, Part II)

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about a response from a Blackbird editor that didn’t sit well with me. Something so blatantly condescending never sits well with me. I shot off a reply to the senior literary editor, saying that while I respect their editorial decisions, publishing my two poems may be an issue, once they read my thoughts about the exchange. Of course he didn’t respond. People generally do not like confrontation. It’s nearly unheard of in literary circles, as conflict is reserved for the lower echelons of society—the less educated, perhaps, or those consumed by reality television. Literature is synonymous with refinement, depth, cerebral/rhetorical ponderings, but conflict? Hardly ever.

When I posted that blog on Facebook, I received sympathetic, if not tenuous, responses. Most mirrored my frustration with the poetry business, but the consensus was that alienation from the academy is the status quo. I get why it’s this way—in order to maintain their identity of elitism, academics must use some means to separate the good (those who think like us and warrant our traditions) from the bad (those who want to be one of us):

There will always be stratification in any democratic process [like selecting poetry for a journal issue]–a way to differentiate merit/credibility/prestige from the next Joe Schmoe wanting to be noticed. … What I would appreciate from the academy is a bit of acknowledgment about how subjective (therefore biased) its aesthetics are, that perhaps they can’t differentiate good from bad until they get clarification from the author…

“It’s permanent high school,” the satirist John Queenan said from the People like Us PBS series. The series is about social stratification, and here is another example of it—a nuanced, almost invisible battle that goes on between dusty offices throughout the country and those thick-skinned poets who continue to submit to journals, hoping for some luck that could expose their poems to a larger, appreciative audience.

Even knowing the structure of the system, I ask, must writers feel demoralized in the process of trying to share their work? In an attempt to resist the silence that accompanies literary pursuits, I posted the blog to create some dialogue between editors and writers. It was a means to say, “HEY YOU—WE’RE HUMAN OVER HERE. WITH REAL, BEATING HEARTS. DON’T FORGET TO LOOK UP FROM YOUR OWN ASS ONCE IN A WHILE.”

I didn’t expect the senior editor to respond. I’m a young woman of little influence. I don’t know the big players in the game. I don’t have many blog followers. I’m a proletariat poet with other interests besides poetics. I’m not changing how things are done in these literary circles, but it’s necessary that I don’t stay silent, despite, what others have said, as a sure way to blackball myself from further publication.

Today, I received an email from another editor, saying my two poems will be in Blackbird’s Spring 2012 (v11n1) issue instead of this fall’s (v10n2). Let’s shuffle this irate person’s poems to the next “slot in the schedule.” A nice sweep under the rug. Blackbird, why not just stick to your guns and renege my previous acceptance?

He continued, “If there is a conflict with a forthcoming book, please let us know as soon as possible.”

Is that an additional jab? Of course, publishing a whole collection of poetry through a credible publisher is just SO EASY these days. (In fact, one colleague only spent $4K on contest fees over a period of 7 years to publish her first collection. Most others never publish anything.) Seriously. Fuck you, Blackbird. There won’t be a published book any time soon, certainly not by Spring 2012. My poems are not being read ANYWHERE at the moment because I’m a lousy poet who’d been too busy teaching the past year, then too wrapped up in continuing to live her life. Don’t patronize me. I’m aware of how small I am, compared to you.

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

Not-So-Recent Poems

These poems, recently published in Lavender Review, are from my first manuscript claims at the edge, which I haven’t quite decided if I will dismantle, revise, or burn. At this current state, the collection is not cohesive, as I wrote it during a span of three years in grad school. The abstract that I wrote (and hated that I had to write) for this manuscript clearly shows the need to focus my approach:

CLAIMS AT THE EDGE, a collection of original prose poems, explores the intricacies of what is familiar, discarded, peculiar, and tempting to the author, who is a young, immigrant, queer woman. This collection begins with a history of sorts, documenting the speaker’s dual displacement as she exists along the margins of American culture and battles with physical and linguistic estrangement from her Filipino roots. The author also studies a difficult, yet infinitely vital want—love—which elicits vulnerability and genuine optimism. In these poems that range from the obscene to the sublime, there is restrained anger, subtle intimacy, and indelible violation of the spirit. She approaches language just as she would a perfectly formed fruit or the ephemeral body—with speculation and want.

Ugh. Sounds pretentious, which does not match the poems therein. No wonder I didn’t write much the year after graduating. I’m glad to be in a different space now, but I’m not sure if revision is worth it. How does one revisit the same poems without completely changing the original intent, especially when the original intent no longer seems to be suitable?

Remembering Voice

Yesterday, I found myself reciting this poem out loud in front of my bathroom mirror:

an ounce (c) O. Ayes, RHINO

My upcoming trip home is helping me revisit some of the cultural issues I’d focused on in my first manuscript. My contributor’s note for this poem read:

Being a Filipino immigrant, I wrote “an ounce” to highlight my insecurities with both my native language and American English, how I inadvertently neglected the former during my adolescent years in the U.S. so that when I returned home at the age of 19, even a simple word, paa, was erroneous. I wanted to see my guilt on paper for still fearing an exposed cover (in America), an identifiable accent—mainly the f/p and v/b sounds.

Reciting this yesterday, randomly, felt powerful. I’ve read this poem numerous times–at readings, to myself–and I appreciate the sound from my lungs every time. This was written fairly early on in my MFA program, and I can definitely feel the influence of my performance poetry days. I miss my genuine, simple sentimentality.

My current manuscript feels more cerebral, but it’s far from non-sentimental. I’m still calibrating my voice, in these languages, in these poems.