Category Archives: poetry

poems, lately

A confession: I’ve been a lazy, distracted writer. I had plans to work on my nonfiction prose manuscript this summer, but it’s painful and annoying to think about, so I haven’t. I also have a poetry erasure project, but it’s just sitting there.

Instead, I’ve been traveling all over Kyrgyzstan, meeting incredible people and musicians–Tengri, experimental, ethnic folk/rock artist gulzada, Siberian (Yakutia and Shorian) singers and khomus players. In other words, thoroughly entrenched in play mode.

On the “work” side, I’ve been reading novels and building curriculum for the upcoming school year, determining ways to market products for Matumaini Centre which helps Tanzanians reintegrate into society through sustainable living, signing up to help Gender Equality Health Organization (GEHO-Uganda) to help advocate against the “Kill the Gays” Bill and support LGBT individuals in East Africa.

This week, I’m starting online courses on teaching and webwriting, and continuing not giving a damn about my craft.

In the meantime, some poems got accepted from my first and second manuscripts:

claims at the edge:

“in denial” (T/OUR, 2013)

“bathroom scribble at blackthorn pizza” (T/OUR, 2013)

“for when we don’t know” (T/OUR, 2013)

“anatomy of an end” (T/OUR, 2013)

/diffuse/:

“any creature that cannot rid of want or song, perhaps” (Sukoon, 2013)

“more inequity than the world itself or its counterparts” (Sukoon, 2013)

“guarantee a bruise or the evening sky of every color” (Sukoon, 2013)

“when desiring to be free so we don’t have to be dangerous” (The Nervous Breakdown, 2013)

 

It’s been a lovely vacation so far–I’ll be heading to Istanbul again in a week, then returning to Tanzania to begin another beautiful year. But I need to create soon–just posting it as a reminder to myself.

 

–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

 

 

Poetry Event, during which I’m reading

 

East Harlem, NY May 26, 2012— Art for Change is proud to host a night of SpokenWORD performance poetry to highlight the current exhibit Know Gays Aloud: Violence in the LGBTQ Communities of Color. Art for Change is a non-profit organization dedicated to tackling social justice issues through art, activism and dialogue.

The LGBTQ community has struggled to ensure equality of their civil liberties for over three decades violence still persists against the LGBTQ community especially in minority populations. The targeted hostility toward the LGBTQ community has lead to a rise in murders and teen suicides, notably in the Caribbean, the Middle East, Africa and in minority communities.

As a reflection of these recent, recurring and intolerable acts faced by LGBTQ communities, Art for Change is proud to host SpokenWORD artists to share their poetry and in doing so, engage communities to contemplate ways in which we can individually and collectively spread awareness, promote tolerance and understanding and ultimately begin to heal the massive wound inflicted upon LGBTQ communities.

The event will take place on Saturday, May 26th @ 7:00PM – 9:00PM. If you are interested in performing, or for more further information, contact Junior Targét at Afcexhibitions@gmail.com.

the second phase of grieving

 

Dear Daddy,

While our family will never be same without you, we are at peace that you are in a better place. Your job here was done, and we’re all equipped now to handle whatever the world brings our way.  You’ve taken care of this family—our Ayes clan—the best way you could, and for that, your legacy remains, deep in our hearts.

You tried to piece a life together, after being broken by it, and you returned to our home in San Jose to live a simple, quiet life. Some would think that living “back to the basics” is a kind of failure, but they do not see the beauty in it—to be free of society’s expectations for what makes a man, a good man, a father, a good father.  These are not dictated by material wealth but solace in having done what you could for your loved ones and giving us a way to achieve our own dreams. Many more people fail in ways that you didn’t and never have—support, presence, and guidance for all of us. You’ve taught us that family values and integrity matter over everything else. Thank you for preparing us; thank you for being an example of love, integrity, and compassion.

~~~

We have always been close, so much so, that I wouldn’t let you leave me during the first week of kindergarten. You stayed in the back of the classroom until I was ready to let you go. And while I don’t remember the times as an infant when you took me on your tricycle to the beach at night because I couldn’t fall asleep, my soul remembers how soothing it was to be held and loved and have the ocean’s breeze to calm my worries. It was going to be a difficult life, and I had you there to help me be stronger.

I was the spoiled one—the one whose nickname was painted in big red, rusty colors above our store, the one who wouldn’t leave your side and preferred the floor next to your bed instead of her own room. We only had one fan, and you would direct it on me so I could sleep. Some years ago when I was twenty, you remembered this. I visited you in Houston, Texas, and before heading to bed, you turned on the fan, although it was 40 degrees Fahrenheit outside. I asked, “Why did you turn that on?” You said, “So you can sleep.”

I am grateful for the few months last summer, when you and I were “re-united” again, after “our separation” when I was ten years old. I decided to return home to write and travel, but I gained much more than I could imagine, which was precious time with you and our family.

I’m grateful to know that your early morning ritual included old love-songs that you played on a stereo from your side of the house.

I’m grateful for you accommodating my Filipino and American requests—puto AND kuchinta in the morning, please, and only fish (no meat) during lunch and dinner, and extra vegetables. You said, “The least I can do when you return home is to be able to feed you.”

I’m grateful to have been there as you pursued one of your dreams: to finish college. You never had the chance to pursue because you were taking care of us. You were so excited, although you didn’t show it. You bought a new wooden desk and got a haircut. On your first day, you were dressed in a white polo shirt and white pants, as the college requires. You had your yellow book-bag and hopped onto your motorcycle, and out you went through our red gates to go to a nearby town for class.

You would complain later about the 60 students packed in the classroom, without air-conditioning or a fan, or even textbooks. The last reason—the lack of a textbook—is the reason you cited that you needed my help: to find a poem and write an analysis of it. I laughed about the irony: I’m helping you with homework—or rather, doing the homework for you because you claimed not to understand poetry. And at your age, you said, you didn’t have the patience.

I would help you with other subjects, too: clarifying concepts for a business class, which you understood more clearly, as I asked you specific questions about your own business experience. I couldn’t have asked for a better opportunity to connect with you.

We also learned together this summer, that your attempts of being overprotective wouldn’t work now that I’m grown up. You said to not talk to politicians around town—not to meddle in political affairs—in order to help clean up our hometown and preserve its rural beauty. I didn’t agree about fearing consequences; and I attribute to you some of this fiery spirit.

I indicated that I’m old enough to know what’s best for me, which is to pursue what I believe in, being an agent of change rather than complying with the status quo. The best thing that a parent can do is to enable the child to learn this.

And likewise, you didn’t agree with my beliefs when I criticized you continuing to smoke: “I’d rather die happy,” which showed me that you will be the same stubborn, beautiful father you’d always been.

I remember a conversation one rainy afternoon, when the water generator had spewed dark smoke and ended its 25-year reign. You talked about digging a hole under the mango tree, near the well, a “jacuzzi,” where you can rest in cool water when the sun would be overbearing in the summer. I could just imagine you, content and resting.

~~~

Daddy, there is never a way to repay you for your sacrifices. We could only honor you by not wasting away our lives on frivolous things and not being afraid to love and dream.

I’ll close this letter with the poem that we chose for you to recite in class. The only criterion you gave was that it should be short because you had to memorize it. I chose a translation of “Despedida,” meaning “Farewell,” by Federico Garcia Lorca. I explained to you that the speaker of the poem is contemplating eternity, the next passage, and how he’s not afraid of it. He welcomes what’s to come, because, perhaps, he’d already lived a beautiful life and has no regrets. He requests for the balcony to be left open so he can appreciate both this dimension—the boy eating oranges in the street—and the next—the reaper harvesting the wheat.  Perhaps, our spirits were preparing our goodbyes then—

 

Farewell

If I die,

leave the balcony open.

 

The little boy is eating oranges.

(From my balcony I can see him.)

 

The reaper is harvesting the wheat.

(From the balcony I can hear him.)

 

If I die,

leave the balcony open.

 

 

 

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.

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.