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Have Come, Am Here

By Barbara Jane Reyes

I’ve been reading essays by Carlos Bulosan, published in On Becoming Filipino (Temple University Press, 1995), which is an excellent collection of his poetry, stories, essays, and correspondence, edited by the preeminent Filipino American and postcolonial scholar E. San Juan, Jr. From these essays, particularly, “I Am Not A Laughing Man,” I know Bulosan was hustling as a writer seeking publication, and seeking to get paid handsomely for publication:

A literary agent in New York wrote me about trying to write a text for Normal Rockwell’s “Freedom from Want,” one of the FOUR FREEDOMS which he was illustrating for the Saturday Evening Post and the Treasury Department. I rented another room and wrote the article in two hours….

Five days later I received a telegram that the Saturday Evening Post bought my article for nearly a thousand dollars. Then I was really mad. Why didn’t somebody tell me that it was easy to make money in America? Why did everybody let me suffer and starve? I was not only mad with myself, but with everyone around me.

I love this. I love the entire essay, and I hella love Bulosan’s anger. He’s totally right. Why suffer, why prolong poverty? The son of poor dispossessed farmers, he came from the northern part of the Philippines (Binalonan, Pangasinan, to be exact) to our West Coast, landed in Seattle in 1930, at the age of 17. At that time, the Philippines was still as colony of the USA, so he wouldn’t have technically been an “expatriate.” He was a colonial subject.

We know so much about his generation of young Filipino men, agricultural and cannery laborers, objects of racial and class violence, because of his monumental book, America is in the Heart, originally published in 1943 by Harcourt Brace. This is Asian American Studies 101. Today, he is iconic, mythic, sainted, our working class hero. He is the foundation of the Filipino American literary canon.

In many cases, he is portrayed in opposition to the Western canon. This is a historic falsehood.

Here’s E. San Juan, Jr.:

Long forgotten since his brief success in the 1940s, Bulosan was rediscovered in the 1960s by a generation of Filipino American youth radicalized by the antiwar and civil rights struggles.

I would argue that in this post 1960′s reconstruction of Bulosan, his literary ambitions have been conveniently deemphasized. He has been divorced from American poetry. But before I lapse into full-on history lesson, let me stop with that and move on. I confess that America is in the Heart is not my favorite work of his. It’s certainly his most ubiquitous, but it is melodramatic, sentimental in tone, which I believe undermines his radicalism. The poem, “If You Want to Know What We Are,” (included in On Becoming Filipino) is the poem to which I always return. It’s fierce, it sings, it’s a solidly structured poem, and like another one of his poems, “I Want the Wide American Earth,” it invokes and echoes Walt Whitman. In fact, in America is in the Heart, Bulosan writes of aspiring to Whitman, wanting also to sing America.

If you want to know where else Bulosan sought and found publication, check out Poetry magazine, where he was first published in February 1936 as “Carl” Bulosan. This is important evidence. Now, not having a copy of America is in the Heart with me at the moment, I will tell you what author Luis Francia has told me —  in the book, Bulosan does indeed name Harriet Monroe as having accepted his poems for Poetry magazine.

On the opposite side of the Philippine socioeconomic spectrum is Jose Garcia Villa, son of a wealthy landowner, University of the Philippines educated, Guggenheim Fellowship awardee, and whom I briefly mentioned in my previous blog post here (see Doveglion). You will also find him within the pages of Poetry magazine, and in the above Gotham Book Mart photo taken in November 1948 (there’s WH Auden,  Tennessee Williams, Marianne Moore, Randall Jarrell, you get the picture). I am pretty thrilled to find two of his books reviewed in Poetry magazine (February 1943 and February 1959). His work is cleanly picked apart for its limitations and “failures.” Here’s Ned O’Gorman in 1959:

It is perhaps true to say that Jose Garcia Villa’s vision and understanding are considerable. But his poetry is unachieved. In the end it is a failure. The artifact shatters under close study. For Mr. Villa has not yet found a language that can contain a vision so immense and theological.

Understanding and vision are not enough. It is not enough for a poet to say superb things about the world, to have the world practically in his hands. The core of vision, the act of understanding need, before rime and reason, the proper language. The flaw that holds his poetry from heights is a flaw in language. […] If the vision were meager, if the poet were just another poet, the matter would not concern me so.

Others can tell me whether you think Villa is objectified or culturally misunderstood in this review. I don’t think the review is mean spirited at all. I happen to think it’s actually complimentary; O’Gorman concludes his review of by emphasizing Villa’s potential: “For if ever there is a poet, he is one.” This is tall praise; Villa is no hack.

In Filipino American circles, I don’t know whether folks really know what to do with his poems. He is sometimes (frequently?) lumped into the nebulous category of “experimental,” which is too often erroneously thought of as not relevant to the API experience, a judgment I think is short sighted. And because in API literary circles, we emphasize Edith Sitwell’s problematic praise of Villa as “some kind of magic iguana” — see Tim Yu’s paper, “Asian/American Modernisms: José Garcia Villa’s Transnational Poetics” — I am pleased to see Villa’s work read so closely, and thought about critically.

I confess that I have mythologized Bulosan and Villa, these two pioneering Filipino American poetry figures, precisely because I need them to be larger than life, as our heroes usually are. And considering a particular sector of my community’s ambivalence towards “academic,” “awarded” poetry written ambitiously, crafted meticulously, widely published, and recognized by “mainstream” literary bodies, I look to the work and presence of Villa and Bulosan, affixed and invested in American letters, as role models of Arriving. Belonging. Crafting. Hustling. Publishing. Here.

And with that, I am out.

Peace. Paalam.

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Posted in Uncategorized on Wednesday, April 27th, 2011 by Barbara Jane Reyes.