Thursday, November 19, 2020



Of Color: Poets’ Ways of Making, An Anthology of Essays on Transformative Poetics edited by Amanda Galvan Huynh and Luisa A. Igloria 

(The Operating System, 2019)



The Delicate and Dangerous: About a Transformative Read


Writing and reading seem so delicate and dangerous in the time of texts. How does one reckon with this kind of material?


unable to access intimacy to those who lived through this history [excavating the

“imagined” and “real” history of xxxx] through a sea of information-dates, locations,

Numbers-conversing between a historical city existing only in artifacts and an

Imagined future city re-negotiating its identity through constant redevelopment


                                                                    - That you yourself, through recombinations and

                                                   permutations of the languages you already know,

Demand concentration, a stinking.    Can re-create that fierce charge, for yourself and

down past the surface.        others, on a page, something written down that

                                                                                   remains.  – Adrienne Rich


This excerpt comes from Ching-in Cheng's “How Do You Begin?* (Another Poetics).” The paragraph really begins with a small letter, and does not end with a period. One might ask: how do the two other groupings of words (including a portion from Adrienne Rich) relate with the one above? How do we take these three–as a cluster of meanings? The disorientation will call for another kind of approach, not the left-to-right, top-to-bottom one. How will we feel about it? What do we do about it?


There are many layers or fragments to reckon with, and each one with possibly unseen tangles and edges, even barbs. A question for a young writer might be, would you be willing to stick it out? One should come up with a studied explanation, which needs to include context at the least.


This is what comes to mind while thinking of Of Color: Poets Ways of Making: an anthology of essays on transformative poetics, which is a compelling read. Racial issues, governmental power, international tensions, and other personal reckonings, along with their intricate connection with language, factor in the essays in Of Color.  


A good number of writers respond to these issues as lived out in their experiences of the MFA. Part of what is seen generally in such programs is a kind of erasure of critical issues. Likely, this due to the homogenizing effect associated with canons. Such orderings, it is reasonable to think, are of use in programs where people being taught an art such as poetry. 


However, there is a variety of backgrounds from which the writers come. The issues are not all about the MFA. And, whether in the case of the MFA or other situations, what seems to come out is a talking back–the rise of the voices that want to be heard, even if the language/s used are broken in the process.


The thing is, I might be able to make this utterance because of a privileged position. Being a Filipino in a middle class situation, benefitting from the love and generosity of family, I do not experience difficulties that the writers of Of Colorface day to day. (Still, it ain't easy to be Filipino in the time of Duterte.)


One of the personal discoveries I made within Of Color was the intersection of race issues and mental health issues. In this nexus, where poetry provides an opening, Abigail Licad speaks bravely, coming out with her bipolar condition. Not only is poetry as reading an outlet for her to concentrate, enabling the running mind to sort out layers of meaning and taking a kind of pause. The writing of poetry itself for her becomes a way to “parse out a feeling, thought, hunch, or memory.” She is able to create room within the immense challenge of looking for help, in the context where white people who don't understand nuances from her culture may try but are not able to provide her with relief.


Assembling a self through poetry is a theme that is recurrent in the book. It is already difficult for those who find themselves in a liminal position–what if you throw an imperialist heritage that was destructive for many in the mix? This is what the poet Kenji Liu confronts through his poetry, wherein he has to reckon with an ideology that Japan once pushed for, leading onto World War II. He has to bear with the the pathways prescribed by Confucianism too. For Liu, the literal fragmentation of texts initially whole, and the derivation of new meanings out of them, is the vision of the “Frankenpo” that he sees himself writing. 


Interesting to think of how the anthology's conceptualization happened not within the halls of a MFA Program, but in a kitchen, between friends who had a teacher-and-student relationship. Amanda Galvan Huynh and Luisa A Igloria, the editors, wanted to look for ways to articulate what seemed to have no space for in the curriculum they taught and in the poems they knew. 


I think that the book is more easily approached by practitioners who already have had the experience of writing poems. This experience I speak of might be in the traditional way (viewed as oppressive), or in other ways outside the typical curriculum. I say this because of the writing poetry is a craft: the techniques might be easier to access for someone with the discipline called forth by craft. 


The approaches in the book are contextualized. What the reader might want to do, I think, is to examine how the techniques proposed might apply to their own contexts and practice. The book exhorts us to consider that practice can never be dissociated from context. The poems might be said to be viewed as the product of a dialectic: the knowledge one has, in the face of a context, might bring forth the emergence of a different person and different poems.


At the end of the day, what I think is important is to avoid is the solidification of stances and perceptions. One must always keep an eye for the benefit of those who are disadvantaged by power sructures in the course of history. 


Of Color provides us an opportunity to know more about favorite poets–such as Ocean Vuong, whose experience of the Vietnam war, migration, and the encounter with drugs makes for riveting reading. However, this and other marvelous essays in the anthology call us into exploring the greater subject: the transforming and transformative field of poetry.  


Niccolo Rocamora Vitug, an alumnus of the Silliman National Writers Workshop, graduated with an MA in Literary and Cultural Studies from the Ateneo de Manila University. He is presently taking his PhD in Music at the University of the Philippines while teaching at the University of Santo Tomas. His collection Enter Deeply, selected as a finalist for the 2020 Gaudy Poetry Book Prize, is forthcoming from the University of the Philippines Press.

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