We All Belong to a Love Song Called Kundiman - Part 3
Here are our Origins (aka Part 1):
Here are our Lineages (aka Part 2):
Here is how we create/hold/occupy space together & in the future (aka Part 3):
The Mountains Are Just Ahead of Us | Alison Roh Park
At the time I read Sarah Gambito’s "Paloma’s Church in America" | Addie Tsai
One has to rely on memory so much when one is always leaving: A conversation with Janine Joseph | R. A. Villanueva
and earth still rising: Melissa Roxas’ chorus of prayer | Vanessa Huang
Poems as Evidence | Melissa Roxas
Thank you for your participation in our community!
Curated by Ching-In Chen
May 31, 2010
May 30, 2010
What shaped me as a person and as a poet are the deep connections to peoples’ stories and their struggles, and a deep commitment to working towards a better world, without oppression and exploitation. From a very young age, the more I sought to understand the world around me, understand my experiences, and where I fit in, the more I felt committed to issues dealing with my immigrant family’s story, my own people’s history—with all its conflicts and contradictions—and how that has shaped me as a woman, as a Filipina American. As I became more involved in social justice work and human rights work both here in the U.S. and in the Philippines, more and more the subject of my poetry addressed these issues of oppression and injustice.
I had been working with various poor and marginalized communities in the Philippines when I was abducted, held in secret detention, and tortured by the agents of the Philippine military on May 19, 2009. During those six days that I was in secret detention what came from my body was an internal language that kept repeating certain phrases, certain images. The poems that follow are very raw versions of poems. After surfacing, I wanted to commit to paper these images and words that kept repeating in my mind. During the solitary confinement, secret detention, and torture, it was my protest against the inhumanity and the violence, so I include them in their raw forms here as a testimony to that time.
come before the night hour
come sing to yourself
night comes Melissa
you are flame to the body
the incipient wing that can't fly
the open skin
on a foot
tonight you learn to die
a thousand times
and be resurrected
The worst tortures came at night and I was forced to wear a blindfold and handcuffed the whole time. The aim of torture was not to kill me, not yet at least, but to incur the most amount of pain. Make me learn the many ways to die. The torturers had control of my body and my movements, but one thing I realized they could never control was my mind. I was made keenly aware of this, this was the one thing that I could control and I have to make a conscious choice not to relinquish this last freedom. The freedom to think and to create was what I did during the violence. As much as I could sing poetry, I sang. I sang in my head and I remembered my commitment to the people, my commitment to the cause of good, for truth, for a people fighting for the most basic of freedoms...
...the child's eyes look at me by the river
she washes her father's clothes by the river
by the river, water he drinks he drinks, fire water
water fire, anything he hopes will end the thirst,
a silent song kept playing at my heart,
my heart a silent song...
the father, the plough, the field
miles of rice fields
not his own, no not his own,
fields to be planted not eaten, the rice, no rice for
mother, for child,
rice, none for baby James, James, the fly on the lips
of baby James
sucking his mother's dry breast
his tiny hand
tiny hand searching the many folds,
a silent song kept playing at my heart,
my heart a silent song...
Amongst the many things the military took from me was over two years worth of my poems and writings. During my interrogation it was also something they would often refer to and taunt me about, and be angry because I was writing about human rights violations. They wanted to destroy this body of work and they wanted to destroy me because they thought it would destroy the people's stories and their struggles that I had been witness to. So a lot of my writing now is about reconstructing from memory what I had written during those past years and what I had been witness to working with the community. Many new poems were also born from my experience of disappearance and torture. But something very different about my poetry now is that, as I reconstruct, the language tends to be broken, and also not necessarily following any kind of structure. I now find myself experimenting more with poems. I am discovering that as I write, most of the poems seem to reject wanting to be in any certain form or structure.
The poem below are excerpts from “My Journal and The Interrogation,” which has three voices: the torturers; mine; and passages from my journals I remember during the torture, that represent the voices of the community.
...Out of the burning pyre you have kept this one.
The smell of the old leather reminds you of your
last military operation in the forest,
the smell of roasted flesh
of boar and other beasts.
You undo the string that holds it together and
inspect the curling yellow paper.
One more secret thing
to add to your personal collection:
bloodstained panties, a picture of a girl in a blue
a ribbon, a hair.
Your early souvenirs from the military campaign in
This one is different.
It will be for your studies of psychology on the
Enemy Rebel Animal
You banged my head on the concrete wall.
The most beautiful one he said was bluer than the sky
You said people like me make it difficult...
Inside its petals it held little black pearls which he
held to his mouth,
“it makes business difficult,”
he said it tasted like lemons “bad for development”
mixed with a little bit of earth.
down but left it there
because after everything men have taken from the earth,
it would anger the gods too much for such bitterness
to be gone.
It was unfair you said.
You press your hands harder upon my neck.
You were doing your country a favor taking care of
He also sold frogs, M, he remarked how strange foreign
people were in the city because they bought
only the legs.
So he took the other parts home
and fed his family on the remains of what they
You wanted to tend the sheep, return them to the fold.
There are no end to things, just the beginnings.
-This was your favorite passage.
Then he mixed tobacco with what looked like a red nut
and wrapped it in a greeny leaf.
You asked where are the stories of heroes like you?
Black is red, white is white,
little bone, big bone.
I said my name again. Melissa
Something breathed in me you could not kill.
Every day is still a struggle for me and every day I live with memories of that torture. It is almost a year since it happened. I still bear the physical scars of that torture, have sustained physical injuries, and there are also the invisible scars that last much longer, scars that are etched in my being forever.
After surfacing, I spent a lot of time with the families of the “desaparesidos,” or the “disappeared”—these are families whose loved ones were abducted by the military and still remain missing. I have come to realize that if there is a reason why I lived through this horrible experience, is to tell my story, which is also the story of many more still disappeared and tortured. The military cannot destroy these people's stories because no amount of state terror can crush the people's will to keep working towards genuine freedom and democracy. In fact, the actions of the military only further prove the tyranny of the Philippine government, which emboldens the people to continue to fight for their rights and pursue justice. The military also cannot stop me from writing and speaking about what I had been witness to. The family of the disappeared, the people still suffering under repression, and the many political activists that continue to risk their lives because they want a better world—all of them give me the inspiration, the support, and the courage to continue. So, for me, it is not an option not to talk about it, and because I am also a poet, I must write about it. So it has been an obsession for me to write.
What societal norms have dictated women to do since oppression existed is to be obedient, to be silent, and submissive. Once a woman breaks these norms she is seen as a threat especially in the Philippines, which is a country that is still very feudal and patriarchal. Women’s roles in society, the economy, and politics are still very limited. U.S. foreign policy helps maintain this system in the Philippines. So women who transgress these norms and in addition become organized and start to advocate for their rights and empowerment are seen as a threat by mainstream society and the government.
One of the most heinous forms of violence against women is state-sponsored violence as a result of political repression. Rape, other sexual violence, and sexual harassment as torture are often used by the government through its police, military, and security agents to show dominance and power. The aims of which is to destroy the ability of the woman to continue their political work, to instill fear and mistrust, and terrorize them.
Staying silent is then not an option for me. As a woman who rages against repression of women through state-violence; who rages at what the torturers did to me; what they did to many other women and worse; who rages against all forms of violence against women; silence is not an option. Especially because news about the killings, the disappearances, and the torture in the Philippines is something that is not covered very often in the United States media, and not enough people are aware in the U.S. of this issue, even though the Philippines is one of the largest recipients of U.S. military aid in Asia.
Regarding issues of human rights and torture, there is a culture of impunity and silence that exists, that is allowed to exist by powerful countries and powerful interests. These interests block our access to information, and instead provides us with misinformation. More and more our society and mainstream culture numbs us and takes away our critical thinking. This is very dangerous for democracy. I think it makes people afraid. Sometimes people fear what they don't understand, sometimes they fear even after they understand, and it stops there. We must move past this fear, past denial, past indifference.
Do we know about the massacres?
Do we notice the disappearances?
There Is No One in the Streets
There is no one in the streets. Even beggars are gone.
Today there is no one to give them alms.
James is gone,
so is Luisa.
There is no one in the streets
Jonas has disappeared.
No one sits by him in the fire, he sits in a room
with no windows
there are no gifts there.
No one in the streets. No one in the streets
to remember me dying.
No scream is heard As I fall in mad breaks.
Everyone talks in whispers
My one good eye can see
Will you help me? She is my name
You know me without wanting to
A body with untidy beatings An empty bowl.
Sherlyn, Karen, Merino, Cesar, Mulong…
Men are not men.
Can you feel as I do.
Alive, but with an ache in the world.
(James Balao, disappeared September 17, 2008; Luisa Posa-Domindado, disappeared April 12, 2007; Jonas Burgos, disappeared April 27, 2007; Sherlyn Cadapan, Karen Empeno, and Manuel Merino, disappeared on June 26, 2006; Cesar Batralo, disappeared December 21, 2006; Mulong is Romulos Robinos, disappeared November 17, 2006. Since 2001, there were over 200 cases of enforced disappearances in the Philippines, over 1,000 cases of torture, and over 1,100 extra-judicial killings perpetrated by the Philippine military.)
For me, one way of speaking about these issues is through my poetry. Through my poetry I hope that more people will know about the human rights violations happening in the Philippines, and all over the world. More than this, I hope it inspires more people to support the movement to end all human rights violations, end torture and state repression anywhere it happens. I write and I speak because I must not relinquish that last freedom, freedom to think, to create, to rage against injustice.
If you ask what my Kundiman is, what is my love song, it continues to be about the people and their stories, their struggles, and a commitment to truth, justice, and freedom.
(original formatting on poems altered due to blog constraints)
Melissa Roxas is a poet, writer, and activist. She was a 2004 PEN USA Rosenthal Emerging Voices Fellow for poetry, a Kundiman Fellow for 2005 and 2006, and was selected to participate in Great Leap Collaboratory in 2006.
For the past 15 years, she has done community work in Southern California and in the Philippines. She is one of the founders of Habi Arts, a Los Angeles based cultural organization dedicated to promoting community empowerment and progressive social change through the arts. In 2005 she led the U.S. delegation to the International Solidarity Mission to the Philippines to investigate human rights violations. Since 2007, Melissa has been in the Philippines doing community and human rights work in the disadvantaged and marginalized communities in the Philippines. While conducting community health work in La Paz, Tarlac, she was abducted on May 19, 2009 by agents of the Philippine military and was held in secret detention and tortured for six days. This experience has deepened her commitment to human rights work and to continue writing for truth and justice.
At Kundiman, I had two women teachers, Aimee Nezhukumatathil and Sarah Gambito, but I also consider my other fellow kundis during those retreats as teachers.
I met Melissa Roxas through poetry’s tidings, our heartbody calls and responses to the unnatural quiet in state-sponsored stealings of loved ones near and far.
Last summer, Kundiman called my peers and I to “participate in a community of cymbals through poems – bringing noise and sound and outrage and unremitting memory” to Melissa’s abduction and torture while in the Philippines “and what continues to happen to activists and artists around the world who dare to take a stand against injustice. Let us encircle them, encourage them and fight for them. There is power when people agree to stand and speak together.”
This call and our ensuing congregation of poets in prayer moved me to tears, having come a few months after the unexpected police targeting, brutality, and arrest of my partner and fellow activists here in the States during a local protest. My partner and many of the others had been charged with felonies – plus terrorism sentencing enhancements – and held at atypically high bail. Even while our communities had quickly and successfully organized for our loved ones to return and stay home, my writing practice had frozen in its tracks for months, still in fear from this break, still recovering courage for truthsong. Even in such different context, my bodymemory began to recognize and empathize with some of the safekeeping practices of my elders, long-time community organizers and activists still standing after FBI infiltration and targeting: namely, breath and patience enough to steal bodyprayer rest, unearth quietpresent, renew the fightdrum.
Melissa and I too had distinct, varying experiences and locations – and roles and strategies – in surviving the impact of and challenging state violence. Still, I experienced us, through our words – sounded and unsounded – in kindred yearning for survival through break, in the bodied experience of new patience, new spirit feeding transformation and safety. Through my own silence, Melissa called to me through the words that “kept rising out of [her] during the time they held [her]”
Come before the Night Hour
Come and Sing
Comes. I am Flame
to the Body.
The Incipient Wing
that can’t Fly.
Skin on a Foot
I will learn to Die
a Thousand Times
and Be Resurrected.
Melissa’s call to comrades for engaged response (“Come before the Night Hour”), her unapologetic call for beauty’s place, its warmth in break, the unknown (“Come and Sing / before Night / Comes.”), the unrelenting prayer in her repetition (“Come before the Night Hour / Come and Sing / before Night / Comes.”) and alliteration, listing of bodied evidence (“I am Flame / to the Body. / The Incipient Wing / that can’t Fly. / The Open Skin on a Foot”), her simultaneous humility and strength in presence through these words – these all invoked a real power and safety to sound my own words in waiting as I further settled into my responsibility as an engaged poet. Through a time of personal and collective grief, trauma, and healing, my practice as a poet – which had originated from political practice as a young activist choosing to wrestle the terror of police and prison violence disarming resistance of each and all where empire, racism, gender oppression, queerphobia, and silencing meet – became more fully present, unfolded into prayer, embodied in offering.
The words I’ve continually returned to through new practice have been gratitude, courage, patience, humility. These my center, encouragement as I continue writing to feed heartbody resilience in face of continued and growing detention and imprisonment, unearth the steady fightdrum, quiet through such stealing – these too a lens to express my gratitude for the continued experience of Melissa’s offerings as a poet and writer following her safe return home and continued engagement in challenging state-sponsored disappearances in the Philippines:
to ground new poemseed in political experience, understanding through letters to friends and policymakers. In her June 21, 2009 letter to friends, Melissa articulates how states use “torture as a form of control […] to instill fear in people in debilitating ways, so they stay quiet and lose their light inside.” Amidst such terror, she reminds us “how precious a birth can be,” “how to appreciate life” amidst what the state wishes would desensitize us, and crucially how “no amount of pain or suffering or fear can stop that earth in [us] to keep rising,” encouraging our continued resilience amidst state violence. In this letter, Melissa’s courage grounds her truthsong, the naming of how fever untreated hardens the softness infant eye; how dehydration tighten infant skin; how this a disease of poverty and oppression and more than alphabet typhoid fever, cholera, malaria; how there’s death too in the stealing of freedom workers and disease in the leaving of children of desaparecidos.
to then call her readers to co-investigate and respond to the irrepressible evidence of poetries from body. In her poem “Disinter,” Melissa calls us to sound, experience the memory our bodies store, the evidence the state attempts to terrorize out of its targets and that continues on, even when seemingly silent (“the heavy screen door, shut / the echo of her voice,” “There is a hush / from the night child / that saw,” “no moan from the open mouth / only a song / the music of people / in my head […] / A silent song / from the people / kept playing at my heart”).
In her poem “Humus,” Melissa grounds us in the natural decay and transformation of life on this earth, then asks us to examine the unnatural in state torture, the break in earthbody. “The composition of the earth changes every time something is mixed into it,” she writes,
"The rains come and it becomes mud when mixed with water. Seeds, when planted, flower into something that feeds you. The same is true of smell and sounds. Isn’t it often said that when you talk to plants they grow to know your voice? Move with your breath?
But what of sweat that pours into the ground? The markings made from combat boots that trampled the earth? […] What of the blood? From the back of Julito *? From the chest of Ronel **? What happens to the animal sound from the bodies? The slow movements of men with their hands tied to the back, the missing tongues, the knife, the men in uniform whose laugh made the earth remember? There was the odor of musk and wind and rotten calabasa. What will grow from that much soil? The earth grew familiar with Julito’s hands when he planted maiz and vegetables in the farm, Ronel’s feet from hours of planting squash. The earth has known their names forever, Oh, but never like this."
Melissa simultaneously offers prayer to feed our continued examination, future response:
bit by bit
lift by hair
see the sack
grey and ash
by and by
hack by hack
by red by rib
by and by
by earth they lie
in knowing “there are no deaths that are forgotten, no fathers, no mothers, no sisters and brothers, aunts, uncles, or cousins that are forgotten,” that “they live in the births of new babies each day” (June 21, 2009 letter to friends)
in engaging call and response, in her clear ask that we not stop sounding the quiet of chorus with/in ourselves, our loved ones, but continue feeding our collective truthsong:
There are many more desaparecidos, more abductions, torture and extra-judicial killings going on in the Philippines and around the world. Let the new birth come where there is an end to all of the killings, abductions, and torture. Let the noise come from all directions–they are no longer whispers but shouts for justice.
I met Melissa through these poems and writings, through Kundiman’s call for a chorus of authors’ prayer in lovesong. After months of not writing after my own break – and finally having given myself permission to offer bodyprayer as evidence alongside the official documents, the other voices, the truths the state wishes to hush – Melissa’s and Kundiman’s invocations called me to begin sounding my own quiet of chorus:
Let us be this fightdrum still chanting
each Kuya, help me still chanting
each decline to comment still chanting
Melissa your camera memory still chanting
ghost of dead lovers still chanting
showing signs of torture still chanting
medicine for this break still chanting
language evaporate at gunpoint still chanting
stretch and pull each mask still chanting
each door forced open, each left ajar still chanting
each stomach caressing ground still chanting
each muscle fight back still chanting
Melissa your Flame to the Body still chanting
each Foot that Bleeds Black still chanting
each Incipient Wing that can’t fly still chanting
military gone to hide still chanting
each inch tape, each knotted blindfold still chanting
sinking each handcuff’s clasp still chanting
temperature their rifles still chanting
each bomb, each fire, each time still chanting
each death and resurrection still chanting
Melissa your compas inside still chanting
each rib, each palm stronger than cages still chanting
each breath you stole for rest, each whisper a campaign still chanting
each poem that speaks later, each truthsong before Night Comes still chanting
each window of sky, each freedom found in village arms still chanting
each knowing eye, each kind gesture still chanting
each movement til empire fall, each rest in love still chanting
gathering this rebel heartdrum still chanting
all this music poetry still chanting
Yes, you live, Melissa,
song of truth rising,
your music is chanting.
For Melissa – with gratitude for your offerings; beauty, resilience, and presence on this earth; your continued call moving us to dialogue and action.
Kuya, help me from Melissa’s affidavit. The rest of the italicized text from the excerpt of my “Kundiman” for Melissa is from her poem composed during her abduction.
Vanessa Huang is a poet, writer, and community organizer whose practice feeds the resilience and embodiment of people, campaigns, and movement building from the margins. Vanessa was a finalist for Poets & Writers’ 2010 California Writers Exchange for her poetry manuscript, quiet of chorus, which has been described as a project that “lifts up the often muffled legacies of resistance to genocide in contemporary life” and home to “lifeworlds that yearn for freedom and wholeness, and help enliven the path forward.” Vanessa has studied with Kundiman faculty Myung Mi Kim, Rick Barot, and Staceyann Chin.
Photo credit: Visibility Project
One has to rely on memory so much when one is always leaving: A conversation with Janine Joseph | R. A. Villanueva
This morning I found myself walking towards a bodega that had just opened for the day. Outside its front door were two long-haired dachshunds leashed to a bike, yapping at the air.
A small boy ambled out onto the sidewalk holding a bagel with both hands and began yapping back at the dogs, matching their pitch and cadence. A crossing guard paused to ash her cigarette into a planter. The sky was the shade of gray fresh sparkplugs come in.
On the opposite side of the street, a man was torso-deep in the front cavity of a delivery truck. His partner was in the driver’s seat waiting for a signal to press on the gas.
Seeing that landscape in motion, I realized that it’s nearly impossible for me to walk through the city without remembering Janine Joseph’s poems—their synaptic grace, their suture and flash. What we routinely wander past is what so often becomes the particulate and catalytic matter of her work.
R: As I start to type, I realize that logging a chat is a fairly unconventional way to be profiling you and your work, but this form is pretty indicative of how you and I talk these days. And I can't recall an extended stretch of time where you and I weren't sending each other news articles or prompts for new poems or links to absurd things that we stumble upon.
J: I think you and I are actually pretty lucky to be able to chat and catch up online, especially since I exist as "invisible" from September to May. I like to think of it as my way of letting people know I haven't forgotten about them.
R: That's a major concern for you: memorial and recognition—loss and the verge of reclamation. I remember it vividly from when we were in workshop, too. The drafts you'd bring in were racing with those kinds of tensions.
J: Exactly, and for several reasons--the first being that I have been living a life that involves me moving from place to place.
R: Would easing into a more consistent terrain affect you? Comfort you?
J: I think I'm finding about that now, living in Houston. At the start of the PhD program, I knew that this was going to be a fairly long-term commitment. 4-5 years. I knew I would have to stay put in Texas (with the occasional flights back to CA to spend time with my family). I've spent the past two years here telling myself that living here means I'll be able to finally write about and make sense of my experiences in the Philippines, California, and New York. I liked to think it was a comfort to be away from the places that have such an impact on the manuscript I'm working on.
But "easing into a more consistent terrain" would mean that I was safe—and I'm very suspicious of thinking I'm ever safe.
R: You depend on distance, then? Being an émigré is a kind of necessity for you? Because I've always been struck by how "receptive" your poems are, how readily they make meaning from the ore of conversations and immediate encounters, even names...
J: I don't think it is so much that I depend on distance. Distance so far has been what has provided me with opportunities to write and make a living. School has been a shelter of sorts for me. Houston is tied up with the PhD—hopefully the last degree I will get—and so moving here also meant moving to a place where I could stay put for a while and work. I didn't need to go elsewhere to continue doing the work I wanted to do. That being said, I like to think that being an émigré isn’t a kind of necessity to me, but it's a climate I've gotten used to. About every two years I feel restless.
R: And what's the "work you want to do" now? Is the manuscript an evolution of the NYU thesis? Are you renovating that prior collection, Human Archipelago?
J: My memory used to be such a wonderful thing. I made meaning because I had so much stored in my head, so every new encounter, new name, and new conversation would trigger an old one. Like the actual "Memory" card game: I would turn over a new card, say a card with an apple, and my brain would automatically go find the other apple card. There was always a pair. (I found, too, that my poems tend to have pairs. Some will get written years later).
Yes, I am still working on Human Archipelago, though I'm reconsidering a possible name change. I've carried that title since my thesis as an undergraduate at UC Riverside...through my thesis at NYU.
R: You know, that's another reason I wanted to conduct our dialogue "here." You were involved in a major automobile collision last year and, after your accident, you and I ran some strange thought and memory experiments without really knowing it.
J: We did. I'm actually glad you brought up my car accident because I'm having trouble talking about the thing without mentioning it.
R: It was over GTalk that you told me about what had happened, assured me that you were recovering, and gave me updates on your state of mind. And then, when you forgot that you had already shared the news, you told me again.
All those lapses and inventions and backtrackings that went on, you saved them. But I never save these dialogue windows. I wonder: what you call the "thing”—has it held sway over your writing in any way?
J: Absolutely. It holds sway over all of my writing—first drafts, final drafts, revisions, and when I share the poems aloud at a reading.
It would also explain why I keep talking about my memory in the past tense and why I said earlier that I "liked to think" Houston would be my place to finally put together the Philippines, California, and New York.
It's like turning the apple card over and only recognizing that it is an apple.
R: Both conceptual and procedural, then? What I mean is: both in the sense that you are aware of the fragility of memory as theme in your work and in the sense that it's a challenge to compose, recall, formulate for you since the collision?
Does that make sense?
J: It does. I am also aware of the fragility of identity and personality as a theme in my work. Identity in my work is (was?) so tied up in memory (one has to rely on memory so much when one is always leaving) that much of my identity went with my memory after the accident. Much of my speaker's identity also went, too. By "speaker," I of course mean the speaker in my poems.
It's difficult to recall an identity when you can't recall memories.
I think I mentioned once to you that a few months after the accident I mistook a memory of a scene in Finding Nemo as one of my own personal memories. I remembered myself as the fish (Dory?—the one Ellen DeGeneres gives voice to) trying to find an exit.
Now, nearly two years after the accident, I can attempt to make some meaning out of remembering myself as a fish trying to find an "escape" (remember the scene? She keeps reading "es-cah-peh"), but the process is slower. I can't always trust what I'm remembering, especially at a time when I wasn't remembering anything. Before, in my pre-accident poems, those associations were happening faster. Everything was more urgent. And even the form of the lines seemed like they had to reflect that.
R: I wanted to bring that up. One of the idiosyncratic features of your poetry is the serrated enjambment and the way initials—usually the first letter of a first name—become transfigured into speakers.
Are these conscious rituals for you? Organizing principles? Assignations of identity?
J: Those associations I was speaking about earlier? Those are what gave way to the "serrated enjambment" you're talking about. I wasn't making line breaks to keep short lines. I wasn't really dividing by units of sound. Some of my lines are broken by syllabics, yes, but for some, that enjambment picked up the pace, came back to punch you, surprise you, etc. As the writer, I knew how to set up because I was in on the surprise, on the connection. My more recent poems have to handle those enjambments differently now.
So, yes, they were conscious.
The initials that pop up in my poems, too, are conscious choices. Now that I'm further along in my manuscript, they're also a way to organize the collection.
R: But now they feel too conscious? Because, in reading your poems-in-progress, I can still recognize your signature (intellectual, architectural) all over the drafts.
I remember writing in the margins on one of your early, early poems in Sharon’s workshop that featured with multiple “J’s”. There was a certain kind of faith and audacity in that poem. What was the title of that piece?
R: "Narrative." I remembered wrong. I thought it was "Identity."
J: It had a different title during the drafting phase. "Giving away the tribe" was the first title. Maybe that's what you're remembering?
R: Perhaps it's due to my response to that poem—how I never felt at all lost or disoriented amidst all the various speakers. I could fix on each recognizable persona even though they all shared the same marker.
J: And thank you for saying that you still recognize my "signature" in my in-progress, squirrelly drafts.
R: It's unmistakable.
J: Ha! I actually was confused as to whether or not I had a poem titled "Identity" in my NYU thesis and just used the search function in that document. Apparently, that search item is nowhere to be found.
Ah the irony.
R: The concussion giveth and hath taken away.
J: I became more aware of my "signature" enjambments because for a while, when I was trying to write again after the accident, I was trying so hard to write as I did pre-accident. I ended up mimicking myself—and terribly. I had to evolve.
R: What does that evolution mean for you?
J: I wish I knew, to be honest. I'm still working on making meaning of all of these poems about travel, cars, identity, memory, family—you name it. Everything I wrote about was waiting at the stoplight with me. It was 52 Pick-Up. I'm learning now (and it's been quite the process) that I can't be committed to whatever voice or style I think I remember from the accident. As I mentioned before, copying myself led to disastrous poems.
Ha! Already I'm (in my head) making connections to travel. To migration.
R: Right now? You're composing a poem right now?
J: No, but I am thinking about how all of these poems work or can work together. Of course, when I'm actually looking at all of them I don't feel the same way. But I think you're on to something—re: I'm still architecturally sound.
R: Well, that has to put you at ease. You've calibrated yourself to the disaster—the potential "disaster" of the poems...
J: "The Art of Losing." I feel like I'm doing this. I'm saying this to myself. I'm saying "(Write it!)" the same way she is.
Again, all this could be said for what it feels like to leave everything behind and move to a new place. I actually re-remembered the poem (and found new meaning in it) when a friend moved out of the country. It became her go-to poem and, reading it through her lens, I realized it was my go-to poem also.
I still have trouble typing (or not typing) words I mean to. When I hit "send" and see the gap, I think to myself "Lose something every day. Accept the fluster..."
I'm sure I've skipped a few words during our conversation. I try to double-check.
R: Everything makes sense so far.
J: —oh, wow. The poem is called "One Art." I knew that. Ha! We know what I was thinking.
"Accept the fluster."
To tie together two things you mentioned earlier, I think evolving = reclamation.
R: Can you see some direction for that process? To where are you headed? What's the project or point of arrival?
J: I can see some direction in this, surely, and it's nothing close to the direction I thought I was heading in after I submitted my NYU thesis. When I submitted Human Archipelago, I could clearly see what poems were missing in order to complete the manuscript. I knew they were missing because I knew they'd be the hardest ones to write. Still, even then, I was thinking in terms of poems-to-complete-the-manuscript. I don't know if I'm explaining myself correctly. I just know that the story has gotten larger since my accident. It's more unwieldy. There are parallels. In my poems, my speaker moves in and out of non-self and self. She's an undocumented immigrant and a documented immigrant. She's an undocumented immigrant becoming a documented immigrant. She's a documented immigrant who has been an undocumented immigrant. She is a speaker who remembers something she was—something that she, quite literally, no longer is. Yet both things are a part of her. There are parallels.
Now if my brain would only cooperate!
Like I said, it's become unwieldy. I need to figure out what to trim. What epiphanies I might be having that aren't necessary to this manuscript.
I also need to learn when and where to leave the accident be and just finish the collection. Because losing that manuscript would feel like disaster.
Janine Joseph is a Ph.D. student in literature and creative writing at the University of Houston. Her poems have appeared in Third Coast, Spoon River Poetry Review, and Calabash, among other journals. A Kundiman fellow who has worked with Prageeta Sharma and Myung Mi Kim, she is a recent recipient of a Brazos Bookstore/Academy of American Poets prize and a Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans. She holds degrees from UC Riverside and the Creative Writing Program at NYU where she taught with the Starworks Foundation and Community-Word Project. She currently teaches with Writers in the Schools and serves as a poetry editor for Gulf Coast.
R.A. Villanueva’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in journals such as Indiana Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, AGNI, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, DIAGRAM, The Literary Review, and The Collagist. A Kundiman fellow, he has studied with Marilyn Chin, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, and Ishle Yi Park. He is currently a Language Lecturer at New York University.
Across the street a beautiful asian was burning. I took my sandals off. Seven times hotter the fire remembered babies. And canals of babies burning it back. I took off your sandals, and your sandals, too. Sometimes we waited for stone tablets. Most often we brewed what tea we could of the desert. Silicate, mica, a mysterious formica. We drank and became practiced. We missed our mothers. Our mothers couldn’t call. We called in dreams. We dreamed illnesses on our new bodies. The bodies clung to covenants. The covenants, in turn, drove to scholarship. (Stewardship, pharmacists like to say. Star Connection, my Tanenbaum makes to say.) So many babies, the asian said. Across the street a beautiful iconoclast was burning. I do remember that dream more than all—that I did not doubt. Your honor, I saw the future.
—Sarah Gambito, Matadora
Although all of Sarah Gambito’s Matadora means a lot to me, it is like one of those albums that becomes important to you because there is this one song you find on that album to replay again and again during crucial moments in your life.
At the time I read "Paloma’s Church in America," I had not read much from Asian-American poets that I felt spoke to me. Or that I felt were engaging in a dialogue with Asian-American experience. Oftentimes there were poets or writers engaging in a dialogue, but with an experience I could not claim, and I felt isolated from the work, a fraud. As an Asian-American poet that comes from a mixed identity, it is easy to feel a fraud, easy to feel that most experiences, culturally speaking, are quite without reach. When I first started toying with the idea of photography, I first wanted to do this project of the broken, barren things of our world. A shot of an abandoned mattress on the sidewalk for example, when taken at a certain angle, at a certain close-up, could call many associations. I wanted to take that shot of the mattress at such an angle or perspective, that it’d really be up to the viewer and the viewer’s world what the photo was turned into. Perhaps a rock. A favorite striped shirt of an old lover. A tattered rope. It is clear to me now that this project and my imaginings of it were an attempt to re-vision or re-create for others the fraught struggle with identity that I had had, a lifetime of watching my Chinese father speak in his world in a language I’d never learned. I could catch glimpses. I know more than I let on, my partner says, and I believe that might be true. But I could never reach inside and grab onto it like a door available for me to open. It was only the window I could peek through—and in that window—I could make up any story I’d like.
At the time I read "Paloma’s Church in America," I was not writing about my mixed up identity. At the time I read "Paloma’s Church in America," I did not know or understand much of avant-garde aesthetics, and I had never written a prose poem. At this time, prose poetry is the space I feel most comfortable in, the poetic space most authentic to my voice. I was in graduate school when I read "Paloma’s Church in America," and had just read Michael Palmer’s Glass Essay. Dana Levin gave a class on post-modernism, and what I still find most revolutionary about that class, is her willingness to let us in on her confusions, her doubts. I didn’t feel I had to pretend to be in the same club. I had already put up my lyric poet dukes for most of the class, and although my gloves were on tight, ready for combat, Michael Palmer got through. He got through with sound. He got through with sentences that, although not quite understandable, were emotionally potent. How did he do that? Like Winnie-the-Pooh, I thunk. I thunk and thunk. I placed my fist to my forehead, I furrowed my eyebrows, I sat against a tree at Warren Wilson, in the mountains, and thunk. When it came time for the ice cream social part of the evening, I coyly made my way up to Dana Levin, and said, you know, I don’t understand what he’s talking about, I don’t quite get it, but I feel an emotional response. Dana Levin, protecting her ice cream from her cape of hair, says to me, I don’t think you’re supposed to. I think you got it.
At the time I read "Paloma’s Church in America," I felt a deep sadness. It brought back to me many associations. It brought back to me a girl in an undergrad creative writing class, a Filipina girl, who started crying in workshop when a white man became quite flippant about her poem talking of the Philippines. This girl started crying because there are kids running in the streets barely dressed, barefoot and screaming. She started crying because it is so sad there, and so beautiful. It brought back to me the first time I met a Chinese adoptee who was being raised by a white chef, how the mother told me there are babies upon babies upon babies, neglected, left in days old diapers, crying one loud wail together. I was about to mis-speak here and utter that Sarah Gambito’s painting is like a photograph. Perhaps it is not misspoken.
At the time I read "Paloma’s Church in America," I could not have imagined that I could ever write about my Asian identity. Didn’t know what to name it, I’d say. Would feel that I was an imposter no matter what I’d say. A creative writing teacher I had at 18 told me that I needed to put poems about my Asianness in my thesis, because, he said, outside of a workshop, no one will know that you’re Asian. Why did that matter, I asked myself. What is the rhyme or reason to paint the color of my skin on my pages just to satisfy the curiosity of my mostly white readers? These days, I am part of an organization to foster visibility for Queer Asians. And my partner is Korean. It has taken me a long time to get from point A (dismissal of my identity out of fright) to point X (standing proud in my non-linear but no less real half-olive light).
At the time I read "Paloma’s Church in America," I could not imagine that I would have written these poems. But I firmly believe they are connected—Sarah Gambito’s beautiful manifesto of the tragedy of Asian America (an idea, an idea, we are always an idea—)—and my own writing out my name in the sand, a pair of feet placed in air with such steadfastness as to hope others see it as a floor.
Sign Language for the Bilingual
I have to admit, I’m a little insecure about the way I speak. Sometimes, when I write, I change the way I think so no one will notice what a klutz I am with words. Or prepositional phrases. I mean, how do you learn those kinds of things anyway when you’re stuck in the corner of a room with a thousand Chinese men speaking in words you’ll never understand, but feel you have a glimpse of. Oh, I don’t know anything at all really, except the way they purse their lips together when they have an attitude about a subject. Or how, when one of them sings a song to the scale of the karaoke machine, the rest of them grunt together, like one long ripple of a stone making its way down a river. My siblings, when they knew they couldn’t understand a word coming from these long-known strangers, left the room for their fantasies. I, on the other hand, could have sketched the shape their mouths formed when excited, the gestures their chopsticks made pointing at me in the air, even the way they looked at my little silent deaf face, me looking down all the while. As if casting my eyes down underground made a bit of difference. As if their gaze would one day disappear, and I would suddenly know how to hear.
Would you like a mooncake?
Sometimes I think my face belies me. Once, I read a novel about a girl whose face is ravaged. Mine must be the opposite, maybe. You can still see the shadow where the baby fat was cleaved off with a Chinese butcher knife. My eyes, they still know how to fix on a subject, wander around in an attempt to look nonchalant. Sometimes, I think I belie my face. Too spongy, an infant told me once, grabbing the mess of it in both hands and kissing me on the mouth. I wonder, if I furrow my brow long enough, will that crease in the middle of my otherwise perfect skin give me just the edge I need? But, let’s not talk about vanity. Not now, as I flash back to the hours I spent in my father’s car staring at my eyes in the rearview mirror. I remember now, how I got in the way of his defensive driving, his blind spot merely me trying to take blindness out of the equation. What equation? Let’s talk about something else. My voice, maybe, how it takes on the language of the ancient, the only English I’ve ever known. Say something to me in another language. Mandarin, for example. 你要月餅嗎? I promise you I’ll nod my head for a moment, laugh a bell-laugh that almost sounds like embarrassment, but could be prior knowledge. Am I making sense yet? Didn’t think so. Go ahead. Grab my fleshy face the way you’d like to grab the moon. That is, if the moon were in front of you on a table, puffy and round like dough. You know you want to.
Addie Tsai teaches Composition and Literature at Houston Community College, where she runs Literary Luminaries, a year-long reading series, featuring nationally-known poets such as Terrance Hayes, Michael Dumanis, Jericho Brown, Dean Young, and Nick Flynn, and will feature Kundiman's Rick Barot this fall. Her poems have been published in Forklift, Ohio, American Letters & Commentary, NOON: A Journal of the Short Poem, and Caketrain, among others. She received her MFA from Warren Wilson College, where she studied with Rick Barot. She is also on the steering committee of Queer and Asian Houston (Q+A), an organization which aims to promote awareness of Houston's queer Asian/Pacific Islander community.
"Black feminists often talk about their feelings of craziness before becoming conscious of the concepts of sexual politics, patriarchal rule, and most importantly, feminism, the political analysis and practice that we women use to struggle against our oppression."
— The Combahee River Collective Statement
Poetry has been a rock for me throughout my life; my oldest pastime, coping mechanism and creative outlet—my dearest BFF. And yet, poetry has also been pushed to the margins of my life, overshadowed by the daily hustle, the drama, the goals and investments of my life, my political coming-of-age and growth as a woman of color. Last year, after almost a decade of squeezing in poetry wherever it fit, I made a commitment. I applied to and was accepted to a graduate program in poetry and, skeptical but trying hard not to be a cynic of academia, embarked on the journey (albeit while continuing to work full-time) in the hopes of "learning" how to be a better writer and to access all the treasures that an institution might hold for me, a simple poet of the people.
Not unsurprisingly, I often find myself in situations where my artist self and my political self cannot comfortably occupy the same space publicly, though they are rarely separate in my artistic process. I like to imagine there is a secret network of left artists, people of color and women poets, in academic settings like mine all around the country, who communicate through hidden cyphers in sonnets and sestinas and the like. But more often than not, I think the critical political thinkers in conservative academic settings have to exist on two parallel tracks or be forced to do the dirty work—to ask the hard questions and speak up. It's a nasty place to be, but one that folks who are not so disillusioned and burnt out by the journey are charged with, and more often than not those people are women, gender non-conforming and people of color. Recently in a class discussion that felt like deja vu from my undergraduate years, we were talking about (privileged/entitled) people writing (stealing/exploiting) other (oppressed/marginalized) people's stories (cultural products/collective histories). The feeling of being "that" person was all too familiar—someone "radical" or "crazy" compared to the rest of the room, the butt of other people's privilege, that menstruating yellow beast that needs to be put down for the sake of order and the sanctity of white entitlement. Is this what poetry is supposed to feel like?
It's as if there are two of me walking two parallel paths: my journey to an appreciation of poetry beyond what it does for me, and my journey to a truer understanding of justice and every person's right to have it. Here are some of my personal ruminations as a woman of color of the Asian diaspora in the United States: I am aware of how often and how much women and gendered bodies all over the world are required to survive. We are compelled, often with outright violence, rape or social control, to survive the worst things, like the lowest quality of life; lower wages; war and occupation; no or little access to education, food, clean drinking water or healthcare; community violence; daily sexual harassment; police violence or the fear of police violence; denied, with laws and violence, the right to control our own reproduction; to give up our dreams and talents to take care of others and so many other things tangible and intangible that wouldn't fit here. And, yet, in all that desperation, there is hope. I hear stories about people resisting and exercising agency within their oppression on a daily basis, as individuals or collectively. I hear stories about women in Mexico overthrowing a radio station to be heard; or women farmers in South Africa participating in organized civil disobedience for land and housing rights; or a community in California that has found a way to hold domestic violence perpetrators accountable without relying on the police state. I hear about sex workers sharing information on message boards to keep each other safe; or about men working with young boys to stop violence against women; or about transgender women of color organizing against police abuse and harassment in New Orleans.
This is where I want my poetry to live—in hope. And though there are plenty of days when I doubt the relevance of my poetry, either because my aesthetics have moved from performance to the page, or because not every poem I write is explicitly about oppression or resistance, or because it might just not be very good—whatever that means—it's what I have to offer. Toni Cade Bambara said "The role of the revolutionary artist is to make revolution irresistible." I dream about a worldwide, poor women-led liberation movement to overthrow capitalism and hetero-patriarchy from the Global South and up. I dream about art fueling that movement, swimming free in a new world that is finally ours.
Put the baby on your back
Wrap the sash around your waist and the baby’s too
Balance the bundle in your free hand, wrap your fingers
around the knot. Bend your body forward on the dirt path
It will help you get up the hill. The mountains are just ahead;
you’ve left the other ones behind you. Walk
Watch the silver mist rise from the triangle shapes
on the horizon. The peninsula will always hold you.
Alison Roh Park is a writer and activist from Queens, NY. She is a Kundiman fellow and there worked with Myung-Mi Kim, Jennifer Chang and Staceyann Chin. Alison is a former artist-in-residence at the Asian Arts Initiative in Philadelphia, PA where she performed a one-woman show “A Magpie Sang on the 7-Train.” Her work has appeared in several publications including the Ozone Park Journal; The NuyorAsian Anthology; The Asian Pacific American Journal; and is forthcoming in Mythium Literary Journal. Alison has performed, competed and educated across the United States and is currently earning an Masters of Fine Arts in New York City.