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Cooked Just Right: An Interview with Barbara Jane Reyes

We’re glad to see that so many people have enjoyed and re-posted BOA’s A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize coordinator Albert Abonado’s interview of Sean Thomas Dougherty! Here is Albert’s next installment – an interview with BOA poet Barbara Jane Reyes about her new book Diwata. Barbara’s last book, Poeta en San Francisco (Tinfish Press, 2005) won the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets. Diwata was published this month by BOA and has garnered such comments as, “Diwata is a book that would have raised the hairs on the nape of Emily Dickinson’s head” (Nick Carbo), and, “Reyes has accomplished a masterpiece” (Juan Felipe Herrera). In Diwata, Reyes frames her poems between the Book of Genesis creation story, and the Tagalog creation myth, placing her work somewhere culturally in between both traditions. Despite the intensity of her subject matter, Reyes never loses her wink of humor and streetwise knowingness; the poet as hip tour guide through her current American urban landscape as well as the “lush and fabulous, magical” Philippines of her “childhood memory and imagination.”     Barbara Jane Reyes is truly a poet of power and vision. We are thrilled to present this interview in honor of the publication of her newest offering, Diwata.  bjreyesphoto ALBERT:  Could you give a little background about your history with writing? What brought you to poetry? BARBARA: A few things. First would be my grandparents' and family elders' penchant for storytelling. There was an old story my mother's mother used to tell me about a brown god who shaped people from mud, and baked them in a huge oven. The undercooked ones were white people, the overcooked ones were black people, and the ones cooked just right were us. Many years later, in college, I came across this very same narrative in a Navajo story I read in a Native American Studies course. As far as coming into poetry, it may have been Ntozake Shange's For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf, or Jessica Hagedorn's Dangerous Music (Momo's Press, 1975), that poetry could be loose, and funky, woman of color-centric, indignant. ALBERT: You mentioned on your blog your concerns about presenting this book, your fears of disappointing your mother, could you say a little more about what you feel are the roots of these fears? How did you feel you might disappoint your mother? Do those thoughts enter into your head while writing? BARBARA: So much story came from my elders, the way story is passed down, changed bit by bit after decades and decades of retellings. I need to be OK with my role as a storyteller, adding my own spin on these old stories, and straight-up making stuff up (which storytellers do). The self-consciousness only came very recently, as I was literally handing the book over to my mother. Not like she'd really chew me out for getting things "wrong." I could imagine her saying, "Papa used to tell the story differently," and I'd have to know that wasn't criticism of my version.   ALBERT: Having read Poeta en San Francisco and Diwata, Diwata seems to build on some of the ideas from your previous book. Could you go into more detail about how you approached this new book and what relationship it has to the previous one? How did your experience writing this book differ from your previous one? BABARA: I have been, and continue to be, concerned with the girl or woman speaking for herself, telling her own story, her own version of the story. In Poeta en San Francisco, there are at least three different women personae recurring: the mermaid, the virgin, the bar girl. Some of their narratives verge on mythical, and Diwata became the space for me to enlarge the mythical space. A diwata is a deity or a spirit that resides in the natural world. A diwata is also a muse, and while I do not think diwata are exclusively female, experientially, I hear diwata used to refer more so to female deities/spirits/muses.  During the writing of Poeta en San Francisco, I felt like I kept myself in a pretty dark place, focused on the encounter with the white male invader, and the subsequent violation, and indeed, reading from the book for some years now, I'd always felt like it was a downer on the audience, to be subjected to so many violated bodies. With Diwata, I let myself enjoy the writing; going back into my imagined mythical place of origin allowed me indulge in lush detail, fragrance, texture, and writing willful women and girls is very uplifting. ALBERT:  I loved that you wrote how you were "concerned with the girl or woman speaking for herself, telling her own story, her own version of the story." The way you've worked mythology and storytelling into your work made me think if you weren't in some way "reclaiming" that space from a predominantly male perspective. I'm curious to know if you had any models you looked towards while writing the book.  BARBARA: It'd been a while since I'd read it, but very much in my mind was Leslie Marmon Silko's Storyteller, which was a mixed genre work, including some old images which looked like they were from old family albums. In Storyteller, Silko moves between verse and prose in telling the mythical stories and stories of her ancestors' historical experiences. In many ways, Diwata started out as a Pinay version of Silko's Storyteller, but because I was also reading various works by Eduardo Galeano -- Genesis: Memory of Fire 1, The Book of Embraces, Walking Words -- much of my own fantastical revisioning of old stories and other peoples' testimonies came into the work. And for a male writer, Galeano I think is great at considering and handling women's voices! For him, it seems there is no writing that subaltern voice without including girls and women.  ALBERT:  What lead you to use the diwata as such a central part of your book? Did you know a lot about the diwata before you started the book? BARBARA: I have known of the word, which has popularly translated into "fairy" or "nymph," and I like some of the connotations of these words, the playfulness or mischievousness of these creatures or spirits I have heard of from old stories. There is another element too, something that I don't think "fairy" and "nymph" convey, and it has to do with a feeling of the Philippines that is for me, very, very old, dark, deep, and even frightening, something I haven't been too sure how to articulate. I have always wondered how this ancient something endures despite urban development and globalization, even in the urban centers, where I feel the energy is not simply mundane bustling of so many bodies, but as I'd previously written, the place is still to me so dreamy. The Philippines of my childhood memory and imagination is lush and fabulous, magical. Houses are alive and exercise agency. Goats also have intention. The air in the city so humid and sparkly, swirling thick with ghosts I could almost smell. The word "diwata" seemed to me the best approximation or cause of these feelings. When I actually looked up "diwata" in my Tagalog-English dictionary, I found it also translated as "muse." This may have been when the "diwata" became Diwata. How are these spirits/beings not just the subject matter of the stories, but the source of the stories as well; how do we receive these stories from them? Who gets to receive these stories from them? As a poet, how can I also remain that open? Finally, as an American trying to be open in my writing, what right do I have to retell, change, and envision other possibilities for these stories? ALBERT:  The last part of your answer implies that a certain permission may be involved in writing these stories or poems, that you, as an American, may not even have that right.  How have you allowed yourself that permission to, as you say, "retell, change, and envision other possibilities for these stories?" BARBARA: I have outgrown my need for authenticity, as an American of Filipino descent, searching for my "roots." I have grown up around so many storytellers, "poetry makers," as Juan Felipe Herrera calls the storytellers in our families, and over time, have heard how stories change with each retelling, or how there can be so many different versions of one story based upon memory and perspective (think Rashomon here). Think also of how storytellers also make things up, perhaps because they always wanted the story to end differently. Ultimately, that Diwata is a project of imagining and writing alternate origin stories is a function of the fluidity of any story, and that story does not belong to any individual, so maybe it's not even appropriate to talk about my seeking permission in the first place.   ALBERT:  I just want to go back to how this collection builds upon that previous one when you expressed your interest in “the girl or woman speaking for herself, telling her own story, her own version of the story.” I don't want this to be reductive, but do you see your work as having an overarching narrative at this point? What would you say is the story you are trying to explore right now or are you allowing the whole process to occur organically, letting each poem inform the next? BARBARA: I have to let the process be organic, or to let the points of departure in my previous work lead to multiple poetic projects. I am not sure what the overarching narrative will come to look like. I do know that I remain interested in geography, my own points of origin, as well as the urban centers that have come to define me. I am interested in the voice of the Filipina girl and woman, especially if she continues to complicate reductive historical and social representations of her. Sometimes what she says surprises me, and sometimes I don't like it, and so I have to maintain that openness to conflicting viewpoints. Diwata_Final
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