This interview by H.L. Hix is one of a series, many of which will be collected in Alter Nation: America in Recent Poetry, Recent Poetry in America, from Ugly Duckling Presse (fall 2012). Hix loves the interview form as a way of thinking together (itself a condition of democracy, justice, philosophy, and other ideals and practices he values), and as one element in a community poetics. The subject of this interview is Barbara Jane Reyes’s Poeta en San Francisco (TinFish Press, 2005).
H. L. Hix: The phrase “The opposite of Eden” (33) is applied in its immediate context to Vietnam, but I wonder if you would affirm my sense that it is much more broadly applicable in the book: that a strong current in the book is a depiction of the U.S. as the opposite of the Eden it presents itself as being?
Barbara Jane Reyes: I think of the opposite of Eden in biblical terms; if Eden is Genesis, creation, and paradise, a place of optimism about possibility, then its opposite would be Revelation, destruction, and apocalypse, a place of apprehension about possibility.
The Book of Revelation is interesting to me because of its coded, vivid, metaphorical language. It’s a language against empire, written under the conditions of division and collapse. As an American, this does sound like familiar, contemporary circumstances.
Apocalypse is interesting to me as well; it is not absolute end but the end of something. This is what revolution means: something ends and something else begins. I suppose those who dread apocalypse are those who benefit from the way things currently are.
HH: Another fragment to which I keep returning is “forgive, forgive, for principles won’t do” (89). May I take it, too, as if not quite an imperative (its grammatical mood) at least a plea that the whole book supports? (It happens that I read your book just at the point of the semester when I was teaching Martha Nussbaum’s Poetic Justice in one of my classes, and it strikes me that her book is a similar plea specific to the judicial system.)
BJR: I do like what you are saying, that the book makes a plea for forgiveness. As a lapsed Roman Catholic, forgiveness is a hard line to toe. Jesus asking us to turn the other cheek really does feel like too much to ask, but we strive to achieve this graciousness. But in terms of being Americans, of Filipino immigrant origins, I suppose some amount of resolution between the colonized and indigenous selves, as well as the parts of the self which represent or mirror the colonizer (religion, language, etc.), is necessary in order to live our everyday American lives.
HH: The question the epilogue asks, “do you know what it is to witness an unraveling?” calls to mind for me Czeslaw Milosz’s The Witness of Poetry and Carolyn Forché’s anthology Against Forgetting, whose subtitle speaks of a poetry of witness. Am I right to think of Poeta en San Francisco as pursuing that ideal: to be a poetry of witness?
BJR: Poetry of witness, absolutely. My poetic speaker is a witness to history, to war, to the city, to its streets, transcendent of singular human lifetime. As an extension of witness, she is a chronicler, a holder of memory and story. Her witness status does not preclude her being also a participant, an actor in historical cycles, experiencing her own unraveling, becoming so fed up that she pleads with her estranged lover for immolation.
Barbara Jane Reyes is the author of Diwata (BOA Editions, Ltd., 2010), winner of the Global Filipino Literary Award for Poetry and a finalist for the California Book Award. She was born in Manila, Philippines, raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, and is the author of two previous collections of poetry, Gravities of Center (Arkipelago Books, 2003) and Poeta en San Francisco (Tinfish Press, 2005), which received the James Laughlin Award of the Academy of American Poets. She is also the author of the chapbooks Easter Sunday (Ypolita Press, 2008) Cherry (Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs, 2008), and For the City that Nearly Broke Me (Aztlan Libre Press, 2012).