Serafin Malay Syquia: Politics and Poetry

[Editors’ Note: We would like to extend a heartfelt thanks to Luis Malay Syquia, for graciously granting us permission to reprint the late Filipino American poet and activist Serafin Malay Syquia’s essay, “Politics and Poetry,” here at Syquia’s essay was originally published in Liwanag: Literary and Graphic Expressions (San Francisco: Liwanag Publications, 1975), edited by Emily Cachapero, Bayani Mariano, and Luis Syquia, and is one of the earliest Filipino American literary anthologies published in the USA. Having recently rediscovered Serafin Malay Syquia’s essay, we see that our literary and artistic communities have for a while now, struggled with the political in our art, and how to balance the political with concerns of craft. By reprinting Syquia’s essay here, we hope to reinsert it into the dialogues in which we continue to engage, regarding poets of color, political poetry, activism and poetry, and aesthetics. Consider this also an act against forgetting. ]

POLITICS AND POETRY, by Serafin Malay Syquia (1975)

To write a political poem is, to many poets and readers of poetry, counter-poetic, in that the political poem tends to be oversimplified, rhetorical and temporary. This argument is also justified with the statement that poetry must maintain a certain degree of distance from its reader. With this distance comes obscurity, an obscurity directly related to the length of the distance between the poet and his audience. A political poem then is often criticised for not maintaining the purity of its art.

I felt at one time that my poetry should not lower itself with politics, that my own personal view of life was adequate material for my poems. I still believe that to a certain degree. A poet must and can only write from his or her own personal experiences. Thus, a white poet who attempts to write of the black experience can only write indirectly about it. There is that distance then. Just as to say that many Third World poets who have neglected or rejected their roots for the accessibility of American and European literature, are also writing very indirectly about an experience that is very distant from their daily experience.

The commonality that bridges white and third world poets is politics. Politics defined as the outside forces and pressures that shape every human being on this planet. To face the reality of politics as the factor that governs our lives is a neccessary step in the development of a consciousness that transceneds an elitist concept of poetry. Poetry is the reflection of life and life is determined by politics. Yet, the word politics still produces anxiety because it often is synonymous with only newsprint, television faces and radio voices that seem so distant from our day to day lives. But politics is more than this impersonal media.

To write a nature poem describing the tranquility of the woods and the beauty of the bird and wind at the same time the trees are being cut down, birds being poisoned and shot and wind being polluted seems facetious at the least. This isn’t to say that nature poems per se are irrelevant. It may well be that the nature poet sees only beauty and tranquility in this sheltered wood. However, the times render this vision of beauty and tranquility harmful to both the poet and the reader if both agree that this is the way the world is.

The nature of the times requires, no, demands realism, both in politics and poetry. A people starving cannot be fed on pictures of gourmet dishes. A people with nowhere to live cannot live inside 21 inch television sets. To feed people obscure thoughts perpetuates the obscurity of such thoughts. If poetry is to reflect life as it is, it must concentrate on the symptoms of the sickness that have necessitated the various escapes that artists are forced to take in order to separate themselves from reality. Poetry should not nurture the symptom that created the sickness in the first place. It should help to cure the problems of the world by exposing and offering a sensitive response to the causes of the failures in society.

A political poem need not be oversimplified, rhetorical or temporary. For example, Hamlet is a very heavy political play. It dwells on ambition, the abuse of powers and other qualities that men are subject to. Yet, when Hamlet is read today, readers are awed by the durability of its topics.

The same holds true from many works of literature and art throughout history. It’s important to remember that art in any society is shaped by that particular society’s politics. So that if a country is in political chaos it would be misleading to read of tranquility and the magnificent silence emanating from a law and order dictatorship.

A poet is a sensitive craftsman who lives his craft and practices it with the experience and background that provides him the tools of his trade. This definition should erase the false concept that a political poem is pure rhetoric. If the poet is writing with integrity about anything from the plight of the masses to the flight of a bumblebee and communicates an understanding of either subject, then the complaint of rhetoric should be considered invalid for rhetoric is only that which does not follow through. It is mere abstraction. Poetry must communicate in order to survive because people must begin to listen and understand each other if this world is to survive.

Serafin Malay Syquia was born in 1943. He came to the U.S. in 1946, and died of a brain tumor in 1973. He was a writer/poet, editor, educator and community activist. Serafin, or “Serf” as his friends called him, edited and contributed to one of the very first Filipino American poetry anthologies entitled, “Flips.” His poems and essays have been included in many various anthologies and publications. Serafin was one of many 3rd World voices to emerge in the late 60’s – early 70’s who did poetry readings and one of the original members of Third World Communications, an artistic collective that included Janice Mirikitani, Alejandro Murgia, Buriel Clay II, and Jim Dong (founder of KSW) among others. He also worked in the International Hotel in Manilatown, SF. He was a founding member of the Filipino American guerrilla theatre group, “Ating Tao” at SF State. He received his Masters Degree in Poetry/Creative Writing from SFSU, worked with and in the Poetry-in-the-Schools program, and spent many summers working up in Alaska and farmfields of Central California. He was also active in the anti-Marcos movement, and when he was blacklisted along with other community activists by the martial-law era Philippine government, wrote a poem saying how proud he was to be on the list.  (Bio written by Luis Malay Syquia.)


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