There’s a story that Jason Bayani tells often; I read it in his author interviews. In the late-1990s, he attended a spoken word event in a community center in Oakland. There, he saw me perform. And this is where it was clarified for him that that’s what he wanted to do. Perform spoken word.
That event was organized and curated by Pinoy DJ Klay Ordoña, now known as DJ Bruddah K, aka Kayumanggi. The event was a July 4th event, featuring POC/BIPOC artists — I didn’t necessarily have the critical language for it then, but we were engaging in a kind of decolonization performance.
I remember each of us performed either music, or spoken word. I remember the piece I performed had to do with a photograph of a young Filipina holding a semi-automatic weapon. I knew nothing about her, but a friend had given me that photograph, and told me that she was me. I remember a Native American young man, rapping about coming up in subsidized housing in the city. I remember such soulful singing and drumming. I remember that at the end of the individual performances, everyone — performers and audience together — was standing in a circle participating in an improvised song. I remember everyone in the room in or near tears.
The venue was Rafiq Bilal’s Nu Upper Room in Oakland, where folks like KRS One and The Last Poets had performed. I didn’t know then, what any of that meant.
I was in my mid-20s. I was a college dropout. I didn’t know what I was doing with my life, but I did know that when I was onstage, I was brave. I had never taken a creative writing class before. I wrote from gut and heart. I had this vague idea that “spoken word” was something I was good at, though I’m not so sure I could have told you exactly why.
So that was the mid-late 1990s, maybe 1996 or so. I went back to school around 1998, and in 1999, I wrote exactly one poem. I finished my degree that year.
I write this now, to think about how I knew — or didn’t know — that I would ever be a poet. Folks ask me now, who was I reading back then, who was I studying with, and didn’t I know there were American poets of renown in my midst.
The answer to the second and third questions was that I wasn’t and didn’t. I didn’t know the American poets of renown around me. All I knew was that I was reading Kearny Street Workshop folks and POC — I had been an opening poet for Jaime Jacinto’s book launch for Heaven is Just Another Country. I read Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf. I read Jessica Hagedorn’s Dangerous Music. Knowing Robert Hass was at UC Berkeley would have meant, and given me nothing. However, knowing Maxine Hong Kingston taught at UC Berkeley DID mean something to me, though I was never able to take her classes; I was too busy trying to cram all my major requirements into a tight schedule while I worked full time, as clerical staff for private practice physicians. This is where I met Czeslaw Milosz, not as a poet, but as a client of the practice. (This is also where I met Nanos Valaoritis, a City Lights poet, in the same capacity.) None of these things meant anything to me then.
In the late 1990s, I was reading Jim Morrison’s Wilderness (and only half making fun of him). In the late 1990s, I read Jewel’s A Night Without Armour, and for some reason, this opened me up. I used to feel shame (and shamed) for not knowing the “right” things about poetry, and for not getting into poetry the “right” way. For not reading the “right” poets.
I was stagnant, stalling. All attempts at writers’ groups were falling through. After that mid-late 1990s spoken word rush, filled with joyful brown folks creating and sharing, I had no idea what to do next. After I finally graduated from college (at the age of 28), I finally took a creative writing class in 2000, a poetry class at Berkeley City College, and then I was broken wide open. And then, the following semester, in 2001, I was in an MFA program. And then, in 2003, my first book was published, locally, by a Pinay owned press no one in the “right” places in poetry care about. And that first book brought me to places I didn’t even know I was ever capable of going.
Today, I can easily dismiss criticisms of not getting into poetry the “right” way. I got into poetry the way I got into poetry. There is no right or wrong way. These days, we continue to shame folks for not reading the “right” poets, and for their affinity for Instagram poetry or song lyrics. These days, we shame folks for the prestige-less small presses they publish with. Folks are hella mean to one another for not getting and having the “right” things, and so it’s no wonder emotions run high in this field.
All I can say now, if I have any kind of wisdom to impart — for emerging poets, read what you like, write what and how you like. Find similar minded folks. BUT! Do not get too comfortable; if you find yourself and your circle of poets stalling, stagnating, take the initiative, shake things up, try something different, just to see what can happen.