Poetry can be intimidating. From thinking about what rhymes with “orange” to how to write about an object that you have an emotional connection to, it is understandable that you might not know where to begin your poem. But poetry is an art form that can be learned.
People of color—including Filipinx in the Philippines and abroad in the diaspora—may find it difficult to resonate with the art form of poetry. In the United States, public schools consistently teach and recommend collections of poems written by white authors. White American poets and Eurocentric narratives take up the most of the space in the canon, creating few very perspectives. Often, the role that people of color play in these poems reinforce stereotypes; while the role given to the white narrators are those of heros, which affirms the white savior complex.
Some people might think poetry is a dead art form. But that’s not the case. Poetry is alive and thriving—contemporary works by Filipinx, Filipinx Americans, and Indigenous people of the Philippines are rising in popularity. Moreover, the active poetry community works to uplift those who are not sure how to start but are even a bit interested in trying to write poems. Poetry writing can be an outlet for anyone, especially Pin@y writers. Poetry allows people to express themselves and share their stories. In this article, I present a few tips on how to write poetry as well as resources from fellow Filipinx-American and Indigenous Filpinx writers.
1. Read a lot of poetry
Before you start to write, it is best to read collections of poetry by Filipinx writers. This is particularly helpful if you are a beginner because it provides examples of how the writers express their experiences by connecting their identities and culture together through poetry. These poems bring a sense of storytelling while blending metaphors and imagery that grasp their ethnic and cultural roots.
However, it can be difficult to find poetry by Pin@y and Indigenous Pinoy writers. Much of the reading materials are not available via the internet, because they have not yet been digitized. Fortunately, LIKHAAN (University of Philippines Institute of Creative Writing) made its online library accessible for all people to read their materials for free on panitikan.ph. An archive of Filipiniana (i.e. Philippine-related books and non-book materials), LIKHAAN’s “Freelipiniana Online Library” has full-length books of various genres including poetry, fiction, non-fiction, drama, graphic literature, and children’s literature. These online texts are also available in various languages including, but not limited to: Tagalog, English, and Chavacano/Chabacano.
Other resources where one can access poetry by Filipinx are literary-culture sites such as Lit Hub and poets.org as well as online literary magazines including the Filipina-owned Marías at Sampaguitas, which is run by Chopstick Alley Pinoy’s former co-editor Keana Aguila Labra. In addition, Filipina poet Barbara Jane Reyes offers excerpts from her chapbooks and collection of poems on her website. Reyes and her team curated another website called Pinay Liminality, an audio archive that centers stories by Pin@ys and Pin@y Americans in the San Francisco Bay Area. If you are searching for a place to read and get inspiration, these sources are a great way to start.
2. Start small
Another tip to consider is to start your poem “small.” When I say start small, it would best to begin with a short poem or a simple rhyming poem before writing longer. You are not expected to create a piece with groundbreaking storytelling from the jump. If you become unsure and get overwhelmed, I recommend jotting down ideas on topics you feel comfortable expressing in a poem. If you were to write a longer poem, it might not conceptualize the story or message you want to execute. To help get you started, I suggest writing either a short piece or a haiku — a form of Japanese poetry consists of three lines with 5 syllables in the first line, 7 syllables in the second, and 5 syllables in the last line — about you, your story, and/or your identity.
3. Play around with words
Whether you are still brainstorming or already completed your poem, there is always the option to edit or play around with words. Sometimes writers play with rhyming or switching lines to see any significant changes might bring a new meaning to their poems. One example of a simple but creative poem is Gerald Galindez’s “See Satan Smiling” from his collection of poetry “Ginapasaya a Mo Ako and Other Poems.” In “See Satan Smiling,” Galindez uses words that start with the letter “s” to describe realities of the world’s sins. He begins the poem:
Someone somewhere sniffing something smiles
Sinners swim swiftly singing septic songs,
Swingers swing swallowing slippery semen.
In this example, you might notice how using the letter “s” can create a strong idea supporting what Galindez is describing. It also shows that poetry does not stick to one format. You, as the writer, have many options to work and rework your poem in however a manner that expresses your story. This leads to my next point...
4. Connect with your roots, but also reflect and listen
Poetry is a crucial art form used to express personal experiences and stories, especially for poets of color. It is a way to reflect on one’s heritage and how cultures and identities impact the individual. Written work penned about ancestors, cultures, and heritage are available for future generations to go back and read these texts. In a way, poems allow for the writer to navigate their identities and feel represented on paper. You can look back to fables, oral traditions, and children’s stories that celebrate the culture. As long as your intention — whether it centers around Pin@y identity and culture, or personal experiences — is visible on page, you are continuing history in the best way.
Bay Area law student Margaret Von Rotz, who identifies as Ifugao (an Indigenous Filipino people from Northern Luzon), reflected on this topic in the past when she wrote poetry. She advised Indigenous Pinoy folx who want to bring their identity and culture into a poem to “write from the heart, not be afraid to stand in your truth, listen to your ancestors” and to express your culture in a way “that it’s also respected at the same time.”
Keep in mind that if you are Pin@y but do not identify as Indigenous and you are interested in incorporating Indigenous art into your poem, that art is still part of a culture very much alive today and should not be used inappropriately. Von Rotz makes this point clearly: “That culture is tied to a people and their land and that those intertwined relationships are at the center of Indigenous peoples’ identities.”
5. Give yourself space
Thinking about what to write and how to write can be overwhelming, especially if you are new to the art form. Poetry is a way to express yourself; however, it is okay if you do not finish or need some time to figure out what to write. When writing poetry becomes too much, take a step back and give yourself time away from the poem. Get some fresh air and go for a walk. Listen to music. Any number of possible options can be used to recharge and return to the poem. You can finish writing the poem the next day or might start a new draft altogether. As long as you have written any words, you have taken the first step.
These are my small tips to think about before starting to write poetry. There is definitely more to learn about traditional and contemporary Filipino literature and how to create your own work. It should also be said that poetry can be used to address heavy topics, such as colonialism, while at the same time, sharing your perspective and lived experiences of identity and culture. I hope this article provides guidance for your first poem. Happy writing!
If you are a Filipinx-American with poetry on hand, consider submitting to Chopsticks Alley Pinoy! We are currently reviewing submissions on the theme of “Identity.” See our call for submissions for more information or email firstname.lastname@example.org with your work.
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Asela L. Kemper - Oregon
Co-Editor Chopsticks Alley Pinoy
Asela holds a BFA in Creative Writing with a minor in Emerging Media & Digital Arts from Southern Oregon University. She holds many positions including poetry reader for Timberline Review (also as a copyeditor for poetry), Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review and Marías at Sampaguitas, contributor for Royal Rose Magazine, and poetry editor for Ayaskala. She has also previously published in SOU Student Press, Flawless Mag: The Border Issue, Silk Club: QUIET, Reclamation Mag, and No Tender Fences. Asela uses her passion for creative writing to open conversations on diversity and identity in literature. As an Asian American, she uses her platform to engage and uplift underrepresented Asian American artists. She resides in Oregon, USA with her family.