Saturday, December 10, 2016

Resistance Radio Heart: Beyond a book launch

A big thanks to everyone who made it through the rain to join Margaret Rhee and Kearny Street Workshop to celebrate the release of her chapbook Radio Heart, or How Robots Fall Out of Love. It was a packed room and a packed schedule as audience members got to see performances by Debbie Yee, Oscar Bermeo, Maria Fiani, Virgie Tovar, Sean Y Manzano, Isela Ford, Jennifer Hasegawa, Annah Anti-Palindrome, and myself.

The evening was organized by Margaret and the members of Kearny Street Workshop to be more than just an everyday book launch, but to give back to a space that had given so much to her when she was an emerging writer. As mentioned in a previous post in November, they wanted to honor the legacy of Truong Tran, who played a pivotal role in the literary and cultural growth of so many in the Bay Area and beyond.

This week was the closing week for the Arc Gallery's Sacred and Profane exhibit which shares space with Kearny Street Workshop. So it was impressive to see the diverse and intriguing artworks on display during the reading. As one of the jurors pointed out, they were "looking for artists who were taking on aspects of sacred, profane and, especially, a combination of the two to create a synergic objective. The standout pieces would play with the interactions between the two in an imaginative and unique way; be it a assemblage reliquary made of everyday objects or a photograph in a commonplace setting with a supernatural, otherworldly implication. These works make the viewer question what it is that inspires reverence and what it is we consider to be obscene—and perhaps question our thoughts on both within the context of our culture."   This tied in well with the ideas Margaret had about gathering artists, activists, citizens of the Bay Area, in resistance and solidarity, particularly in light of social shifts since November.

Jason Bayani, who helped bring me in to teach my first class at Kearny Street Workshop earlier this year, helped out in many ways, including serving as the DJ providing some great listening for everyone as we waited to begin. Be sure to check out his collection, Amulet, if you get the chance.
Paul Ocampo, a board member of Kearny Street Workshop, did a wonderful job as the MC for the evening, helping to put much of the proceedings into context and keeping us all running on time. It was easy to see this evening meant a lot to him.

Oscar Bermeo was the first poet too read this evening. I first became aware of Oscar through the work of poeta Barbara Jane Reyes ten years ago. I loved seeing him perform this night. He told how much Truong Tran's teaching meant to him when he had first arrived in the Bay Area, and then presented three of his poems. Oscar was one of the poets who read during my book launch nearly 10 years ago in Minneapolis for my very first full-length book. He's since continued to be an energizing and dynamic voice in his community. He couldn't stay the whole evening, but he played a great role setting up the energy for the rest of us, although he's a VERY tough act to follow.

Each of the performers brought their own unique voice and style to the proceedings, such as Kundiman fellow Debbie Yee, who explained a line in her bio about being "your friend." Not just for Margaret and Truong, but for everyone, and how much we needed to be there for one another in the years ahead as we organize for the next steps. Musical performances by Annah Anti-Palindrome and Jennifer Hasegawa were heartfelt and touching, as were the testimonials recognizing the significance of Truong Tran's work.

It was a night where long-standing friendships were affirmed and memories shared. There was laughter, and there was fire. For some, it was their very first time reading their work before a crowd. For me, in my 25 years of performing and writing around the world, this marked only the second time I've ever read in San Francisco, so I was honored to be a part of this event. 

I read my 2013 poem, "The Robo Sutra" which first appeared in Expanded Horizons and later in my book DEMONSTRA, which won the Book of the Year Award from the Science Fiction Poetry Association in 2014. That particular poem captured many of the themes we were discussing and sharing throughout the evening, from community to technology and spirit, social concerns, and a question of kindness in a modern world. It was also one that was being written around the same time Margaret was writing many of the pieces that would eventually become Radio Heart, or How Robots Fall Out of Love.

Throughout the evening, Margaret herself was generous and grateful to everyone who helped make this possible. She brought her trademark wit and intelligence to the foreground as she read three of her poems, including her timely piece "What We Write, What We Believe. An Asian American Poet’s Manifesto" from Amerasia Journal. She read with a joyous confidence and throughout the evening embodied a spirit of inclusion and connection, happily introducing guests to one another. And as several pointed out, she wore an awesome space dress for this special occasion.

Truong Tran graciously accepted the award from CAPRE (Concerned Artists and Poets for Racial Equity) and read a touching piece he had written for his students in the aftermath of the November elections to give them strength. It was easy to see how much he continues to be respected and admired for his work in helping others, and for constantly modeling an artist's life in every aspect of his being. Whether it was donating furniture to newly arrived artists in the Bay Area or giving them a place to stay, pushing them to complete their education or just being hard on a poem that needed someone to be hard on it, he was there for many of those assembled at Kearny Street Workshop that night.

Afterwards, there was a brief reception, and people were able to see some of the specialty books from Mystery Parade, as well as a delicious cake and other delights. Some very wonderful writers, scholars, thinkers and community builders attended Resistance Radio Heart, including the award-winning poet Jennifer S. Cheng, author of House A, whose debut book I recently profiled in my post on Asian American poetry books of 2016

I appreciated the grand moments as well as the smaller ones at this gathering. As the year winds down, I hope many consider donating to Kearny Street Workshop, who goes to such tremendous lengths to build a community in the Bay Area for Asian Americans, our friends and family. They are making a difference for both emerging writers and experienced ones, and they're needed.

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