Tuesday, April 15, 2003

Eileen Tabios and Nick Carbo are putting together a collection called PinoyPoetics, billed as "the first international poetics anthology of Filipino English-language poets." As Eileen mentioned in her blog on Saturday (and today), the collection includes an essay of mine on the poet Jose Garcia Villa called "Asian/American Modernisms: Jose Garcia Villa's Transnational Poetics." Eileen's done more than anybody alive to keep Villa's work in circulation in this country, and she's given us a Villa for the next generation in the 1999 collection The Anchored Angel.

My essay started as a seminar paper in a course with Ramon Saldivar called "Transnational American Poetics," which attempted to broaden received notions of American literature by looking at its formation through transnational forces, particularly Caribbean and Latin American. I was getting interested in Villa at the same time, mostly through having picked up The Anchored Angel, and started to think about him as a transnational figure, one whose reputation formed in his movement between the Philippines and the United States. The material in PinoyPoetics focuses mostly on this movement and on Villa's towering reputation in the Philippines, and how that reputation had to be attenuated or even suppressed for Villa to succeed in the United States. I also looked at Villa's reception in the U.S. during the 1940s and 1950s, finding that he was greeted simply as an "American" modernist poet, but with just enough of a whiff of orientalism to give his work exotic cachet; Marianne Moore, famously, likened him to a "Chinese master." This latter material is going to appear in a paper in MELUS sometime next year--I think. (If anything can make litmags seem like they have quick turnaround times, it's academic journals.)

Since Eileen's work on Villa had been so important to my own, I was delighted when she got in touch with me to ask about the paper after I gave part of it at a conference. (In fact, I think that's the first time we'd ever corresponded--right, Eileen?) Eileen very kindly in her blog attributes a certain "objectivity" to my approach, being the only non-Filipino contributor to the volume--no pressure! But I'm also glad she mentioned the issue of Villa's relationship to Asian American literature, which I felt I was only able to touch on in the essay. Part of the reason it's taken so long for Villa to be read again--even as writers and critics are scrambling to recover other Asian American writers--is that his work just doesn't fit the image of engaged, realistic, political writing that's been taken as characteristic of Asian American writing since the 1970s. In short, he's no Carlos Bulosan. Bringing him back as an "Asian American writer" (a label I doubt he would have been very happy with--I imagine he would have preferred simply "poet") raises all kinds of questions about what Asian American literature is and what it's for. But those kinds of questions, I think, confront Asian American poetry all the time, given that Asian American critics have tended to privilege the memoir--Asian American storytelling--above all, as a chronicle of Asian American experience. What happens to an Asian American poetry that fails to be that?

Eileen and I actually had an interesting exchange about the essay, in particular the question (relevant to what I've just been talking about) of why Villa abandoned a promising career as a fiction writer to devote himself entirely to poetry. Eileen wrote to me:

It has to do specifically with when Timothy writes of why Villa switched from writing fiction to poetry....and several potential reasons are discussed. The problem, of course, is that we can't really know for sure why Villa switched. But one reason is not mentioned -- and I think it's a reason that is as reasonable as the others cited by Timothy.

Villa was interested in a purity of language, a certain transcendence etc. I believe he may have found poetry -- versus fiction/prose -- to be more amenable to that particular transcendent interest in transcendence. Possibly, I'm projecting -- because as someone who started out writing by writing fiction, I turned to poetry because of this type of reason. But if you look at Villa's poems -- those transcendent worlds he makes -- I think this is definitely a factor for for Villa's turn to and then focus on poetry.

Villa was porous; no membrane between himself/his feelings and his poems. It's logical why many have said about his personality -- "like a child." So, without discounting the other possibilities that Timothy raised for Villa's turn from fiction to poetry, I think this factor -- this desire for transcendence through language -- is an equally valid reason.

I'm sure fiction writers can find such transcendence through fiction's form. But as someone who's done both -- like Villa -- I find it very logical that there'd be a more focused "pure" nature to transcendence through poetry versus fiction. Because poetry's minimalist form versus fiction's prose facilitates an alchemical distillation...And you can see/imagine/easily theorize that that alchemical approach already is obvious in some of Villa's latter stories....

My response:

I actually think your point about the move from prose to poetry being a bid for transcendence is quite right. In fact, when I first read your comments I was actually a little confused, because I thought it was what I had said in the essay! But when I went back and looked, I realized my phrasing was quite a bit different:

"I would suggest that we take Villa’s turn from prose to poetry on what seems to be its own terms: as an attempt to gain access to the modernist canon. The reception of Villa’s short stories as a collection of “tales from the native land” suggests that Villa’s work as a fiction writer would always have been constrained by a demand for lived experience... By turning to poetry, Villa was able to relieve this sort of pressure to be sociologically correct; indeed, he was able to turn his foreignness into an asset, a brand of exoticism that appealed to the orientalist strain in American modernism while still allowing Villa to take his place among the “great” American writers."

It now seems to me that you and I are seeing pretty much the same phenomenon in Villa--a sense that poetic language allows him to escape the, well, prosaic constraints of prose realism. Only you give a much more positive and constructive spin to this (poetry as transcendence), in contrast to what might seem like the more cynical and skeptical spin I give (transcendence as calculated literary strategy).

I actually think this also goes back to a comment I remember you making on the initial version of this essay, where you questioned how we could know what Villa really intended in using a particular formal strategy. I think my analysis of the prose/poetry shift looked at this from the outside, in terms of the effect it seemed to have on his reception. You were more interested (and here's where the "subjective" stuff you talked about comes in) in issues of motivation and intention--in what moving to poetry might have meant to Villa himself as a writer.

I suppose grad-student alarms usually go off when the word "transcendence" gets used--we get trained to be very suspicious of projects of transcendence, and tend to be more interested in what the writer is trying to escape and how incompletely she/he does so. But this also leads me to perceive a weakness in my approach, which is in large part a reception history; thus, it gives somewhat short shrift to an understanding of the work itself and to Villa's psychology. I suppose a whole book is what I really need to write...

No comments: