EILEEN TABIOS Engages
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:
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
There are 33 poet-contributors representing a wide variety of birth lands and experiences. The highest praise one might say about this anthology is that the topic requires way more than 33 poets to explore and yet the book is sufficiently multi-faceted and the participants thoughtful and passionate so as to avoid presenting a reductive treatment. The book is divided into five categories:
IV. The Émigré Poet in America
V. A Third Space
As Animashaun points out, though, each of the essays could have been placed in another category. The categories also surface as not all contributors addressed all of the prompts; some may have began from a prompt but then moved on to whatever that poet was compelled to say. Each of the essays offer illumination. Unable to address them all—for such an overview, you can read Kazim Ali’s useful and well-wrought Introduction—I did end up with some favorite reads.
A highlight, for me, was Ocean Vuong’s description of his early days in New York City where he moved as a young man with $564, a backpack of handwritten poems, and not much else. He recounts days of couch-surfing as well as “a stint in Penn Station” before a friend would persuade him to take a free room in the friend’s grandmother’s house. All Vuong had to do was help to take care of his grandmother, Grazina, who was suffering from dementia. There, in that old house, Vuong would discover the huge library in the basement courtesy of the hoarding by Grazina’s then dead husband:
As drifts of dust swirled through the beam of light, I saw the hidden books. They were paper gold. Rows and rows of Western history’s most timeless classics: Homer, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Austen, Flaubert, Turgenev, Faulkner, even Nabokov, Salinger and Atwood. … There was also the entire library of Steinbeck and Hemingway in hardback. My mouth agape, my blood pressure rising, dust in my lungs, I dove into the books. The years had glued the covers together, and, as I attempted to dislodge them from the shelves, some books came out attached in twos, even threes. Others were eaten, almost entirely, by rats. I lifted a trio of Camus’ books and peered into a golf ball-sized hole burrowing right through these existentialist masterpieces—cover to cover. Luckily, there were often duplicate copies of the books and I managed to salvage both The Stranger and The Rebel, among other modern classics despite their decades of rodent feasting. And since I had no TV and certainly no Internet connection, the secret library became my new pleasure. I would finish a book, return it and grab another from the shelf, making my way through centuries of great literature. I would stay up deep into the night, often holding vigil over Grazina’s volatile dementia attacks, the pages of Crime and Punishment ringed with mold and falling apart in my hands. I would turn a page and it would break off, the book literally disintegrating as I read it. When finished, there was only a single back cover between my fingers. It proved to be one of the most invaluable experiences in my nascent life as a writer.
I was also empathetic with Matthew Shenoda’s recollections of—dismay over—experiences where individuals “with some significant decision-making powers in the literary world” would claim to have “discovered” some notable writer of color. About one such discussion he witnessed, he says
I was struck by the way the narrative was unfolding. I sat curiously listening to this hubris, this Columbusesque narrative…. / Too often have I heard editors, grant makers, and educators talk about “discovering’ this or that writer and too often has that writer been a person of color, often from a country outside of the United States. Is this act of “discovery” a real possibility or is it a holdover from a colonial mentality that shapes the way in which writers of color in particular are shaped and understood in the present literary landscape?
I empathized with Shenoda’s observation as I, too, have noticed how many poets—who are also teachers—often claim credit (even when they pretend not to) when one of their former students attain some literary achievement. When this trait is applied to the complication of the émigré poet, it’s not likely to reveal the bragger in a good light. As Shenoda says, one such revelation could be colonial mentality.
But my favorite sections of the book was where poets clearly linked their immigrant experiences to their craft of poetry. Perhaps it’s my favorite because the movement from biography to poetic craft is not (often) scientific or linear—which may be why the connection was not addressed by the majority of the poet-participants, but which makes me all the more fascinated by how poets posit the connection between the two. It’s not, to quote from editor Animashaun’s Preface, “straightforward” but three poets were able to clearly delineate a connection.
Rigoberto Gonzalez, who was born in Bakersfield, CA but grew up in his father’s homeland of Michoacan, Mexico, talks about why he doesn’t incorporate Spanish into his poems:
I’m frequently asked if my poems, written exclusively in English, are translated into Spanish. This question makes me bristle because it seems to imply that my work isn’t good enough in the language it’s already written in. In the past, I would simply say no, but apologetically, as if I had done something wrong. But now I simply state the truth: what for? My audience is an English-speaking, English-reading audience….
The other question that irks me is when I’m asiked if I code-switch or employ intralingual devices in my work. Again, no, and I probably never will….my family was very clear about keeping a border between the two languages. My grandfather especially would become furious if we peppered Spanish with English words. He considered it a corruption of the language, at best, at worst, a lack of education. My brother and I, of course, would code-switch in the privacy of our room, as a kind of defiance to Abuelo’s prejudices, but we knew this was a forced speech. It didn’t come naturally to us at all the way we heard it spoken in our neighborhoods, by our closest friends.
In college I encountered the work of Alkurista, Juan Felipe Herrera, Sandra Cisneros, and other poets who did code-switch, and I understood the work perfectly, but could not imitate it without feeling like an impostor. It seemed I was, like Abuelo, very Mexican in my thinking that this was the language of the pochos, the American-born and raised Mexicans. Like them, I too was Chicano. But unlike me, they were not Mexican.
One of the facets I appreciate about the above excerpt is how Gonzalez reveals the lack of U.S.-centrism in his and their family’s points-of-view, belying the assumption of many U.S. Americans because they see people coming to the U.S.
Maria Victoria A. Grageda-Smith, who immigrated to the U.S. as an adult, explains why she shies away from the post-modern by utilizing “accessible” language and writing style:
As writers in the Philippines, we were encouraged to address as wide a readership as possible. This was especially emphasized in my alma mater, the University of the Philippines, where our expected audience was not restricted to the lofty halls of the academe. Indeed, my education and training in the literary arts had always urged creative endeavor in the service of effecting social change. By its very nature, this undertaking required that my work be accessible to the masses—to the everyday person, of what we call in the Philippines to be the “common tao” without succumbing to what was merely pedestrian or popular. We saw our vocation as artists not in keeping the suffering masses of humanity quagmire in their misery, but rather transformed by it and thereby redeemed from it. This remains my goal as a writer in the United States.
Barbara Jane Reyes was born in the Philippines and immigrated to the U.S. as a two-year-old. Thus, much of her past came to her through oral story-telling. Over time, “quarreling, multiple versions and interpretations of events” arose, which taught her 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”
This 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.”
To know Reyes’ work is to know that she focuses on, among other things, the stories of historically silenced women. She also has generated surveys to get others’ inputs on future poems. Her contribution to Others Will Enter The Gates reveals the rationale to some of her poetic approaches.
[I offer a different engagement with Grageda-Smith’s and Reyes’ essays over at The Halo-Halo Review, Issue I.]
All in all, Others Will Enter The Gates provided such a satisfying read that I not only recommend it but hope that perhaps Black Lawrence (or another publisher) may choose to release in the future a second (then third …. ) volume. Make it a series!!
Eileen Tabios does not let her books be reviewed by Galatea Resurrects because she's its editor (the exception would be books that focus on other poets as well). She is pleased, though, to point you elsewhere to recent reviews of her work. I FORGOT LIGHT BURNS received a review by Zvi A. Sesling at Boston Area Small Press & Poetry Scene; by Amazon Hall of Fame reviewer Grady Harp over HERE; and by Allen Bramhall in Tributary. Her experimental biography AGAINST MISANTHROPY: A LIFE IN POETRY received a review by Tom Hibbard in The Halo-Halo Review, Allen Bramhall in Mandala Web and Chris Mansel in The Daily Art Source. SUN STIGMATA also received a review by Edric Mesmer at Yellow Field. Recent releases are the e-chap DUENDE IN THE ALLEYS as well as INVENT(ST)ORY which is her second “Selected Poems" project; while her first Selected THE THORN ROSARY was focused on the prose poem form, INVEN(ST)ORY focuses on the list or catalog poem form. A key poem in INVENT(ST)ORY was reviewed by John Bloomberg-Rissman in The Halo-Halo Review, and the book itself was reviewed by Chris Mansel in The Daily Art Source and Allen Bramhall in Mandala Web. More information at http://eileenrtabios.com