Here a few snapshots from my visit to Pellissippi State Community College, where I delivered a Convocation address on their Common Academic Experience theme for the year, Inner Space | Outer Space. I was fortunate enough to share this day--the very day the current administration announced the repeal of DACA--with the most brilliant and kind Carlos G., who introduced me and shared his own similar experiences. While there, I got to meet with students, faculty, and staff to talk in depth about poetry and immigration. When I left, my suitcase was full of the various snacks they bought to sweeten my welcome. (Everyone in the Clayton Performing Arts Center got to hear me exclaim, loudly, "Otap!" 😁) Thank you, PSCC, and everyone who worked to bring us all together. (center photo of me by Pellissippi State Community College)
I'm happy to share that Driving without a License is on the longlist for the 2016 Julie Suk Award for the best book of poetry published by an independent or university press. Congratulations to the other finalists!
I'm *thrilled* to share that Driving without a License is Late Night Library's August Book Club selection! Thank you to Paul Martone and LNL for this unique opportunity and interview about my book.
Some details about Late Night Library's Book Club: "Subscribers pay $9.99/month and receive a gift-wrapped, newly released debut book every month, and an extra book gift every other month." I hope you'll subscribe!
From July 19-31, I attended the 2016 Sewanee Writers' Conference as a Howard Nemerov Poetry Scholar. I'm now back at my new home in Stillwater, OK and am still thinking about A. E. Stallings' reading on the first night of the conference, Alice McDermott's craft lecture on the sentence, and Robert Hass' reading and craft lecture on the ode and elegy forms. I carry with me the many friendships I formed, as well as the many, many books packed in my suitcase. Below are a few snapshots from the conference:
I am so thrilled to share that Driving without a License--alongside books by Mai Der Vang, Rajiv Mohabir, Jenny Yang Cropp, Ocean Vuong, Kenji Liu, Hannah Sanghee Park, Khaty Xiong, and Timothy Yu--is featured on NBC News' list of emerging Asian American writers to read! Thank you to Frances Kai-Hwa Wang for including DWAL on this list!
Join me on Friday, May 6th, for the release of Driving without a License! The evening will feature readings by Weber State University creative writing students, Shawn Atkinson, Marette McDermott, Megan Olsen, and John Ropp.
Driving without a License is currently available for pre-order, and books will be available for purchase at the event.
I'm happy to share that my poem, "Landscape with American Dream," which first appeared in The California Journal of Poetics, appears on pg. 34 of the 2015-2016 edition of The New American, the annual newsletter of The Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans.
This National Poetry Month, the wonderful Jennifer Tamayo has been blogging for the Poetry Foundation. If you haven't checked out her two-part feature, "On My Love for Those Who Refuse Silence," on the work of the #Undocupoets, click on through to Part I and Part II. The second installment features the work of Wo Chan, Sonia Guiñansaca, Javier Zamora, and myself.
(This essay first appeared in First Light: A Festschrift for Philip Levine on His 85th Birthday.)
The Exemplary Poem and the Exemplary Life
I thought the conversation was at an end, but when we sat down to dinner an hour later, [Fran] turned to me and said, “I want someone who writes that well to be exemplary.” –from “Beauty and/or Truth”
In a lost draft of a poem still clear in my memory, there is a line I wrote containing a homeless woman sleeping on a bench. The poem, called “First Winter,” was about what I had experienced after my first snowfall in New York City. I, the speaker, was in Washington Square Park and I use the word “containing” because the poem contained the idea—metaphor, image, symbol—of a homeless woman in the middle of a poem avalanched with every foreign-seeming word for snow, snowflake, snowfall, and ice. During workshop, after the other students finished saying what they had to say, Philip Levine finally asked, “What is this homeless person doing in this poem?”
Perhaps it was because I was in my first semester of the MFA program (and right out of college) that I answered his question without understanding what he was really asking. Perhaps, too, it was because I was a recent transplant and was simply absorbing the city and incorporating the new surroundings as a way of “writing about what I know.” I was born in the Philippines and lived in southern California, so snow was a relatively new phenomenon. I had remembered weekend family trips up to Big Bear to play in the snow with whatever items in our house that could be converted into a makeshift sled, but to see and walk through real snow falling was something else I had no name for. The speaker was discovering all of this about herself and about the world in the moment of the single-page poem. It was the speaker’s moment. So, what was a homeless person, doing in the poem?
It is also possible that no one had ever asked me to deeply consider such a question. In my few years of having studied creative writing as a “serious writer” I learned how to render images and how to draw comparisons, make metaphors. How to write an ode. Etcetera. How to try, fail, and try again to write a fresh simile. I learned to use the world as my oyster to shuck it. The homeless woman was in my poem because the speaker felt as if she was not home either. The homeless woman was in my poem because the speaker felt that she, too, was without a home. The homeless woman was in my poem because she was homeless and the speaker was feeling home less. I tried to explain all of this in one clumsily succinct sentence, feeling strange about being asked to speak while my own poem was on the workshop floor.
“I know that,” he answered, which meant that I had not answered his question.
What was a homeless person doing in the middle of a poem about my speaker’s experience—about my experience? This “homeless person” was, he put it, placed in my poem like a piece of furniture. I could move the “homeless person” from line to line until it was in the right place, I could revise the image as if I were reupholstering the fabric on a chair, or I could exchange it for something else that would better fit what I had in mind for the poem’s design. Or, I could put it out on the curb. Either way, it did not matter that the “homeless person” was a she or a he, as nothing I wrote in that draft breathed life into the word to make it anything but a way for me to get my point across. Like any beginning writer resorting to the exercises and prompts learned in the creative writing classroom, I needed a way to say how I felt without actually saying it. In my effort to avoid abstraction, I made an abstraction of a person and of an experience. Worse, I used another’s experience for my own benefit with a gross lack of empathy. In that workshop, Phil simultaneously forgave me for my poor choice of metaphoric language (I was not that kind of “homeless,” after all) and assured that I would go back home to the rest of my poetic life and scrutinize every choice I make as a poet.
Undoubtedly, it was a beginner’s mistake, one he probably forgot I had ever made (I am sure I was not the first to be so careless), but that night in workshop called my attention to more than just an error I could go home and delete from a draft. I had more to think deeply about and it had nothing to do with the snow. As I took the subway home and walked back to my apartment in Brooklyn, I decided what kind of a poet I wanted to be. For the first time, what it meant to be a poet became a very complicated thing. I was no longer just a person going to “poetry school,” and I was not a person who just happened to write poems, who happened to have some burgeoning talent at stringing “the best words in their best order,” as Coleridge described it. I was expected to be accountable for the words I put and would put down. The world and its people were not a space to plunder, and my speaker was not at its center. It was a strange notion—one that I was suddenly both grateful and ashamed to have considered, it seemed, so late in my life. I was, after all, a young poet who was writing about undocumented immigration. I was aware of and had experienced first-hand the damage that language could do in the hands of those who thought of people as things you could rearrange or put out on the curb. Where was this insight in my poetry?
It was the fall of 2005 and NYC was a few months shy of one of the biggest snowfalls in its history, and the life of poetry I would strive to lead had, overnight, materialized.