JOSEPH TRINIDAD 

 

Excerpts from a reading journal completed as part of the MA in creative writing at the IIML

 

Tommy Pico — Nature Poem 

 

What do you want to write? How do you want to be known? More specifically, as a person of colour, let’s say you’re gay too, immigrant even, how do the things you know to be true affect your answer?

As much as I want to go against the grain, I know some things are expected of me. I need to be a good son. I need to represent my family well as long as I carry their name. I need to be a good partner, even when my boyfriend is not around. I need to do all the things that are expected of me: clean the house, go to work, pay rent, keep up with the latest trends, speak English (this dumb as language of betrayal that erases my mother tongue with every punctuation). I need to write well, not just okay, really well. I have a trail set in front of me, blazed by people more talented than I’ll ever be, anything short of really amazing and super good is a failure. I gotta do the most with the little privilege I have.

I love the cards that I’ve been given even when I’m sick of the limitations of my body. I love my family even when they can be overbearing and they’ve given me things I’d rather not have like a wide nose, receding hairline at 27, and stubbornness that only gets stronger in the sun. I love reading about the been-there-done-that nature of another memoir / collection of essays / zine / comic strip from a person of colour. I love all that BS because it’s definitively of me, of the context I operate in, not the cisheteropatriachalcolonial shit that’s tube fed to me like I’m a goose making pâtés.

I might want to jump out of my skin when I see someone richer, prettier, skinnier, smarter, dumber, dumb-thicker, taller, shorter, fishier, manlier than me but I’d rather have this vessel I call my body than be dead. I love my body because it stays, even if I treat it like shit. It carried me through some dark times, it was there throughout last year. It never retaliated against me, it’s patient, never longed for anything other than safety and comfort.

I even love my brain, my mind that won’t stop going when I’d rather sleep, the mind that would only pick shitty Top 40 kind of music as supposed to the new-age indie bs my peers are pretending to listen to. Taylor Swift forever, Two Door Cinema Club sucks. It’s hard to write about pleasure if everything is working against you but my mind insists on finding a way. I don’t care if pleasure undercuts the profundity essayists / poets like me should strive for. It’s so much harder to be happy and content than sad and important nowadays. Daisy Buchanan was the real hero of Great Gatsby. She hoped to be a beautiful little fool but she’s not and she still found a way to keep going. (I don’t really agree with the reading that Daisy stayed with Tom, I think Daisy found out, not only about the affair but about the murder plot, mulled it over, Gone Girl-ed that motherfucker, with the help of her sweet, sensitive novelist cousin and gapped it).

Teebs (Pico’s nickname) DOES NOT want to write a nature poem.

He can write a nature poem, beautifully even, not passé at all, but he just doesn’t want to. He would rather write about sucking dick at a pizzeria. Or making white beaus laugh so hard they get a six-pack.

But not nature poems.

He can’t deal with the moon, the stars, how the trees remember your name, none of that shit. Just because he was born in a rez or because NDN poets should ‘get’ nature because isn’t that what they’re known for anyways?

Teebs understands that the human experience is a multifaceted experience, water flows from all directions, but every time he’s at the rez, even at the city, he can’t stop feeling the pressure of being normal. ‘Normal is defined not by what it is, but what surrounds it. Meaning it could literally be anything, and is nothing.’

I mean, what the fuck?

How can someone go against the grain if their lofty goals of ‘getting a nose ring at 30’ and ‘touring the landscapes of the interior’ are compared against ‘Mike Brown and Sandra Bland and Charleston’ and how America was won and how it keeps winning?

Let me write about the city, my jungle. Stop pulling me back to where I was born. I’d go there when I want to, and not because you told me to. I don’t want the shadow of your expectations to follow me around; I already have my mother for that. And why the fuck do my cousins keep getting dreamcatcher tattoos ‘like bb that’s not even our tribe?’

Ocean Vuong said, for the longest time Asian artists need to be fine-tuned performers, picking up cellos to play Beethoven and Mozart. After I read this, I was determined to be a large dumpster fire incoherently filled to the brim with empty noodle packets. Creating, failing, and pushing through are often privileges, not given to people like me. So right now, I make it my MO. One of the only times I fucked the system and felt better afterwards. It might not draw blood but it’s a revolution all the same.

Can you read a book of poetry in one sitting? The question is, should you? When will poets become happy again? is such a dumb question to ask when Ocean Vuong, Tayi Tibble, and Tommy Pico exist. Like Teebs, maybe I’m tired of the bullshit too. And I’ll just write what I want.

And now, with the final frame, love is a losing game.

Freeze frame.

Fade out. ✌🏼

Reading notes:

This was how Nature Poem was written—I theorise, partly because the English language is a colonial tool as an NDN born in a rez Teebs wants to destroy from the inside. Honestly, writing this way felt freeing, transcendental even. The rules of grammar are genuinely just table manners in the post-Donald Trump / ChatGPT age, people don’t sound like this all the time—especially not people of colour. The punctuations should be over the place, subjects and verbs in disagreement, tenses messed up, new words made up in every paragraph. Fuck the Queen’s King’s English, I’m gonna go ham with these words.
 
Nature Poem was recommended by Elaine Castillo in How to Read Now. Do you ever read a book and as you’re reading it, you just feel like it’s going to change your life forever? Nature Poem was recommended during the Joan Didion section, apparently one of the greatest essayists of all time didn’t know much about brown people, which I’m sure she found quite humbling from whatever corner of heaven she’s in.
 
The songs mentioned in Nature Poem would make a killer playlist. I come away with a deeper, greater appreciation of Amy Winehouse, Hole, and Al Green.
 
‘I used to read a lot of perfect poems, now I read a lot of Garbage / … / the old mysteries avail themselves oftechnique.’
 
‘Pain is alienating, but blue breath breaking on a voice is the magic that makes ppl believe.’
 
I’d normally read about other reviews when writing about books but because Tommy Pico was so anti-establishment I thought it’d be weird to get an opinion from The Man with this one so I went to The Main Person I go to when I’m lost (Ocean Vuong) and as always, wasn’t disappointed. The Ocean Vuong quote above is from his Instagram stories about metaphors. Here’s the other gem that I couldn’t figure out to fit in: ‘I want you, I need you, to sing with me. I want to hear what you sound like when it’s just us, and you sound so much like yourself that I recognize you even in the darkest rooms, even when I recognize nothing else. And I know your name is ‘little brother’ or ‘big sister’, or ‘light beam’, or ‘my-echo retuned-to-me-intact’. And I smile.
 
Back to Teebs for the final frame, ‘When a star dies, it becomes any number of things like a black hole, or a documentary.’ Killer fucking bar.

 

Cathy Park Hong — Minor Feelings

What is your band score?

Mine, I don’t know. My dad came in here before it was required so that meant my mum, my sister, and I don’t have a band score. Ate Joan though, she scored an expected high of 8. That’s scholar, Shakespeare level English—something to be expected from a pre-med graduate from University of the Philippines, Diliman, one of the most prestigious universities back home. Kuya Edsel, he’s a different story. He’s been a nurse in Riyadh for the last six years, and managed to work his way up to be a Level 7 nurse. In nurse speak, he’s the big cheese, the main man, the person who calls all the shots. He had his eyes set in New Zealand because he heard of the nursing shortage, the slow brain drain that happens when you underpay an entire medical sector—nurses are smart, why stay where you’re not financially valued? There’s always greener pastures especially in the UK, Australia, and US. Kuya Edsel didn’t want to go to the UK, Omicron long tentacles are still wreaking havoc there. Australia was never a consideration because well, Australians. The US has the distinction of having the worst first-world response to Covid. In the US, 25% of the Covid-19 related deaths among nurses were Filipino. Filipinos only account for 4% of the total nurses in America. Kuya Edsel said, New Zealand – his favourite cousin is here (my dad), he also heard about our gold-standard response with Covid (about Jacinda, even Dr. Bloomfield). Why not here? IELTS requires 7. He got 7. Barely, scraping through.

I do not want to ever disappear into the throes of English. Tagalog is the house that raised me, it is the language I quietly return to in my most private and tender moments, it is the deep well that allows me to nourish and reproduce the country that I came from, that I left behind. Tagalog is my inheritance, the source of pride and ancestry. It can’t be erased because it is where I came from. It will always be with me. It can’t be contained or kept at bay. In the book, How to Blow Up a Pipeline, Andreas Malm argues that ‘the state loves a fight of arms [because] it knows it will win.’ He continues, ‘The enemy has overwhelmingly superior capabilities in virtually all fields, including media propaganda, institutional coordination, logistical resources, political legitimacy and, above all, money.’ Malm suggests that our strength is ‘in numbers.’

In Imagining Decolonisation, Moana Jackson described colonisation as ‘the process of replacing one house with another.’ Mike Ross, in the same book, following Jackson’s logic said, ‘Each house is adorned with its own art traditions, etiquette, myths, stories, and music.’ I imagine the two houses to be on top of each other. One house, the first house, not demolished, but underground, straining on the weight of the house squatting above, waiting to be unearthed, may be even saved: a rectangular, sleeping house where the curved roof meets the polished floor of the house above it. I think of the other house, the second interloper house, utilising the first house as its foundations, to have floor-to-ceiling windows, encroaching and stealing the sunlight reserved for the house below. Following Jackson’s logic, the house above won’t be able to survive without feeding off the house below.

Language is a house where I store everything that I know, everything that I call my own. In my language(s), I have trinkets I came to understand, keep, and treasure. I inherited it from the people who taught it to me, with it I also took their kindness and patience for sharing something they know deeply. Without language, I wouldn’t be able to cook my favourite meals or invite the attention of my family and friends to my personality, my stories, where I came from, where I’m going to go, and where I am. All of what I know is contained and spoken about solely through the language(s) that I carry. It is my house, without it, I am homeless. Without it, I am without a place to sleep, a place to dream.

Jackson’s house analogy made me think of good manners. The etiquette you must have to show respect to the hand that feeds you. The word etiquette comes from the French estiquette, which means ‘to attach, to stick onto,’ an Old French word often used to connote a set of instructions for a soldier’s lodgings. Good manners, like good grammar, is meant to set instructions on how to behave properly, often when you’re not in your own home, or to signal that you were raised well and you’re to represent your home proudly.

But what if I don’t respect the house you’ve given me? I know the foundations of your house are built on a language that’s aching to get out.

In order to excavate the wharenui below we must blow up the bungalow above. I know my strength is in numbers (according to the IELTS website, there are ‘3 million [new] test takers each year’). Using ‘bad English, bad grammar’ is akin to defacing the house that colonisation built. The good news is languages born out of good cause and bad grammar is not a new concept.

While perusing through a website called Engrish.com (a forum for white tourists ridiculing the bad English in Asia), Hong found a shirt that said:

I feel a happiness when I eat him.

Bad English is poetry. Language is meant to be forgiving, that’s how it’s always been. That’s how it evolves.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Joseph Trinidad is a Filipino writer. His writing is mostly about small towns, exploring their connection to queerhood, displacement, and brownness. His work has been published or is forthcoming in Landfall, The Spinoff, and Migrant Zine Collective. He is the winner of the 2023 Adam Foundation Prize with his MA folio Lucky Creatures.