Event Coverage: VONA Voices Workshop 2010

This post is a little belated because I’ve been busy traveling, but here are some reflections on my experience last month at the Voices of Our Nations (VONA) Workshop 2010, hosted at the University of San Francisco.

The program website pretty much says it all: “The VONA Voices Workshop is dedicated to nurturing developing writers of color [who] come from around the globe to work with renowned writers of color.”  Essentially, VONA is where you go to work with people like Junot Diaz, Chris Abani, and Suheir Hammad.  Where you discover for yourself that there’s a rich and vibrant tradition of writers of color in the United States and that you can situate yourself in that incredible wealth of a heritage.  It’s where you go to learn that you’re not the only one asking the question, “Where am I from, where are my people from, and why does that matter to my writing?”

Basically, VONA is the place where you walk into a workshop, sit down and your instructor says, “So what are your ancestors telling you today?”  You sit awestruck as your classmates go around the room channeling these incredibly powerful, angry voices from our nation(s)’ untold histories, and what you end up with once everyone has spoken is a room of not just eleven poets, but generations of voices echoed through the sensibilities of your peers.

University of San Francisco
Lone Mountain Campus

I attended VONA’s second session, which meant that I was in LA-based poet Ruth Forman’s poetry workshop, along with ten other women from around the country.  Represented in our class was a wide diversity of cultural, and ethnic, and professional backgrounds — including a med student, an African Diaspora Studies Ph.D candidate, an art therapist, and a non-profit consultant… only to mention a few!  Ruth fostered a warm culture of dialogue and collaboration, while advocating fiercely that we stick to June Jordan’s (one of her mentors) Poetry for the People guidelines for discussing poetry.

I learned so much from Ruth, particularly in our one-on-one conference where she shared with me her understanding of what it means to be an African American poet, following in a tradition that — as she sees it — has sought always to speak against injustice, bring hope to the community, and capture the musicality of spoken (and sung) language.  To hear some of Ruth’s work, watch this clip of the VONA faculty reading, where she read several poems from her most recent collection, Prayers Like Shoes (Whit Press, 2009).  You can also hear her on NPR, talking about her children’s book Young Cornrows Callin out the Moon (Children’s Book Press, 2007).

Each of VONA’s two sessions featured a mid-week faculty reading.  Ours was sensational – we heard from Diem Jones with musician Len Wood, Tananarive Due, Ruth Forman, M. Evelina Galang, Chris Abani, Andrew X. Pham, Willie Perdomo, and Elmaz Abinader, each of whom are incredibly accomplished artists and writers.  The auditorium was packed, and because so many in the audience were VONA participants, cries of “Hey, that’s my teacher!” echoed continually throughout the hall.  For many of us, this was the first time we’d heard our instructors read — and the effect was magical.  There they were, our workshop leaders — enacting, performing, embodying all they had been talking about in class.

Tananarive Due reading at the VONA faculty event

On the final evening of the workshop, every VONA participant (about 80 poets and writers in all) shared 300 words of their writing.  Some of it was newly written, read right off of people’s laptops – or Blackberrys.  Some of it was freshly revised after workshop that afternoon.  All of it was raw, real, and bore witness to the tremendous weight of cultural Story represented in the room.  Cave Canem fellow Tara Betts finished the evening off with a powerful, lyrical response to Wallace Stevens’ infamous comment, “Who let the coon in?” when Gwendolyn Brooks arrived at the 1950 Drew-Phalen Awards banquet.

The title of Betts’ poem?  “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Woman.”  Rock on, Tara.

VONA 2010

To Consider…

For a complete list of VONA 2010 faculty, click here.  Read these writers’ books, follow their blogs and, if you can, by all means study with them – or at least hear them read.

Apply to next year’s Voices Workshop!  The application probably won’t be open for another few months, but check the website periodically if this is something you think you may enjoy participating in.

Lastly, the workshop offers limited scholarships to seminar participants, which is made possible only through the generosity of its donors.  If you’d like to help support this initiative, consider donating through the program website.

A Conversation with Barbara Jane Reyes

Barbara Jane Reyes
Barbara Jane Reyes

Barbara Jane Reyes was born in Manila, Philippines, and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. She received her B.A. in Ethnic Studies at U.C. Berkeley and her M.F.A. at San Francisco State University. She is the author of Gravities of Center (Arkipelago Books, 2003) and Poeta en San Francisco (Tinfish Press, 2005), which received the James Laughlin Award of the Academy of American Poets. Her third book, entitled Diwata, is forthcoming from BOA Editions, Ltd. in 2010.

Her chapbooks, Easter Sunday (2008), Cherry (2008), and West Oakland Sutra for the AK-47 Shooter at 3:00 AM and other Oakland poems (2008) are published by Ypolita Press, Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs, and Deep Oakland Editions, respectively. Her poetry, essays, and reviews have appeared in Latino Poetry Review, New American Writing, North American Review, Notre Dame Review, XCP: Cross Cultural Poetics, among others.

She has taught Creative Writing at Mills College, and Philippine Studies at University of San Francisco. She lives with her husband, poet Oscar Bermeo, in Oakland.


LR: I wanted to start by talking about history, which is something that figures strongly in your poetry—for example in Poeta en San Francisco we see historical references mixed in with local references to San Francisco (SF) and the Beat Movement. Can you start by talking about how both history and geography are incorporated into your work?

BJR: I grew up on the periphery of SF, meaning that I lived in the East Bay for most of my life in this country. The more I came to see other parts of the country, I realized that there’s something interesting about SF and its history of people coming from so many different places and colliding with one another. I know this happens in every major American city, but for me SF has this unique place on the cusp of the Pacific Rim […] When the westward movement got to the Pacific Ocean, it just kept going into the Pacific. Just think about major American wars in Asia in the 20th century, and SF being a very important strategic point, and then Honolulu, and then Manila. What that means for all those people that get cast aside and spit out of that system is that they all end up with this baggage that they’re aiming at one another. That’s SF for me.

LR: And in your own personal history when did this dawn come?

BJR: It really did happen in college, as an undergrad at UC Berkeley. I remember reading Frederick Jackson Turner’s “The Frontier Thesis,” where he talks about the American identity—and here he really means the masculine identity created as these men are forging West and dealing with the landscape—that makes the American man different from the English colonial subject. What my professor argued was that the wars in the Pacific, starting with the Spanish American War and the Filipino American War, were an extension of that creation of the masculine American, because there wasn’t anywhere else to go but the ocean. The Philippines were seen in the Filipino American War as the starting point for America to get into China and start its own empire.

When I was hearing these things lectured to me and as I was reading about them, what I was seeing in SF started to really make sense—what I was witnessing and experiencing as a Filipino girl growing up in the Bay Area, not being able to find any evidence of long time Filipino settlement there, even though now I know that there is a much longer history. I always kind of felt like that there had to be some reason why so many of us just kind of got plopped in the city. And a lot of it had really to do with that movement into the Pacific once the frontier ended.  Continue reading “A Conversation with Barbara Jane Reyes”

Poetry In History: Writing About the I-Hotel

Scene from the 1977 I-Hotel Eviction (Credit: SF Chronicle)

In celebration of APIA Heritage Month, we’ll be running a special Poetry in History series once a week in lieu of our Friday prompts.  For each post in the series, we’ll highlight an important period in Asian American history and  conclude with an idea that we hope will provoke you to respond. Today’s post is about the fraught history of the International Hotel in San Francisco’s Manilatown.

In 1977, San Francisco’s Manilatown community suffered a huge blow with the final eviction of the mostly Filipino American residents from the International Hotel (or I-Hotel).  This followed  almost a decade’s worth of protest and community struggle in the hopes that the building, which had housed many Filipino immigrants throughout the years, would not become yet another victim of the city’s gentrification projects.   For years after the final residents were removed, the building — and later, the site — stood empty, the hole a yawning reminder of what had been lost.  One of the major voices speaking out against the fall of Hotel belonged to the poet, musician, and activist Al Robles. The I-Hotel was a recurring theme that wove throughout his work and took on breath, shape, and life through his poetry.  Robles’ nephew wrote the following on the recent anniversary of his death:

“In the I-Hotel he [Robles] traveled up the stairs and the doors opened to those small rooms; the smell of rice and adobo and fish was there; the face of the manong was there—he knew the face—it was the face of his father and mother and ninong and ninang. He sat across from the manongs and in their faces he saw the motherland, in their hearts and minds he journeyed and tasted what he described the “thick adobo tales of their lives”. Those elderly men were alive and in Uncle Al’s poetry they became young again.” (Tony Robles, “Still Hanging onto the Carabao’s Tail”)

The I-Hotel was eventually rebuilt into a community center.  The new building, opened in 2005, houses the Manilatown Heritage Foundation and is a hub for political and arts events.  Al Robles passed away in 2009, but his legacy continues to be celebrated.  Other poets have since followed in Robles’ footsteps, writing about their relationship to the city of San Francisco, and to the “ground zero” that was the I-Hotel site.  One such poet is Barbara Jane Reyes, whose poem dedicated to Robles is forthcoming in the first issue of Lantern Review. In her book Poeta en San Francisco, Reyes touches on the shape of this wound, invoking the evicted bodies whose physical rootlessness signifies a history fraught with forced erasures and displacements.  In her poem “calle de sección ocho, casas de abuelos y de abuelas,” her speaker invites us to enter the hole in the ground where the hotel once stood

“the unused hole in the ground located at the corner of kearney and
jackson across from celluloid god’s patina café may one day contain
supportive tenant services and artifacts of blue men’s billy clubs in the
meantime just gawk at it and take polaroids don’t hold your breath
few descend into the hole it’s been 30 years”

Manilatown itself becomes a ghost with a cavity in place of the organ that was the I-Hotel, which by the end of the poem is revealed to be a type of inverted sanctuary, inhabited by “ghosts and discarded things,” made remarkable for its absence — its existence etched out in the negativity of its space, the way that it tunnels into the earth rather than rises up from it.

Continue reading “Poetry In History: Writing About the I-Hotel”

Friends & Neighbors: Weekend Roundup (Feb. 24-28, 2010)

Of note this weekend: Sandra Lim in Chicago, Jason Koo in Cleveland, Marilyn Chin in San Jose, Fay Chiang in NYC.  Also: Hyphen #19 release party in SF.  Please note that this weekend’s roundup only covers through February 28th — as we’ll be transitioning into a new format for our events listings starting on March 1st.  Look out for an announcement at the beginning of next week!

Continue reading “Friends & Neighbors: Weekend Roundup (Feb. 24-28, 2010)”

Friends & Neighbors: Weekend Roundup (Feb 19-24, 2010)

We’re posting slightly later than usual this week, but still in time to let you know about some really interesting events!  Of especial note: two AAWW events (Purvi Shah Workshop and Jason Koo Book Party) and the SULU series in NYC, Flamenco-Inspired Poetry Reading by PAWA Arkipelago in SF, Marilyn Chin in San Jose, Smithsonian Annual Day of Remembrance for Japanese Internment (marking the anniversary of Executive Order 9066) in DC.  Also: don’t forget about the open mic series going on (Family Style in Philly and *SPARKLE* Queer-Friendly Open Mic in DC), and that in many cities, Lunar New Year festivities are not yet over. Check out your city’s newspaper or Chinatown web site to find out if festivities are still going on!

Continue reading “Friends & Neighbors: Weekend Roundup (Feb 19-24, 2010)”

Friends & Neighbors: Weekend Roundup (Feb. 11-17, 2010)

LOTS of holidays being marked this weekend: Lunar New Year, Valentine’s Day, President’s Day, and, as our Twitter followers have reminded us, the start of Carnival festivities (Mardi Gras for those of us in the States).  Of particular significance to the Asian American community: check out MOCA’s lists of Lunar New Year events in NYC, and in Boston, DC, LA, San Francisco, and Honolulu.  Philadelphia readers can read this helpful article for more info; Seattle residents can look here; Chicago peeps can look here.  Know of Lunar New Year Festivities in a city that we’re missing?  Comment below to tell us about it.

Continue reading “Friends & Neighbors: Weekend Roundup (Feb. 11-17, 2010)”

Friends & Neighbors: Weekend Roundup (Feb 4-10, 2010)

Lots going on this week. Especially interesting this week: Kundiman & Verlaine Reading Series in NYC, Vincent Who? Documentary Screening at the AAWW, poet Truong Tran’s “Lost & Found” exhibit opening. Don’t forget to also check out the beginnings of Lunar New Year festivities, which are starting in some cities this week (The New Year itself is on Feb. 14th).  The Museum of Chinese in America has a great list of New Year’s events going on in NYC and in Boston, DC, San Francisco, and Honolulu.

Continue reading “Friends & Neighbors: Weekend Roundup (Feb 4-10, 2010)”

Friends & Neighbors: Weekend Roundup (Jan 28-Feb 3, 2010)

A couple of  readings, 2 ASL Open Mic’s, some book release events, a panel, plays — this week’s roundup is really quite a mix.  Of particular interest: poet Michael Leong at Dartmouth, Diane DiPrima’s Inaugural Address as SF Poet Laureate, and the BECOMING AMERICANS Anthology reading in NYC.  And of course, don’t forget to tune in to President Obama’s first State of the Union Address tonight at 9 PM EST.

Continue reading “Friends & Neighbors: Weekend Roundup (Jan 28-Feb 3, 2010)”

Editors’ Picks: Opportunities for Writing in Community

Here at LR, we value community as a space for growth and artistic exploration.  The mentorship that we receive when we work with older writers, and the camaraderie we experience when working with our peers can both be particularly important in encouraging us to push forward with our strengths and in challenging us to reach for new heights in our work.  Writing and creating alongside other members of the Asian American community can also be a incredibly transformative experience: on the individual level, it can help us to wrestle with our personal senses of vision and identity, while on a larger scale, it can help us to mobilize ourselves as a community.   There are many opportunities to participate in community writing workshops that happen throughout the year, but in this post we’d like to focus on three whose deadlines are coming up in the next few months.

Continue reading “Editors’ Picks: Opportunities for Writing in Community”

Friends & Neighbors: Weekend Roundup (Jan 21-27, 2010)

Lots of readings going on this week.  Of note: Patrick Rosal at Cornell College; Monica Ferrell and SULU series in support of Haiti (respectively) at Bowery in NYC, Lawson Inada in Oregon, performace poetry workshop at Stanford University’s Listen to the Silence Conference.  Also worth checking out: KSW/Kaya’s SF Thomassons Performance Tour.

Continue reading “Friends & Neighbors: Weekend Roundup (Jan 21-27, 2010)”