In 2022, the Academy of American Poets invited twelve poets to each curate a month of poems. In this short Q&A, Joseph O. Legaspi discusses his curatorial approach and his own creative work.
Poets.org: Welcome to the Guest Editor Q&A, hosted by the Academy of American Poets. My name is Mary Sutton and I’m senior content editor at the Academy. I’m here with January’s Guest Editor for Poem-a-Day, Joseph O. Legaspi. Joseph is the author of the collections Threshold and Imago. Joseph, thank you for joining me for the Q&A.
Joseph O. Legaspi: Oh, thank you for having me.
Poets.org: Let's jump right in. How did you approach curating Poem-a-Day?
Legaspi: As soon as I received the invitation from the Academy of American Poets, the Rolodex in my mind started spinning. The first names I plucked out were of Asian American O.G.’s, whom I was surprised to learn were not already featured in the Poem-a-Day series, these poets who helped engender my love of the art form. I then scoured the Academy website and ended up with a list of the missing poets whose work and humanity I cared for and admired. I’m proud to say that about ninety percent of the poets I solicited will be newly added into the ecosystem of Poets.org. For me, this is about inclusion and representation and diversity. Cast a wide net, at least to the extent the month of January could reach. There’s always more work to be done, of course. Essentially, these poets and poems reflect the multitudinous, intersectional, intercultural, and familial communities to which I belong as an Asian American, immigrant, queer, Gen-X resident of Queens, New York.
Poets.org: Wonderful. If you could direct readers to one poem in our collection at Poets.org, what would it be and why?
Legaspi: This is tough because, basically, what’s being asked is for me to select a single poem that would satisfy every feeling and impulse—like quench all thirst, satiate hunger, cater to the momentous and the quotidian—and that’s simply poetically impossible, I think. I also don’t like playing favorites, so I approached this by citing a few poems which I’ve used and taught in my classes during the tumultuous months. Letters Beginning with Two Lines by Czesław Miłosz, by Matthew Osman, Blackberry Eating by Galway Kinnell, On How to Use This Book by Sarah Gambito, Hummingbird Abecedarian by Aimee Nezhukumatathil, and How Can Black People Write About Flowers at a Time Like This by Hanif Abdurraqib.
Poets.org: Yeah. I wanted to ask you briefly about Sarah Gambito. She was a co-founder of Kundiman with you, correct?
Legaspi: Correct, yes.
Poets.org: Yes. Your mention, or your selection, of On How to Use This Book is so interesting. Incidentally, tonight, Poets.org is hosting a program called “Poetry and Appetite,” and this poem deals specifically with that. I think it’s interesting because Gambito includes a recipe for adobo chicken, if I’m not mistaken.
Legaspi: Yes, and she’s made it for me.
Legaspi: Multiple times.
Poets.org: Wonderful. It’s such an interesting poem because it doesn’t... Formally, it digresses a bit, and she includes that recipe in the poem. It reminds me a bit of the OULIPO novelist, Georges Perec, and how he would integrate nonliterary materials into text. I don’t know if that’s something that you do in your own work from time to time.
Legaspi: I actually don’t and, just a little bit more about Sarah’s work, is, specifically, the last book where this poem is included, Loves You. That book is basically a poetry collection in recipes, or with recipes. I think what Sarah was trying to do with that book, along with the title “Loves You,” is really a reflection of the nurturing nature of Sarah Gambito. I’ve been friends with her, again, since 2000, 2001. We created Kundiman together, so Sarah is one of those people, and she’s done this with her other two books as well, how she infuses certain things like “nonpolitical” elements into her work. I remember one poem where she talks about a Chinese food menu, so she does that a lot and I do not. I figured Sarah and a lot of other poets do these certain elements. What I can probably add to this conversation is that I have started writing more prose poetry, prose poems, and I actually teach a prose poetry flash fiction class at Fordham. For me, this is like that length where I would go to be “experimental,” because I’m not an experimental writer at all. But what I love about prose poems is that it’s the fusion of the characteristics and natures of both poetry and prose. So, it’s just a matter of, how do you have these elements be symbiotic? How do you implement these experiments, the natures of these different genres to create something both poetic and prosy, and in turn elevate either genre? That’s what I love about it. That’s the closest thing that I can think of in terms of me...infusing other elements into my work. Sorry that was lengthy.
Poets.org: No, I appreciate it. What are you reading right now, in your limited free time?
Legaspi: I often juggle reading multiple books of different genres at a time. Here, I present to my COVID-19 isolation and recovery reading list, the titles that got me through my breakthrough COVID. I was actually sick back in early November, so I had ample time to just be in bed and read. The Unseen, which is a novel by Roy Jacobsen. A paperback claimed to me by my good friend, a writer, Idra Novey, many months ago, but I didn’t feel the inclination to read it then. Idra must be prescient because the story of a family on an isolated island in Norway was an escapist wonder. I’ve also devoured, too, Kira Madden’s memoir Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls. Currently, I’m in the middle of Erika Lee’s illuminating historical survey, The Making of Asian America, and as a companion piece, Afterparties, a collection of superb, superb short stories centering the lives of Cambodian Americans, by the late Anthony Veasna So.
As for poetry, I reread Tiana Nobile’s Cleave, which is a complex and affecting collection which I’m teaching in my NYU class; Cindy Veach’s Her Kind keeps me company as well, with its incantatory spells. And, finally, my poet brother, Patrick Rosal, sent me his new and selected The Last Thing, which has brought me back fully into health.
Poets.org: Incidentally, Erika Lee’s book is on my own reading list, so that’s something I have to get to.
Legaspi: Oh, my God. It’s amazing. Yeah. I’m only two thirds of the way, but it’s very illuminating.
Poets.org: Yeah. There’s been so much discussion about Anthony Veasna So and his tragic passing, and Afterparties, which is now this award-winning collection that will probably be on future syllabi. Why did you choose that as a companion piece for Lee’s book?
Legaspi: I chose it as a companion piece in terms of... What Erika Lee’s book actually focuses on is the, for lack of a better word, origins of Asians in the United States. So, primarily the focus is on the first wave of immigration—the Chinese, the Japanese, and also the Filipinos, surprisingly. Not a lot of people know this fact that Filipinos were here really early on as part of the galleons trading between Manila and Spain... Manila and Acapulco, Mexico because of the Spanish colonization. So, Filipinos were here earlier on. Afterparties kind of lent itself as a companion piece, not only because it’s fiction, it’s another way to tell the story or stories of a people, but because it focuses on Cambodian Americans, which is one of the “newer” immigrants, Asian immigrants, into the country. So, I think it’s a good book end, having an origin story and where we are now. Linguistically, of course, it’s so young and it’s so hip, Veasna’s book, so that, in itself, the text itself, having this academic, historical, heavy tone, and this breezy and yet affecting and funny and emotional short stories collection, and also being from Southern California, Afterparties also speaks to me in that way because that’s the landscape that I grew up in.
Poets.org: What are you working on now in your writing, teaching, and publishing life?
Legaspi: Well, with the fall semester drawing to a close, I’m working on my spring semester’s prose poetry and flash fiction classes for them. But, of course, I’ll take a breather a couple weeks in between teaching gigs to tinker with my new manuscript and maybe write a new poem or two.
Poets. org: Can you share with us any prospective selections from your syllabus?
Legaspi: Oh, what do you mean? Oh, you mean what's in this syllabus? What texts we’re reading?
Legaspi: Oh, okay.
Poets.org: If that’s allowed. I don't know if that’s allowed, but I’m assuming it is.
Legaspi: I’m guilty because I’m recycling, and I’m done with my syllabus, yes, but definitely every time I teach a prose poetry, flash fiction class, I use Charles Simic’s The World Doesn’t End, which is the seminal piece of prose poetry work. I also use this anthology, actually, called Micro Fiction by... Oh my God, I forgot his name. I think the editor is, Jerome Stern, I believe, is the name of the editor, but this book was published back in the 19... oh, God. In the early 2000s, I believe.* So, what I actually have my students do during the flash fiction segment... Basically, the main difference between these definitions of flash fiction, short shorts, micro fiction, it’s basically just the length; so, I actually start them writing a five-hundred-word flash fiction piece and then a 250-word piece and then a one-hundred-word piece. That’s very interesting, what they come up with, and also, it’s a great exercise in excising the fat within a story. Also, in terms of images, too, being selective in terms of imagery, because also the ultimate goal of flash fiction is yes, to tell a story, not a plot-driven story, but illuminating a moment of catharsis. So, that’s what I love, too, in terms of prose poetry and flash fiction, because that’s one of the main similarities. Capturing the minutiae that opens up, that is telling of a truth of human nature.
Poets.org: Thank you so much, Joseph, for sharing your ideas and your time with us.
Legaspi: Thank you very much, Mary. It’s been such a pleasure.
*Micro Fiction: An Anthology of Fifty Really Short Stories was published by W. W. Norton in 1996.