Eileen R. Tabios presents the Introduction to
HUMANITY, Volume 1, edited by Eileen R. Tabios
(Paloma Press, San Mateo, 2018)
REACHING FOR “A MOUNTAIN-LIKE LOVE”
When I was asked to be the editor of HUMANITY, I felt I was being asked to do the impossible. Since I’m a poet, I thus said Yes.
HUMANITY was conceived by Aileen Cassinetto (poet and publisher of Paloma Press). She says she was inspired by Annie Dillard’s For the Time Being which, “in large part, contemplates humanity ‘in a world of almost 7 billion individuals.’” The first contributors were recruited by Aileen and she chose some based on being “experts in their field” as their work ultimately relates to their worldview. Aileen notes that while she “opted for some experts’ views as [she] thinks each one represents an aggregate of what makes the world move at a certain direction,” she feels that “any one person can change the world.” She emphasizes, “Before these people were considered experts, they were just anyone and it was by doing something they’re passionate about that they came to move the world at a certain direction.”
When I later solicited other writers to add to the book, it was from a point of view of perceiving gaps these contributors could flesh out or further expand.
As such, HUMANITY is the 15th anthology I’ve either edited or conceptualized but is the first anthology where the concept was someone else’s and I just stepped into place as editor. I did not object to this structure specifically because of its theme: humanity. I felt that any group collected in an anthology is not going to be fully representative (I anticipated even before seeing the book’s manuscript that I would be suggesting “Volume 1” as a subtitle; whether or not there will be additional volumes, the subtitle suggests a continuation of humanity’s definition beyond this or any particular book). But I did want diversity in views. Ultimately, I wished there to be sufficient content to make a wide variety of readers pause, think, then think again, and perhaps engage in some positive action as a result of reading.
Despite their differences, all of the writers in this book share something in common: thoughtfulness, as facilitated by traits like attentiveness and curiosity, among others. For the older writers, such traits clearly affected the decisions they’ve made about how to live in the world—resulting in a strong activist orientation among several, whether it’s working for both human and animal rights, the natural environment as well as cities, war victims, socio-cultural policies as well as a deeper aesthetics. Other writers present a variety of coming-of-age experiences. Together they present an overall picture of both the admirable and flaws, of both strength and fragility.
In HUMANITY, we are presented with humanity’s explorations, often struggles, with itself in a variety of contexts. One take-away certainly would be the importance of persistence in searching for a better way to do things—a better way to live. Another would be the fragility of children and young humans—how so much of what they become are significantly affected by what happens to them at young ages; as writer Jonathan Carroll once said, “Our youth is where the only gods we ever created live.” These are elements that don’t surprise me. But it’s hopefully telling that I learned new lessons—or new emphases—about humanity as I read through the anthology’s essays. I’m optimistic readers, too, will learn something from various writers in the anthology. The following are just a few of the points that resonated with me and do not at all come close to revealing the complexity of the contributors’ writings, the book’s gems of wisdom or notable sources of grief. The latter is worth stressing—grief so often forms us as much as perhaps the more quoted source of love.
From Daniel Atkinson’s discussion on narrative, we are reminded that a narrative for change might first occasion the personal revolution of changing one’s inherited (thus often taken for granted to be true) narrative—something difficult to do when “the status quo lends itself to the idea that difference in narrative often means deficient in value.” This matter resonates as Atkinson’s discourse relates to “Placelessness for Afro- in the American Narrative.” Atkinson notes that his essay “contain… inconvenient truths that have always been present, but rarely included in the greater American narrative.” Relating his essay to the present, Atkinson’s words also offer another and useful way to consider, to understand why Colin Kaepernick kneels.
S. Lily Mendoza addresses narrative in another way: “[O]ne most prevalent narrative … is that which says that the awful conditions we find ourselves living in today (the violent hierarchies, wars, selfishness, greed, cutthroat competition, domination of the weak by the strong, etc.) are just ‘human nature;’ that this is a ‘dog-eat-dog’ world and will always be because ‘that’s just the way we are as human beings.’” Mendoza disputes this by referencing indigenous beliefs: “Our Cree brothers and sisters have identified our modern civilization as suffering from a serious disease of the soul or spirit they call ‘wetiko’ … and whose grief we must now learn to understand and find ways to metabolize if we are to heal ourselves and the earth from its long reach and shadow.”
Mendoza emphasizes that what needs to be done is “spiritual work…. To do this kind of work is to come face to face with immeasurable grief and sorrow. We cannot do this work alone. It is work that requires community (both of the human and the more-than- human kind), deep love, and, most especially the capacity to compost grief into life-giving beauty. Anymore, mere anger and denunciation of wrong will not suffice. We must dig deep, beyond our hatred and despair. In the words of indigenous writer Martin Prechtel, we need a ‘mountain-like love for something [that] is bigger than [our] righteous hatred over the unfairness of others,’.”
From Jeannine Pfeiffer, we learn partly about the allure of heroism—“saviorhood for the otherwise powerless.” While, in Pfeiffer’s case, she is relating to helping animals (her epigraph is Anatole France’s statement, “Until one has loved an animal, part of one’s soul remains unawakened”), as soon as I read the word “saviorhood” I couldn’t help but be reminded of this force’s many manifestations. Saviorhood is complicated: e.g., Robert Cowan’s contribution is also a warning on do-good tourism. Those sponsoring “missions” to volunteer at orphanages, for example, have not always addressed well the effect on children when the visitors return to their more privileged homes. It’s a graying effect I personally witnessed during the process of adopting my son out of an orphanage in Colombia.
From Rodrigo Toscano and Aaron Beasley’s conversation, we see poets who don’t abide by norms as they search for a more effective way to practice poetry. Toscano’s timely suggestion for poets “to resist becoming professional virtue signalers” is just one of many deeply-considered notes in his contribution.
Melinda Luisa de Jesus’s poem, “Hay(na)ku: For the white feminist professor who told me I was ‘ghettoizing’ myself by studying Asian American Literature,” resonates for me, in part because another Filipino poet once told me, “you’re too good to be just a Filipino-American or Asian-American poet.” I ignored him and continued my work back then volunteering at New York’s Asian American Writers Workshop or AAWW (partly as editor of its now-defunct The Asian Pacific American Journal). The irony is that since those AAWW days, I’ve moved on to write poems that would be irrelevant to some in my ethnic community precisely because my poetry is open to other cultures, including “white” cultures. It’s rare for a reader to go beneath my poems’ surface narratives to understand that what knits it all together is actually an indigenous Filipino trait called Kapwa, which can be defined as interconnectedness with all beings. I was introduced to Kapwa by Leny M. Strobel whose essay offers “an integral/wholistic understanding of the interconnection of All. It is all Sacred.”
De Jesus’ poem also shows the reach of history when it incorporates the term “little brown sister” to hearken “Little Brown Brother,” a term once used by U.S.-Americans to refer to Filipinos. The phrase was coined by William Howard Taft, the first American Governor-General of the Philippines (1901-1904) and later the 27th President of the United States.
Murzban F. Shroff echoes Toscano’s (and others’) search for a deeper understanding of one’s (required) role. For Shroff, when he transitioned from advertising to fiction writing as “a career switch [that] wasn’t about self-indulgence but about making a meaningful contribution,” he discovered that he had “not even attempted to understand the holistic picture that was India. As an advertising man, the really poor never mattered, for they did not have the buying power. But as a writer I had to understand the motivations of the less privileged.” Shroff would come to realize that there were “three kinds of people: the haves, the have-nots, and the know-nots. The know-nots were people like me, who did not know how the other half lived. It would be my duty to sensitize the know-nots to the have-nots, to bridge this seemingly wide divide and create understanding where there was none.”
From high school student Rio Constantino, we see courage: “The vast territory of the unknown stretches before you. Dark shapes flit across the sun above. It is a sign to curl up into your shell—or break from it. To crane your neck out and see. There are dangers, there are risks, but there is no such thing as complete safety. Moving or not, prey is still prey. In which case, I’d rather take my chances, look around, and know whether the best option is to fight or flee.”
It must be no coincidence that from Rio’s father, Renato Redentor Constantino, we see the type of parental influence that succeeds in positively developing a child’s outlook: “When faced with a choice between the unknown and probable stability, consider choosing the greater challenge. It may not be the wisest counsel, but if you do encounter job options, why not invest in your capacity to grow.”
In a way, I see the father-son Constantinos as exemplifying what Audrey Ward says is needed: “The young need someone to look up to.” Ward, noting that “we are accountable for children whether we have young ones in our own home or not,” states that “if we pay attention to creating a world that’s fit for children we will also enjoy living there. It requires, first, building a home that practices ethics, talks about and requires respect, honesty, faithful kindness (even when angry), and forgiveness. Then, learning to live by this moral compass in our families, neighborhoods, and schools.”
Relatedly, J.A. Bernstein notes the importance of family as well as the strength of place, especially if the latter is one’s homeland. When he visited the Baqa’a Refugee Camp, he observed: “This is a roughly one-and-a-half-square-kilometer, poured cement warren sprawling north of Amman. It encompassed some sixty-thousand Palestinians, all refugees and their descendants. … one elder invited me to his home for tea, whereupon I inquired of his political thoughts. We sat along his plush sofa, inside the dark cell, and he regaled me with pictures of relatives. Little kids came and went, and veiled women served us mint tea. He said he remembered Deir al-Dubban, his village, southwest of Jerusalem, in present-day Israel, from which the family was expelled in ’48. They still had the keys to his home, he explained, and someday they would go back.”
From Cynthia Buiza, we learn one contemporary way to define “Home” in the anthropocene: “… you can’t claim to be a Manila girl if you can’t describe in a few words how the city’s legendary traffic chewed you up and spat you out like thoroughly masticated Chiclet.” Zeitgeist means taking out the specific reference to Manila and replacing with any large urban setting.
From John Bloomberg-Rissman, we see hard-earned self-awareness. Discussing (his) “White privilege,” he notes, “Justice will be intersectional or not at all.” He also reminds that, significantly, “the coiner of the term ‘intersectionality’ is Kimberlé Crenshaw, a black woman and an expert on race and the law.” He stresses, “It is improbable that a white person, however thoughtful and educated, would have come up with the concept. That improbability is white privilege in a nutshell.”
From Karen Shipp, we learn about the trickster Coyote’s circular way of moving through life: “Nothing with Coyote is a straight line,” befitting how life is indeed more varied than that straight line. Her meditations on the Coyote lead her to question monotheism: “What is lost when we make God all one thing? What is lost with monotheism, the belief in an Omnipotent God who is all Creator, and no destruction? … We become the creators of a dualistic world, where Right and Wrong, Good and Bad are separated in our minds and therefore in our experience. In this either/or universe we are left impoverished. Monotheism is fertile ground for intolerance and fundamentalism and exclusion, because if my ‘One God’ is the only Way, then you must either convert or be damned.”
Shipp, adds, “How different a world mine might have been if I had grown up with Coyote! If the religious tradition in which I was raised had told me stories about the Trickster and his antics, perhaps the world’s snafus would not be as likely to throw me off course or into deep depression. The trap inherent in the belief that there is One God who is All- Powerful is that, when things go horribly wrong, there is no way to grasp what is happening without accusing the One whom we believe to be ‘in charge.’ If God is Omnipotent, how can we not blame God? Without a world view that includes the Trickster, we cannot help being forever confused by the uncertainty and ambiguity of our world as it is.”
If adult warnings are present throughout the anthology, it makes sense—albeit sadly—that teen poet Gabriela Igloria contributes “Catastrophizing.” But is that the effect we want to impose on our young? To be young can be to have a thinner skin between one’s psyche and one’s environment—from such can emanate a truth specific to its more innocent roots. We should ponder why, in her poem, it’s a child—not a parent or adult or a security guard walking their beat—who’s referenced in this line: “A child cries out, the sky is falling.” Why does the young poet write it will be “the children [who] will see it first””
But while HUMANITY’s writers show that living is challenging, they also are able to offer sagacious coping devices, including but not limited to:
From Mary Pan: “camaraderie is therapeutic.”
From Renato Constantino: There’s always mischief to make. / There’s always ice cream to enjoy. / … The dog eats everyone’s homework. / Punch back. / … Rain is awesome, ‘rain that comes like passion and leaves like redemption,’ as Rebecca Solnit once wrote. / … the world will attempt to beat [kids] into conformity and submission, because things are really not going well. / It’s important to pay attention and to learn how things work. To learn how to build and create. To read. To befriend disruption. To finish your drink. Life can be hard.”
From Robert Cowan: “being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage”
From Jeanine Pfeiffer, the importance of not becoming jaded: though her patient Bitty the bat died, she “accept[s] that our interventions into the lives of others, no matter how well-intentioned or well- crafted they may be, are quixotic and ephemeral. … But we must offer what we offer with palms open, fingers splayed.” (The italics are mine for emphasis.)
From Christine Amour Levar, that positive human relations can create warmth despite adverse circumstances; Christine’s context in her contribution is the tundra: “Despite the harshness of the environment, we adapt surprisingly well to our new way of life, but it’s also because the Nenets are so hospitable, treating us like their daughters, making sure we are warm and well fed at all times. Yuri’s pregnant wife Elena sees that I was about to step out of the chum to go herding with the men …. I can’t find my balaclava—essential to avoid frostbite when riding on the snowmobiles to reach the herd. Elena quickly pulls off her own embroidered scarf and ties it tightly across my face to make sure the skin is protected, while whispering words of motherly concern in the Nenets language...”
A last but not least example from Leny Mendoza Strobel: “Joanna Macy, a Buddhist elder, reminds us that in this sixth extinction phase we are facing, we can create Beauty as we disappear. I, too, intend to disappear and disintegrate elegantly.”
My own contribution—which I read for this anthology some years from when the conversation was written—leads me to question poetry’s sufficiency. I chose at the last minute of forming the anthology to include a conversation with John Bloomberg-Rissman (JBR) because it synchronistically touched on issues raised by other participants. Looking at it now, I wonder whether I’ve taken the easy way out in considering these topics raised by JBR as interviewer and by other writers in this anthology. The interview focuses on the “arduity” of writing poetry (including whether one should write poetry) given the prevalence of “an aesthetic regime that is at its very heart racist, misogynist, etc etc.” I see now that by ultimately focusing on poetry—so that I can muster “I write in poetry, not English” to elide English’s colonial history—I was able to avoid addressing some harder layers of the question. And so I end this Introduction as an introduction to what I, too, must continue to explore, question, engage with, and contribute. If I have relied too much on poetry-as-language to preserve my own sense of my humanity, there are other ways that may be more meaningful to others—it’s time I expand my definitions and my own efforts.
It’s my hope that readers of HUMANITY also are led to consider new notions about humanity, our shared humanity. I share this hope with Aileen Cassinetto, who conceived this anthology, that “this anthology at the very least can generate a discussion on how we can make life better.” I believe in the merits of knowledge—if we learn more about each other, we hopefully can live better with each other and the environment we all share. The strength and beauty of our humanity is how it moves us to not remain individual human beings but be one being with each other and all others.
Eileen R. Tabios has released about 60 collections of poetry, fiction, essays, and experimental biographies from publishers in ten countries and cyberspace. In 2020 she will release a short story collection, PAGPAG: The Dictator’s Aftermath in the Diaspora. Her award-winning body of work includes invention of the hay(na)ku, a 21st century diasporic poetic form (whose 15-year anniversary in 2018 was celebrated in the U.S. with exhibitions, a new anthology, and readings at the San Francisco and St. Helena Public Libraries) as well as a first poetry book, Beyond Life Sentences, which received the Philippines’ National Book Award for Poetry. Translated into ten languages, she also has edited, co-edited or conceptualized 15 anthologies of poetry, fiction and essays. Her writing and editing works have received recognition through awards, grants and residencies. More information is available at http://eileenrtabios.com