A Conversation with Garrett Hongo

Garrett Hongo

Garrett Hongo was born in the back room of the Hongo Store in Volcano, Hawai`i in 1951. He grew up in Kahuku and Hau`ula on the island of O`ahu and moved to Los Angeles when he was six, much to his everlasting regret. He complained so, his parents sent him back when he was nine, where he lived in Wahiawā and Waimalu with relatives who so hated him, they stuffed him on a plane back to L.A. when he was ten. He grew up fighting from then on, all the way through Gardena High School, where he encountered Shakespeare, Camus, and Sophocles in English classes. They convinced him to try higher education, so he went to Pomona College, managed to graduate, still fighting, and found poetry there under the tutelage of Bert Meyers. He wandered Japan, Michigan, and Seattle thereafter, supporting himself through wits and lies, directing the Asian Exclusion Act from 1975-77, becoming poet-in-residence at the Seattle Arts Commission in 1978. He then gave up wit and went back to graduate school at UC Irvine, studying with the poets Charles Wright, C.K. Williams, and Howard Moss, all of whom averred he deserved hanging. Hongo has subsequently taught at USC, Irvine, Missouri, Houston, and Oregon, where, fool that he was, he directed the MFA Program in Creative Writing from 1989-93. He has written three books of poetry, including Coral Road (Knopf, 2011), edited three anthologies of Asian American literature, and published a book of non-fiction entitled Volcano: A Memoir of Hawai`i (Knopf, 1995). Not among the falsehoods on his resume are two fellowships from the NEA, two from the Rockefeller Foundation, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the Lamont Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets. He is now in semi-retirement and fights no one, having lost all his teeth and suffered from tapioca of the hands. He plays with his daughter, scolds his two grown sons, and loves his wife Shelly Withrow. He is presently completing a book of non-fiction entitled The Perfect Sound: An Autobiography in Stereo. In Eugene, where he lives, they call him, among other things, Distinguished Professor of the College of Arts and Sciences and Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Oregon.

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LR: As a longtime professor of creative writing at the University of Oregon, what has the relationship between academia and poetry been like in your life?

GH: Academia has provided a space for poetry, actually. We can pursue it seriously this way—in formal classes and workshops. I didn’t fully and consistently connect with my own poetry until I got to an MFA program—at Irvine—where I studied with C.K. Williams, Charles Wright, and Howard Moss. They each gave me something different that I desperately needed—C.K. a big push and a challenge, Charles subtle and constant support and a craftsmanlike approach in answering my own inspirations, and Howard amazing formal wit and geniality in working with my own poetic structures. Since then, as a teacher myself, I try to do things similar for my own students. The poetry workshop has been a haven, though, a place to put the busyness of the world aside and concentrate on poems, poetic thought, the imagination. Academe has been the environment that has supported this most consistently for me.

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A Conversation with Tina Chang

Tina Chang

Brooklyn Poet Laureate, Tina Chang, was raised in New York City. She is the author of the poetry collections Half-Lit Houses and Of Gods & Strangers (Four Way Books) and co-editor of the anthology Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia and Beyond (W.W. Norton, 2008) along with Nathalie Handal and Ravi Shankar. Her poems have appeared in American Poet, McSweeney’s, Ploughshares, and The New York Times among others.

Her work has also been anthologized in Identity Lessons, Poetry Nation, Asian American Literature, Asian American Poetry: The Next Generation, From the Fishouse: An Anthology of Poems and in Poetry 30: Poets in Their Thirties. She has received awards from the Academy of American Poets, the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, the Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation, the New York Foundation for the Arts, Poets & Writers, and the Van Lier Foundation among others.

She currently teaches poetry at Sarah Lawrence College.

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LR: You have spoken of how your role as Brooklyn Poet Laureate has led to a greater sense of moral responsibility, and at Sarah Lawrence College, you even teach a class called “Poet as World Citizen.” How does this sense of responsibility play out for you in your writing?

TC: In my role as poet laureate, there is a public connection and recognition of matters that are important to me: education, literacy, the Asian American experience, the female experience, motherhood. These are only a few of the topics to which I pledge loyalty, and those communities have helped me feel a firmer footing in a sometimes uncertain world.

When I conceived of the class “Poet As World Citizen,” I envisioned a student who never loses their sense of themselves as an active participant in a world in flux. I can no longer live in a vacuum, and I think our literature and the study of it must reflect that. I can no longer write a domestic kind of poetry which doesn’t call attention to the complexities outside of the United States. Because I teach and I engage in my community, I feel invested in ongoing dialogue, a dialogue of exposure, questioning, and investigation. I bring all of this to the page when I write.

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A Conversation with Adrienne Su

Adrienne Su

Adrienne Su is the author of three books of poems, Middle Kingdom (Alice James, 1997), Sanctuary (Manic D Press, 2006), and Having None of It (Manic D, 2009). Among her awards are a Puschart Prize and an NEA fellowship. She is poet-in-residence and chair of the English department at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania. Recent poems are forthcoming in The Kenyon Review, The New Republic, New England Review, and Hawai’i Pacific Review.

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LR: In the 1990s, you participated in the slam poetry revival, even going to the nationals for the NYC team in 1991. How did you move from the poetry slam world to your current place in academia?

AS: I fell into the poetry slam by accident when I was too young to have a writerly identity and the slam was too young to have specific expectations of contestants. There was less of a page-stage divide. I saw no contradiction in reading my poems at the Nuyorican Poets Café while sending them to university-based literary journals. And the Nuyorican was a revelation. I’d never experienced writing in such a social way before. So while it may look as if I made a major transition over the years, I was really pursuing what I loved all along in whatever venues would have me. The people I met in both worlds had the same passions, though they may have been expressed differently on the surface.

Getting into academia was a different story: you don’t get an academic job by accident. Even there, though, I thought my presence might be temporary. I started out as a sabbatical replacement and only gradually began to identify myself as a member of academia. Departing from the slam scene happened organically: I no longer lived in a city, I had children, and the slam itself had changed, requiring acting skills. Not long ago, I went back to the Nuyorican and saw a whole new generation of poets doing what “we” were doing twenty years earlier. It was terrific. For me, its time had come and gone, and that was fine.

LR: You have stated in the past that your days in slam poetry taught you the value of connecting with people through the spoken word and reaching the non-university audience. How do you maintain that sense of the social in your work now?

AS: I think I do this mainly by continuing to write poems that on some levels can be read by anyone.

LR: Poetry of the academy and poetry that is accessible to non-literary audiences are often perceived as contradictory. As a poet of the academy with a spoken word past, how do you reconcile the two?

AS: I think I address this somewhat in question 1, but I might add that academic institutions can also be great home bases for students to create spoken-word events. Students are doing this at Dickinson College, where I teach. I’d also suggest that as educators, we don’t have to treat “page” and “spoken-word” poems the same way in class. Some poems you need to pick apart. Some you can just listen to or watch, and discuss in a different way: that too is instructive. The poems that don’t need much interpretation can be the hardest to use in class. That requires some adaptation on the part of the teacher.

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A Conversation with Janine Oshiro

Janine Oshiro

Janine Oshiro holds degrees from Whitworth College (now Whitworth University), Portland State University, and the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She is a Kundiman fellow and the recipient of a poetry fellowship from Oregon’s Literary Arts. Her first book Pier was the winner of the 2010 Kundiman Poetry Prize and was recently published by Alice James Books. She lives in Hawaii and teaches at Windward Community College.

LR: In Pier, which is so richly evocative of the complex emotions surrounding the illness and loss of a loved one, you strike a fine balance between confession and creative license, authentic experience and fantasy. How did you find this balance? And how did you avoid sentimentality?

PIER

JO: I’ll first respond to the “S-word.” I didn’t think consciously about avoiding sentimentality; while I don’t want to be sentimental, I do think that sometimes the fear of sentimentality can inhibit the exploration of emotions. Sometimes the truth of a person’s experience can come off as sentimental in a poem. There is no way around that. I would much rather read a poem that strikes me as authentic and a little sentimental than a poem that is just hip and ironic or detached and intellectual. I think about a poet like James Galvin, who in his latest book has a poem called “Two Angels,” featuring a boy with a mental disability and a dog. It walks the fine line. I truly admire that he doesn’t shy away from what might be construed as sentimental. In a way I think the fearlessness to even approach the sentimental is what makes some of his poems so powerful for me. I know that I have written some sentimental poems and poems I would never want anyone to read, and those poems have been important in my development as a writer and as a person.

I don’t really know that I can answer the question about balance. Did I have a strategy for finding a balance? No. I had all these questions about losing my mom, seeing my dad’s health decline, experiencing invisible presences, having a distinctly marked body, and feeling an “other” to myself. Writing the poems was my way of trying to answer these questions—even though I wasn’t really aware of that as my “project” at the beginning. Of course, I could have chosen to answer these questions through journaling and therapy, which I did to a certain extent. But then there is this—making a word-object with sound constellations, reimagining experience, creating a new and authentic experience in the word-world. What really happened? I didn’t really see a school of spoons swimming in the ocean though I write about it in the poem “Setting,” but I really did experience something crawling out of a zippered compartment in the wall and running down my body as I describe in “Next, Dust.” In the world of the poem what really happened doesn’t matter. It is all really happening in the world of the poem.

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A Conversation with Brenda Hillman

Brenda Hillman | photo by Brett Hall Jones

Brenda Hillman has published eight collections of poetry, all from Wesleyan University Press: White Dress (1985), Fortress (1989), Death Tractates (1992), Bright Existence (1993), Loose Sugar(1997), Cascadia (2001), Pieces of Air in the Epic (2005), and Practical Water (2009), for which she won the LA Times Book Award for Poetry, and three chapbooks: Coffee, 3 A.M. (Penumbra Press, 1982); Autumn Sojourn (Em Press, 1995); and The Firecage (a+bend press, 2000). She has edited an edition of Emily Dickinson’s poetry for Shambhala Publications, and, with Patricia Dienstfrey, co-edited The Grand Permisson: New Writings on Poetics and Motherhood (2003). In 2010 she co-translated Jeongrye Choi’s book of poems, Instances, released by Parlor Press. She is the Olivia Filippi Professor of Poetry at Saint Mary’s College in Moraga, California.

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INSTANCES cover

LR: What attracted you to rendering translations of Jeongrye Choi’s poetry?

BH: I met her at Iowa at the International Writers Workshop, and it proved to be interesting and fruitful to work on her poetry with the other students who had some knowledge of Korean. When I found out she was working in Berkeley the following year, we were able to continue working on her poetry, but I needed help from several other people to complete the project. Wayne de Fremery, a Harvard PhD candidate in Korean Studies who lives in Seoul, had met Jeongrye before and agreed to do the transliterating for me and LTI Korea backed us financially. Poet Gillian Hamel served as an advisor and helped produce the manuscript and Byungwook Ryu designed it. Jon Thompson at Free Verse Editions and Dave Blakesley at Parlor Press were also instrumental to this work.

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A Conversation with Kimiko Hahn

Kimiko Hahn, by Nancy Bareis

Kimiko Hahn is the author of eight books of poems, including: Earshot (Hanging Loose Press, 1992), which was awarded the Theodore Roethke Memorial Poetry Prize and an Association of Asian American Studies Literature Award; The Unbearable Heart (Kaya, 1996), which received an American Book Award; The Narrow Road to the Interior (W.W. Norton, 2006) a collection that takes its title from Basho’s famous poetic journal; and Toxic Flora, poems inspired by science (W.W. Norton, 2010). As part of her service to the CUNY community, she helped initiate a Chapbook Festival that has become an annual event; since then she has published the chapbooks, Ragged Evidence and A Field Guide to the Intractable. Hahn has also written text for film, such as the 1995 MTV special, Ain’t Nuthin’ But a She-Thing; also, the text for Everywhere at Once, a film based on Peter Lindbergh’s still photos and narrated by Jeanne Moreau. Honors include a Guggenheim Fellowship, PEN/Voelcker Award, Shelley Memorial Prize, a Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Writers’ Award as well as fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts. She has taught in graduate programs at the University of Houston and New York University, and of course, in the MFA Program in Creative Writing and Literary Translation at Queens College, The City University of New York where she is a distinguished professor; also for literary organizations such as the Fine Arts Work Center, Cave Canem and Kundiman. Among her current projects: a collaborative translation of Japanese zuihitsu and new sequences triggered primarily by neuroscience.

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TOXIC FLORA

LR: In the latest issue of The American Poetry Review featuring 13 of your new poems triggered by articles on science, you speak of the power of lists and the poetic momentum that can be generated by them in the context of individual poems. In Toxic Flora as a whole, how did you maintain a sense of urgency and intensity while using the same kind of source material (NYT science articles) for each piece?

KH: These poems are from a new manuscript that I began late summer of 2009 [i.e. not Toxic Flora]. I was preparing the Toxic Flora manuscript for publication and thinking that I was finished with science—but suddenly realized that science, at least the exotic language and realm, was not finished with me. I returned to several articles in the Science section of The New York Times and gave myself the assignments as described in APR.

Over ten years ago I wrote a sequence based on various articles (i.e., from [the] Science section of The New York Times). I soon had so many poems that I realized it could become a whole collection. So I kept writing—maybe over a hundred—and at a certain point began seriously revising. Then while compiling a manuscript, [I] began seriously cutting poems that were too weak. I have described the particular process in a W.W. Norton online column: “A Poet and Her Editor”.

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A Conversation with Jenna Le

Jenna Le

Jenna Le was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the youngest child of two Vietnam War refugees. She obtained her B.A. in mathematics from Harvard University and her M.D. from Columbia University. Her first book of poetry, Six Rivers, was published by New York Quarterly Books in August 2011. Her poems and translations of French poetry have been published by Barrow Street, The Brooklyn Rail, The Nervous Breakdown, Post Road, The Raintown Review, Salamander, Sycamore Review, and other journals.

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LR: Many of the poems in Six Rivers riff on classical characters and themes while preserving a conversational use of language. Likewise, you often work in form while eschewing formal language. What do such dualities aim to achieve?

SIX RIVERS

JL: Many of the characters in Greek mythology seem quite real to me, especially the sorceresses like Circe and Medea, who in my mind embody the tragicomic situation of the 21st-century woman who is brimming with intellectual resourcefulness but who is still anguished by her dating troubles. Like, I see Circe as a sort of precursor to Napoleon Dynamite: although she had plenty of “great skills….like nunchuck skills, bow-hunting skills, and computer-hacking skills,” she was still totally hapless when it came to romantic relationships. This is such a thoroughly modern theme that it only makes sense for me to talk about it in colloquial contemporary English.

I use traditional verse forms for much the same reason: because I feel they have a lot of relevance to our modern-day plight. The tanka, for example, is a verse form that was historically used by aristocratic Japanese poets to treat such subject matter as clandestine assignations with illicit lovers. Well, I always thought it would be interesting to repurpose this verse form and use it to address contemporary sexual practices that really don’t differ all that much from ancient ones (“hooking up,” etc.).

LR: There is a strong geographical trope in your book with literal journeys along rivers that are both real and fictional. How do these journeys serve your narrative?

JL: Well, immigration and displacement played big roles in my family history. All the journeys in my book recapitulate that, in a way. And, in a way, it’s this small-scale recapitulation of a large-scale narrative of escape, of striking out on one’s own in an unfamiliar and sometimes hypo-oxygenated territory, that drives the narrative of Six Rivers.

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A Conversation with Jee Leong Koh

Jee Leong Koh
Jee Leong Koh

Jee Leong Koh is the author of three books of poems, including the recently published Seven Studies for a Self Portrait (Bench Press). His poetry has appeared in Best New Poets (University of Virginia Press) and Best Gay Poetry (A Midsummer’s Night Press), and in journals such as Cimarron Review and PN Review. Born and raised in Singapore, he lives in New York City, and blogs at Song of a Reformed Headhunter.

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LR: Seven Studies for a Self Portrait is divided into seven chapters, with seven poems in each chapter, and forty-nine in the last. What is the significance of the number seven?

SEVEN STUDIES FOR A SELF PORTRAIT
SEVEN STUDIES FOR A SELF PORTRAIT

JLK: Seven days in a week. The practice of writing a poem a day is important to me. The days when I don’t write feel empty to me, incoherent, lost. A day, like a poem, is invaluable for itself and also for being a part of something larger, like a week or a life. I wrote my first book Payday Loans, a series of 30 sonnets, in the month before I graduated from Sarah Lawrence College with my MFA.

One of my favorite poets, Philip Larkin, asks in a poem, “What are days for?” He answers himself, as poets have the habit of doing, “Days are where we live.” A day is an on-going project. At the moment I am reading Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. She speaks of Nietzsche’s will to power as a project of self-transcendence. When Larkin considers transcendence, he says in his typically sardonic manner that the question brings the priest and the doctor running. Because I have lost my faith in organized religion and have yet to place my life in the hands of medical science, I am working out my daily transcendence in writing poetry.

I wrote Seven Studies for a Self Portrait in two years. As I wrote, the number seven acquired and transformed its Christian meanings—the days of Creation, the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Eshuneutics, who reviewed my book, puts it well, “This silent structuring … evokes a tradition running from the mediaeval period and sets a context for the spiritual enquiries within the book.” Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, from which my book got its epigraph, was an inspiration for the post-Christian enquiry.

As vital as the spiritual quest was for me, so was the musical composition that the number enabled. A sequence of seven poems has not only a beginning and an end, but also a well-defined middle. It also breaks up into two unequal parts—four and three—half of the sonnet’s proportions. The first six sequences in fact culminate in two sonnet sequences, one English, the other Italian. Breaking through and re-working that framework is the final set of 49 ghazals, each made up of seven couplets about love. The ghazals raise, in my imagination, a 7 x 7 x 7 cube. In planning this structure, I was thinking very much of Herman Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game, in particular, the last game that the Magister Ludi builds from the floor plan of a Japanese house.

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A Conversation with Oliver de la Paz

Oliver de la Paz is the author of three books of poetry: Names Above Houses, Furious Lullaby, and Requiem for the Orchard. He is the co-editor of A Face to Meet the Faces: An Anthology of Contemporary Persona Poetry with Stacey Lynn Brown, and co-chair of the Kundiman advisory board. A recipient of grants from NYFA and the Artists’ Trust, his recent work has appeared in the New England Review, Sentence, the Southern Review, and elsewhere. He teaches creative writing and literature at Western Washington University.

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LR: Who were your earliest influences as a young poet? Was there a momentous decision to pursue this career?

OP: I’ve got a lot of early influences so I’ll name a number of firsts. My very first poetry book was The Selected Poems of Robert Penn Warren. When my parents first arrived in the U.S. they became subscribers to Readers’ Digest and part of the subscription deal was to receive three gift books with their subscription. One of the gift books was Robert Penn Warren’s book. So apart from my mother’s medical texts, I was pouring over Robert Penn Warren’s poems, not really understanding what was happening in them, but having a profound curiosity over the work.

The first poetry books that I ever purchased for myself were for a poetry class in college. I bought Galway Kinnell’s Book of Nightmares and Adrienne Rich’s Atlas of a Difficult World. The poetry collection that really opened my eyes to the sonic qualities a poem could have was Sylvia Plath’s Ariel. I still have the first two tercets memorized: “The Sunday lamb cracks in its fat./ The fat/ Sacrifices its opacity . . . ”

The first poetic influence that affirmed I could be a poet was Li-Young Lee’s first book, Rose. I was deciding between continuing a career in the sciences, or pursuing poetry. At the time, I was a care provider in a supported living home for the developmentally disabled and an EMT. I had a lot of time to read because the main client I worked with slept a lot due to the meds. So I read long into my shift. I imagine that was when I decided to pursue the life of letters. I wasn’t really excited about the lab work or the medical work I was doing, and I was feeling quite invigorated by all the poetry I was reading.

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Sulu Spotlight: A Conversation with Taiyo Na

Above: A Taiyo Na scrapbook. Shown here are Regie Cabico, Taiyo Na, Taiyo Na’s youngest fan, Ishle Yi Park, Beau Sia and Taiyo Na fighting a giant yellow _____ .

As the Sulu Series came to an end on September 19, 2010 to a packed house at The Bowery Poetry Club in New York, I sat down with Sulu’s artistic director, Taiyo Na, to try to understand what five years of Asian and Pacific Islander performing arts meant to him and to our community. Below is a recap of our conversation, which I hope will inspire other cities (like The Sulu Series in New York, Sulu DC and Family Style in Philadelphia, among others) to gather and find platforms for our unique voices.

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How did The Sulu Series begin in New York?

Two things really contributed to the formation of Sulu: Hurricane Katrina and the Boston APIA Spoken Word and Poetry Summit in 2005. After the Boston Summit there was a lot of good energy after a really great Summit. Regie [Cabico] felt like there needed to be a hub in New York City for Asian American artists. It was also because the Asian American Writers Workshop at the time felt like a less community-friendly space. Before that, the Asian American Writers Workshop was kind of that hub, so there was that factor. But then when Hurricane Katrina hit, it was like “Wow!” you know? It was a pivotal moment in the country of course, but also for a lot of us here because when they were covering Katrina we knew that there were a lot of Asian Americans down there in Louisiana and Mississippi and their stories weren’t being told and their needs weren’t being attended to. Sure, everybody was affected in that region. Everybody deserves the attention. But we wanted to do something in particular with the Asian American community to say, “You know, there’s a lot of Vietnamese folks there and they need help.” So we put together this benefit for those folks and the money went to the this group in Biloxi, Mississippi. That benefit kind of brought a lot of Asian American artists and organizations together and since then, we carried on Sulu. Regie was living in Williamsburg at the time and had a connection at Galapagos Arts Space in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. And they were like, “Hey, we have these Tuesday nights open, do you want to take it once a month?” and I’m like, “Okay.”

Was it just you and Regie [Cabico] then?

No, no, no, it was a bunch of us. [DJ] Boo was there. There were other artists, too. Terry Park and Chaz Koba, Hanalei . . . and a bunch of others. Even at the Katrina benefit, I became one of the main sort of cultural connectors—people who have the contacts with the artists and brought the artists together. It just kind of became this natural thing for me to do the monthly Sulu curating too after that. We did, I think, the thing at Galapagos for maybe a year or so and then, things weren’t really workin’ out there. The location was Williamsburg and not Manhattan and it was hard for folks to get to and you know, the vibe was different. So when the Bowery Poetry Club . . . I forgot what happened. But, we did an event here. We did like a special Sulu at the Bowery Poetry Club. It had to do with triple A.S. (Asian American Studies Conference). It was happening one year in New York and it went really well, so we were like, “Oh, well let’s just have it here.” Beau Sia has a good relationship with Bob Holman and it just all organically came about. Bowery Poetry Club became the new home and it’s been our gracious home ever since (for the last three years or so).

What do you see as the state of affairs for AAPI poetry, specifically in New York but in the rest of the country, also?

The APA poetry community here . . . I mean, I’m not per se an expert, but I think with Kundiman, it’s great. What they do here is just phenomenal. What Joseph Legaspi, Sarah Gambito and Ron Villanueva and Pat Rosal and all those folks have done to build that organization up to a retreat that can have like 20-some poets every year to help nurture their talents, to have a monthly reading series, is great. I think they’re a little bit more of an older crowd, more of like an academic crowd, but that’s fine, there’s that. But I think spoken word per se if we were to kind of split poetry up into those two camps—more academic poetry and then spoken word poetry—spoken word poetry is real healthy. It’s more mainstream, so there’s less of kind of the underground stuff, you know? It’s bigger and more popular than ever.

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