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about history, which is something that figures strongly in your poetry—for example in Poeta en San Francisco we see historical references mixed in with local references to San Francisco (SF) and the Beat Movement.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”

A Conversation with Tammy Ho Lai-Ming

Tammy Ho Lai-Ming and CHA Logo

Tammy Ho Lai-Ming is a Hong Kong-born writer. She edited Hong Kong U Writing: An Anthology (2006) and co-edited Love & Lust (2008). She is also a founding co-editor of Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, the first Hong Kong-based online English literary publication. She is currently studying in London, UK. More about Tammy can be found at her web site.


LR: First question to ask any writer—how did you start, or what are your memories of first starting to write creatively?

TH: Until university, I wrote almost exclusively in Chinese, mostly just scribbling and half-thought out ideas. I think it took English to really get me started. When I was an undergraduate student at the University of Hong Kong, I spent a great deal of time in the library. One day, I picked up a copy of Ambit off a shelf I was sitting near and started reading. I was especially drawn to the poetry and shortly afterwards I began trying to write creatively in English. I showed my first poems to one of my professors and received positive feedback, which encouraged me to continue writing. I have been writing ever since.

LR: As a Hong Kong native and member of the HK Writer’s Circle, you’ve remarked that the size of the HK writing community has been underestimated, even by yourself. As a young writer, who did (or do) you look to as models and as peers?

TH: This question is interesting as recently I was thinking about the smallness of the Hong Kong poetry writing scene. I think that my opinion of the scene probably waxes and wanes, sometimes it seems full of great writers, other times it feels a little bit constrained. The truth is that there are some strong writers in the city but as English is not the first language of most residents, the number of English writers is always going to be limited.

My models, I think, vary through time. I often find inspiration in the works I am reading at the moment and in recent personal experience. I don’t think that there is someone I return to over and over again as a source of inspiration or as a guide for my creative writing. That said, the following Asian writers have inspired me at different points of my writing career: Shirley Lim, Louise Ho and Leung Ping Kwan. As for peers, I would have to say first and foremost Reid Mitchell, my writing partner and sometime friendly editor. Also, I would like to mention the Singaporean poet Eddie Tay and Hong Kong poet Arthur Leung.

LR: What would you say is special about being a writer in HK?

TH: I guess the mixture of Chinese and English influences is probably the most obvious characteristic of writing in Hong Kong.

LR: Interesting–could you elaborate? What is it like to be composing in a language that may not be your native one? How does actually writing in a different language feel different from, say, translation (if it even does)?

TH: Personally, when I write in English, I think first in that language. But I do wish to have more Chinese/Asian elements in my creative works. I don’t want to ever lose touch with my linguistic and cultural roots.

Continue reading “A Conversation with Tammy Ho Lai-Ming”

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.

Continue reading “A Conversation with Joseph Legaspi”