Published March 21, 2021

As part of the all-virtual 2021 Virginia Festival of the Book, Virginia Poet Laureate Luisa A. Igloria (Maps for Migrants and Ghosts) and Benjamín Naka-Hasebe Kingsley (Dēmos: An American Multitude) read from and discussed their work exploring how language serves as a key and a map to the places and people that have been lost. Weaving together personal and family histories—from Igloria’s childhood in the Philippines to Kingsley’s intersection of Onondaga, Japanese, Cuban, and Appalachian cultures—these poets document the transformative promise and simultaneous intolerance of American society. Moderated by Lauren K. Alleyne.

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Thanks to our bookseller for this event, New Dominion Bookshop.

“It’s telling, the things / we return to,’ writes Luisa A. Igloria in this masterful new collection, where memory takes us on a journey that is full of music and wisdom. I opened this book on the poems about her mother and fell in love with this voice, one that has learned to be ‘completely alone, even among others,’ a voice that knows how to enter the dark and find music in it. This lyric record of Maps for Migrants and Ghosts is a journey both spiritual and personal, one that understands that at our most private we still live in history, yet finds, in the terrors of that history, a healing melody, a tune.” —Ilya Kaminsky, author of Deaf Republic and Dancing in Odessa

““Benjamín Naka-Hasebe Kingsley’s book Dēmos is a powerhouse collection of poems by a powerhouse poet. Dēmos showcases the range of the poet―one who can write lullaby lyrics and in the very next poem mold words out of fire. The energy in these poems is electric as Naka-Hasebe Kingsley explores and condemns the many injustices towards Native Americans and other marginalized communities throughout our short history. Naka-Hasebe Kingsley’s poems are unflinching, unrelenting, disarming, and brilliant in their range, form, and language. This is a necessary book of ferocity and strength during a challenging time.” ―Victoria Chang

Community Partners

Thanks to American Indian & Indigenous Community Center at Virginia Tech and The Muse Writers Center for sharing information about this event.

Transcript

JANE KULOW:  Hello, welcome to “Indigenous Poetry: Language as a Map Home,” a program in the all-virtual 2021 Virginia Festival of the Book. I’m Jane Kulow, Director of the Virginia Center for the Book, a program of Virginia Humanities. Thanks for joining us. 

A couple of notes before I hand the program over to our speakers: Please share your questions using the Q&A tab on Zoom. This event has optional closed captioning which you can turn on and customize using the Closed Captions tab at the bottom of your window. If you haven’t already read today’s books, we hope you will. For details about how to buy them from our bookseller for this event, New Dominion Bookshop, visit VaBook.org where you can also explore our full schedule and watch past events. While you’re there, please consider making a donation to support the Festival’s ongoing work at VaBook.org/Give. 

Many thanks to our partners, American Indian & Indigenous Community Center at Virginia Tech and The Muse Writers Center in Norfolk, for sharing information about this event. We also greatly appreciate the support of all Festival sponsors, donors, and community partners. 

Now, I’m pleased to introduce our moderator who will introduce our featured authors. Lauren K. Alleyne has written two collections of poetry, Difficult Fruit and Honeyfish, and co-edited Furious Flower: Seeding the Future of African American Poetry. Lauren is an associate professor of English at James Madison University, and assistant director of the Furious Flower Poetry Center. Thank you all for joining us today. Lauren, it’s all yours.

LAUREN K. ALLEYNE:  Thank you so much, Jane, and thank you so much to Virginia Festival of the Book, and all of the organizers. I’m really pleased to be moderating this panel, “Indigenous Poetry: Language as a Map Home.” And our first poet tonight is Ben Kingsley, author of Dēmos: An American Multitude, he belongs to the Onondaga Nation, he’s the author of two more books in the past four years, Not Your Mama’s Melting Pot and Colonize Me. He’s a recipient of the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, Kundiman, and Tickner Fellowships, and his work appears in Poetry, the Kenyon Review, and Oxford American, among others. Kingsley is an assistant professor at Old Dominion University and will be reading for a short while for us. Welcome Ben.

BENJAMÍN NAKA-HASEBE KINGSLEY: Hey, thank you so much. Let me start my little timer here so I don’t go over time. Let me first begin by thanking Lauren so much for that introduction, and also plugging her new book Honeyfish—you can see it here—winner of the 2018 Green Rose Prize for a reason. I’m going to start by reading … Oh, I also want to say shout out Tracy, I see you, I’m excited to see you on Monday.

There’s actually a section in my book—the acknowledgements section—which is very, very common, but I made sure that mine came before anything else in this book, and you’ll see why in a second. I’m actually going to read from it. This feels very show-and-tell, but this is a picture of my grandmother, Matsume Hasebe, and she is in a prison cell, a jail cell in the picture, and I’ll get into that a little bit more. But the section is, thank you firstly to my Obāsan grandmother Matsume Hasebe, who taught me that if a tyrant’s narrative can be a well-formed prison, a poem can be a creature of protesting fire inside of that prison.

Thank you to your father, Naka Hasebe—so my great-grandfather—his fire, his poem that would put him behind the exactness of these very wooden bars. “See the warhorse cry,” he wrote in defiance of an imperialist Axis nation’s Sun God, which was Emperor Hirohito. And under the picture it has Matsume Hasebe, my grandmother’s name, January 4th, 1989—so the year before I was born—and that takes place in Tome Police Station. I was not born in the police station; the photo takes place in the police station. 

And right after that I give a little bit of exposition about my great-grandfather’s imprisonment, and I write, “The political prisoners greatly feared a fire as they would surely burn alive inside their wooden cages. Many of their homes had already been burned including my grandmother’s childhood home in the Fire Bombing of Tokyo, the single most destructive bombing raid in human history. Such great American butchery that bomber pilots had to apply oxygen masks to keep from vomiting as they were hit by the reek of burning flesh, charcoaled corpses, and clouds of civilian blood.”

I’m going to read the first two poems and then maybe skip around just a little bit with the rest of my time. The first poem is called “American Multitude.” I’m trying to riff off of that Whitman “I contain multitudes” kind of a poetry jam that we got going on very, very often. So it’s called “American Multitude”:

from the languages of my Haudenosaunee: Onondaga Nation. 

as every thing begins with the heart beat of horses

a tribe the thudded color of all creation

my people gather brindle       as if the night

were drizzled long across their backs she

of sickle sword            of tendon & tusk         he

who wields the oxgoad fresh jawbone

from a filly        in heat they

who buck the binary tekeni Jonijüra

two-Spirited a young soul miracles how many?

ghosts can fit inside my people gather brindle

as if the night were not yet gelded my people

gather        as if the night      were a suckling

for the saber-toothed drum the whistle of pipes

crescentic & long hatchet my people gather as 

if the night    were     only a splintered thing

bent about the glory

of our now dawning home.

The second poem is called “Nantucket Sleighride,” and I hope you’re thinking, “WTF is a Nantucket Sleighride?” And we’ll get into that right away. So it starts with a quote by Browning Tyler, grandson of a Nantucket whaler, 81 years old:

When you harpoon a whale, it bucks harder than a freight train

off rails. It dives down deep as it can go, and takes your boat

with it—fast—and that’s the “sleigh ride”: that last fighting gasp

of leviathan through the sea.

—BROWNING TYLER, GRANDSON OF A NANTUCKET WHALER, 81YRS OLD

You know the whale metaphor. You know all about

the beaten horse. Write this off as just another

dead animal poem. Or, dying, know that my people

weren’t neatly arked by America two by two, white boys named

Noah harpooned our asses, by the tens, by the thousands,

collared our necks with barbs and slugged lead

into our heads when we bucked, they dove in after

our oil and the good fat of our plains, from Sea to Shining

Sea. Now here we all are, a tangle of corpses

together we crabs in a clawed bucket list:

cross off every otherkind and colony—colonize

the crevice between my brown lungs, cremate me

in ashy anonymity before

I surface, I breathe, I war.

All right, the next poem. Before I moved to Virginia, I lived in Baltimore, and I lived in West Baltimore. So if you’re familiar with … I almost said The Office, but that couldn’t be farther from what I meant, The Wire, if you’ve seen The Wire, The Wire was filmed there. I lived about two blocks away from where the Freddie Gray riots took place, and one night I kind of open up my blinds, and I see a bunch of kids basically trying to pull the hood ornament off of my shitty car, but have no fear the car was very, very shitty. The title is “Out My Apartment Window, West Baltimore: August, 2 A.M.”:

I spread the blinds

with sleepy fingers:

Three boys

and a lookout fourth

none old enough

to drive the car

they’re prowling

around:

My Marlboro

-colored sedan,

a Benz twenty-something

years old & seated

atop bald wheels

soggy under the weight

of rain & faded

parking lot

lights:

I think more

& more

she’s the one

thing my father left me

I’ve ever really used.

It’s a hell:

Of a time

they’re having.

Attempt after:

Attempt

to pry the ornament

from hood, paint-peeled

& chipped enough

to reveal the gray

of stone beneath:

Five minutes

of sneakers mounted

on her grill & a flurry

of whimpering tugs

a real sword in the stone

scenario:

I lay back down

in bed and hope

within an anvil of heart

that one boy will

free the silver:

And to him

it will be

Excalibur:

And he will

brandish the star

the ornament the sword

long as a boy can:

Understand

there is no

outstretched arm. No

Lady hidden in crystal-misted Lake.

Every old white wizard

would see you burned

alive. Here no Merlin

will shoulder the spell

of all your weight:

With your own arm

you cut.

With your own arm

you take:

Here

we get after

our own.

From the gray

of stones we pry

we pull each jewel

of light. Here

we forge

our own:

Bodies laid

long

upon the anvil

of this street.

And the next poem also has to do with a location. Like I said, I was living in Baltimore and I hadn’t been to my hometown of Harrisburg, PA—so Central Pennsylvania—for quite some time. And so I came home, and I’m going out to drinks with friends, and there’s this kind of one street that everybody goes down in Harrisburg—it’s called 2nd Street. So I’m looking for a bathroom, and I end up getting pepper-sprayed in the face by a police officer. I don’t have time to go into the story, but I got this damn poem out of it. So you’ll have to do a little bit of reading between the lines, but the poem is called “Run Home, Boy: 2nd Street Harrisburg, PA, Summertime ‘17”:

Bullshit watch your sister be arrested

for daring    to dance her jay-stunting

across the street be next to her but say

nothing because this ain’t Footloose

and you will always be a coward

instead just be thankful   for iphones

filming for women with stronger

forearms for men with bigger

voices think instead about your next

drink don’t be thinking

about   every other        time

you were not brave

don’t be              thinking          I am a teacher

sometimes I even smile at cops

I can win  this one over   with kind reason

he is bald white short

his uniform    has come untucked

be close       enough to see cliché

sweat   on his upper lip be brave

be brave       you think about anything but

boot scrape baton clatter police-grade

mace your own knee’s              crunch

against storefront          signpost       stumbling away

I could be      blind          what if I am

blind forever        you think

why am I         mouthing         Excuse me, Sir?

Okay. This next poem is called … It’s a poem about poetry, right? As so many poems are, and it’s called “ “Write about Being Tri-racial,” Says That Guy from Workshop.” And because I am a mixed, mixed race on my mother’s side, Onondaga and Japanese, on my father’s side Cuban and Appalachian, I don’t really fit in neatly to our sometimes very—how would I say it? Well-defined intersectional categories, right? And so, because I’m in this semi-liminal space, I very often get told what I should write about, what I shouldn’t write about, et cetera, and this poem is called “ “Write about Being Tri-racial,” Says That Guy from Workshop”:

I was born what I am in ash under cigarette flick

bellied beneath PA roadside diner bulbs

I was born cooking leftover ingredients

a little of this a little   of half of a half I was

born scraps stirred see-through

in Pyrex        I was born dribbled

from God’s measuring cracked lip I was

born runny eggs in a black skillet

though I was not yellow enough for yolk

not black enough to be burnt      not even brown

enough to be sizzle-whispered all the way

I was born trying to pass off the problem

of not being born a breakfast food at all my hatred of

egg whites the worst their glueyness stuck in the front

of my throat in the consonants of my Captors

you shake your head you say, Race is not extended

food metaphor I say, What if it’s true

I was born in the morning on a cold bed

of coffee grounds crawling on egg shells I say,

You tell me how I was born           what I am

Thank you so much, I really appreciate it.

LAUREN K. ALLEYNE: Thank you so much Ben for that wonderful reading. I can’t wait to talk to you about this book afterwards, but up now we have Luisa Igloria, author of Maps for Migrants and Ghosts—a co-recipient of the 2020 Crab Orchard Poetry Open—thirteen other books of poetry, and four chapbooks. She’s originally from Baguio City, she’s also received the 2015 Resurgence Poetry Prize and the 2014 May Swenson Prize. In July of 2020, Governor Northam wisely appointed her for a two-year term as the 20th Poet Laureate of Virginia. She teaches on the faculty of the MFA Creative Writing Program at Old Dominion University.

One of Luisa’s poems has been produced in broadside form for an exhibit set called Voice Overs, work that confronts racism, sexism, and bias in our experienced environments. The full set of Voice Over broadsides will be displayed in venues throughout Virginia when it’s possible, but as she reads the poem that she has in this selection, we’ll have the broadside displays. I believe that’s the poem that Luisa will close with. Welcome Luisa.

LUISA A. IGLORIA: Thank you so much Lauren, it’s a pleasure to be with you here, and thank you to everyone who’s tuned in. Thank you, Jane, for the invitation to participate in this year’s Festival of the Book, and thank you to the Virginia Humanities, and Virginia Center for the Book. I wanted to preface my reading by sharing a little something about my relationship to indigeneity, which is the theme of the panel, and it’s a subject that many writers are addressing today. In a general or loose sense, “indigenous” simply means “from or associated with a place.” For instance, cinnamon is indigenous to the West Indies, or I’ve been described as a person indigenous to the Philippines, which is the country of my birth. More accurately though, indigenous means the earliest known inhabitants of a geographical region in contrast to eventual settlers, immigrants, and colonizers.

And the implication is that most indigenous populations want to keep their independence and their sense of identity distinct from colonial and eventually mainstream culture. So in the Philippines there are close to 180 ethnolinguistic groups or nations, and when the Spanish arrived, they thought they were in the East Indies, and so they called the natives they met Indios, thereby lumping them with other populations called “Indian.” I grew up in Baguio City in Benguet Province, and historically this is home to indigenous Ibaloi and Kankanaey tribes. My own family though are Ilocano, the third or fourth-largest ethnolinguistic group in the Philippines, occupying the coastal plains in the Northwest.

With Spanish colonization in the 1500s, many Ilocanos were Christianized and assimilated, but because of the rugged terrain, most tribes in the northern Cordillera where Baguio is located were able to resist Spanish incursion, and the Spanish gave them the collective name Igorot. They were giving away lots of free names, right? Meaning “people from the mountains,” conflating their distinct identities into one dismissive designation. So in terms of indigenous identity, I’m Ilocano. I am from Baguio but I do not have Igorot roots, and this is an important distinction for me. 

So during the American period, Baguio was turned into a colonial hill station, displacing indigenous communities farther and they moved farther into the mountains. And along with Americans, lowland Filipinos (increasingly influenced by colonial ideology) also considered Igorot savage or uncivilized.

One more thing: more than 1,100 indigenous Filipino bodies were brought to the World’s Fair in 1904 in St. Louis, Missouri, where they were live exhibits alongside indigenous Ainu from Japan, Egyptians, and American-Indians. Now, people in the Philippine exhibits were from different ethnic groups, and most of them had not even had direct contact with each other until then, and yet all of them were thought of as just natives, as barbaric and savage, as Other, and their visual displays were meant to perform or validate the so-called moral imperatives and justifications for American Manifest Destiny.

In the late 19th century, also, a cohort of Filipino writers and artists including the Philippine national hero, José Rizal, had acquired some mobility and they were able to travel to Europe where they saw Buffalo Bill’s traveling Wild West Show. And observing American-Indians or American-Indios, they were inspired to call themselves Los Indios Bravos, thereby reclaiming the originally pejorative Indio and transforming its energy. So in doing so, they also declared a symbolic alliance with American-Indians who, like Filipinos, had borne the brunt of US military tactics of subjugation. So I will begin my reading with a poem from an older collection—my very first poetry collection actually—a book called Cartography, published in Manila in 1992 by Anvil.

The only thing you need to know is that the speaker in the poem is an Igorot woman who has been given a Christian name by Americans, and this is the secret language. 

I have learned your speech,
Fair stranger; for you
I have oiled my hair
And coiled it tight
Into a braid as thick
And beautiful as the serpent
In your story of Eden.

For you, I have covered
My breasts and hidden,
Among the folds of my surrendered
Inheritance, the beads
I have worn since girlhood.

It is fifty years now
Since the day my father
Took me to the school in Bua,
A headman’s terrified
Peace-gift. In the doorway,
The teacher stood, her hair
The bleached color of corn,
Watching with bird-eyes.

Now, I am Christina.
I am told I can make lace
Fine enough to lay upon the altar
Of a cathedral in Europe.
But this is a place
That I will never see.

I cook for tourists at an inn;
They praise my lemon pie
And my English, which they say
Is faultless. I smile
And look past the window,
Imagining father’s and grandfather’s cattle
Grazing by the smoke trees.
But it is evening, and these
Are ghosts.

In the night,
When I am alone at last,
I lie uncorseted
Upon the iron bed,
Composing my lost beads
Over my chest, dreaming back
Each flecked and opalescent
Color, crooning the names,
Along with mine:
Binaay, Binaay.

Now I’ll read some poems from the new book Maps for Migrants and Ghosts, and I just realized I’ve been writing about ghosts for a long time, and in this book, I also continue to address the tectonic effects of Filipino colonial histories. So the idea of return is very scintillating and attractive, and for people of color who’ve never been made to feel completely welcome in America, the idea of home is a very tenuous idea sometimes. But perhaps art and poetry provide alternative vantage points or shelter for those like us trying to build and sustain a life in the diaspora. So I will read the title poem, “Maps for Migrants and Ghosts,” and there is an epigraph from James A. H. White, “Ask me where I’m from and I may point at the dirt as if it were the embodiment of all things.”

“Maps for Migrants and Ghosts”

Are there little fish swimming in jars of brine

in the cupboard, are there pickled moons and stars,

curtains of smoke after a fireworks festival

when dancers ripple into the streets to show off

their ink? In that other world, we wait for tinny

bell-chime and scrape of foot pedal, the call

of the scissors-grinder widening through sleepy

towns. Heat rising from the heads of schoolchildren

at three in the afternoon, yeasty like bread. The stronger

the scent, the better. Even the gods and ancestors

should thrive in other places, though they don’t understand

the need for gendered pronouns. They resent filling out

forms which could be used to make claims for erasing

their existence: O pity you poor collectors

of blunt throwaway instruments. Penitents inch toward

the river, the expert thwack of bamboo whips calling forth

the blood. There are questions that could never

be answered. Like stars, at the heart of every place

a central note is buried: say anise, say achuete

oil, say hair singed off the belly of a thrashing pig.

And the next poem is a poem called, “When I Think I Could Be Beautiful”:

Though I too live in a blur of worlds, I am one

shade of brown: my blood not as obviously mixed.

Who gave me this nose? I have no dimples. I have a brow

broad as a page. The eyes tell when I am smiling.

And eyebrows constitute a language of their own. Never

asleep, they are two republics separated by a bridge.

Do you know the power of discarded fish bones?

I know delight can interchange with dilate.

I’ve strung the dried stumps of my daughters’ birth

cords on a safety pin; this is one way I keep them close.

Do you know the sound the tin bucket makes, the shape

of its mouth as it looks at the sky from inside the well?

In the birdhouse made from hollowed-out wood: wasps

coming and going. They are not angry yet, only nesting.

The ginger flower’s torch burns with scent in the middle

of the garden. Not even the rain can put it out.

I will read two more short poems from Maps for Migrants and Ghosts.

“Song of Meridians” 

It’s spring, but in other places it’s not-

yet-spring. It’s dry, or wet with

monsoon, or it is why-is-there-still-snow-

on-the-ground. It’s strange and high,

that mechanical whine in the night, coming

from somewhere beyond the ceiling.

It’s Wednesday, and in another place already

Thursday; it’s night, though here it is

still half past noon. And look at the news-

paper: on the upper left, a woman in a pale

peach dress is smiling and waving her hand.

On the bottom right, there’s a picture

of cities burning: it’s spring, or whatever

season it is for laughter or slaughter, a

difference of one letter between one state

of being and another. It’s that time when cows

and sheep are calving, when blood is the marker

for a life breaking away, or maybe just breaking.

So this is my second-to-the-last poem from the book, and what you need to know is that there is an Ilocano phrase in it which means “come back, come back, don’t be afraid.”

“Calling the Soul Back to the Body”

It swings imperceptibly on the slack

end of a clothesline. Dark hooded shape,

wings glossier than tree ear mushrooms, its

marble eye fixed on my own. Every afternoon

I come to the kitchen threshold

and there it sits; I almost want to raise

my right hand and swear with my left

on the cover of a sacred book. It never stays

long—swooping into the bush to stab

a worm in half before arcing away

into the sky. Vines settle back upon

their blue-green cowl when it leaves.

Say to the soul, I know you. Chant a spell

learned long ago: Maykan, maykan, di ka agbutbuteng.

So, for my last offering, I’m reading a poem I wrote in summer last year when a Filipino-American family eating at a California restaurant were the victims of a racist slur from a white man at the next table, and I want to thank Kevin McFadden for turning it into one of the beautiful broadsides produced for the Festival. 

And this is, “You Can’t Talk to Us Like That”:

America, I’ve got a touch of cabin fever too 

& wish I could go to a favorite restaurant again, 

walk down a short flight of steps into the cool 

brick-lined interior of what used to be a speak-

easy. Wouldn’t it be great to order a dozen each 

of the local oyster varieties, some bread 

& butter, a nice pull of something bubbly.

We’d sing happy birthday or happy anniversary 

while clinking glasses & taking group pictures. 

But what if there’s a man at a nearby table 

whose hatred boils over at the sight of anyone—

but especially brown people like us—having 

the gumption to reach for a little joy

during this time of sickness & despair,

which sometimes feels worse than death?

America, he thinks we cannot be 

in the same room with him. So we get 

video rolling. We ask him to repeat 

the obscenities he’s hurled our way,

so he can be held accountable & shown 

out of the building. We hold our ground, 

America. After all the years our kind 

broke their backs & your hard soil to bring 

fruit & grain to your table just so you 

can put a clean white cloth & a crystal 

service on it; after graveyard shifts 

during which our kind daily tend 

to your sick and dying: we have 

the right to be here

& the wages are overdue. 

Thank you.

LAUREN K. ALLEYNE: Thank you so much Luisa, thank you, thank you. I’ll welcome Ben back as well. I’ll invite the audience at this point to feel free to utilize the Q&A function if you have questions you’d like me to offer our two poets; however, I have plenty of questions of my own. Luisa, I kind of want to start with you just because you set that very provocative statement around the idea of home, right? And how home is such a tenuous space for writers like us, and that language and poetry may perhaps … So I wanted you to just expand on that conversation, on that throwaway comment just a little bit because I felt there was so much richness in there about this idea of home and perhaps language being part of homemaking.

LUISA A. IGLORIA: Yeah. Thanks for that question, Lauren, and I think it’s an idea that is familiar to many of us, to all of us. Even if home is not somewhere 6,000 miles across the globe, anyone who has ever left a place that they consider a place of origin will feel like it is sort of impossible to go back there. You may physically go back there and yet it will never be the same. So, I think especially for immigrants, for migrants, for people living in the diaspora, there’s a heightened sense of that, and the idea of not just home being irretrievable but also all of the things that that represents, like what is a family configuration—that is still something I myself in my own personal life—I’m trying to come to terms with that idea and what it means.

So, I’m constantly writing about that. I’m constantly writing talking about plays which, in a way, is a constant writing about this idea. So that’s the way in which I think memory can serve us as we try to query new meanings for home, new meanings for belonging, and we try to look for the voices that also sing back to us in the same kinds of ways, so I hope that answers some of your questions.

LAUREN K. ALLEYNE: Beautiful, thank you. And Ben I’m going to piggyback off of that for you because I feel like one of the … I love that Pennsylvania poem, all right? But again, the idea of sort of being able to claim a space to belong, citizenship, and especially in the context of First Nations folks, right? I think that’s just a wonderful tension in the collection, and so I just want you to expand a little bit on how you are writing—what it means to sort of write and stake that claim in language.

BENJAMÍN NAKA-HASEBE KINGSLEY: Yeah, sure, sure. Man, I mean, Luisa gave such a beautiful bird’s-eye-view macrolevel answer, and while she was saying that, I was thinking about … So whenever I read that poem about being pepper-sprayed in the face in Central Pennsylvania, right, and I kind of couched it as being this homecoming, this happy homecoming, and it ended up being a very painful homecoming. It ended up being a local news article written about it, and after I was pepper-sprayed and after I had gotten off the street and I had showered, et cetera—or well before I had showered and kind of gotten re-pepper-sprayed, right—some of my friends went to the police officers, and they said, “Why did you do that? This is his home, this was a homecoming.” And they are quoted as saying, “This ain’t no home for that homeboy.”

So sometimes even where you grew up, where you think this is home, it feels very, very foreign to you. You’re kind of cast out of it in this way, or you return and you’re not welcomed. So for me as a writer, is my home Cuba? I’ve never been there, or Japan, and I have never been there. I haven’t lived for long stretches of time in upstate New York where my tribe’s reservation is, but where I have lived, in Central PA, that was very, very unwelcoming. So to answer your question as a writer, I guess I am trying to kind of complicate all those places where I think I might belong and then end up not belonging. I’m kind of trying to get away from maybe clear bright lines and kind of trouble things and muddy the kind of proverbial waters.

LAUREN K. ALLEYNE: Wonderful, thank you so much. And staying with you a little bit Ben, to the idea of a very violent legacy I feel is part of what you really write through in Dēmos, and I have two things, masculinity and violence, as sort of two things that you’re really holding as legacies again that you sort of want to trouble but that also keep imposing themselves in some way, and I just wonder if you can talk a little bit about, again, I think what it means to write violence. I just think that that’s always such a … Because the poems are beautiful, but they’re scripting such difficult realities. Again, the sort of masculinist language that is thrown at the speakers, the various speakers in the book, just how you reckon with those in the poems, I’d love you to talk a little bit about that.

BENJAMÍN NAKA-HASEBE KINGSLEY: Yeah, sure, sure. I kind of grew up in a very strange situation where both my parents were wheelbarrow factory workers and very blue collar, but we had this weird family legacy that my great-grandfather had written this kind of hybrid essay-poem and been beaten for it, imprisoned for it, and so I grew up kind of thinking that poetry could be this powerful affecting thing, but then I also went to a kind of severely underfunded public school. So, in school, poetry was this very non-violent thing; poetry was the birch tree and the snow makes it heavy and some birds come along and something happens or maybe something doesn’t happen.

And so I had this very weird kind of family history with poetry, but then what I was being taught was something different. And so whenever I came to writing my own poetry, just like you said, I’m trying to trouble masculinity, to trouble violence, and so a lot of my work does have that kind of, I hope, internal tension but also external tension that I’m trying to kind of marry with that poetic expression. And yeah, to answer your question, that’s kind of born from that kind of personal mythology which is kind of foreign to how my students might think of poetry as Dr. Seuss, or exclusively rhyming, or very, very tame.

LAUREN K. ALLEYNE: Thank you, thank you. Luisa, speaking of the legacy, I think when I read your collection, I think so much … I mean, that poem, I think it’s “Elegy for Loss,” but there’s an ephemeral nature in the poems that they are reaching for something that is both there and slipping away simultaneously. There’s just always elusiveness, but then I read the poems and they’re so full of concrete detail. It’s so rooted, and also so ephemeral, and I just was curious about how you just work to configure that loss and, at the same time, that holding-on in your writing, that amazing and really beautiful tension.

LUISA A. IGLORIA: Yeah, thank you for that beautiful description, and it’s true. In the descriptions of anything that is nevertheless concrete or physically material, the fact that we put words in front of us to try and capture some kind of essence of the thing means that it’s already one step removed from the materiality of the object. And so, what more if we’re writing of these intense emotional, as well as larger collective or historical narratives, that sense of elusiveness is also there. And it’s written on the very landscape. For instance, in Baguio, there’s a lot of naming that I was very conscious of when I was growing up, because as a hill station all of the street names—well, most of the street names—were replaced by American names. So there’s Session Road, which is the main thoroughfare in the middle of the city, and it is so-called because the American colonial government sat in session there every summer.

Under this, though, there’s like a palimpsest of other names—other realities that existed there before. So there is this street called Shanum, which means “water,” and that is in one of the ethnic languages that are indigenous to Baguio. So the sense of things being there and not there, I think we’re constantly surrounded by that, and I think poetry is something that tries to capture that sense of ineffability also by both reaching for a moment that is difficult to embody and trying to find maybe the best words that can come as close as we can possibly come to inhabiting those moments again. That’s a really deep question, I don’t even know if I’ve been able to answer. I think it’s a—

LAUREN K. ALLEYNE: That was a wonderful answer, thank you so much. We have just a little bit over a minute left, and I guess I’m going to throw this to both of you about—you know, this is “Language as a Map,” and if you’re thinking of these collections as maps for your readers, what do you hope they find?

LUISA A. IGLORIA: I guess I’ll start. I hope they find themselves too. I felt like I had to write this kind of a book certainly in order to find my way to some parts of myself that I felt I hadn’t really looked at in a long time, or that maybe I had only just discovered facets of that again. So it felt like I myself was making a map for my own following, if that makes sense.

LAUREN K. ALLEYNE: Yes.

LUISA A. IGLORIA: So I hope readers will also find a way to connect with themselves even if the maps may seem like they’re writing about other places that they may not have gone to before.

LAUREN K. ALLEYNE: Thank you.

BENJAMÍN NAKA-HASEBE KINGSLEY: Oh, that’s such a good answer. I want to steal that one for sure.

LAUREN K. ALLEYNE: To go?

BENJAMÍN NAKA-HASEBE KINGSLEY: That was absolute perfect answer. Yeah. Oh, man. In the writing I certainly also felt like you are doing that, right? That kind of self-realization, the making a map of your own, whether it’s personal histories, or complicating feelings, emotions… trying to write in those liminal spaces and trouble the waters like we’ve been talking about. So I guess maybe to give kind of like the opposite answer, it would be I hope they get lost in some ways, and it’s the opposite of a map, right?

LAUREN K. ALLEYNE: A map to getting lost, I love it.

BENJAMÍN NAKA-HASEBE KINGSLEY: Exactly, exactly. Yeah, yeah, exactly.

LAUREN K. ALLEYNE: Thank you both so much. We are at time; it’s time to wrap things up. Luisa and Benjamín, it’s just always wonderful to be in Zoom-space with you and your wonderful work. I hope that our audience will please consider buying their featured books from your local independent bookseller, or using the link that’s provided in the chat with our partner bookseller for this event, the New Dominion Bookshop. You can also check out other events in the all-virtual 2021 Virginia Festival of the Book at VaBook.org. Thank you for joining us again and have a wonderful evening. Thank you, Ben, thank you Luisa, thank you Virginia Festival of the Book.

LUISA A. IGLORIA: Thank you so much.  

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