It was an intense weekend. On Friday night, I headed to the city with my roommates to Professor Truong Tran’s Living Room Reading series, which is hosted by mostly SF State MFA students and populated by them (yes, the ‘other’ MFA programs in the city.) Firstly, the environs of Truong’s city apartment lured me to the romantic lifestyle of the poet. His apartment is right at the intersection of Haight and Ashbury Streets, and when I walked inside, down his longwinding hallway decorated with neon colors against taupe wallpaper, artwork mixed with pop culture and words encapsulated in jars on shelves, I was taken into, literally, a world foreign and strange to me, and I felt myself tripping over every word I had said, to the point that Truong tried to make feel me at ease by laughing at my tall, golden glittery low-cut boots I bought from Forever 21 for an exact occasion such as this. I felt out of my skin. I felt differientated, though my roommates were with me (also MFA students, and one was a fictioneer like me). Eventually, a second-year MFA Mills student came as well, and though we made a little discussion enclave between us Mills-ites, Truong dispersed us and commanded that we tried to make friends. But the living room and kitchen were filled with people at diversified positions in the MFA/writing world–some were graduated, some were in-school, some were in the process of applying, others were professors and MFA students at the same time, and others were just straight out professors. Though seeing a good ‘ol friend, Paul Ocampo (who happens to live with Truong), was a comfort in such unknown terrain, I still felt uneased and uncertain and out-of-joint. I’m always stuck in my mind at these events. People tell me I have it together, and I know I have nothing together besides the masks I wear to these events. I’m so unsure of myself, of my writing. And then, the reading commenced.
That’s when everything shifted, as cliché as it sounds, but this was the moment why I came.
There were two poets, one fictioneer, and one memoirist/multi-genre writer. Gerardo Pacheco, a graduate of SF State and winner of the distinguished Joseph Henry Jackson Award by the San Francisco Foundation, read first. His poetry was filled with rapid beats, his voice strained and his eyes flickered, and his feet tapped and tapped, and I felt at home with his bilingual verses that trailed into Spanish and left you at English. Jaydn DeWald, a graduate from Pacific University’s MFA program, read next, and his words drown my soul. One of his poems was in honor of his sister, a military/army wife, and he acutely captured the disarrayed emotions wives of my stature carry–the distance, the endless questioning of whether we’ll know our husbands after they’ve come back, and his last image stayed with me, haunted me: the wife, holding her husband from the back in a corn field, becomes silent as her husband slowly turns toward her, his face shifting and shifting until the eyes become familiar and distant and filled with the objects of the past now gone.
We had a break. I sipped more wine and talked more endlessly, and I grew restless. I wanted to write. I wanted to cry. I wanted to talk to my husband. I wanted everything in my life to fit in a nice little package like their poems, as if my fractured self could become self-contained and whole like the words that possess me.
Carolyn, the host and a graduate of State, called us back, and I sat on a pillow behind Truong’s monstrous display of repeated baby heads and bright, colorful dots until my phone rang with an Unknown number. There was another break. I loved Sara Marinelli’s beautiful prose about a grandmother and the narrator’s mother journey to an Italian cathedral, where they said 580 Hail Mary’s and Lord prayers to make a miracle come true. After Sara’s last breathe and the sound of the applause, I rushed outside because I knew the voice behind the call was my husband’s. I finally cried outside Truong’s apartment, alone with just my lover’s voice miles away at sea, and I couldn’t have been any more happy and pleased and thankful. Unfortunately, I only caught the end of Chanan Tigay’s piece on an Irsaeli army unit, but his language was fierce and his lines were staccato like mimes trickled across a desert expanse.
That was Friday night. After the reading, I lingered about in Truong’s apartment with my fellow Mills MFA-ers and ate a very spicy hotdog the host had cooked with pleasure. It was good. I drove home, crossed the bridge into Berkeley, drank another glass of wine at Jupiter’s, and called it a night. The next morning, I rushed to get ready and meet up a VONA friend I had met back in 2011 in a workshop with ZZ Packer, and though I was a few minutes late, we caught up like no time has lapsed. Her new novel, Island of a Thousand Mirrors, has just come out and I beg you all to read it. It’s only 200 or so pages, and it’s about the Sri Lankan civil war that lasted from 1980s–2009.
We rushed to the city via BART, walked and walked until we finally found that gray old building of California Institute of Integral Arts, and listened to Elmaz and three other wonderful, wonderful poets read. We luckily got there just in time before the panel began.
What’s funny about this reading is how different, how incredibly more formal and yet more comfortable and ‘safe’ this panel felt compared to Friday night’s. I had met three of the poets (Elmaz included) prior to the reading, and had met Pireeni Sundaralingam and Francisco Alarcón at early writing stages of my life. I met Pireeni at USC back in 2010, when her South Asian anthology had just been published and she recalled to us the difficulty of publishing in a hegemonic industry. Different presses had asked Pireeni to separate the poets’ works into two themes: “Curry and Karma Sutra.” I re-realize, again and again, that racism is only playing dead. I had met Francisco at AWP in early 2011 at Washington, D.C., when I went to his reading (funnily, with Paul Ocampo), which focused on poets writing against SB 7010. The Francisco I met then and the Francisco I met on Saturday were one and the same, and I couldn’t help but feel more and more inspired by these fierce and strong and lion-like poets who filled the panel with their voices and pains and struggles and successes. Ronaldo V. Wilson was someone who I hadn’t met before, but I knew of him from Barbara Jane Reyes and our work with PAWA, the Philippine American Writers & Artists, Inc. What’s funny is that there was something off about Ronaldo to me–not his poetry, I loved, loved his experimental poetics where he juxtaposed his own voice, improvisation, and the unfolding of the present, of ‘now,’ in his reading, but what was off is how he acted. It wasn’t until dinner when I mentioned to him–“Do you know Barbara?” and he said, “Why, yes! She wants to plan a reading for me.” [This I knew, because I’m helping with the PR.] And then he continued, “I was thinking I should wear a barong or a Japanese kimono to the reading–I have a beautiful one, you know.”
And that was it! It finally clicked in my mind and I asked him if he were half-Filipino and he said, “Duh.” That was what was off–I saw a kababayan and didn’t notice him. My mind was incredibly off because he acted, sounded, and breathed so Filipino–him even thinking about what to wear to the reading (and it’s in January! Four months away, and of course he’s thinking about his appearance and dress–that’s how we are). When I mentioned that a barong would be a great idea (it’s a tradition Filipino formal garment or dress shirt made of pineapple or banana fabric) but a Japanese kimono might bring bad omens (we’re very superstitions) he said, “Well, hell yes, that’s exactly what I want to do!” [Side note: bad omens because we were colonized by the Japanese, and well, by everyone–America and Spain.]
That night, I felt like I was slowly and finally becoming my own skin in the midst of fearless, incredibly talented writers. We ate and talked and breathed writing over Ethiopian food, sharing spirit and food with our hands.
And even before that, at the panel, the words they imparted to me stayed and haunted me in a challenging, enlightening way:
“Sorrow can only be felt by the living.” — Elmaz
“Langauge gets corroded.” — Pireeni (speaking about the diaspora)
“Poems fill the pages; tattoos punctuate the flesh.” — Francisco (speaking about his short vignette poems that he called ‘tattoos’, which his Stanford professor called rubbish and ‘not poems’)
“I was SO bored with the shit out there, so I made something new, something utterly mine.” — Ronaldo
Even their discussion on the pitfalls of literary journals focused on writings of color (like my TAYO Literary Magazine) blew my mind. Pireeni had a point–that the hegemonic publishing world could see our enclaves, our literary journals, as our “safe spaces” and thus do not need to include us in the mainstream. That may be a pitfall. But like Francisco said, you fight and let the words stand on their own. He sold over 10,000 copies (or more, I didn’t get to jot down the exact number) of his poetry collections. It’s the way we fight, the way we use our words, the way we cultivate our craft, and the way we solidify the languages that oppress and free us.
I needed to be at both readings. I needed to hear everyone’s words. I needed to feel like a vagrant and at home.