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.




September 23, 2008

P.S. YES, PODCAST! of East Meets Words Show

PODCAST: Emily Lawsin at East Meets Words

MINAMAHAL / MUCH LOVE to Eugene Shih of Boston Progress Radio (www.bprlive.org) for posting an edited podcast (audio recording) of my Sept 12th East Meets Words show. Click http://www.bprlive.org/2008/09/23/recap-emily-lawsin-graces-east-meets-words/  to listen and enjoy. 

It includes my most-requested spoken word performance poems:

  1.  “My Pinay Nanay”  
  2. “Notes from a University Writing Group (Or, From the Woman Who Told Me To Write White)”
  3. “Detroit’s Pinay Voices”
  4. “No More Moments of Silence (In Memory of Joseph Ileto & Chon Buri Xiong)”
  5. “Maré is a Diva, di ba?” 
Here are more photos (below) to go along with the audio too. 
Please write a comment below or on the bprlive.org site and tell us what you think.
Maraming Salamat po sa inyong lahat / Many Thanks, ya’ll.
See my previous post for a full re-cap of the East Meets Words show
and the P.S. Love Letter for Invincible & Detroit Summer

September 20, 2008





The BEST part of Friday night’s show at Boston Progress Arts Collective’s East Meets West Bookstore happened when we were locking up the joint. One MC (who I don’t want to name because I’m not trying to embarrass him) started jumpin’ up and down when he found out I know Invincible. Seriously.

He said, “Hey, you’re from Detroit. Do you know Invincible?”

“Yes, of course I do. She’s a good friend of ours. She’s Anak’s Auntie Ilana.”

“Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god, she knows Invincible! She knows Invincible!” he screamed, jumping and grabbing all the hip hop heads. Pretty soon they were all around me starry-eyed saying, “We LOVE Invincible. We LOVE Shapeshifters. Do you have her new album Shapeshifters?

“Of course I do, we’re investors.” (Partner later told me that we’re actually not “financial” investors, but I told him we should be.) Anyway, I don’t know what they would’ve done if I told them Ilana gave us the rough cut of the CD too. 

The fans continued, “Oh my god, we were waiting and waiting for years for Invincible to come out with her own album, and then when she came out with Shapeshifters this year, we were so happy!

“So happy. It is off the hook!” another said.

“Oh my god, you know Invincible. We are such big fans of Invincible. Wait, wait, how do you know her?”

“We were all volunteers with this intergenerational youth program called Detroit Summer–“

“Oh yeah, yeah, yeah! We know Detroit Summer. From her song ‘Locusts‘.


“Do you have the L.A.M.P. CD? They came out with a CD,” I said.

“Oh yeah, the L.A.M.P. CD, so cool. Oh my god, she knows Invincible. I can’t believe it.”

I don’t know what they would’ve done if I told them we gave Ilana half of our household items when we left Detroit (all of which are embarrassingly described in last month’s incredible Metro Times cover story, here).

“Wait, how did you guys discover Invincible?” I asked.

“We heard her track years ago on this group — the Platinum Pied Pipers CD and we loved it.”

Yes, Detroit Winter: “if you can’t take the winter, you don’t deserve the summer.” I think these fans might have a heart attack if I show them the pictures on my computer of PPP’s live show (with Invincible) from Detroit’s Taste Fest ’05.

Invincible performs with Platinum Pied Pipers at Detroit Taste Fest, July 4, 2005. (c) Photo by Scott Kurashige.

Invincible performs with Platinum Pied Pipers at Detroit Taste Fest, July 4, 2005. (c) Photo by Scott Kurashige.

“Oh my god. She knows Invincible. We would love to meet her.”

“Hey, if you guys want to bring her out here for a show, she can stay with us, no problem. Just let me know. We can call her right now.”

“That would be so dope. We should do that,” they said.


I think you’re way overdue for a Boston show.

And Anak would love to see you too!!! 🙂

Now, I tell this story because it was so heartwarming to see that these young bloods all the way in Boston love Invincible just as much as those of us in Detroit do. They recognize her true gift with words and music. After all her years of struggle and serving our community, she deserves recognition and success, especially with her new album. Shapeshifters.

If you don’t have one yet, get yours today at http://www.emergencemusic.net/store .

And tell Mike I sent you. 😛

I also tell this story because it shows how really small this world is. AND that if you find the radical/progressive artists in any city, they are going to know YOU/your radical/progressive artist friends too.

I mean, if you are currently an artist-activist from Detroit and you don’t know Invincible, then you are either:

  • a) not really an artist,
  • b) not really a community activist, or
  • c) not really from Detroit.


Minamahal/Much love to Ilana for giving me some street cred!!! 🙂

As we all told Grace during Conversations in Maine,

“Detroit is a part of us. It is always in our hearts. We will take Detroit wherever we go.”


Miss you all much.  xoxox  ;-*

Salamat: East Meets Words/Re-Cap

Saturday, September 13, 2008, 2:25 AM ET | Watertown/Cambridge/Boston, MA

So I arrived home safely a few hours ago after my first Cambridge gig at the supercool East Meets West Bookstore: what a special, historic place. I can’t sleep because I’m still fired up from the good vibes in the space (Eric Chin brought Taoist good energy in the room with everyone breathing to puff up his origami — it reminded me of the energizers I usually do on the 1st day of classes, but MUCH more chill). Anyway, I thought I would start off my blog about the performance, the people, and the place. And a BIG SHOUT-OUT to the BOSTON PROGRESS ARTS COLLECTIVE (B-PAC)!!! YAY!! THANKS YA’LL!!


East Meets West Bookstore, 934 Massachusetts Ave, Cambridge, MA

The East Meets West Bookstore is a down-home, hole-in-the-wall kind of place in Cambridge, on Massachusetts Avenue, less than a mile east of Harvard Square. When I walked in, I immediately felt at ease. It looks like one of the stores in Seattle’s (and Detroit’s) old Chinatown, complete with a back room that looks like one of those secret card rooms, except it has a two-way mirrored window. (I kicked myself for not bringing my mah-jong set.) One wall is covered with endless bookcases of what must be rare Chinese texts and across from that is a showcase of hard-to-find Asian American CDs, books, and zines. I kept thinking how the Asian American students in Michigan would buy all of this material right up if we had this store in Detroit or Ann Arbor. There are big “HELLO MY NAME IS” posters on the back wall signed by guests from all over, three small red paper lanterns hanging from a corner ceiling, and then huge speakers on the floor that looked out of place, maybe because they look like the ones the student union uses (hmmmm). The bookstore even had almost the same scent as the old On Leong office on Peterboro in Detroit, a mixed whiff of not-yet musty encyclopedias, left-over take-out boxes, and a hint of firecracker incense dust hidden in the cracks of the gated door. It reminded me of when we opened up one of the doors in the back of Mrs. Wong’s old Cass Corridor warehouse and found a box of stale fortune cookies from 1982. (Last night, Giles found beer in the bookstore’s back room. I didn’t catch if he drank it?)

As I sat down and breathed it all in, I thought, “This is what the old Kearny Street Workshop space in San Francisco’s old Manilatown must’ve been like 35 years ago.” BPAC’s use of the space for the last 3.5 years is kind of like what our Detroit Chinatown Revitalization Workgroup tried to do at the old On Leong Building back in 2004, except Cambridge obviously doesn’t suffer from the post-deindustrialization fall-out that Detroit does. At the old On Leong in Detroit’s abandoned Chinatown, even though we made that

Detroit Chinatown Mural, on Peterboro & Cass, 2003

Detroit Chinatown Mural, on Peterboro & Cass, 2003

beautiful mural, painted two buildings, and started having events there (the same space they used to organize the Justice for Vincent Chin movement 25 years ago), after the ceiling, heat and electricity went out, we just couldn’t keep it up. Luckily, the mural is still up and our Detroit Asian Youth Project still survives, but access to the performance space doesn’t. That’s why this Cambridge space is so inspiring and important, and I’m not sure if everyone here even realizes it.

East Meets West’s retail/performance space is about as big as my flat’s living room (which isn’t that big), but really, really cozy. There’s a couch and then folding chairs. When I arrived, about 20 people were already there trying to get a seat or setting up (mostly BPAC folks) and by the time I went up to perform, there were 50 people packed in there, SRO. On the West Coast, 50 people might not sound like a lot, but what I’ve learned from being in Michigan the last eight years, is that east of California, any Asian American public event that has more than 20/just the core, is truly an accomplishment. What was so impressive is that most of the audience were regulars, people who’ve shown up every 2nd Friday of the month since 2005. I mean, there was so much steam on the windows from all them warm heads; we were probably violating some kind of — oh let me scratch that before I get them in trouble. Anyway, at the end of the night, Giles emptied out the de-humidifier and there must’ve been about 3 gallons of water spilling all over Mass. Ave. (“It’s to protect the books,” Eugene said. Ah, yes. The archivist in me should know that.)



The after-crowd, some members of Boston Progress Arts Collective

The after-crowd, some members of Boston Progress Arts Collective

The Open Mic was really like none other than I’ve seen (and I’ve been to A LOT of open mics all across the country). First of all, almost every single one of the dozen or so performers was Asian American, of all ethnicities, truly pan-Asian. It’s a trip when you meet one with a Boston accent. Second of all, how many open mics have you been to where a seemingly low-key young culinary-school-trained chef who’s about to move to L.A. gets up there and quietly tells his childhood wannabe superhero stories with deep metaphors about scars (like wrinkled paper) and finding home again (like cranes) and folds origami in the air???? Eric Chin is deep. Never mind that he was only 3yo in 1989 (and showed us a picture to prove it). [Note toTuesday Nights at the Café peeps in L.A: keep an eye out for this young brotha.]

The other performers –

Albert: “an Asian man talking about the difficulties of being an Asian man in a poem, that’s meta,” MC Ash said. Word.

Kenny: who was able to play after Joey B went to get his guitar from his car in the rain. Nice.

Bonnibel: just moved from Austin, TX this week (!) spit two poems “Sesame Street” (which my daughter Tula would’ve loved) and “Passion”, was able to groove to any beat.

Kundiman fellow Mike Keo: pulled a couple of yellow pieces of paper from his back pocket, wet from the rain, shared one poem on genocide and then another called “Condoms”. (Mike later told me that he knows my poet-friend Matt Olzmann of Detroit and that he once picked up my hero-friend Ismael Ileto from the airport for a conference at UConn.) Really, 2 degrees of separation.

BPAC core member Theresa: described B-town’s streets to a T in her journal “Intervention”. (In the summer youth program she runs, they used game design to reactivate public space – like we did in DAY Project, yup yup. Kindred spirits!)

Joey B: kicked a piece about listening and imagining, from his creative writing class portfolio. YES, from his Creative Writing class portolio. (Bless all those Asian Americans in creative writing classes: where were you 20 years ago when I needed you? 😉

Pinoy brotha Pedro: used an audience member’s Blackberry to download song lyrics that remind him of his 2 moms singing, his birth mom and adoptive mom. Sweet.

Next up was Tu Phan. Remember that name: TU PHAN. That brotha will take the slam scene by storm if he hasn’t already. He just started as a freshman at Northeastern U, but you would’ve never guessed that. When he stood up there wearing his black t-shirt sporting 3 versions of the Virgin Mary: “Before, After, Way After”, with the Blessed Mother’s face silk-screened in black, brown, then white skin tones, I knew this cat was deep. TU PHAN performed a piece about birth in a straight jacket, clasping his arms around his torso and tilting his head from side to side, while spitting a riff on the constitutional right to bear arms yet being armless and just wanting to be able to touch and be free. Deep… 18yo.

At the end of every open mic portion, some of the resident MCs freestyle.

David Kong started to beat box and I thought it was just one of the CDs playing background beats forever, but it was David. For real.

Then PEN (yes, his name is Pen) grabbed the mic, rappin’ about stinky tofu and being from West Philly like Fresh Prince. Hilarious.

Next was Ash, who Giles gave a shout-out to earlier because he’s moving to NYC, dropped a rhyme about “stay[ing] out of the rewind”. Amen, Amen.

David brought up his friend Ahman and the crowd threw him some crazy words to freestyle like “hippopotamus” and “Pokeman”, but Ahman spit it just about as good as any neighborhood cipher I’ve seen.


Emily Lawsin performs at East Meets Words, Cambridge 9.12.08. Photo by Stephanie Kao.

Emily Lawsin performs at East Meets Words, Cambridge 9.12.08. Photo by Stephanie Kao.

So after the Open Mic, I performed 4 or 5 of my “classic” poems, but I’ll let others blog or comment on what they thought of the performance. (Please comment below!) I sold out of my books, and one elder in the crowd who bought one, came up and said he was moved by my “No More Moments of Silence” poem, and “mad” that it wasn’t published somewhere yet. I’m workin’ on it, I’m workin’ on it. (You can see/hear portions of an earlier version of the poem in the Philippine Studies Endowment video here.)


MANY THANKS to everyone who showed up last night: it was so heartwarming to see you! Isangmahal/One Love to all the organizers, especially founder/performer Giles Li (long live Giles Li!), who invited me to feature, gave me all the low down, and has been incredibly helpful in our transition to this new place; Van, who answered all my questions; David, who showed me the space and lit up the room when he smiled; Eugene, who recorded the show and was kind enough to give me a last-minute lift home; Ash, who gave a fabulous intro as emcee, even right after being winded from his freestyle performance; Sejal, who greeted me and told me some of the cool stuff they’re trying to do at Wellesley; Pedro, who spoke to me using the reverent Filipino “po” (so sweet); Pen, for all his energy, skillz, and his perfect name; Theresa, for welcoming me, thanking me and echoing my sentiments of “feeling blessed”; to Delia & Tae, for coming all the way to Cambridge even though it was probably past Tae’s bed time, and for welcoming me even before I moved; to everyone who designed and posted flyers/emails, to Stephanie Kao for bringing her whole house and taking pictures, and to anyone else I may have missed.

I feel so blessed to be able to now live in the same area as the Boston Progress Arts Collective! Your bookstore, your bprlive.org radio station, your collective of community conscious people, and the fact that you’re doing all of this with absolutely no money in a major East Coast, predominantly white metropolis, are all incredibly inspiring to me. (Never mind that the bookstore is down the street from the oldest and most prestigious university in the country, the same esteemed university which doesn’t even have an Asian American Studies program: that’s a whole other post/struggle.) I sensed that some of the BPAC members are worried about a few of the core people moving on, or being able to retain their bookstore space, and I just kept thinking to myself: if art and music are the avenues to one’s soul, then the beat will go on. The movement will go on. BPAC and “East Meets Words” will go on! Mabuhay B-PAC / Long live B-PAC!! Word.

MARAMING SALAMAT/MAHALO/ARIGATO/THANK YOU SO MUCH for allowing me to feature at East Meets Words. I will never forget it. Looking so forward to working with ya’ll even more.

Makibaka! Fight the Struggle!
Mahal, Salamat, at Ingat / Love, Thanks, and Take Care,


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