For #APIAHeritageMonth, Considering my Fil Am Immigrant Family History

It feels more than appropriate to begin this #APIAHeritageMonth post by saying, “Yes, my parents were right.” Of course they were right. I was too young and stubborn to listen to them, until I wasn’t.

By “right,” this is what I mean. When I was in college, I was floundering. UC Berkeley was challenging, and though I was as academically prepared as I could be, having been on the honors and AP track in my private high school, I wasn’t emotionally ready, and I wasn’t mature enough yet to be self-motivated, and I wasn’t disciplined enough yet to be on my own.

I resented my parents for stressing their hard work ethic, their grind, and their ideas of success. I was a dreamer and a rebel. I saw what my American classmates had, conversational, casual, chummy relationships with their apparently easy-going and permissive parents. My classmates seemed to have what I saw as leisure time and super chill parents who would ask them how they were doing.

I had a perpetually stressed out mother, who worked full time and managed to raise four of us, and a father so uptight, I thought he’d bust an aneurysm when he was in his 40s. They didn’t seem to want to understand “American” ways, all the things I thought were cool about how my friends could behave and speak in their parents’ homes. They talked about their feelings; my parents didn’t have time for that. My father would get so indignant at our uses of American slang/idiom when directly addressing him. When I was young, I could never imagine ever telling him to chill out, or not to have a cow. Answering back always erupted into WWIII; he wasn’t into my American sass mouth one bit.

I felt like nothing I ever did was good enough. They always wanted me to do more. I hated this. Sometimes I rebelled. Sometimes I tried. I failed a lot. I hated this. I always thought American parents were more understanding of failure. That they would just say, it’s OK, honey. Just try again.

And when I was in college, living far enough away from my parents for the first time ever, I was a freak out in a skinny girl’s body. I couldn’t discipline myself to get to an 11 am class on time. I got a D in calculus (why the hell was I even taking calculus anyway). I had the worst GPA ever. I stopped showing up to class altogether. I wasted a ton of time and money. I couch surfed a lot, having no desire to move back home, nor the means to pay rent. I wrote poetry. And some of my friends thought I was pretty bad ass. It was romantic. And it was unsustainable.

My parents finally left me alone, and it was cool, because then I could just work my crappy part time job, write, party, smoke, and drink. And I thought it was such an edgy, rebellious life of struggling to pay rent, being an artist, and scraping up nickels with my friends to afford to split $2 nachos in the student union. And my parents let me be, until they could no longer bear it.

They wanted to know what the hell I was doing with my life. I evaded them, wouldn’t come home for weeks at a time. When I did see them, I could see the disappointment in their body language. I was kind of a failure to them. I was always broke. I was a dropout. But I was writing poems! And I was so cool on the mic! And I was living according to my own rules! Fuck the Man! Fuck the Establishment! This life of glorified, self-imposed artist poverty, screwing the system!

And I thought they were so rude, so rigid, so old school, for thinking I was a failure, for thinking my ass should go back to college. I wanted to yell at them; I was following my dream! What the fuck did they know about dreams and romance!


Here’s where the gift of age, experience, and hindsight kick in.

What did my parents know about dreaming and romance? Didn’t they leave everything behind, when they were in their early 20s. Didn’t they get on an airplane, to come and live in a foreign country, on another continent. Didn’t they know there were no guarantees. Didn’t they know coming here to work, and to raise their children was a gamble, probably the riskiest thing they had ever done, weren’t they throwing caution to the wind as they did. Didn’t all they have was an idea, a dream of what it might be like.

I am thinking of this old photograph, not the one above, but a colored photo of my young parents, with me and my older sister. I must have been about four. My sister would have been six. My parents would have been in their mid-20s. We are in Reno, at a motel, posed by the motel swimming pool. We are on a road trip. We are on a family vacation. This would have been two years after my sister and I immigrated. My parents had already come before us, found employment, saved money, and so by the time my sister and I were here, we moved from a Daly City one room apartment into our first home in Fremont, and my sister was enrolled in a private school.

Imagine the kind of grind that takes. My mother used to tell us that we had to work twice as hard as American kids did. I resented this; I also knew it was true.

My younger sister, who is now an executive in a media company that turns these homemade snapshots into enormous, lasting historical documents, tells it like this (though she wasn’t born yet), when she presents this image to company shareholders and clients: this image is important and historical because it documents the persistence of these two young immigrants, to make something out of nothing. To make a life here, for themselves and their children. How precious is this kind of vacation time. It’s almost like a celebration of their “making it” here.

So then, yes, my parents did dream. They dreamed of a life. They made it happen. And here we are.

I thought about this a lot, during my father’s last days. What kind of life did he lead here. Was it a meaningful life. Did he accomplish what he meant to accomplish in his life. A life full of travel, and art, always surrounded by friends and loved ones, always sharing what you had, always celebrating something in the most lively manner possible — this kind of wealth. While I miss him like crazy, what keeps me going is that, while our family has never been perfect, while we’ve all had our share of disappointments, and while we fought like hell, almost everything he and my mother wanted for us, we got, and we have.

At his wake, people I didn’t know well at all, were coming up to me and my sisters, nodding with approval. To me, they would say, “Ah, so you’re the professor,” or “Ah, so you’re the poet.” This is how my father talked about us to his friends and relatives. And rather than make this about status (which I know some of you will want to do), let me just say that this is how proud he was of us. This is how he talked about us; he approved highly of the people we became after each of us found our own way — this was so important to him, that everybody knew it.

All of this to say — I have something in my eye — what my parents gave us transcend material things. My sisters and I work our asses off because this is the wealth we inherited from them. Most of all though, I think the best part of all of this is thinking about change, and malleability. That it happens in ways you can’t always detect, but before you know it, you are doing things your way, and your traditional parents aren’t so traditional anymore, and not having a cow about you being a poet, about being tattooed, about being a smart mouth. Or maybe they are still traditional, but now, because you are determined, doing things your way, the resulting successes, and the fact that you are happy with your work and your life — these are what become most important to your traditional parents.

My first Invocation to Daughters event will take place on his two-year death anniversary, and it’s bittersweet as all hell. Because this book is exactly what I wanted, and exactly what I worked for. And because of this, he would have approved. And I also didn’t know that his approval meant as much to me as it does.

For #APIAHeritageMonth, Ongoing Thoughts on Teaching Filipino American Literature

Reminder. Never, ever underestimate what our predominantly Filipino American students are capable of. They are young, resilient minds, in a place of critical and intellectual inquiry. Give it to them. Open up the space for them to do this, to ask questions, to grapple with ideas and concepts with which they may not have any previous exposure. Facilitate their inquiry. Ask them questions. Coax and push, bit by bit, past their social, political, historical, cultural comfort zones.

I always start with what they claim to know. I ask where and how they came to that knowledge. I go from there, excavating, examining pieces very closely, proposing alternative points of view, presenting other existing knowledges. (One of the things that I appreciated most in this semester’s recent weeks was how my students said of Cheena Marie Lo’s A Series of Un/Natural Disasters, that the poetry affirmed, solidified what they already suspected or thought they knew.)

I discuss concepts, always doing my best to discuss them in real life contexts. After it’s clear they are understanding what’s being discussed, after they have contributed themselves to that understanding, then I offer them the terminology. We all contribute to meaning making, to defining.

We read. We read critically. We hone in and pull way back. Here, Amanda Ngoho Reavey’s figurative tesserae and mosaic in her multigenre work, Marilyn, are useful. Examine the individual pieces closely, reflect upon their “fit,” with/among one another. To what larger picture is each tessera contributing.

I am saying all this, because I am tired of our community underestimating our young people’s capacity for literary, poetic rigor. I think we resort to what is most simple when studying our community’s literary work, because we are compartmentalized — we believe intellectual work belongs only behind the closed gates of the highest echelons of the academy, and then we resent that intellectual work exists only in singular form, only behind the closed gates of the highest echelons of the academy.

We want to be passive and just watch a performance. We want to be entertained. We want meaning spoon fed, glossed over, and given to us in memes. We don’t want to engage what we don’t already know. We don’t think we want to expend the energy or invest the time. We dismiss complexity in literature as “colonized,” as literature for “white people,” and in doing so, we dumb down some pretty amazing work that folks in our community are creating.

The obvious problem is that the above logic is saying, only white people write and read complex literature; we are saying to others that our own people are not capable of literary complexity. So when others come and treat us in a simplistic, reductive, and imposing manner, why be offended? This is the message we’ve put out there, that we are incapable, that we are passive.

We think of reading literature as a “bourgeois” activity and pastime — “Filipinos don’t read,” remember? But seriously, even the most so-called “street” or “everyman” poets and authors in our community are avid and sophisticated readers of literature.

When I was very young as a writer, back around the year 2000, I remember arguing on a listserv with a fellow aspiring APIA writer, about “straight forward,” “narrative” poetry, versus “experimental,” “inaccessible” poetry. This person chided me about my being so influenced by “experimental” poetics, telling me no one would read or “get” APIA authored work that was “experimental,” because it was “irrelevant” to “The APIA Experience.”

I wonder where this person is now. I haven’t heard from them or heard their name in 17 years.

(In the meantime, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee is canon in Asian American Literature.)

I want to say that suspicion of those who wield English is legitimate. This is part of our colonial legacy. I also want to say that as we collectively work towards decolonization, we have to look very closely at our use of English. Nothing of what I am saying is new or revolutionary, by any means.

Do be critical of our mastery of it, the language and its literary forms. But yes, strive towards mastery of it. Not to be in its thrall, and not to oppress our own, but to complicate it, to hybridize/mongrelize it, to transform it.

And yes, rather than replicating those same oppressive systems, rather than perpetuating inequality among our own, let’s wield our Englishes to communicate well our complexities, use it in our everyday liberatory practices.

I believe the finer we communicate our complexities, the more painstaking work we invest in our literature, the much more long term its effects. Cheap and easy = disposable culture. I do not want my poetry to become a victim of forgettable, throwaway culture.

Ultimately, I come back to the reasons why I chose to dedicate myself to the arts. Art opens us. Art makes dialogue happen. Art and literature stay with(in) us, having entered through our pores, our hearts, our brains, our ears, our eyes, all at once. They reside in our memories, as if they reside in our cells. We feel and experience their effects for years to come. We pass these down to the next generation, that they would in turn, do the same.


For #APIAHeritageMonth, A List #3

This is an ongoing list of APIA poetry collections which have informed my own poetics, my ideas of what gets to be called poetry. It’s been a while since I’ve read a lot of these books, so I am going on memory for a lot of this.

Here is List 1 | List 2. And below is List 3.

Linh Dinh, Borderless Bodies. Oh man, Linh Dinh. Human bodies and meat. This is what I think of. It’s grotesque, but true, and that’s something a lot of us don’t know how to talk about or want to talk about. As a poet, how do you go there, but still keep it reined in just barely enough so as not to go over the top with outrage for sake of outrage, victim and suffering porn, emotional coercion of your reader, knowing your poetry must move, stir, elicit complex emotion from your reader.

Russell Leong, The Country of Dreams and Dust. I love Leong’s poetic lines. They are so clean in this collection, so well-managed, if you will. So, as I’ve just said about keeping it barely reined in, he definitely does this here, balancing historical sweep of Asian migration and diaspora, so many small details, objects, textures, historical narrative in persona, and some lovely lyrical language. This whole collection is so well organized, and that is so appealing to me.

Nick Carbó, El Grupo McDonalds. This is one of the first poetry collections I’d ever read that centered what I think of as a contemporary transnational Filipino voice. I had first read some of this collection’s very thoughtfully crafted individual poems as an editor of Maganda magazine at UC Berkeley, and as an aspiring (proto-emerging) writer. You might say, it was the poetry I needed to read when I needed to read it. “Clean,” is a word I keep returning to. By clean, I mean no excess, just an apparent matter-of-fact tone that feels like it should be simple, but then, upon further thinking, you realize contains so many layers.

Genny Lim, Winter Place. Every time I see Lim perform, I think, damn, she is legit. In performance, her poems are a lion. On the page, it’s something different. So then, what I appreciate is that Lim’s poems translate well “from page to stage.” But more importantly, each venue (page, stage) brings forth an aspect or element of the work. On the page, lines that allow a slow unfold, something meditative, a quiet contemplation. Then on the stage, that roar.

Alan Chong Lau, Blues and Greens: A Produce Worker’s Journal. Yes, the grocery store! Specifically, as Asian one located in the International District of Seattle, where Lau apparently works (or worked). The beauty of a place like the Asian produce market in an American city is intersection and collision. As the worker, you are a witness to these intersections and collisions, so many brief encounters that bring forth some kind of possibly profound realization on the daily. Or not so profound. That our profound as poets and artists is someone’s everyday, or routine, or mundanity.

Laswon Fusao Inada, Drawing the Line. Inada reminds me so much of Manong Al Robles. The jazz cadence, the refrains and repetitions, the cultural and historical memory of a place and its people, or citizens. Poetry that is rooted in Americana, if you expand your ideas of Americana to include all its people’s voices and stories, its Mini Marts and Kwickie Lubes, its Japanese internment camps.

OK, more to come!

For #APIAHeritageMonth: A List #2

This is an ongoing list of APIA poetry collections that have informed my poetics. I am noting a couple of interesting things in social media, in response to my posting these formative texts lists.

  1. Younger APIA poets kind of don’t care.
  2. I am having really interesting discussions with “elder” poets, of different ethnicities (i.e. not just APIA) about tradition in poetry, versus Po Biz, which typically gets confused and conflated with poetry.

People, Poetry ≠ Po Biz.

I do want to continue with these lists of my formative texts. My first book was published in 2003, and my fifth book comes out before the end of 2017. I am still writing my sixth book, but am in no terrible rush to do so. My writing has grown, or changed, or mutated, throughout the years. There have been “newer” cultural influences, in which “new” really means “new to me,” and not inherently new. But I always go back to the beginning when I write, and when I teach and mentor.

Also, to be a poet is to deal with tradition. You may think you are chucking away tradition, but even chucking away tradition is a tradition.

That said, list installment #2.

Jaime Jacinto, Heaven Is Just Another Country. There is, of course, a major historical precedence for Filipino poets writing in Hispanic and Latino traditions. Hispanic, meaning, as a result of our centuries-long Spanish occupation. Latino, meaning, here in this country, Filipino Americans aligning themselves with Latino and Chicano poetics, due to our shared histories of Spanish colonialism. The poetries resulting from this are necessarily multilingual, with a particular darker, brooding tone and aesthetic. Flip gothic. Also, Jaime has always been one of my most generous mentors.

Sesshu Foster, City Terrace Field Manual. And I am back on the prose poem, thinking now of its uses in mapping city blocks, imposing order on what is not really so orderly, allowing us to see on a map/grid what is otherwise considered blank, empty, invisible, with its “opportunities” for “development.” And then the ability to jump from persona to persona, speaker to speaker, the way cities speak in so many voices. If you listen.

Haunani-Kay Trask, Night Is a Sharkskin Drum. Such fierce indigenous, anti-imperialist poetry, bringing in elements of oral tradition, very well placed on the page, with a justified and sharp as all hell uncompromising righteous anger against militarism, tourism, and settler colonialism. We are implicated.

Al Robles, Rapping With Ten Thousand Carabaos in the Dark. I have learned so much about poetics from this poet’s performances, from informal, impromptu interactions, in which all is organically story and poetry. In which all who come to the table participate. This is where so much of my #Kuwentuhan comes from. And then on the page, how the line organically comes to be, how metaphor is something you are born with. And then for subject matter, writing what is street level, what others ignore or pretend is not there. Taking the time, listening, and asking.

Jessica Tarahata Hagedorn, Dangerous Music. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A young Pinay from an immigrant family in the Bay Area, falling in with the local poetry scene, mentored there by poetic elders who saw something in her, published on a gritty, SF-based micro-press, writing in multilingual Spanish and Tagalog, influenced by, speaking the languages of counterculture and pop culture. Yo.

Yoko Ono, Grapefruit. People who don’t know Yoko, or have never considered Yoko, please read this book’s “simple,” minimalist instructions about the art that is all around us, about the art that we make in our daily lives, that we incorporate into our routines and domesticities. And/or how we may insert ourselves into the art that is all around us.

So that’s what I have today. I am so interested in conversations about traditions, and elders. And/or about generations.

For APIA Heritage Month: A List

A list, or listcicle, if you will. Today is May 1st, and not only is it APIA Heritage Month. Last month was National Poetry Month, so both April and May present me an opportunity to take stock.

I produce these lists to get me thinking about what I have read, and what works and authors I revisit. This helps my own writing process. I also produce these lists because I am asked frequently, in individual messages, for any advice I would give aspiring writers, aspiring MFA program applicants, Pinays newly coming into their identities or settling into identities more complex and liminal.

My response to advice is always to read. Make your reading lists your own personal, political, and aesthetics curricula. Think about what you are drawn to, and then start to think about why. What do you need to learn in any particular body of work that pulls you in, or perhaps more importantly, what do you need/have to learn in any particular body of work that (you feel) keeps kicking you out, or kicking you in the ass. What can you learn about your own poetic voice from any particular work?

Sometimes, this is not the advice that advice seekers want from me. Many times, what they want to hear from me is, wow, no one has ever done what you are doing before in poetry, you are so talented and you are going to be big; come, have coffee with me, and let me introduce you to my publishers like now. 


If I ever have to energy to respond substantially, it’s to say you have to work, and grind, and grit your teeth, and work some more. Through the rejections. Through the “writers’ blocks,” through the endless drafting and editing. Read like crazy. Learn to engage deeply what you read. Look deeply at what (you say, think) your influences are, and reflect hard on why.

That said, my list, part 1.

Frances Chung, Crazy Melon and Chinese Apple. From this work, I learned about distilling down to the simplest and most concrete language possible for what I mean to say. From a Chinese American woman New Yorker POV/cosmology, examining boundary lines, what interior and exterior spaces belong to whom, what spaces we may claim, what spaces we are ghettoized into, how we may navigate bustling American urban space as “others.”

Catalina Cariaga, Cultural Evidence. What can white space, what can the page do for you. If you are a poet, then where you place the words onto the page in relation to margins, in relation to each other, in prose blocks, in spare, minimalist lines, is a substantial part of what you do. You are creating visual effect. You are as a result, setting tone and timbre.

Truong Tran, Dust and Conscience. This is one of the works that got me thinking for the first time about the prose poem and its possibilities. Again, with the visual effect, and the emotional piece. Now, omit the punctuation; what happens now. Especially when writing about memory, and family history. What do you remember? The details, or the emotional content. Are memories as neatly compartmentalized as a series of discrete right and left justified prose blocks.

Eileen Tabios, Reproductions of the Empty Flagpole. This is another work that got me thinking about the prose poem and its possibilities. How may one string together seemingly disparate thoughts into something like a cohesive body. How does that make sense, when it shouldn’t really make sense. So there’s something here also about the emotional content, especially that which results from ekphrasis.

Bhanu Kapil, The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers. This book totally fucked with me, in terms of what was “real” response from strangers, to a certain set of questions, versus what was mediated by the poet. The devil’s in the details, I suppose. But what ended up being important to me was impact and surprise of the resulting “response.” Also of note is the fact or affect of the WOC being granted/gifted the space to speak on her own behalf.

Oliver de la Paz, Names Above Houses. First thing: The prose poem figures prominently on this list. It’s not a big secret or surprise that my own book, Diwata, has used this book as something of a model. They both rely heavily on the prose poem form. Storytelling is happening. Personal myth making from memory and family history is happening. And that the story of us migrating from our homes to this new place — this is indeed a remarkable story that defies our understanding, and enters into mythical space.

OK, so that’s it for now. More to come.