A Conversation with Kundiman Co-founders Joseph O. Legaspi & Sarah Gambito

Kundiman co-founders
Kundiman co-founders Sarah Gambito and Joseph O. Legaspi

To round off our APIA Heritage Month celebration, we sat down with Joseph O. Legaspi and Sarah Gambito, the co-founders of Kundiman—a nonprofit that serves young and emerging Asian American poets through its retreats, reading series, and community resources—to ask about their thoughts as the organization approaches its tenth year.

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LR: Kundiman is coming up on its tenth anniversary this year. How are you feeling about its turning a decade old? What have been some of your favorite moments from your involvement with it over the last ten years?

JL:  Kundiman going on 10 years is astounding to me. Wow! My feelings are overwhelmingly mixed, all strong emotions: for the most part I feel elation and pride, partially with dread and anxiety because there is still so much to do. The question is where do we go from here? We have a decade worth of accomplishments—most prominently, nearly 60 books and chapbooks published by Kundiman fellows—but how do we get to the next level where we are more stable and branch out and empower more Asian American writers. Oh, it is a celebration, of course, but now we’re working on how to sustain Kundiman for the next 10 years, and the next . . . As for my favorite moments, there are just too many. Lawson Inada at the Chinese buffet. Marilyn Chin dancing. The fellows’ sandwich-making contest. All closing circles. The singing, the camaraderie, the poems. The poems. The whole roller coaster [of] experience[s] as some of the most joyous in my life.

SG:  I agree. It overwhelms me that it has been 10 years. We’ve now seen an arc of fellows coming into their own—literally growing up before our eyes. We’ve read their poems, their books, attended their weddings, celebrated the births of children. It has been such a privilege to be able to witness fellows mentor each other, to become each other’s best and most trusted readers. What I love is that we’ve become a family in ways that are mysterious and then not mysterious. (This past winter, I hosted around 15 fellows at my apartment and cooked huge pots of ma po tofu and fried rice.) As for favorite moments, there are so many. I loved the Kundiman reading where Bei Dao and a fellow who had never read in public before and was just finishing college, Yael Villafranca, read together. I was thunderstruck because I realized that I was witnessing something that was so hard-worn, rare and precious: the knitting of generations of Asian and Asian American poets. I love the fellow toasts at graduation where we get to see how fellows have been so aware of each other and are praising each other.  I loved Kimiko Hahn saying “I give myself permission to be a writer. I’ve worked too hard to not do this” and then watching the fellows invoke this throughout the retreat in their own ways, both literary and personal. I loved having Tan Lin at Kundiman and watching him blow workshops out of the water and seeing fellows reorient their relationship to what words can do.

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Event Coverage: Kundiman Retreat 2011

2011 Kundiman Faculty Jon Pineda, Kimiko Hahn, and Karen An-hwei Lee
2011 Kundiman Faculty Jon Pineda, Kimiko Hahn, and Karen An-hwei Lee

From June 15th-19th, two Lantern Review staff members (Editor Iris A. Law and Staff Writer Henry W. Leung) attended the 2011 Kundiman Poetry Retreat at Fordham University in New York City.  What follows are our reflections on our experiences there.

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I. Iris

A few weeks ago, I stepped out of a D train in the Bronx and trundled my suitcase up the hill toward my very first Kundiman Retreat. Fordham Road greeted me with its jumble and racket: taxis honked their way down the street; motorcycles revved; teenagers laughed over the tinkling of a Mr. Softee van; shop owners shouted from behind racks of merchandise that spilled colorfully onto the sidewalk; a child descended uneasily from a bus and promptly vomited on the pavement. It felt strange to enter the gated, manicured space of the Rose Hill campus—ostrich-like; irresponsible, almost. But once swaddled into this beautifully (even eerily) verdant setting, it was also difficult not to feel that this was a space that in some way enacted the purpose of Kundiman: a place in which the creative soul could clear space within itself so that new patches of greenness could be sown and take root—not in isolation from the world, but in juxtaposition with, and in the context of, the world. I was reminded of something that I’d read in an interview Sarah Gambito gave to The Fordham Observer. In order to write in New York, she remarks, she tries “to be as still as [she] can in the city.” Indeed, to be a writer is to live in a position of simultaneous privilege and responsibility. As participants in social communities, we hold a responsibility to live fully in the world, so that we can write into, for, and from those communities. But at the same time, the work of the writer cannot be completed without the ability to occasionally take a step back: to be a still, small, open receptacle to the world, but a simultaneous processor of that world. And the lens with which we process—with which we must enact our craft—requires, from time to time, the ability to allow ourselves space to wrestle with the work itself, and with the world surrounding the work.

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Staff Picks: Holiday Reading Recommendations

Whether you’ll be traveling or relaxing at home during the upcoming holidays, it’s a great time to polish off an old reading list or to start in on something new.  As our gift to you this season, and to help you get started on your own holiday reading list, we’ve asked members of the LR Staff to recommend some of their recent favorites.  Here are our suggestions.


Asylum | Quan Barry | University of Pittsburgh Press (2001)

Recommended by Mia: “My holiday reading pick . . . it’s her first collection.  Her engagement with the voices and subjects of the Vietnam War is beautifully executed, and though the scope of her work is much broader, I was most riveted by her ‘war’ poems.”

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Behind My Eyes |
Li-Young Lee | W.W. Norton & Company (2008)

Recommended by Iris: “This is Lee’s most recent collection — and it is stunning, as always.  Figurations of the Virgin Mary intertwine with moving landscapes, conversations between the poet and his wife, the transitory spaces of travel, a chance vision of the poet’s father; all hang in a delicate, almost sacred, lumen, suspended somewhere between heaven and earth.  Each poem breathes with an expansiveness and a grave tenderness that only Lee knows how to render. Behind My Eyes is sold with a CD of the poet reading some the poems in the book, and I highly recommend listening to this, as well.  I had the privilege of hearing Lee read from his drafts for this book a few years before it came out, and loved the way that the intonation of his voice seamed through the lines of each poem, threading them together in a low, sonorous hum.  It’s a beautiful listening experience, and adds a new and lovely textural dimension to his already melodious poetics.”

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Call Me Ishmael Tonight |
Agha Shahid Ali | W.W. Norton & Company (2003)

Recommended by Supriya: “This collection of ghazals shows the versatile ways in which a poetic form can go beyond its history and language while staying true to its essence. Agha Shahid Ali demonstrates the intentionality with which he overcomes expectations and boundaries by using a traditional form that often evokes feelings of longing and melancholia but writing in a contemporary English that feels timeless. Although written entirely in form, the range and depth of this collection allows for a vast expanse of emotions and possibilities and is the perfect collection with which to curl up whatever your mood.”

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A Gesture Life |
Chang-rae Lee | Penguin USA (2000)

Recommended by Ada: “Told from the point of view of Dr. Hata, a Japanese WWII veteran, this fictional memoir weaves between his experiences in a crumbling outpost of a Japanese imperial outpost in the last days of the war and his later life in gated, suburban America. The protagonist in Lee’s second novel is so reasonable it’s eerie, and though I think that we are meant to feel sorry for Dr. Hata and the stiffly respectable, appropriately understated life he has bound himself into, the distance that separates him from all the other characters in this book translates into distance from the reader. Not that the whole book left me cold: the scenes describing Dr. Hata’s encounters with Korean comfort women during the war are eye-opening, gripping, and an interesting perspective on the terrors of war.”

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A Conversation with Joseph Legaspi

Joseph O. Legaspi
Joseph O. Legaspi

Joseph O. Legaspi is the author of Imago (CavanKerry Press), winner of a Global Filipino Literary Award. He lives in New York City and works at Columbia University. A graduate of New York University’s Creative Writing Program, his poems appeared and/or are forthcoming in American Life in Poetry, World Literature Today, PEN International, North American Review, Callaloo, Bloomsbury Review, Poets & Writers, Gulf Coast, Gay & Lesbian Review, and the anthologies Language for a New Century (W.W. Norton) and Tilting the Continent (New Rivers Press). A recipient of a poetry fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts, he co-founded Kundiman (www.kundiman.org), a non-profit organization serving Asian American poets.  Visit him at www.josepholegaspi.com.

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LR: So where did the idea for Kundiman come from, and what unique purpose does it have in the Asian American writing community?

JL: It really started off as kind of the infamous BBQ story. [Co-founder] Sara Gambito had invited me to an aunt’s place—the term of endearment, no blood relation—and we were sitting on hammocks, eating charred meat, amazed how this group of people was so comfortable together, like family. It just hit us. We had both struggled upon graduating from MFAs: we had tried finding communities but were both at a loss. I told her about Cave Canem, which is a home for African American writers. We thought, why not do this for ourselves, for Asian American poets?

Unlike umbrella organizations for a lot of different writing, Kundiman is more focused towards poetry. Because the Asian American umbrella is very complicated, we try to vary the retreat ethnically, by age, and stylistically: we’ve had Myung Mi Kim, who is a very experimental poet; Rick Barot, who is a formalist and narrative poet; and Staceyann Chin, who is a spoken word poet. We don’t want to shun anyone. Remember that Sarah and my initial experience was that we felt excluded. So that’s what we try to do–create a space.

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