Tuesday, September 15, 2015



The essays of Maria Victoria A. Grageda-Smith and Barbara Jane Reyes in

Others Will Enter the Gates: Immigrant Poets on Poetry, Influences, and Writing in America, Edited by Abayomi Animashaun with Introduction by Kazim Ali
(Black Lawrence Press, 2015)
In its Submission Call for Others Will Enter the Gates, editor Abayomi Animashaun and publisher Black Lawrence Press provided four prompts for potential contributors:

a)    Influences
b)    What it means to be a poet in America
c)     How work fits within the American poetic tradition, and
d)    How work fits within the poetic tradition of the (poet’s) home country

Philippine-born Maria Victoria A. Grageda-Smith presents the longest essay in this anthology as she adhered closer than many other contributors to providing fully-fleshed out answers to the four prompts. (Grageda-Smith is the author of a recently released a poetry collection, Warrior Heart Pilgrim Soul.) I much appreciated her taking the time and effort to write a long piece as such allows her not to elide the complexity of the many issues raised by the prompts—as she notes, what exactly is “America” and who defines?

Also effective was her use of Socratic questioning to investigate the issues—questions rather than declarative statements allow spaces for other views besides what she might hold as well as fit how the same question or prompt can elicit differing views and, even from the same person, views that change (evolve) over time. For example:

“Is ‘being’ an American writer a function of ‘place,’ of where we live and do the act of writing? Or is our identity determined by nationality roots, the dominant socio-cultural construct that thereby becomes the frame of reference for our work?”

Grageda-Smith offers a variety of insights. For example, she questions the application of “Asian” to Filipinos (a similar concern I recall from my days with Asian American Writers Workshop in New York City who had published anthologies revolving around Filipino, South Asian and Korean writers versus a generic “Asian American” anthology). Interrogating the term “Asian American,” Grageda-Smith notes:

“… can I identify myself then as an Asian American writer? Many Asians would balk, however at the categorization of Filipinos as ‘Asian,’ and they would not entirely be incorrect, for our cultural world-view compared to that of our neighbors in Southeast Asia is uniquely Western-oriented owing to three hundred and fifty years of Spanish colonial rule and fifty years of American occupation ...”

For me, a highlight of her essay was her assessment of Robert Blanco, the 2013 Presidential Inauguration poet, to wit:

“We might also reasonably assume that it must have helped the immigrant poet’s cause when the 2013 Presidential Inauguration Committee chose poet Richard Blanco, a son of Cuban immigrants, to read his poem ‘One Today’ during the inauguration program. Or did it? Could Blanco have been merely the chosen token immigrant performer for the purpose of gratifying the large Hispanic voting population that successfully carried Barack Obama into the second term of his presidency? Or was Blanco’s selection truly a sign that mainstream American poetry indeed was now more willing to define itself in terms inclusive of traditions and influences that go beyond its dominant Western, Anglo-Saxon origins? Perhaps so, but not because of Blanco’s poem, certainly. There appears nothing distinctly Latino or ‘immigrant’ in Blanco’s poem, apart from the persona of the poet himself. It’s likely that Blanco…purposefully wrote a poem that focused on the theme of a unified, generic America as is proper for an inauguration poem. The poem seems to avoid precisely any hint of the poet’s Latino immigrant heritage thus adroitly preempting its audience from possibly dwelling upon an image of the United States as an increasingly fragmented society where the former white majority is steadily receding and feeling threatened by a burgeoning number of minorities arising from various immigrant populations, and thus, from the reality that such immigrant constituencies are now redefining our concepts of beauty, culture, values and rights; indeed, challenging our very concept of ‘America’ itself.”

I appreciate that assessment, which is a point of view I suspect many have thought but only a few have raised publicly. Still, I wonder whether an immigrant poet or poet of color delivering the inauguration-neutralized poem has its own message to deliver about the talents of such poets (poets who, in other contexts, are charged with having to write in a certain way—an ethnic way—because of their identity (a matter also addressed elsewhere in the anthology)). That is, the poem being delivered, stripped of ethnic self-referentiality, could have been delivered by a white, male poet but instead ... [VISUAL ALERT!] the Latino Richard Blanco. 

Grageda-Smith addresses other concerns, not all of which I’ll address here. (For example, she addresses the MFA (Masters of Fine Arts) poetry industrial complex versus poetry for people outside of the ivory tower, “the common tao.” I won’t address that issue here as it’s an old story that's been addressed many times elsewhere.) But it would be inevitable, given her essay’s range, that a reader may not agree with everything she says. For me, there are sections where I suspect her assessments may be a bit reductive.

For example, in discussing the effects of digital technology on poetry publishing, she states:

“The previously marginalized poet is empowered by the democratizing liberating and globalizing effect of the Internet. Digital technology and social media are revolutionizing how the poet publishes his work and how the reader accesses and shares it. In the marketplace of ideas, the best, or at least, the most enduring ideas sell; the most inspiring, honest, relevant poetry is read and passed on to friends of friends of friends; and technology has become the new gatekeeper that is fast replacing the old guards so that the criterion of who gets to enter the gates of the literary world becomes mainly the transcendent merit or mass appeal of a writer’s work, not the tyrannical censorship of the old autocracy.”

Oh, if only that were true. Notwithstanding the real advantages offered by technological advancements, the constraints of poetry distribution and the effects of communities or aesthetic groupings make the situation more complicated. I think of poetry books languishing in dim closets or online works that go unclicked. Cultural capital is real currency in the poetry world, and what is often disseminated to “friends of friends of friends” may not only be the “merit”-orious works but such work as fits one’s preferred tendencies, whether in aesthetics, politics or other matters. This also elides the basic question of how to define “merit”—I don’t say that in the abstract; for example, of the prize-winning poetry collections I’ve read, I estimate that, in my non-humble opinion, about 25% deserve their prize. And the question of "Who am I to determine merit?" is not that far from asking "What defines merit and who determines?" Synchronistically, it's similar to that question about America: what is it and who defines?

Ultimately, I appreciate Grageda-Smith’s contribution to the anthology. It takes courage to be transparent about the anxieties one feels or may feel as an immigrant writer. She’s one of many writers, though, where these concerns—especially as they are not all concerns by individual choice but through circumstance—also seem to provide fodder for her writings. Her occasional defiance and analysis of literary gatekeepers speak well to how—referencing the title of her poetry collection—she, as a pilgrim, also operates as a warrior.


Barbara Jane Reyes (a description of her work is available at her website: http://www.barbarajanereyes.com) is less anxious but no less aware of the implications of immigration on her poetry. 

(Let me digress to address my use of the term “anxious.” While I feel it’s fair to use it in comparing the two essays by the anthology’s Philippine-born contributors, what I perceive as anxiety may seem higher in Grageda-Smith’s essay mostly because she, more than Reyes, chose to more fully address the book editor/publisher’s four writing prompts … which are anxiety-inducing.)

Reyes’ less strained approach stems partly, I believe, from the distancing allowed by her immigration history.  She came to the U.S. as a two-year-old while Grageda-Smith arrived as an adult (not sure of her age as it’s not specified). Thus, Reyes does not have the type of baggage of, say, being second-guessed like Grageda-Smith who, one point, states: “I know the mere fact I now write solely in English is, in itself, enough for some of my fellow writers in the Philippines to repudiate me as an authentic Filipino writer. To them, language is the medium of identity and failure to write in one’s native language is an affront to the culture, betraying the writer as just another neocolonial agent.”

Through a more intimate response, Reyes simply but effectively draws a direct connection between her immigrant past and the ways she operates as a poet. Specifically, because much of her family’s past was taught to her through oral story-telling and, over time, “quarreling, multiple versions and interpretations of events” arose, she learned to be “suspicious of … authoritative texts and master narratives.” She recalls

“this wonderful phenomenon called tsismis (chisme, gossip) in which everyone gets to speak, some with authority, some with the power of speculation, some only under the condition of anonymity”

Her background also honed her ability to listen.  Such is critical because she says—and oh how I agree!—

“To be a poet is to be a very good listener.”

“Oral tradition,” Reyes states, “has made me suspicious of single, authoritative texts and master narratives. Instead, I am drawn to what persists and survives despite mainstream cultural insistence upon single, authoritative texts. I love and value the stories in which asides lead to more asides, tangents lead to more tangents, oftentimes with no hope of returning to the original narrative. Consider that sometimes, the narrative asides and tangents are indeed the point of the story.”

Reyes also recalls how her parents worked hard to attain their “American dream” of moving to the U.S., buying a house, sending their children to private schools. In turn, Reyes’ (high) work ethic reflects the influence of her parents’ efforts. To know her work as a poet would introduce you to someone who does not just write poems but works to promote the poems of others as a critic, editor, teacher and cultural activist—the kind of good story that one could use in boasting about the United States’ advantage of being a nation of immigrants.


Actually, I was surprised by this book—surprised to find myself engrossed as a reader. Immigration is not a new concern (I am also an immigrant).  But it’s useful to have a collection on the impact of immigration on poetry. Others Will Enter the Gates presents fresh perspectives (I’ve read the other contributors), as wonderfully facilitated by Grageda-Smith and Reyes.


Eileen R. Tabios most recently released INVENT(ST)ORY: Selected Catalog Poems and New (1995-2015).  More information about her is at her website: http://eileenrtabios.com 

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