About two years ago I found myself in the very uncomfortable position of being thankful for a spammer. Spammers are everywhere imposing their hidden agendas in our private spaces. Yet, if a spammer hadn’t hit every entry in my blog, wordbinder.blogspot.com, my chapbook Pause Mid-Flight would never have been created.
I could have left the spam alone. My blog is not well-traveled and I figured most of the readers who stumbled on my blog are savvy enough to leave spam comments unclicked. But as I stewed about the ineffective security I used to protect my blog, I realized I couldn’t leave well enough alone. I had to remove the spam comments and reclaim my blog as my own, not some vehicle for someone else’s ill intent. At first, I didn’t pay much attention to the content of the entries; I was focused on one thing – Eliminate the Enemy. Then I noticed a poem I’d posted, “charm against aswang,” and remembered how that poem was printed on a t-shirt and worn by someone I’ve never met as s/he ran around Green Lake in Seattle as part of a poetry installation. My mood shifted from annoyance to curiosity as I began to read the entries before deleting the spam-comments. Reading soon became rediscovering as I found poems I’d forgotten I had posted on my blog.
And then my improv theater instincts kicked in – I realized that the process of cleaning my blog was creating what is called an Offer. Offers are openings in a dialogue or situation that creates a space for something new to happen. The job of the improv artist is to say “Yes” to whatever Offer is given. As I weeded my blog, I discovered an Offer that came as a question – What If? What if I gathered all my poetry together, no matter how old or unpublished, and put it all together in a chapbook? What if I could make something to finally answer all those friendly folk who, on hearing my claim to being a writer, ask “Where can I buy your book?” What if I could whip out a copy of my chapbook and say, “Well, you can buy my book right now!?”
The prospect of putting together a chapbook made combing through my blog more interesting for me. How many poems had I published in my blog? Were they any good? What makes a poem ‘good’? I suspended those last two questions and just focused on finding my poems. A handful were copied and pasted into a fresh document on my computer. By the time my blog was clean, I wondered if I had found all the poems I’d written and released into the world. I combed the links to my online publications and found a few more. I dusted off copies of a couple of small literary magazines and found a couple of my oldest poems.
One treasure of my search was the discovery of “Retelling Vallejo,” a poem I had written in an undergraduate poetry class but had never published. Instead, I included it as part of a genealogy project I was working on at the time. “Retelling Vallejo” was written to memorialize a family member who had died during a natural disaster and I had forgotten about the poem until I stumbled upon it during my search.
After all was said and done, I had twenty poems in my chapbook document. Was that enough to make a chapbook? I looked at chapbook contest requirements online and even submitted the lot a couple of times. When other chapbooks were chosen over mine, I went to my shelves and pulled out chapbooks by poets I had heard at local readings. The chapbooks looked small and thin in my hands. Poetry books aren’t usually that thick to begin with unless they are anthologies, but chapbooks have an almost ethereal feel, not quite tangible. The chapbook seems to grasp the material world by the barest number of pages, just enough to bind with saddle stitching and a whole lot of love.
“Whatever is inside you is there for you to share, to give, to express,” my friend Swil Kanim, a violinist, tells me often. I edit scientific journals for my day job and I realized between my husband who dabbles in graphic arts and me, we could create the chapbook, typeset it, and have it printed locally. For a few weeks, we browsed fonts and rearranged the poems to make a coherent whole. Some were long prose poems, others were short haynaku. There was no single theme except what Swil Kanim impressed upon me – the poems were from inside me and I was the thread that connected them all. The project could have stopped at the point when we had the typeset PDF and chosen the paper stock, but it didn’t. Again, I was given an offer and I said “Yes.”
When my chapbook was in production, I went to see Swil Kanim in concert with his friend Andre Feriante, a flamenco guitarist. During the performance, Andre recited poetry by Rumi as he played his original pieces. He didn’t set Rumi’s poetry to music as lyrics, but let his music lend flavor and aroma to the already rich tones and rhythms of Rumi’s work. What if I could recite my poetry while others played music? What would that sound and feel like?
A few days later another friend and storyteller Gene Tagaban told me about his new project, The Urban Longhouse. His vision was to create a space where artists could come together to share their music, stories, and heritage. He opened the space to weekly jam sessions where musicians of all types could come together and play. At first, I thought I would simply listen to the others perform, but then I remembered Andre reciting Rumi and decided to bring my poems to one of the jam sessions. Travis Jordan was on electric bass. Francisco Owens and Gene were on electric guitar. My daughter brought her silver flute and my husband brought his fujara, a 8-foot tall flute fashioned after the shepherd’s flutes of Slovakia. There were drums and other percussion instruments for audiences members to play if they felt inclined. There was a small stage with mikes and I later learned the sessions were recorded for future projects.
The Urban Longhouse was electric as each musician took turns working out a tune and the others joined as they felt moved. My daughter switched from her silver flute to a small Native American cedar flute and learned how to jam with the others. The more experienced players taught her how to listen to the music and how to add whatever she wanted. Sometimes they let her lead, other times she would follow. I would drum a little, sway a little, and after a while, I took out my poetry and started to recite it as the others played. I was amazed at how the rhythms of the music would bend the phrasings of my lines, create double meanings I had not envisioned because I had heard the poems only one way in my head. It was as if my poetry was just another instrument and my recitations just another part of the music we were making improvisationally.
Like my daughter, I learned how to listen to the music, let the notes tell me what poem might fit best to the song being created. I was particularly surprised when I heard Gene and Francisco start a bluesy sort of tune and I decided to recite “Real Life,” a poem I had written about a Filipina nurse in Nebraska who escaped her dissatisfying life by reading books. The poem focuses on the details of her day, her clothing, her cooking, and especially her relationships with her mother, daughter, and lover. Originally, the poem was a lament about people who saw characters in stories as more real than the people they encountered every day, but set to the blues song, the poem’s irony became more pronounced. I felt my mouth curve around the words, slowing my pace to match the rhythm of the song, and new meanings of loss and failed attempts at redemption emerged.
After that jam, I was hooked. I wanted to experience my words as they interacted with improvisational music, so I asked my friends if they would be willing to record with me. A guitarist named Damon Dimitri Jones and a percussionist named Doug Banner were added to my musical tribe. I bribed them with promises of Filipino food and recorded many of the tracks at my home. I told each artist to play whatever they wanted and I would let the music tell me what poem should go with it. I asked my brother, R.A. Mayor, to send me an original track and also contacted my friend Robert Kikuchi-Yngojo, a storyteller and musician in San Francisco for a track. I listened to these pieces sent long-distance and recorded my recitations based on what their music seemed to tell me. I was doing what I had learned from storytelling and improv, listening for the “Yes” between my words and their music.
The process of recording revealed not only how music could impact the meaning and meter of my poetry, but also the flaws. I found myself stumbling over phrases like “dragon’s bones thrown before a black basalt breakwater guarding…” from “The Sea Has Wings.” All those ‘b’s’ looked nice on the page, but shifting from “bo” to “beh” to “bl” to “ba” to “br” in a such a short line proved more than my tongue could manage. Over and over again I stumbled, ruining the track I was recording with Swil Kanim. More than once the performer in me cursed the writer in me who wrote in “Retelling Vallejo” “children clutched to hips, the sea churning…”. Who writes lines that make the cheeks move from “ch” to “cl” and back to “ch” again? Only a poet who hasn’t paced her words against the beat of a song.
In the end, we recorded 10 tracks all live and only lightly edited for tonal balance. I discovered that with music, my poetry shifted and flexed. Light-hearted poems took on deeper meanings, dark poems became tinged with irony. Ironic poems became light-hearted and jazzy. I wondered what would have happened to each poem if I had thought to recite them to music as I was writing them, wondered what new images and phrasings could have emerged given the patience to collaborate with others on their creation. I realized though, that when I was writing the poems, I wasn’t yet a performer, hadn’t learned the Yes, and the listening, and the responding for the sheer experience of music and words brought together in happenstance.
After the copies of Pause Mid-Flight were printed, we had a chapbook and CD release party at a local fine arts rug shop. Silk and wool rugs from the Middle East hung suspended on the walls. Rugs were stacked waist high in piles all over the shop. The entire room vibrated yellows, reds, and blacks. I brought Filipino food while my friends and family brought mikes, musical instruments, and most importantly, willing hearts. We jammed for two hours, letting the music and the words meld into whatever they wanted to make. The audience was mostly friends and family, but after the intermission, strangers walked in from the street drawn in by the music and rumors of free food.
My name is on the cover and on the labels, but really, the project was a community effort. Pause Mid-Flight is about community – the communities I’ve lived in, the communities I’ve resisted, the community of my heritage and the community of the land I live on. The poems reflect my thoughts and feelings about those communities and how they interact with other communities for better or worse. The art of my poetry was raised, though, by a wonderful community of musicians who were willing to take a journey of “Yes” with me, a journey started by the random spammer.
Rebecca Mabanglo-Mayor received her MA degree in English with honors from Western Washington University in 2003. Her poetry and short fiction have appeared in Katipunan Literary Magazine and the online magazine Haruah. Her short story “Yellow is for Luck” appears in the anthology Growing Up Filipino II: More Stories for Young Adults, edited by Cecilia Brainard. Her poetry chapbook Pause Mid-Flight was released in 2010. Currently she is working on her first memoir about premature motherhood and identity. She has been performing as a storyteller with the Bellingham Storytellers Guild for four years and specializes in stories based on Filipino folktales and Filipino-American history. Her goal is to present entertaining stories which encourage others to celebrate their uniqueness while fostering the importance of community.