Art Talk with Poet Barbara Jane Reyes

By Rebecca Sutton
Woman with short hair laughing

Poet Barbara Jane Reyes, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Born in the Philippines and raised in the Bay Area, Barbara Jane Reyes has been navigating the nuances of multiple languages from an early age. Her poetry continues to navigate multiple languages, multiple cultures, and multiple meanings, offering a richly layered look into the complexities of identity. She is the author of three chapbooks and four collections of poetry, with a fifth, Invocation to Daughters, forthcoming in November from City Lights Publishers. Based in Oakland, Reyes spoke with us by phone about gender, teaching, and why she absolutely loves being known as a Filipina-American poet.

NEA: You grew up amidst multiple languages, which you now incorporate into your poetry. How has having these various languages to draw on shaped your relationship with words in general?

BARBARA JANE REYES: I think a lot of it had to do with learning who spoke what language. In my family, there were people who spoke Tagalog. There were people who spoke Ilocano, which is another Filipino language, and then of course, English. One thing I learned was that different groups of people within my extended family, and then my parents' circles of friends, spoke different languages. I was always observing who spoke what to one another, and trying to figure out the context of what languages they would use. Part of it also has to do with having learned that school was where I spoke English. But reading or hearing English words that sounded similar to words that I knew in Tagalog would make me think about how they are related. So I've always thought about where these words come from, what do they sound like, who uses them and for what purpose, to speak to whom or to speak about whom.

NEA: You've spoken before about how your poems almost emerge through different personas. Can tell me how you develop those personae and give them an authentic voice?

REYES: Writing from my personal Barbara, "I" point of view isn't something I do very frequently. I always want to put these other voices out there. Of course because I'm the one writing it, my language comes through in these other personas. But I want there to be some kind of proximity to how I perceive that persona as living. What is their world like? What kind of words would they use? What registers would they use? Is this somebody who would speak in the vernacular or in Tagalish, which is the word we use for that hybrid Tagalog-English. Are they speaking something a little bit closer to poetic diction? For me, it was always about how do I come into proximity with that other person?

I try to remember how is it that people talk. I had tried to write from my grandfather's point of view, and went through that process [of trying to remember] where were his inflections, and where would he interject a term of endearment in the middle of a sentence. A lot of it has to do with going really deep into my memory to remember these things, or just listening to people [and trying] not to look nosy if I'm on public transportation in the middle of West Oakland.

When I start to put that down on the page, that direct transcription, it's a gift if it works. But sometimes as the writer I have to intervene. I have to give it line breaks where I feel like this is where the breath was taken. Or I finagle the wording to try to get a smoother transition or similar consonant sounds.

NEA: Your work deals with a lot of big topics like identity and the body and womanhood. Are there any questions or issues you feel like you've come to terms with through your own poetic inquiry? Or are there questions or issues you’re still hoping to further explore through your poems?

REYES: I think the body and gender are always going to be things I'm exploring. Part of it is because we're all growing up and we're all hitting different phases in our lives. So the concerns that I had as a 30-year-old feminist who was single in graduate school are different from the concerns that I have as a feminist who is now married in her mid-40s, and who is going gray and getting old. As a 30-year-old, I would have never thought about writing from the point of view of an older woman. So I'm constantly going to be asking these questions. Who knows what my poems are going to look like when I'm a 70-year-old woman? There's a lot of talk in "po biz" if you will about, "Oh, that poet keeps writing the same book over and over and over again." I have come to terms with the fact that I will always be writing about women and about feminism and about body and about beauty because these things are always going to mean different things to me as I get older.

NEA: You’ve also been a professor of poetry and literature for many years. How do you feel that your teaching has influenced your poetry?

REYES: I still want to write for the young Filipina who comes into the classroom and says, "I've never seen a Filipina-authored book ever." Because that was me until I was 19. I want to be able to reach them, and in a way that isn't me trying to act like I'm 19 again. So how can I take all the stuff I've learned as a poet and make it accessible, but still make it something multi-layered and complicated? Because that's what my poetry wants to be, and I think that’s an accurate depiction of what a Filipina life in this country is like. It's multi-layered. It's complicated. It's contradictory.

My last book was published on a local San Francisco-based Filipino-American press. I brought that book into my Filipino Literature class at SF State, thinking, “I don’t know how they're going to take this.” The response I got from all of these young Filipino women was, "This stuff is for real," and "I really relate to this," or "I'm really intrigued by this." I realized what it was—it was the music of the poetic line that made the work a lot more accessible than stuff that I had previously written. I didn't have to affect speaking their young people vernacular—I just had to tweak the music of my poetic lines into units that were manageable. So that's what I've learned, I guess, as a poet getting older and older while my students are getting younger and younger.

NEA: You mentioned trying to reach young Filipinas. What messages are you trying to convey to them through your work?

REYES: I think a lot of it is just honoring our complexity. We look at popular culture to see who resembles us, and we are fed a lot of oversimplified messages about who we are. We are a people who have this complicated history with America, and a complicated history as people coming from Asia who have Spanish names and Spanish traditions. In this country, we do and then we don't fit in with the Asian-American community. We do and we don't fit in with the Latino communities.

I feel as though we need to honor that. There's so much more to us than can fit into one cultural production. Even if we are appearing to be in argument with one another, I feel like that's productive. This was actually the takeaway from the last class I taught, where we had different kinds of Filipino literary voices oftentimes talking in contradiction to one another. My students were a little confused by that, and towards the end of the semester they started understanding that there really isn't a singular representation. So there's the irony: if I could distill it down to one point, it would be that there is no single representation. There is no single narrative that encompasses all of our Filipino experience.

NEA: Can you talk a little bit about the possible joys and burdens of being known as a Filipina-American poet?

REYES: I totally love it. It's who I am, so I don't have a problem with people referring to me as a Filipino-American poet. Those same people can also refer to me as an Asian-American poet or as a feminist poet or as a woman poet. I know a lot of ethnic writers or people-of-color writers have hang-ups about being put in a shoebox. That fear is legit. It comes from a place of, "Okay. Check the box. We got ourselves a Filipino." Or [conversely,] "That's too Filipino. That's too ethnic. Therefore our [non-Filipino] readers are not going to relate to that." I know that there are editors who may still think that way. I don't really need them to publish my work then. There are all kinds of other editors who are super interested in learning something that they hadn't thought of before, and those are the people that I have faith in in the industry. But the primary emotion that I have as somebody labeled as a Filipino writer is, "Yes, bring it. I love it." If only so that a young person who is looking for this work will be able to find me.

NEA: You talked a little about expectations, about not being ethnic enough or too ethnic—whatever. Do you ever come across expectations from your own community about what your writing should be?

REYES: Oh, yeah. I'm not going to say this is specific to Filipinos, but there's so much gender policing—daughters should not be like that, wives should not be like that, girls should not be like that. That's something that we experience as girls and women—that's kind of the norm to us. And that happens in many ways in my own community as well. It's always going to be something that pushes up against me where folks say, “Women shouldn't swear the way you swear," or, "Women shouldn't write about sex with that kind of openness."

I'm fine with it now, and I think the reason why I am is because as an author, I’ve had to work through a lot of folks going, "I don't like that, because that doesn't represent me." I'll say, "Of course it doesn't represent you. I don't know you.” We may have in common that we're both Filipino, but as I teach my students and as I write myself, our experiences are so varied and so layered and so complex, I would hate to encompass all of us in a very oversimplified narrative. So if you're resisting my work as a Filipino trying to find another Filipino on the page, maybe that's a good thing. Maybe that will compel you to look for other writers. Or maybe that will compel you to write your own narrative. So I'm okay with folks resisting the work. They took the time to read it, and they took the time to think about it, and it stayed with them. I think that the worst thing would be to have a piece of work out there in the world and have nobody respond and have nobody recognize that your work is out there.

NEA: How do you think your writing has evolved through the years?

REYES: My grandfather said something to me back when he was in his eighties. I went up to his house, and he handed me these albums full of old photos. He started telling me all these stories about all these people. And he said, “Since you're going to be the writer in the family, then it's up to you to tell these stories now.” That was very forward-thinking for an old Filipino man.

But I'm doing exactly what he said I was going to do. So instead of fighting with anybody about, "I'm a poet, damn it! Respect me!" I’m doing exactly what the elders in my family that I respected most said I was going to do. So in that way, my voice is changing in that it's no longer combatting itself. It's accepting that this is your role as the teller of these narratives. I'm comfortable with that now in a way that I wasn't before. I felt as though my poetry always had to come from a fight, whether it was with somebody in my family or with an idea. But I'm not doing that anymore. I'm listening and putting it down on the page. I'm finding the poetry in stuff that I'm reading or stuff that I'm witnessing.