Joseph O. Legaspi leads an exciting group of Asian American poets

The Massachusetts Poetry Festival welcomes emerging poets in several of its events. One of those bright new stars is Joseph O. Legaspi, the co-founder of Kundiman, a nonprofit organization serving Asian American poetry.  Legaspi, author of Imago (CavanKerry Press,) is the winner of a Global Filipino Literary Award and a poetry fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts. His poems appeared or are forthcoming in American Life in Poetry, From the Fishouse, jubilat, World Literature Today, PEN International, Smartish Pace, The Spoon River Poetry Review, Gay & Lesbian Review, The Normal School, and the anthologies Language for a New Century (W.W. Norton) and Tilting the Continent (New Rivers Press). He lives in Queens, NY, and works at Columbia University.

He will be one of the poets reading at the session Kundiman: Love Songs for the Peabody Essex Museum on Saturday, May 14, 3:15 p.m.

 Kundiman’s role at the Peabody Essex Museum

Kundiman, a transformative group of Asian American poets dedicated to the creation, cultivation, and promotion of Asian American poetry, will read poems inspired by the rich displays of Asian art and artifacts currently housed at the Peabody Essex Museum. Through their ekphrastic works, poets Ching-In Chen, Joseph O. Legaspi, Jee Leong Koh, Purvi Shah, and Bushra Rehman will connect the past to the present through poetry based on the museum’s historical and contemporary works.

We asked Legaspi to talk about the panel he is on and about Kundiman. Check out his poem at the end of the interview.

You are based in New York City, but this is not your first time attending the Massachusetts Poetry Festival. What were your impressions of the festival when you attended in 2009?

Being an audience member at the 2009 MA Poetry Festival, I had such a wonderful time! I thought the panels and readings were great, and I came away with further insight not only into my work, but poetry in general. The big, oftentimes ungraspable entity that is poetry. Moreover, it was great to have the opportunity to hear the local voices: the poets of Massachusetts. There was such a sense of camaraderie and cheer.  I’m excited to be taking part in the 2011 festival!

Tell us a little about your session at the PEM. Who should attend?

The session consists of Asian American poets who are affiliated with Kundiman, a nonprofit organization serving Asian American poetry. We are all reading poems that we’ve recently written responding to the artwork at the Peabody Essex Museum, particularly the “Asian Export” collection, as well as the other Asian arts exhibits. As immigrants and children of immigrants, the Kundiman poets would offer an interesting insight into the artwork. I can’t wait to hear what the others came up with, what poems were triggered by these ancient art pieces—figurines, paintings, furnishing—and how they relate to our current existence as part of a minority group in America.

This session should be attended by those who are interested in how mediums of art influence and interact with one another. How a painting can inspire words, how an art piece can be perceived, translated, cast to new light. This session is about alternate voices and perspectives. It would be an excellent introduction to new writings by Asian American poets. Apart from the poems responding to the PEM artwork, the Kundiman poets will also read selections from their own work.

Can you give us a preview or talk about of your poem based on the artwork at the PEM? Tell us about the process of writing the poem?

 As funny as it seems, the image that I had chosen, the one that I kept gravitating to, unbeknownst to me then is related to the themes that I’m exploring in my new manuscript: the dualities of life, the otherness. I love this about the creative mind because despite its mysteries, it has its obsessions. You have your obsessions, and your triggers, and it’s interesting how you gravitate toward certain things.

As for the process, I stared and stared and stared at the image, which I also printed out and carried with me. I did research on the piece: its origins, what it’s made of, etc. Then I wrote several drafts until one gelled. I’m still revising, actually.

What are you looking most forward to at this year’s festival?

The readings by Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Brian Turner, Mark Doty and others. I’m also excited about talking to high school students. Instilling the love of poetry to the younger generation is very important: these are the future poets and readers of poetry!

What is on the horizon for Kundiman? (Alice James? Summer retreat?)

Yes, along with the Alice James Books Board, we’re selecting the second recipient of the Kundiman Poetry Prize soon. Also, the Kundiman & Verlaine reading series is going on seven years strong in lower Manhattan, with the next reading scheduled for Sunday, May 22. Lastly, the heart of our mission, the 8th annual Kundiman Asian American Poetry Retreat on the beautiful Rose Hills campus of Fordham University is from June 15-19. We have 24 talented emerging poets from across the nation who will be under the tutelage of Kimiko Hahn, Karen An-hwei Lee, and Jon Pineda. It’ll be phenomenal as usual! To learn more about Kundiman, visit


Imagined Love Poem to my Mother from my Father

My mermaid, I watched you scaling milkfish.
Your hands and arms were silver,
and your body flecked
with otherworldly raindrops.
You were a silver mine to be mined.
Perched on a high branch of your mother’s
mango tree, I saw only a glimmer
of the blade as you scaled the fish, upand-
down strokes, repeatedly,
gracefully, like an artist whose gift flows
through her veins. A strand of your hair
danced across your forehead, sweat
trickled down the joyous strained lines
of your neck, and your breasts, like twin
bells, I heard their transcendental
sounds. The glistening, naked
milkfish escaped the warm Pacific
for such honor. Kismet, chosen by Neptune,
it entangled itself on the fisherman’s
net and beckoned you with its fresh,
clear eyes. You sliced
its stomach, sweet blade twisting
in me, scooped out its innards,
the heart, pulled out the gills
from underneath its head’s protective plates.
I almost fell off the tree, there was a deep
aching in my chest, and my breathing
was shallow. Crouched beside the spigot,
your brown arms pumped briskly for water
as you cleaned the fish, cradled
by the softest hands, blood
and scales streaming onto the earth.
Didn’t you hear the fish mouthing my words
as you were salting it: Do unto me, the spy
up on the thick fruit tree, as you have done
unto the milkfish? One day I hope
to recite for you these verses
and in my voice you will hear,
from across the oceans surrounding
the archipelago, as if reverberated through
the ages, the voice of our future son.