(Re)Writing Culture @ Poets House

On Saturday, Nov. 13, Poets House featured a panel discussion with Sueyeun Juliette Lee, Craig Santos Perez, and Barbara Jane Reyes.  The over-arching theme was “(Re) Writing Culture,” though each poet spoke more about the process of writing their books.  All three poets had second books released in 2010.

Sueyeun Juliette Lee spoke first.  She is the editor of a chapbook press, Corallary Press, and her second book, UNDERGROUND NATIONAL, was just released by Factory School.  Lee said that one of her main concerns is “achieving a sense of belonging” and she posited, “alienation is the root of world problems.”

Lee said that her second book is really an exploration of “national space,” both physical and psychological.  She mentioned that she is Korean-American, and that culturally she “belongs” to the traditions of Korea, but her physical space and education has always been “American.”

When her parents immigrated to the United States, she said,  they bought into the assimilation narrative, so she wasn’t raised with “stories” of her parents or relatives’ lives in Korea.  Lee said that this lack of personal knowledge results in what is “removed from the text” and that it was replaced with “research.”  The research contains fragments of a soldier’s experience in Korea, snippets of news, discussions about K-boy bands, and suicides, which thematically tie into alienation and how a “nation is a personless entity, yet (we) are deeply embodied by whatever ties us to the land, which is something other than nation.”

Lee read the first few sections of her poem, “Korea, What Is.”*  The poem explores boundaries, and further explicated her idea of perceived “physical” and “psychological” space.

Barbara Jane Reyes spoke next, and began by explaining the desire behind her first book, Poeta en San Francisco (Tinfish, Press, 2005).  The book begins in the mission district: “consider this procession:/ wings of black paloma dispersing and capturing air, / babies in the costumes of cherubs, / la virgen de Guadalupe on a float of roses, / a weeping siren, / a brothel girl.”

The poem continues, “we find ourselves retracing the steps of gold/ hungry arrogant spainards. walking on knees/ behind their ghosts, could we ever know how/ much blood seeped into the soil—”

Reyes’ book captures the “worldviews and collisions” that transpire and consist of the known and unknown narratives of San Francisco.  She researched the Filipino populations and their migrations within the city’s district.  She also collages the “personal  history” of the Filipino culture in San Francisco as rendered to her by her grandfather.  One of Reyes’ main concerns is the narratives that were ignored and/or went unacknowledged.  She explores U.S. involvement in the Philippines via wars and tourist industries. including the sex industries, which became the focus of her chapbook, Cherry (Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs, 2008).

Reyes said that when she worked on these books, she encountered a lot of Filipino mythology, and her second full-length collection, Diwata (BOA, Editions, Ltd 2010), gives its voice over to these mythologies.  She mentioned that through her research, she found many occasions where these myths overlapped and borrowed narratives from each other.

Craig Santos Perez said that he originally came from an ethnography background.  Most of his research began as “academic,” as he is enrolled in the Ph.D program at Berkeley.  Perez spoke at length about the shifts in ethnography and how language is “complicit with imperialism.”  He said that all of his research affected his first book, from unincorporated territory [hacha] (Tinfish Press, 2008).  The book explores the constant invasions by Japanese and American soldiers and how with each invasion more and more of Guam’s official language is destroyed and replaced first with Japanese, then American.

Perez said he attempts to capture what has remained as well as what was lost.  Throughout this process, Perez really wanted to capture “the personal” lived narratives, specifically of his grandmother.  He wasn’t able to do this with his first book, so for his second book, from unincorporated territory [saina] (Omnidawn, 2010), he collages narratives and fragments of his grandmother’s life and her stories.  Perez said this enables him to capture the “psychology of empire nations” through the “story-telling” of those that have lived it.

Perez said ethnography failed to allow him to tell these experiences with all of their nuances and that only poetry allows him to collage and draw from so many different fragments to create both a larger and more personal narrative. Poetry also allows Perez to incorporate maps and photos and news snippets into his work.

Reyes commented that she writes poetry because it allows for “hybrid bodies of there and of here.”  Poetry enables her to be in two places and multiple perspectives simultaneously.  It also allows for the natural progression of mixing the personal and political.

Lee mentioned that she went through an intensely religious period in her life and as she came out of that period she chose to “drop out of society” in order to examine and reorder her life.  She started writing poetry and she saw this as a rebellion against religious and political dogmas, but strangely enough it was poetry that brought her “back into the world” and it is the writing and community of writers and readers that continue to keep her fully engaged within the world.

* Thomas Fink writes about “Korea, What Is,” in his review of the book here.

** Lee’s chapbook, Perfect Villagers, is reviewed on Coldfront here.

*** Craig Santos Perez reviews Michael Gizzi’s book, New Depths of Deadpan, for Coldfront here.

–steven karl