Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Publishing News

This month, I am excited to share the unbelievable news that I have poems published in the fall issues of two fantastic journals:

The Los Angeles Review Issue 6-"Photograph of a Secret"

PALABRA Issue 5-"El Capitan of Isla Negra"

Both of these poems are examples of my attempts at magical realism, and are inspired by South American writers Luis Borges, Pablo Neruda, and the colors, language, and images of that rich continent.

Now back to my other work. This week I am conducting an interview with Kaliso Mwanza, an immigrant from Zambia. His story of struggle and triumph is incredibly inspiring considering he escaped a life-threatening situation in Zambia only to find himself in an impossible one, nameless and without representation inside U.S. detention centers.

More on Kaliso and Lito Aquino: Part II, to come soon.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Lito Aquino Interview Part I: Escaping Marcos, Martial Law, and Possible Death

Julio “Lito” Aquino, Pilipino immigrant and first cousin of Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino, sat down to talk with me in his modest home in central Los Angeles. Sitting in a cramped kitchen elbow to elbow with Lito, his 11-year-old son, adult daughter from his second wife, and son-in-law we begin to dig into a heaping pile of pancit (Pilipino noodles) and a large pot of chicken stew prepared by his third (and current) wife, who sits close by in case any of their guests need anything. As we eat, Lito coaches me on how to season my pancit with fish sauce and Pilipino limes that look like miniture round oranges. Barely touching his plate, he excitedly shares a memory from childhood; a memory it is clear his children have heard many time before.

"We Aquino's were society, but we weren't treated like rich kids. No way," he tells me. Though they lived a hacienda livelihood, his father demanded the children spoke to everyone, especially the servants, with respect. "We had to call them sir or ma'am. And if we didn't," he shakes his hand and scrunches up his face as if to say it meant trouble.

“’Julio!’ my father yelled. I knew I was in trouble when he called me Julio. ‘Bring the barracuda.’” He informs me that his father kept a stuffed barracuda tail above the doorframe of his office that was used for punishing major infractions. This time, it was a maid who accused Lito of not speaking to her with respect. “I don’t know if I did, but he took that barracuda in his hands” he pantomimes stretching a long object between his hands and bringing it down, “Kha! Kha! With the barracuda, and woo, it hurt.” He laughs and pretends to rub his bottom as he might have as a small child.

Lito in September 2009 holding a childhood picture of himself

Memories like these bring joy to Lito. These are the stories he tells his children over and over again in hopes to instill some of sense old country respect in American children, but not all memories are so warm.

We move from the kitchen to living room, where a popular Pilipino talk show, hosted by Kris Aquino--daughter of Ninoy and Corazon Aquino--plays on a large T.V. that takes up most of north wall of the room. He points out that the host is his niece, and this is the gateway needed for Lito to begin a story where the villains are much more dangerous than a stuffed barracuda.

IP: Why did you leave the Philippines in April 1977?

Lito Aquino: I had a warrant of arrest. Being the first cousin of Benigno Aquino during Marcos' martial law [was dangerous]. Marcos was looking for close relatives of Ninoy because at that time they accused him of being a Communist. And when they imprisoned him they wanted a close relative associated with him [to find] reasons to keep him there.

I was working at the Philippine National Bank [at the time]. I was one of the top executives, but because of intrigues, because people wanted my position, because I was the first cousin of Ninoy Aquino they started putting out news and gossips about me that I am trying to sabotage a program of Marcos. I had the privilege [in my state position] to run three provinces—[The government program] subsidized farmers and the land, and the government would buy fertilizer and things like that for the farmers. People who were trying to bring me down started telling that I was trying to sabotage that program. But because I’m an extrovert people would tell me things, even those who were in the opposite camp. They would say, “you better be careful. There are people who want your position. Anything can happen.”

This photo captures Lito receiving an award from the National Bank in 1971

Then a connected friend in the government told me that I have to be aware because a warrant was being issued on my name. Then a runner came to my house to tell me the warrant was issued and said, “If you want to leave or hide, you should do it.” But by that time, I was already prepared. I was ready to leave, and I had a visa because my mom and my grandma were already gone.

I was [snuck] out of the airport because a General in charge of the airport was a friend of mine. He let me sit in his office, and when the plane was about to take off they brought me to the plane.
[By the time they] sent the warrant of arrest, I was not at home. I was already on my way out. And all my clearances were Okayed because I had friends [in government] who got clearances for me. That was the only way you could get out. All I had to do was board the plane.

IP: This was during Marcos’ martial law?

LA: You know, the first year, people like me, and people in society appreciated martial law because it turned out that martial law educated and disciplined the waywards. People would rather not commit corruption because they would be jailed. But then after the first year, when relatives and friends of the First Lady, Imelda Marcos, started wanting to eat a part of the pie that’s when corruption started again. And the poor got poorer, and the sick— You know. And we were back at the same ol’ thing. And there was no democracy, no liberty now. They were free to get you, pick you up, put you in jail, kill you, or what they called—we have a term—salvaged.

IP: They would salvage people? What does that mean?

LA: You’re salvaged. You’re cut. They kill you. They bring you somewhere in a remote area, and no one finds you anymore. You’re dead. You are disappeared and no one knows where to find you, so they said you were salvaged. Gone.

The worst part is that they would go to your house, and they would do anything. Threaten your whole family. And if you didn’t go with them, they would shoot you. Literally shoot you, take you, or torture you. Before you get salvaged they want to get any information. They torture you to the max, and then after getting the information, if they think you need to be salvaged, they salvage you.

IP: And no one knows what happens to you?

LA: Sometimes there are graves, but even now, they don’t know where they are. They are still missing. But some were not salvaged, but kept as prisoners. They were kept in prisons for a long time.

IP: Might this have happened to you, had you stayed?

LA: I would have been [interrogated] to make a case against Ninoy. Maybe, if I was tortured that much— I really don’t know. It only takes so much, as much as you can handle. But if maybe—God—maybe I would have said anything they wanted just to get them off me, and they would have used it. And then, maybe, I would be salvaged.

IP: Knowing all this, what was it like when you left?

LA: When the plane took off [that day] I was still in Philippine territory. If they find out that I am on that plane they could have told the pilot, “Bring it back.” So until I left the Philippine territory my heart was like this (Lito pounds his hand against his heart). Because as soon as they find out that I disappeared—

It was only two/three hour difference from when they went to my house, and maybe the people who went to my house thought I went into hiding. They didn’t know I was leaving. So instead of going to the airport they sent people out to look for me. As a matter of fact, two days after I left I was in the newspaper. It said, “Julio Aquino in Canada.” They didn’t know I was here.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Talking with Marilyn Nelson

The other day I had the pleasure and good fortune to conduct an interview with accomplished African American poet Marilyn Nelson for the World Wide World Network series Moe Green Poetry Discussion. Nelson is the author of at least 12 poetry books including Carver: A Life in Poems, Fortune's Bones: The Manumission Requiem, A Wreath for Emmett Till, and her newest book Sweethearts of Rhythm now available. Her honors include two Pushcart Prizes, two creative writing fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Fulbright Teaching Fellowship, and the 1990 Connecticut Arts Award.

I was especially excited to speak to Marilyn because many of her bo
oks are focused on African American history, are research based, and are about real people. As a person just beginning to delve into the world of research and interview based poetry focused on an American experience, it was amazing to hear about her process and how much work goes into each poem and each book. If anything, talking to such an accomplished and talented poet made me realize how much work I have ahead of me.

Here are some excerpts from the interview:

On balancing history, poetry, and social justice themes:

I don't think I could pull anyone of those threads out and say it was more important than the others because they are all apart of the fabric of the poems. These last several books are based on historical research. And what I am doing is telling true historical stories, and it is important to me to be true to history. And because I'm writing about African American history, these–what you're calling–social justice themes are involved because that's what African American history is about in a kind of general way. And I want to make them poetry because I'm a poet. If I could write prose maybe I would write them as prose, but I don't write prose. And if I'm going to write history, I'm going to write poems about history. What I'm trying to say is all these things are involved. I wouldn't choose to not be true to history, in order to--i don't know--making something rhyme.

On writing persona poems:

Let's look at Fortune's Bones. The story is about a skeleton that is in the collection of a museum in Waterbury, Conn. The museum asked me to write a poem to honor this skeleton because the museum had some research done about the skeleton, and researchers found that it was the remains of an 18th century slave. He was owned by a doctor, a bonesetter, and they found out that this man, Fortune, and his wife Dinah and their several children were enslaved in the doctor's household around 1740-1750. Fortune died, and the doctor took his body to a hill outside of town and performed an illegal dissection. It was against the law to perform a human dissection in the 18th century. The doctor performed the dissection and then prepared the bones by stripping the flesh from it, drilling holes in the long bo
nes, and boiling all of them to free them from flesh, then reassembled all of them and hung them in his house for a little medical school. And my first thought was what would it be like to be Dinah, Fortune's wife? To be living with her husband's skeleton living in the house? What would it be like to be trapped in a house where you are considered subhuman? And to have to do the housework including–probably–sweeping around and dusting your husband's skeleton. What would that be like? So I had the story, there's no record of what this woman must have felt like, but the historians know that she continued in this house. It required me only to imagine what a human being would feel like, what a woman would feel with her husband's skeleton hanging in a room.

On the importance of history:

I'm telling parts of history that need to be told and retold. It's where we get our identity from. It's important for everyone to learn about American history. These are all parts of American history. These stories are gifts to me. I've been lucky to take the time to do the research and write up these really terrific stories. The fact that the stories are written in poems, means they are being read by people that might not pick up a history book.

Click here to listen to the complete interview..

It was such a treat to speak to a woman like Marilyn Nelson who finds history, art, and the human experience so important. I believe as she said that this history is American history, and not soley African American history, just I think the history of immigration is American history as well. It is these aspects–not our military and foreign policy–that make our country unique. It is important for us to remember our past, and to remind ourselves of the human experience that has built this country.

Marilyn Nelson's newest book,Sweethearts of Rhythm, tells the tale of an all-female interracial swing band from the 1940s, is now available in bookstores and online.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Amreeka Brings Me Back Home

Lately, I've spent my afternoons stuck and sticky on the couch while watching marathons of such shows as "Top Chef" and "Gilmore Girls." As I watch, I often think, I should read, I should write, I should work on my blog. But instead I flip through channels to find last week's episode of "The Rachel Zoe Project."

This weekend I finally decided to remove myself from the growing dent in the couch. I took a walk around Downtown L.A., enjoyed a free art and light exhibit in Pershing Square with my three-year-old nephew, sat outside in the garden to read, and yesterday I treated my mother to a viewing of "Amreeka."

"Amreeka" is a movie that follows a mother and son as they emigrate from the West Bank to the U.S. just as the first Iraq war breaks out. Written and directed Cherien Dabis in her feature film debut, she pulled the story from her own memories of her family's journey to the U.S.

In the movie, Muna, the main character and mother of a sixteen year-old boy, begins working at a White Castle in rural Illinios. In one scene she laments that back at home she had two degrees and ten years experience working as a bank clerk, but none of that matters in her new country of residence. Her son, Faddi, also has to traverse the many pitfalls of life in the U.S., especially figuring out how to perserve his identity amongst small-brained American high school boys. But where are they to go when they are outsiders here, and outsiders there?

It is easy to see that this film was a love letter to family, culture, and roots, and reminds me that no matter where we come from we all struggle for the same things: security, respect, and a home. And so "Amreeka," with it's beautiful portrayal of an Arabic home, brings me back to my home: this blog.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Walt Staton and The Splinter Generation

Walt Staton is a volunteer for No More Deaths, a humanitarian group working in the southern deserts of Arizona to give water and first aid to illegal immigrants crossing into the country. This past winter, while placing water jugs in key points along the border, Walt was handed a littering citation. He fought the ticket, and in June was found guilty by a jury. He is currently awaiting sentencing, which may include up to a year in prison or $10,000 in fines.

No matter what your stance on illegal immigration or the government's border policies, in the words of Walt, "you have to be a complete crazy wingnut to say I want people to die in the desert."

Photo by Holly Winters and taken from her blog at

Last month I had the good fortune to sit down and speak with Walt Staton on behalf of The Splinter Generation, the online literary journal I am poetry editor for. Seth Fischer, founding editor, offered me the assignment knowing my interest in immigration issues. The interview went live this morning at

Here is a piece:

Splinter Generation: When you actually see someone struggling in the desert, how does that change your original outlook?

Walt Staton: It starts to put the world in perspective. You start meeting real people. You meet moms, and you meet children, and you meet dads, and uncles, and grandpas, and you know, the people that I consider to be heroes. I mean these people are basically saying, “I refuse to raise my children in poverty, or I refuse to live in a situation where I can’t get a job that is dignified. I can’t live with dignity, so I’m moving.”

I think the courage of people to migrate is a really inspiring thing, but it’s kind of tough in a lot of ways because there isn’t a whole lot we can do. I mean, we are out there as medical people, and with food and water just to–– I guess if you find someone in their worst possible state, if they’re in real medical distress, then we can take them to a hospital or something. But the hardest part is realizing there is not a lot we can do. We can’t drive people places. So you meet these really amazing folks who are making a very powerful statement with their feet, you know, and you are just a little blip in their longer journey.

SG: How do you keep going?

WS: Ultimately, I think it’s the refugees and migrants themselves. I mean they are the ones who really have the journey to struggle through. I don’t know how to really explain it. But it’s sort of like it’s their lives that are in their hands, and I have a great deal respect for the people who make that choice to move for a better situation.

I think where we can blend into the struggle with people here in the United States is once refugees arrive and are being threatened by ICE or threatened by local police, I think that’s a big call for [all] us to respond and say, “No. These are our brothers and sisters, these are our neighbors, these could be family members, and we can’t just stand by.” That’s building our communities, and making it broader than just a couple of activists. I think it’s really important that we see ourselves in a community with all these people. That’s what keeps me going.

Photo by Holly Winters and taken from her blog at

A poem inspired by Walt Staton:

from The Watcher

The Watcher witnesses
statements with feet
stamped into sand,
sealed into the boarder
making migration official.

The Watcher protects
each statement
as if ancient folklore,
as if oral history
articulated with toes,
as if hieroglyphics swept
over by history and dust.

The Watcher is a guardian,
he is an anthropologist,
he is the archaeologist
of living history
and attempts to clean away
corrosion and neglect.

For the full interview with Walt Staton please go to

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Preperation and Learning the Interview

Over the last few days I've been working on my first official interview for The Splinter Generation. I've found that readying an interview for online publication is much harder than I imagined. There's scheduling the interview, conducting the interview (which includes a multitude of it's own difficulties), the pain of transcribing, editing, writing an intro...and that's only what I've discovered so far.

I appreciate the opportunity to try out my interview skills with Splinter, and thank my buddy Seth (founding editor) for all his help and advice. I hope he knows I'm going to hijack all this wonderful wisdom and use it here.

As for now, I continue to prepare, and am excited to have my first official Immigration Project interview scheduled for Monday.

I will be talking with Pasadena poet Maja Trochimczyk. She was born in Poland, and first moved to Canada in 1988, where she learned English, and started writing poetry about her displacement and loss of language. She moved to the U.S. in 1996, and I'm so thrilled she has agreed to sit down with me. I look forward to hearing about how language, loss of language and learning a new one, has affected her as a writer.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Angel Island

I wrote my first immigration persona poem while at Antioch. I had started researching poems written inside U.S. detention centers: Japanese internment camps, Guantanamo Bay, and Angel Island. I first learned about Angel Island during my undergrad. I was taking a combination class from both the Asian American Studies and Latino American Studies departments on immigration. There were two professors, and they took turns lecturing on their area of expertise. One day the Asian American professor was lecturing on the immigration of the Chinese, the discriminatory ordinances they had to endure, and The Chinese Exclusion Act that barred entry to immigrants based on their Chinese background. And he said in passing, "You know that's when they started writing poems on the walls at Angel Island."

Angel Island has been considered the Ellis Island of the west, but as Ellis welcomed, as it says on the Statue of Liberty "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free," Angel Island's main purpose was to keep Asian immigrants, namely the Chinese, out. One of the only ways a Chinese immigrant could enter the country is if he could prove citizenship through relatives already living in the country. The only way to prove such things was to endure hours of interrogation. This created "paper sons:" boys and men who claimed citizenship through false papers. Individuals were held at Angel Island from anywhere from two days to two years.
In 1970, thirty years after the detention headquarters was closed, a park ranger discovered characters etched into the walls of the old living quarters. As immigrant hopefuls were detained at Angel Island waiting to find out their fate, it seems they began to scribe poems about their journey, about Angel Island, about their heartache and hope, on the walls of their barracks.

Back at Antioch I started to research more into this topic. I read the book Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island, 1910-1940. And as I worked Jenny Factor, one of my mentors at Antioch, suggested I try writing my own poem in response to what I was reading, and that's how this project first began.

An interview from Island:

"My family pushed me to come. They wanted me to make a better living. They couldn't send my older brother because he was too old to match the age of my uncle's paper son. I studied (coaching papers) for a whole summer at school. It included many, many generations. I had to remember everyone's name, the birthday, and if they passed away, when. And you had to know the different points of the village, what it looked like. I remember I had an English cap that we picked up in Hong Kong and inside the cap, my father hid some coaching notes, so that once in a while, I could refresh my memory. But I never had a chance to look at them, because you're among people all the time and you don't trust anyone. There was no private place where I could be alone to study them. One time, they were playing catch with my cap and they didn't understand why I was so upset. I was scared." --Mr. Wong, age 12 in 1933.

From my poem “Boy in an English Cap”*

Father hid coaching notes
inside grey lining of an English cap.
I wear it on board President Lincoln
to shield from harsh ocean winds.
I pray it will land in good fortune.
Papers nestling above thoughts;
head aches under the weight
of an English cap, secrets it carries.
English key to a riddle
I do not understand. Father says
it will unlock my future in distant
golden lands.

*Poems I hope to publish at a later time will only appear on this blog in portions.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Beginning

This morning at about 3:30am I woke up from a restless summer sleep with an idea. Over the last two years I've been working on an MFA in poetry. In that time, I've written a lot of poems about a lot of different things, but have not had one idea that I would want to work on for a book. But tonight something may have come to me. I have written a couple of poems about immigration, detention, and internment. Some of them are persona poems taken from stories, or interviews I read in books. But what if I was the one doing the interviewing? Would people be interested in telling me their stories? Imagine the kind of stories that are out there? Imagine how similar and yet completely unique each story would be. This is The Immigration Project.

My idea for this blog to gain interest in what I'm doing, and by gaining interest perhaps some people will be willing to tell their story, and perhaps even allow it to become a piece of poetry. Immigration is not a new topic in this country, but it continues to make headlines as if it is new. My hope is that by people telling their stories, people from all ethnic and religious backgrounds, we can gain some understanding of each other. At least that's the idea that came to me at 3:30 in the morning on a hot and restless night.