A Poetic Journey

By Elz Cuya

In celebration of National Poetry Month, I sought a story on traveling poets — it wasn’t difficult. It seems that the theme of journeying is a universal one. Here, Joi Barrios, author of Sweetened Fruit and Other Love Poems, talks about the poetry that speaks through journeying. While Abena Songbird, author of Bitterroot; A Way to Heal, talks about the journey that lies in poetry.

Joi Barrios
Joi Barrios during her visit to San Francisco at Arkipelago Books.

Traveling to Korea and Japan helped shape the poetry of Joi Barrios, but it also caused her to take deeper roots in her native homeland. As a professor of the University of the Philippines, she traveled to Korea on research, then lived in Japan on a visiting professorship at the Osaka University of Foreign Studies. Her recently published book, Sweetened Fruit and Other Love Poems, define and redefine love against the backdrop of living in a foreign country.

“Poetry can speak of what is not said and yet say more. Poetry also speaks in a way that can be read in so many different ways.” In a poem entitled Leaving Home, Joi writes, about her experience in Korea.

The tongue trips over

this foreign tongue,

I speak and my love

does not hear

what I say,

what I do not say.

He speaks,

and I cannot tell apart what is true,

what is not.

“Living in Japan, I really felt like I moved into the First World,” Joi says. Unlike the Philippines, there is water all the time, and electricity all the time.” But in her travels, she only finds herself more aware of the Filipino experience, that is, the Filipino experience in a foreign land.

Many Filipinos leave the Philippines for economic reasons. “There are Filipino domestic workers in Hong Kong, Filipino entertainers in Japan, and Filipino nurses in the United States. So those are the things that I notice. When I’m in Japan, I don’t write about Mt. Fuji, I write about the Filipino dancers in Japan. When I’m in the states, I don’t write about the Golden Gate, I write about the Filipinos who came before me and tried to make it in the states.

“Travel enriches me because I see things differently, I’m exposed to new ideas and cultures. But even as I travel, I find myself rooted even more to Philippine society. Like in an epic, the most traditional form of poetry, the hero goes out to search for something, encounters many struggles, dies, then is enlightened to life again. This is true for many Filipinos who must leave the Philippines. As a writer, this is true for me too. I have to leave my country, in order to take root in my country.”

Abena Songbird

Abena Songbird
Abena Songbird celebrates her Abenaki and Missisquoi heritage.

Native American Abena Songbird traveled all of her life. This not only speaks of the nomadic nature of the Native American culture, but also of the forced relocation of many Indian Tribes. And it was through this travel that Abena found her identity. At nineteen she ran away from home to Albuquerque, New Mexico where she heard an Acoma Pueblo Poet named Simon Ortiz. “He was a tremendous inspiration. He was speaking about the land, and I found a whole new self in me. Like I could be a poet myself.”

And in this season of Powwow, Indians travel to reunite, sing, dance and pray. Native Americans reconnect with the natural world and each other. “The sweet grass and sage, the hawks, crows and eagles you see on the way, connects you to Mother Earth. You become part of the journey, roaming like a herd. Dancing together, drumming together, and sharing stories.”

Why is writing so important to her? “I write for survival,” she says. I have to express myself and pay tribute to what I’ve gone through. Sometimes, I wonder where the words come from; it’s as if voices of the past come through me. Sometimes I hear whispers in dreams, the wind in the trees and water songs-they all feed my writing.”

In a poem that illustrates her need for self-expression, she writes, “I fell from a great distance. I died more than once and yet I lived to tell it. And it seemed most urgent, the telling, to get it right, to connect with someone else who died to live.”

Just as Joi Barrios made reference to the journey of the epic hero, Abena too shares the same point of view. “It’s as if I had to die to old ways of being and old ways of looking at things, and then journey to a rebirth. Writing allows me to tell the story of that journey.” And for Abena, the journey is within.

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