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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Sulu Spotlight: The Last Sulu Series, New York City

“Pretense is not allowed here.”
~ Taiyo Na, Artistic Director, The Sulu Series

To call The Last Sulu Series at the Bowery Poetry Club in New York City (which took place on September 19, 2010) anything other than an electric family reunion would be a grave understatement. A quick scan of the packed house revealed shaved heads, piercings and tattoos, women with hijabs, children, hip-hop/funk-and-punked out rockers and tastemakers, not to mention classy nerds, aunties and students. We were at the basement art gathering of the century. The Sulu Series’ Artistic Director, Taiyo Na, began with a brief history of the event, fighting back tears welling up his eyes (a common occurrence throughout the evening). He shared the story of Sulu’s loyal photographer, Derek Srisaranard, whose first words after a near-fatal accident were something to the effect of: “Sulu. I need to be there and see it again. I have to capture it.”

Derek’s images have constituted an unparalleled photo archival project documenting AAPI artists who have traversed the Sulu Series stage. Through cycles of tears and joy, the reverence for spoken word poetry legend—or “community celebrity” as my Sulu DC co-director, Jenny C. Lares, and I like to call him—Regie Cabico and his life’s work was palpable.

The artists, who exposed their most vulnerable selves on stage, paid homage to Taiyo Na, DJ Boo and the many other forces who’ve kept The Sulu Series vibrant throughout its five-year history. What began as a benefit that raised $10,000 for the forgotten AAPIs affected by Hurricane Katrina emerged as a legacy that will be remembered fondly by all who were fortunate enough to perform there or attend. But artistic director, Taiyo Na, says the New York Sulu Series has “graduated.”

Among the performers at The Last Sulu Series, emcee Koba launched the show with a vocal quality much improved since the last time I saw him perform. His style now reminds me of Aesop Rock, a white, Jewish rapper from New York whose narratives walk the line between the abstract and the intensely personal, much like Koba’s. Next up was Vinh Hua, a poet who confessed to having “grown up with Sulu Series,” and lamented:

“24 million people [in New York City] and still you can feel horribly lonely.”

The intensity rose with Michelle Myers, one-half of the well-known spoken word duo, Yellow Rage, as she read a new poem called “Take it Back,” a charged love letter to South Philly High School students whose race relations deteriorated into violence and alienation. She called on the listener to “take back” the hurtful words and deeds, and stop fighting an “Oppression Olympics.” A bit more light-hearted, although equally political, was John-Flor Sisante’s “A Love Song During the Third Term of the Palin Presidency,” a surreal fabricated universe in which the ukelele-playing, violently stomping singer freely belted out:

“You looked at me like a cigarette that burns through my skin.”

This quintessential geek with his suspenders and thick, rectangular black frames was also reflecting a new Asian cool. A cool that says, “You don’t have to like it, but I dare you to tell me I don’t rock on this little wooden instrument.”

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