Criticism & Features


Small Press Spotlight: Barbara Jane Reyes

By Rigoberto Gonzalez



Diwata, Boa Editions, Ltd., 2010.

Barbara Jane Reyes was born in Manila, Philippines and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is the author of Gravities of Center (Arkipelago, 2003) and Poeta en San Francisco (Tinfish, 2005), which received the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets.


Diwata as a mythological invocation takes the reader back to pre-colonial Philippines when the belief in these gods and goddesses shaped the everyday lives on the Southeast Asian archipelago. They have now become your muses as you reach toward this cultural legacy to shape a distinct postmodern poetics in which you don’t simply erase colonial history–you build with that narrative as well. Hence why Catholicism and Spanish participate in the language of the diwata of poetry. It’s interesting because by the end I don’t see this book as a critique of colonialism, but rather, as a call for imagination (in anything that falls in the category of politics, religion, policy, etc.) and for the embracing of complexity (of anything that falls in the category of spirituality, humanity, history, etc.) in order to survive in the New World (“Let the man who cannot dream be a condemned man.”). There is something quite hopeful in that message. However, the book ends with “Aswang”–gesturing toward the indigenous women priests who were demonized for the wisdom that threatened those in power. Is there no hope then? Will this Diwata also be silenced, shunned and exiled for her visions? Or is this a warning from the other aswang, who awaits the days of reckoning? Is there a place for diwata in our troubled times?      


Thank you so much for your reading of Diwata. You are right, in that Diwata does not primarily aim to critique colonialism or erase a colonial history, which is impossible to do. Rather, it foregrounds women who have resisted, survived, endured colonial invasion and dislocation. They have done so by being creative, by (metaphorically) shapeshifting, by passing down wisdom through the generations (through story, song, dance, tattooing, weaving, etc.), and by arming themselves and fighting.

I am heartened by my shapeshifting Aswang’s existence in our modern, urban America. The fact that she has the last word speaks to me of her defiance of colonialism’s patriarchal structures and world view. Her words are fightin’ words. She’s telling those who’ve demonized her that they are right to fear her.

Yes, I believe diwata have a very crucial place in our times; my diwata are indeed muses. Creativity, generative and imaginative acts, acts of creation are always necessary, especially during troubled times. Audre Lorde wrote, “For women, then, poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought.”


Eve is a prominent figure in Diwata, and now that she has a voice she announces to her cohort, “Lover, did you not know I wrote my own creation story? Did you not know we all do?” She is one of the female guides in the book (the mermaid or duyong is another) who are rescued from their roles as evil-doers and destroyers of men. It would be too simplistic to say that this makes Diwata a feminist text, since in many indigenous cultures the governing bodies were matrilineal–women are therefore recovering power and are not claiming it for the first time. There is also a subtle but significant glimpse into the story of La Malinche in one of the early poems in the collection. What drew you to these figures? Why is it important to assert that their stories “lack proper symmetry”? What were some of the challenges (or pleasures) in constructing this “symmetry”?


I do think of Diwata as a feminist text and feminist project; in the most basic terms, each female figure is the native woman telling her own story, speaking her way out of dispossession, rather than succumbing others’ objectified versions of her. Many traditional stories tell us that obedient wives and daughters are rewarded, and disobedient ones punished. That’s the symmetry I’m interested in disrupting; in my stories’ versions, girls and women (including Eve, and the aswang) who transgress social boundaries actively unfetter themselves to reimagine and determine their own fates.

I loved writing my mermaid/duyong; I love that she could be simultaneously desirable and fear inspiring, not unlike the aswang, who in daylight appears as a beautiful woman. Along the Cagayan River, in the province of the same name (in the Northern Philippines), I pestered the young men in my grandfather’s hometown for their stories of the river’s mermaid. Beneath their fervent denial in her existence, there was something else they did not articulate in words but in tone, in silence, in body language. It’s this unknown (to me) “something else” that opened wide to my poetic interpretation and speculation.


You chose the prose poem as the structure to return to throughout the collection. Why was this the right form for you? 


Though oral tradition relies upon mnemonic device (meter, rhyme, repetition), stories’ long threads and continuous, comprehensive tellings/weavings made the prose poem the most appropriate form for these poems. The structure of Diwata I think of as something like a spider’s web, and the density of the prose poem contributes to this density.


The poem “Polyglot Incantation,” in which English, Spanish and Tagalog work together to tell a story, reminds me of your previous book Poeta en San Francisco, a book that made no apologies about its multi-lingual marrow. But your work defines language in much more complex ways (there is also history, culture, and even other genres such as song and prayer). That book, when it received the James Laughlin nod certainly decentered a list of mostly white and mostly English-only poets who had previously received that award. How did you come to terms with language as a political act? And what other poets do you recommend for those readers seeking out poets who also shaping this multi-lingual American poetics?           


Since my first exposure (in college) to a very unfamiliar pre-hispanicTagalog and its writing system, the Baybayin (which I used in Poeta en San Francisco), I’ve been thinking about layers of language that come with each new wave of foreign influence and colonial imposition. Pre-hispanic Tagalog and Baybayin are appealing to me for the very reason of acknowledging the existence of a fully formed speaking and writing system and a highly literate community prior to European contact. Still, for me it’d be impossible and impractical to communicate solely in these pre-hispanic modes. In a recent interview with the Multi-Ethnic Literature in the U.S. Journal (MELUS), I discussed the code switching and multilingualism which are the everyday and most effective modes of communication within my family and community. So then, isn’t it possible for code-switching to be one’s primary language?

As for other multilingual American poets, I recommend Juan Felipe Herrera, Jessica Hagedorn, Adrian Castro, R. Zamora Linmark, Cathy Park Hong, Javier O. Huerta, Craig Santos Perez, Suheir Hammad, Gizelle Gajelonia, Haunani Kay Trask. Also, I’ve been rereading the “Founding Poems” section of Aloud: Voices from the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, thinking about the previous decades of multilingual American poets who, out of necessity, created spaces outside of academic institutions in which to practice and proliferate multilingual poetry. I have been reading and enjoying Effigies: An Anthology of New Indigenous Writing, Pacific Rim, 2009, edited by Allison Hedge Coke, featuring chapbooks by four poets, dg nanouk okpik, Cathy Tagnak Rexford, Brandy Nalani McDougall, and Mahealani Perez-Wendt, who are Inuit/Inupiat and Native Hawaiian respectively, linked by their geographical locations along the Pacific Rim. 


“There is a poet stuck between the love lines of my palms,” you write in “The Bamboo’s Insomnia.” And this hand has both creative and destructive properties–like the writer, the diwata, the woman. She is also flawed, not perfect, more human than goddess (“Oh, but how I have strayed. From my story, how I have strayed.). And in poems like “Tocaya” (a Spanish term for a namesake or for a person who has the same name), you invite the reader to consider the blurring between Barbara Jane Reyes the writer of the poem and Barbara Jane Reyes the subject of the poem. The easy way out would be to say that a poem on occasion is autobiographical, but it’s not that simple. It’s as if the reader needs a prism, not a particular lens, to engage with the poem. Can you speak to that multi-dimensionality in your work? Is this part of the reach toward imagination and complexity mentioned in the first question?   


These days, I rarely ever write straight autobiography anymore. After hearing Nathaniel Mackey discuss the “we” persona of his ongoing “Song of the Andoumboulou,” it made more sense to me to write from this historical and mythical, more expansive point of view.

As well, I recently taught Julia de Burgos’s poem, “To Julia de Burgos,” (Jack Agüeros’s translation) in which she pointedly addresses a socially accepted version of her (past?) self. The woman is split in two, reined in by domesticity and propriety despite other imagined possibilities, and I am not content with oversimplified explanations of this brokenness. The poetic persona is much more timeless, dynamic, and malleable than the autobiographical self. While this autobiographical self must necessarily be concerned with the unglamorous day to day details of work, finances, familial obligation, it needs the poetic persona (in “Tocaya,” for example, the Christian martyr Saint Barbara invoked by curanderas, as well as her Yoruba manifestation Chango), to embody fable, myth, and metaphor. This way, the autobiographical self can imagine those other possibilities for herself. Again, back to Audre Lorde, “Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought.”