Academic journal article MELUS

Reveling in Fluidity, Resisting Dichotomies: An Interview with Barbara Jane Reyes and Matthew Shenoda

Academic journal article MELUS

Reveling in Fluidity, Resisting Dichotomies: An Interview with Barbara Jane Reyes and Matthew Shenoda

Article excerpt

Well over a year ago, when we circulated a call inviting submissions from scholars and practitioners of poetry and poetics, we hoped to gather a range of works that would extend scholarly conversations about poetics across ethnic traditions. We encouraged contributors to focus on the line between the aesthetics and politics of language; the role varied verse forms and traditions play; the relationship between poetics and political movements, place, and performance; and the theory and practice of poetic customs within diverse writing communities. We were delighted by the wide range of responses from both the creative and scholarly writing communities; yet we did not anticipate the marvelous surprise of a proposal initiated in the fall of 2008 by poets Barbara Jane Reyes and Matthew Shenoda. These writers took our call to extend scholarly conversations quite literally: they suggested a dialogue among multi-ethnic poets that, in the words of Reyes, would address "the membership or positions of writers of color within American literary traditions, what obstacles race, ethnicity, language, political ideas [and] beliefs pose in forging this membership, [and] popular ideas that 'political poetry' is necessarily undisciplined, emotionally raw, non-crafted poetry" ("MELUS Query").

While the interview that follows touches on those issues, Reyes and Shenoda are authors whose fertile creativity and expansive intellects move beyond these concerns. For instance, we asked them questions that would allow them to discuss their writing processes, books they have read recently, and even the advantages and limitations of MFA programs, book contests, and what they label "the Poetic Industrial Complex."

Reyes's work inhabits diverse word-worlds. As fellow poet Nick Carb6 notes in the back-cover blurb of Diwata (2010), Reyes "injects Filipino words like calamansi, kastoy, and pananaghoy into the sinew of American poetry with panache and fearless abandon. Hers is an incomparable talent." Or as this linguistic fluidity is rendered by Joyelle McSweeney, "Poeta en San Francisco's multiple fluencies ... might lead one to imagine an apocalypse in which the veil of hegemony and monoglossia are rent" (n. pag.).

Reyes was born in Manila and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she pursued undergraduate and graduate education. She earned a bachelor's degree from the University of California at Berkeley and an MFA from San Francisco State University, and has remained rooted in the West Coast; indeed, much of her poetry draws upon the vibrant vernacular and literary cultures of northern California's urban landscape and other parts of the Pacific. As the speaker croons in her poem "West Oakland Serenade": "I sing for you, Dogtown to West Grand Ave. for freeways splitting the neighborhood's sides. I sing for liquor stores, I sing / for the taco truck. I sing for the summer fruit stand man ... I sing for grandfather oaks of deFremery Park. I sing for tomato vines growing in barrels, I sing for bougainvillea, for / waist-high weeds and brown grass ... I sing for the gunshots. I sing for the gunshots" (lines 1-2, 13-14, 19). She also dwells on the diasporic consequences of violence and colonial legacies of conquest, whether in Oakland, the Philippines, Vietnam, or elsewhere; yet she maintains an investment in the creative possibilities and power in love, language, and art. Her cross-genre fluidity between poetry, prose, and prayer and her literary and teaching interests complement each other; she has taught creative writing at Mills College in Oakland and Philippine Studies at the University of San Francisco.

Reyes has published three poetry collections, all by independent publishers: Gravities of Center (2003), by Arkipelago, a small press that focuses on Philippine culture and Filipino American authors; Poeta en San Francisco (2005), by TinFish, a press whose emphasis on work from the Pacific region employing nonstandard languages and forms well suits Reyes's experimental punning between English, Spanish, and Tagalog; and Diwata (2010), by BOA Editions, a nonprofit press with a thirty-year history of supporting contemporary literature from diverse cultures and writers. …

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