poetry & tsismis: emily's blog

May 2, 2011

Remembering Al Robles (1930-2009)


Al Robles at UCLA 1996. Photo by Tony Osumi.

Today is the two-year death anniversary of the incredible poet Al Robles (February 16, 1930 – May 2, 2009). Manong Al and many of our ancestors who have gone before us have largely influenced my poetry and oral history work. As the people’s recorder and founding member of the Kearny Street Writers Workshop,  Manong Al was like a ninong (godfather) to all of us Filipina/o Americans who are spoken word performance poets, oral historians, cultural artists, and/or activists. When I was just a teen, I was blessed to have been able to read his poetry and to learn about how he fought to save the International Hotel in San Francisco’s Manilatown, through my elder cousin, his good friend and fellow Kearny Street poet, Oscar Peñaranda. Many years later, when I was in graduate school and when I started teaching Filipino American Studies, I would see Manong Al at various conferences and community events. He would always give me a hug or slap on the back and say, “Hey sistah, what’s shakin’?” Then a crowd would gather in a circle around him while he cracked jokes or played piano, talking story late into the night.

L.A. Poets with Jessica Hagedorn & Al Robles at Pilipino Studies Symposium at UCLA, 1997. Photo by Carlo Medina CDM Foto.

Throughout the 1990s, long before “Poetry Slam” competitions became  popular, we had Filipino American spoken word poetry and open mic nights all over Los Angeles (and beyond), often organized by Wendell Pascual, Irene Suico Soriano, or the Balagtasan Collective. Following in Manong Al’s footsteps, we knew we couldn’t just study how Filipinos came from an oral tradition, we embraced it and embodied it. In 1996, when my alma mater UCLA’s Asian American Studies Center Press published Manong Al’s book of poetry, many of us poets were ecstatic and honored to be able to perform with and for the legendary Al Robles. During the 90-minute drive from West L.A. to one book launch that Theo Gonzalves had organized at UC Irvine, I wrote this letter to my cousin Oscar to tell him that Manong Al was in town. It turned into this poem (below). I performed it later that night and it was published several years later in disOrient Journalzine.  Afterwards, Manong Al said that we have to keep writing about the streets because we have all walked down them, no matter what the city. We recognize them as Pinoys: streets like Kearny, El Dorado, Temple, and Jackson, because for generations, that’s where “cats would hang out”, talking story late into the night.

The week that Manong Al passed away in 2009, I was living in Boston, and I performed a modified version of this poem at the East Meets West Bookstore in Cambridge, with the Boston Progress Arts Collective’s (BPAC) house band: Charles Kim on guitar, Nate Bae Kupel on drums, and Pedro Magni on keyboards.  I had said that night that Manong Al would have loved that space, which hosts the country’s only year-round monthly Asian American open mic series, like Kearney Street did in the early 1970s. As a call to the ancestors, I played a little bit of kubing (Philippine mouth harp), swayed to BPAC’s jazz, then looked up at the younger generation overflowing onto Massachusetts Ave, and felt Manong Al’s warm spirit talking story with us, late into the night.

I love and miss you, Manong Al. Thank you for being our voice. Rest In Poetry.

Al Robles and Emily Lawsin at UCLA 1996

Oscar Peñaranda, T, and me 2006

Dear Kuya Oscar   

© by Emily P. Lawsin   

On the book launching of Al Robles’ book 

Rappin’ With Ten Thousand Carabaos in The Dark

Irvine, California, May 17, 1996.

______________________________________

Manong Al visits the Southland today,  

bringing us fish heads and carabaos

together to jam.

Our Pinoy Luck Club barkada

skips its regular meeting of

Friday night “X-Files and Tiles,”

saving lost quarters for lonely bus rides

and smoggy lattes;

how could we ever fill your shoes?

Our Doc Martens and Birkenstocks

are no match for Mama’s boomerang bakyas and tsinelas.

We’re fortunate though, this new Flip generAsian,

tempted by you Kearny Street tamaraws:

we shout via E-mail, reclaiming reclámo.

Irene’s Babaye Productions started

our call, herding us to greez in brown fields

of Temple, Melrose, and Westwood,

where Wendell’s Downright Pinoy self,

more than just a t-shirt man,

throws us props, rappin’, producin’,

dekonstruktin’ all our funk-shuns.

With Dawn and Allyson,

sistahs fightin’ in struggle,

brewin hungry champorrado dreams;

the Villaraza and Parreñas clans

and Allan’s gothic poetry

blowin our freakin’ minds, and

nappy flip Nap Napoleon

swingin his sharp bolo smile, scars,

and Zig-Zag-wrapped cigarettes.

 We’re fortunate, yes, tonight,

the Liwanag 2 crew lassoing our ranks,

sistah Darlene’s multiple tongues searing our plates,

brotha Theo’s jazz as loud as his psychedelic zebra tie, —

a noose left by you, Al, the Belales, and others —

oh, da man wishes that you’d quit pumpin him up as the

doctoral candidate/professor/cultural critic/musical genius/taxi-dancing/PCN god

that he is

and return to the SF State days when you once peddled

a crushed box of black-and-white Liwanag books

fading from sun stroke in your beat-up, unwaxed coche.

I wonder, was it the same car you

used to push up to Seattle?

Bringing Nanay and Tatay an endless supply

of canned salmon and me diaper tales of

your wayward Alaskan ways.

Decades later, your AIIIEEEEE!

buddy Shawn gave me an A,

not knowing I was your

cousin/niece/wanna-be hija poet,

the only student in his class of 200

raising her hand when he asked,

        “Who has ever read Carlos Bulosan?”

          Never thanked you for those days.

Another decade later,

Manong Sam Tagatac, with his sleepy eye,

Ifugao tales, and Ilocano twang

returned with me to the UCLA campus,

left his Manila Cafe apron on Santa Barbara’s beach

to add a hint of bagoong to our new stew,

blamed your teaching-ass self for it all:

poets perpetrating as professors,

thinking this is how carabaos

will crush coconuts in the Ivory Tower.

Now he’s vanished, his ailing wife calling,

his film cans fading, and we young bucks

fry his tuyo not knowing where it came from.

We never thanked your barkada for those days,   

for adding light to our fire,

for excavating ghosts from the mountain tops,

for bringing us the songs of the Syquias,

Jundis’ jingles, Cachapero’s cacophony,

Cerenio’s seriousness, Tamayo’s teasings,

Tagami’s Tobera teachings, Ancheta’s anitos,

Robles’ rallies, and even Hagedorn’s hell-bent heresies.

So, Kuya Oscar, as we Kababayans

kick back, chillin amongst jasmine vines,

Southern Cali’s substitute for the sampaguita flower,

with Manong Al’s smoky white hair jammin’,

and Russell, our adopted Chinese cousin, taping — always pullin’ for us Pinoys —

I scribble on this bending bamboo,

throwing you our shout-outs, our salamats,

for dodging the draft, for pushing our pens,

for publishing Pinoys and Pinays before

anyone knew what that was, is, and

always will be,

and for plowin’ the fields,

for plowin’ these fields,

for plowing the fields

before us. 

*   *   *

Angel Velasco Shaw, Jessica Hagedorn, Curtis Choy, Al Robles, Norman Jayo at UCLA Pilipino Studies Symposium 1997. Photo by Carlo Medina CDM Foto.

Dedicated to Oscar Peñaranda, Al Robles, Sam Tagatac, Shawn Wong, Russell Leong,

 the Kearny Street Writers’ Workshop,

Wendell Pascual, Dawn Mabalon, Allyson Tintiangco, Napoleon Lustre,

Irene Soriano, Darlene Rodrigues, and Theo Gonzalves.

   

Al Robles reads poetry with Theo Gonzalves on piano at Royal Morales' retirement at UCLA 1996. Photo by Tony Osumi.

 Performed live at UC Irvine by Emily Lawsin with Theo Gonzalves on keyboards, May 17, 1996.

Originally published in DisOrient Journalzine, Volume 9: 2001.

www.emilylawsin.com

 

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