As part of the 2022 Dear Poet project, students around the country and the world wrote letters to Aileen Cassinetto in response to a video of her reading her poem “There are no kings in America” aloud. Aileen Cassinetto wrote letters back to ten of these students; their letters and her replies are included below.
Aileen Cassinetto also wrote a response to all of the participants of this year's Dear Poet project.
I’m deeply honored by your thoughtful reading of my poem, “There are no kings in America.” Your letters moved me more than I can ever tell you. A question that came up many times was: what inspired me to write this poem. Poetry is a story of being human. It is a way to make, to witness, to advocate, and to resist. I wrote this poem three years ago in response to immigration reforms that I felt were unnecessarily cruel and dehumanizing. It was a hard poem to write in that it necessitated reading articles, reports and first-person narratives of loss, despair and sacrifice. However, it was important to me that my poem will also be one of hope and resilience. I wanted to juxtapose present-day stories of migration with the founding principles which built this nation. At the heart of my poem is the question of what it truly means to be American.
Some of you also asked me if I believed in the American Dream and what it meant to me. No one comes to America without believing in the American Dream. The issue is that the American Dream has been redefined so many times over the last one hundred years. I think that it means different things to different people, and is now mostly associated with success, wealth and well-being. However, the American Dream was originally about equality, justice and democracy. When I first came to America, it was easier and more acceptable to say that I came here for economic reasons and to reunite with my family. In my heart of hearts, though, I came because I knew I could be a poet here.
Lastly, you asked me why I write poetry. I write poetry because it offers a world of possibilities and the possibility of a better world. I write poetry because there are stories that need to be told, and a kinder future that asks to be pursued. I hope that you will keep writing. I hope that you will keep reading poetry. I hope that you will also find a way to tell your story through a poem. Thank you so much for your beautiful letters. It’s an honor to read them and get to know you. I wish you every bright and good thing.
With much respect and my very best wishes,
Aileen Cassinetto reads "There are no kings in America" for Dear Poet 2022
Dear Ms. Aileen Cassinetto,
I really enjoyed reading your There are no kings in America poem. Out of the three that my English teacher assigned us, yours was my favorite. Coming from an immigrant family, being first-generation born here in America, I felt like your poem was the most relatable. I appreciate how this poem recognizes the fact that immigrants make up America; they make this land, the land where most have freedom, unique. Another thing that stood out to me in your poem was the explanation of how although some are immigrants, and others aren’t, and how we all have different backgrounds and a unique mix of ethnicities, no one is “superior” to one another; we all survive off of the same thing, we all breathe the same air, we are all one, and we all are equal.
I hope that you’ve continued to create poems as relatable and meaningful as this one. My question is; how did this poem come to fruition? Did you feel as if it were necessary to cover the fact that we all are equal? Did your experience with being an immigrant who moved from the Philippines to America motivate you to create this poem?
You are one talented writer!
I love how you engaged with “There are no kings in America” with such care. Thank you so much for your kind words and taking the time to share with me your thoughts. They are appreciated more than I can ever say!
You asked how this poem came to fruition. I wrote it three years ago to present to our county Board of Supervisors. I remember it was around the 4th of July and I knew I wanted my poem to be a commentary on what it means to be an American. It was initially inspired by the General Orders written by George Washington on July 9, 1776 ordering the Declaration of Independence to be read aloud to members of the Continental Army in New York. In addition to the Declaration of Independence and the events surrounding the American Independence celebration in New York City led by General Washington, I also drew from “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus, as well as the stories of other immigrants. I felt it was important to highlight the concept of equality, and the fact that America was built on a dream, and immigrants have been coming here for over 200 years to sustain this dream.
Issues of immigration and citizenship can be very divisive, and the year 2019 was a particularly tough year for immigrants and refugees. I wanted my poem to honor the sacrifices of the founding fathers and the colonists who were all immigrants, but at the same time, I wanted to compare their actions and views on immigration with our immigration reforms and actions particularly involving children and families. I think that being an immigrant myself helped me write this poem through the lens of empathy. Like you, I believe that we are all equal, and that there is a place for all of our stories here.
Thank you so much for writing to me. I loved reading your letter!
With much respect and my very best wishes,
Dear Ms. Cassinetto,
My name is Nick. I am a 15 year old freshman at Bishop Brady High School in Concord, New Hampshire, where I was born and raised. We are separated by 3 time zones, a little over 3,000 miles, and by a generation or two. We have probably never encountered and likely would not have had I hastily scrolled past your poem. Yet, we’re connected in an undeniable way that I doubt you’d misunderstand—we are both Pinoy. Kamusta ka po, kabayan?
I greatly appreciated your poem “There are no kings in America.” While I am unfamiliar with your work, I felt connected to your poem and immediately understood what you meant. As a second-generation immigrant, I must grapple with what the meaning of what it is to be an American as a byproduct of my parents’ sacrifice in coming here. I thought that your poem gracefully touched upon the fact that America is built upon the struggles of the subjugated and will always be empowered by unity. The United States is famously the “melting pot” or “salad bowl” of the world. But what does that really mean? I felt that your poem captured the deeper meaning and theme of America’s oft-called moniker without ever saying those exact words.
I wanted to ask about the creative process behind this poem. Did any specific instances inspire it, or have you been harboring these sentiments for a while? I loved the imagery and thought the last two sentences of the poem summarized it beautifully. Despite not mentioning the word “Filipino,” I found the poem relatable in an inexplicable way.
I find it amazing how poetry can span divisions and divides. Living in a state that is a little over 90% white, I never really encountered many Filipinos outside of my Titos and Titas and closest friends who somehow also found themselves in our city of 43,000. I’ve always understood the value of kabayan and I’m very grateful for stumbling upon your poem. It truly spoke to me and honed in on my identity as a Filipino-American.
Maraming salamat at ingat po!
Kumusta! Thank you so much for your letter! It meant so much to me that you greeted me in Filipino, and I am even more grateful that we connected through poetry. Like your parents, I came to America as an adult. I know what you mean when you speak of your parents’ sacrifice.
My poem drew from many inspirations: the Declaration of Independence, Emma Lazarus’ poem, “The New Colossus,” events and policies on immigration, and personal stories and perspectives on the immigrant experience. At the heart of this poem is the question of what it means to be an American, which you immediately understood. The last two lines were referring to the toppling of King George III’s statue in New York on July 9, 1776, after the reading of the Declaration of Independence. I wrote this poem back in 2019 when immigration policies, I felt, were particularly harmful and cruel. Those lines as well as the poem’s title were a plea to remember what America stands for. (I admit that having grown up in the Philippines during Martial Law made me wary of displays or inclinations toward autocracy, where power does not reside with the people.)
I also appreciate you asking about my creative process. Most of my poems are research-based. I get ideas from the articles and books I read, and by observing the world around me. I also draw from my culture and personal history. For this particular poem, I think it helped that I was raised in a collectivist culture because it allowed me to look at America’s history from a culture of “we”— what we are, what we needed, what we had to do, what we can do, and what we can be.
You are right in that the U.S. has been called a “melting pot” as well as a “salad bowl;” the first metaphor is about assimilation through erasure, while the second is about multiculturalism without a shared identity. A third view sees the U.S. as a vast mosaic where diverse cultures coexist to form a whole society. I don’t have all the answers, but what I can tell you is that this poem allowed me to humanize America’s immigrant story, and I am glad that it spoke to you.
Thank you so much again for taking the time to write to me all the way from New Hampshire. I hope that you will always find community wherever you are. Please keep well, ingat lagi.
Respectfully, and always in kapwa,
Dear Aileen Cassinetto,
I really liked this poem because you were talking about how in America we do not have a king and how we are all free. One of my favorite parts of the poem was when you said “We needed the faith and grit of people who were not yet Americans.” That really spoke out to me because of all the wars and battles that have happened. Although we need other people to have faith and grit we also need Americans to have those traits too because everyone is equal. Another part that I really liked reading is when you said “To be an American is to recognize the sacrifice”. I also really liked that part because I think that this would be a great quote. I also like it because it shows that people are caring to one another and they will sacrifice what they have for others. Or at least most people will.
One line in your poem that connects to what I was just saying is when you said “Do we now still pledge to each other our lives, our fortune, our sacred honor. I also like that because I can connect to it because I have a lot of people in my world that would try and do everything for me. I hope you do too. At the beginning of your poem you said that “we are not that kind of country” and how we are a sanctuary for all kinds of people no matter what their experiences are or how wealthy they are. I chose to write to you because I can connect to a lot of things in this poem and just overall this was my favorite poem. I would really like to hear back from you but I know that you will have a lot of letters because you are talented with your writing.
A question that I have for you is how do you come up with your poems? Do you write them from experience, passions, or just because that’s what popped into your head that day? Another question that I have is what was your favorite part of your poem? I like hearing about what other people think and I think it would be really cool to hear your perspective on this because you wrote it. I would like to hear what you think about your own poem. Another question is what was your favorite part of the poem to write, what was the most challenging part to write? When you were younger did you want to grow up to become a poet or something else? My last question is what are your hobbies or things that you really enjoy/ really like doing?
The way that you wrote your letter tells me that you are a very kind and thoughtful person. It makes me happy to know that there are a lot of people who would do anything for you.
Thank you so much for writing to me, and for asking such great questions! I will try to answer them as best I can. You asked about how I come up with my poems, we all approach the art of writing or reading poetry differently. For me, I get inspiration from various sources, like books, articles (scientific journals are a treasure trove of ideas), things in nature, favorite places. These are all raw materials for writing a poem. I also draw from my personal experiences. I’ve seen how inspiration can come from the most mundane activity or the most ordinary object. I find that if something resonated with me, it most likely will resonate with someone else, too.
You also asked about my favorite part of the poem. I’d say it was quoting directly from the Declaration of Independence. I thought it would add another layer to the poem if another immigrant invoked the words originally crafted by the founding fathers. My favorite part to write would be detailing what it took to be a nation. The most challenging part was about the children in camps or appearing alone in immigration courts. It was hard because in order to write this poem, I had to do a lot of research and read articles describing the children’s situation. Overall, I think my poem delivered the story that I wanted to tell.
When I was younger, it never occurred to me to want to become a poet or that I could be a poet. It was just not an option. I was all set to pursue a career in healthcare! However, my earliest books were poetry books, and I truly believe that they were responsible for the way that I tend to look at the world in terms of relationships and how we are all connected. Outside of poetry, I love visiting museums, going on road trips, spending time with family and friends, and meeting people like you! I hope that something in my letter inspired you. I especially hope that you are able to enjoy and pursue the things you really love. Thank you so much again for taking the time to read my poem and write to me!
Sending my very best wishes to you and your loved ones,
Dear Ms. Cassinetto,
My name is Abid and I am a junior at Edina High School in Minnesota. Your poem, “There are no kings in America” resonates with me because I am a third generation American; my maternal grandparents immigrated from Pakistan and my paternal grandparents immigrated from India. I feel I understand American culture while retaining and celebrating my Asian heritage. In your poem, I enjoy how you recognize the benefits and potential for American society but also realize areas for improvement. To me, it appears that you call on the moral ideals that our country was founded on in order to push for change. How have your own experiences growing up in the Philippines shaped your idea of American morals?
I love how you use personal pronouns which emphasize a sense of community within America. The line “held together by an idea / our immigrant fathers believed in” (4-5) immediately stuck out to me. It shows how nearly every American shares a commonality: we have an ancestor or relative who moved to this country. For me, it highlights the ethnic and cultural diversity in the United States and shows that we, as a people, should be proud of our differences, but also have the ability to connect.
I am intrigued by your discussion of food with “More than a pound of meat / with bone and gristle, / or salt and fish and a grill of peas” (13-15). These staple foods provided sustenance for soldiers in desperate need during the revolutionary war. However, I enjoy how you connect how the food is not the most significant part of the battle when you state, “we needed the faith and grit of people / who were not yet Americans” (16-17). Ultimately, the spirit and courage of the people exceed materialism. It is more important to have a strong sense of community than it is to have physical items. I love how you connect this idea back to your initial ideas of immigration by stating that future generations are the foundation of the country. This discussion reminds me of one your other poems “Legacy,” specifically the line “don’t forget to bring rice” (11-12). The variety in foods that are considered crucial between the different time periods and people fascinates me. It prompts me to think about what foods and ideas I would consider essential; do I choose aloo paratha with kheema and respect for family, or a cheeseburger with fries and responsibility; perhaps a combination of both? What would your essential foods and ideas be?
I enjoyed your last lines, specifically “There are no kings in America. / Only gilded men we can topple / again and again” (34-36). The subtle difference between the pretentious dictions of kings and gilded reflect the wealth of people in America but also illustrate the lack of supremacy in American society. It references previous ideas in the poem of the American revolution and immigration by establishing how history repeats itself. However, I noticed how you focus on the male sex with kings and men. Is this a commentary on the underrepresentation of women in politics or possibly something else?
Overall, I thoroughly enjoy your poem. It does an incredible job at analyzing the true meaning of America and its values. You retain a critical yet optimistic tone and look to areas of improvement for the country. Your writing inspires me to further my own writing. In the past, I have not fully enjoyed poetry in school, but your poem has a resonating effect on me and my ideas of poetry.
Thank you so much for your deeply insightful letter! I am honored by your careful reading of my poems. Like your grandparents, I was raised in a collectivist culture. I am also a product of centuries of colonization. The Philippines was under Spanish rule first until Spain sold the islands to the U.S., and for the first half of the 20th century, the whole archipelago was shaped to be American in identity, values, and system of government. While most Filipinos are familiar with American culture, I remember growing up and being told by U.S.-based relatives that Americans tend to be too independent (or individualistic), which is opposite the Filipino core value of “kapwa” where community and family are valued above all else. However, having lived here for over 20 years, I’ve seen neighborhoods and communities come together and rally around a cause, particularly during the early months of the pandemic (like running errands for housebound or elderly neighbors).
I love how you engaged with the imagery of food, and connected it with identity! How brilliant are these lines: “do I choose aloo paratha with kheema and respect for family, or a cheeseburger with fries and responsibility; perhaps a combination of both?” For me, my essential food items are rice and coffee (the former reminds me of my Asian roots; the latter of contemporary American culture and ritual).
Thank you for pointing out the poem’s apparent focus on the male gender. I had not thought about it as being a commentary on the underrepresentation of women in politics. However, I am a women’s rights advocate and this seeps into my writing, sometimes subconsciously. When I wrote this poem three years ago, I meant it as a commentary on immigration reforms which were authored and signed by men. I contrasted these with events surrounding the Declaration of Independence, and the actions and views of the founding fathers and colonists, who were all immigrants and who fought to topple a monarch so that no king (or queen) will ever rule America.
I hope that I was able to answer all your questions! It has truly been a pleasure reading your letter and corresponding with you. I hope that you will continue to enjoy reading a variety of poetry. As I said in an interview, a poem is an ecosystem where life happens, where our story connects with other stories. I am so grateful that poetry allowed our paths to cross.
With deep respect,
Dear Aileen Cassinetto,
My name is Melody and I attend high school in Nipomo, a small town north of Santa Barbara in California. I’ve read many poems throughout my life, some of which I’ve enjoyed or agreed to, or some I couldn't completely understand and relate with. I genuinely like themes that are about the dark realities of this world or how people face and overcome difficult challenges that are presented throughout their life. When the pandemic hit, there were many negative things going on in the world and in my life. Obviously, the pandemic affected everyone differently, but it motivated me to start writing. I got an empty journal I had lying around and just started writing. I just kept writing and writing trying to better express the way I feel and trying to understand myself a little more about what and how I actually felt.
In your poem "There are no kings in America," you make many points about how being American means "to recognize the sacrifice" of those who are constantly hardworking people trying to justify their reason to be accepted into a foreign land while trying to live a better life. I admire how you are able to express your thoughts based on your history or experiences about how the world treats and views those who are "not yet American." What do you do when you can't express how you feel over certain situations? I've encountered many people—such as friends and family—who come to America in hopes of finding a better future, whether it’s for themselves or their children. My aunt is a great example in this case. She is from El Salvador and constantly comes to America looking for job opportunities to earn money for her family. Although she studied and graduated college with a bachelor's degree in her country, none of that matters when she looks for a job here. It's as if she never went to school. I've always viewed that as unfair, how they just toss it aside as something meaningless even though it took so much effort, money, and time.
There are many other stories about immigrants with friends and family who also struggle with not having enough recognition for the work they do. Like you said, "the heft of a child in a camp is not meant for children." This is something I completely agree with. Children shouldn't have to be working to try to live. Instead, they should be going to school. But this is just one issue out of many that immigrants go through when coming to America.
I hope to one day be able to express and communicate my true feelings, one being the difficulties that non American families go through, and completely agree with everything that is mentioned in your poem. How would you deal with the challenges that they'd face? Why does being different matter? I wonder why there are "only gilded men we can topple again and again?"
With lots of love,
Thank you so much for your beautiful letter. I was very moved by your honesty and compassion. I am glad that writing helped you process the trauma brought on by the pandemic. So many people I know have turned to poetry during and after the pandemic as a survival mechanism and a way to heal.
I don’t always know how to express myself. Sometimes it helps to just take a deep breath. Other times, it helps to talk to people I trust. Mostly, I turn to poetry. I find that it helps open up feelings I don’t have words for yet, or express what can’t be spoken.
I am so sorry to hear about your family’s difficulties. It saddens me that immigrants have always struggled with issues of belonging and exclusion. When I am made to feel different, I tap into the very thing that makes me different and draw strength from it.
We each carry within us, in equal measure, a world of trauma and boundless grace, which is why a poem can resonate so deeply because poems are born of the ferocity and gentleness of our lived experience.
As to my poem’s ending, “gilded men” is a way to remember how an untrained army of immigrants brought down the statue of a tyrant king in 1776; and in 2019, the year I wrote this poem, it was a reminder that there are still no kings in America, still no place for the desires of a few to have absolute power.
I hope that I was able to answer all your questions. Thank you again for taking the time to read my poem and reach out to me. I hope that you will continue keeping a journal. The way that I tell my story is through poetry, and I hope that you will also find a way to tell your story.
Much love and respect,
Dear Aileen Cassinetto
I found your poem "There are no kings in America" very inspiring. It talked about how the past and present clashing and the kind of thing America was founded on very beautifully. It is amazing how you could put into words some of the problems of how the ideas of the founders of America were implemented and you had a great ending with the words “there are no kings in America only gilded men we can topple again and again.” What were you thinking about when you wrote the poem? What exactly inspired you to write about that topic?
The poem made me feel both proud of my country for its revolutionary ideas and ashamed of the failure of how we have used those ideas. I felt as if I was being thrust into the questions of how we live today and what we can do to make things better. It made me better understand what kinds of ideas a war was fought for. What did you want the people who read your poem to feel? What did you try to share with this poem that seems filled with your ideas and emotions?
The poem seems crafted very carefully to your specific message in a way that is your own. I do not think it was done at the first try. When did you know when to stop revising? What made this different from any other poem you wrote? I really liked your poem and am glad I listened to it.
Your letter is very insightful and I find myself reading it more than once. When I wrote “There are no kings in America” three years ago, it was to ask the question of what it means to be an American. At the time, I was dismayed by immigration reforms, and the fact that not everyone was welcomed equally; who gets to come in and who gets to stay largely depended on which part of the world they were born in.
I decided to frame my poem with lines from the Declaration of Independence and the subsequent actions of the founding fathers and colonists who were not yet Americans; I also invoked Emma Lazarus’ iconic poem, “The New Colossus,” and the experiences of present-day immigrants. Knowing that readers interpret poems differently, it wasn’t my intention to rouse anyone to feel a certain way. What I wanted was for readers to revisit the founding principles that built this nation.
You are right in that this poem took many revisions. I don’t think that any poem is ever really finished, but in this case, I knew it was time to stop revising when the poem’s final line circled back to the first line which is also the title of the poem. I felt that it couldn’t get any more conclusive than that. You also ask how this poem is different from others I’ve written. It is special to me because this is the first poem I’ve written where I directly tackled citizenship and nationhood. In the course of writing it, I saw things in a different light. For the first time, I truly believed that being an immigrant or being naturalized didn’t make me any less American. Knowing this gave me the courage to tell the stories that I wanted to tell, and to encourage others to look at what’s possible and find their own light.
It meant a lot to me that you asked these questions. Thank you so much for taking the time to write to me. I am so happy and honored to have connected with you.
With much respect and kind wishes,
Dear Poet Laureate Cassinetto:
My name is Alanna. I am a Junior at Edina High school in Minnesota, in Mrs. Degener’s AP United States Literature and Language class.
Indeed, no words can encapsulate my reverence and admiration for your sensational poems and readings. Your works meander so beautifully; a journey fueled by a gentle flow of words and imagery that carries the reader from their reality into yours. As well, I tremendously admire the way in which you are able to balance vibrant figurative language with depth and create rich works that not only sound stunning but carry so much meaning as well.
Out of all of your works, however, I found that your piece “There are no kings in America” lingered with me the longest. The questions you pose to America hold a mirror to the state of our country today and haunt the reader by shattering preconceived notions of our country, revealing the difficult reality we face.
This is illustrated when you use rhetorical questions to ask us readers,
“What do we say to the native
whose lands we now inhabit?
What do we say to our immigrant
fathers who held certain truths
to be self evident?"
Indeed, it is necessary for us Americans to not allow ourselves to be blinded by our ideals, but rather, reflect on the reality of this nation. The anaphora in the former passage reveals how repeatedly our nation has forgotten the very basis of our nation; both the good and the bad of it. You remind us that:
“We are sanctuary for the hungry,
the homeless, the huddled,
held together by an idea
Our immigrant fathers believed in.” (2-5)
Truly, our nation was built by refugees, by those fleeing their home countries for a better future, and they are necessary for the life, future, and legacy of this nation.
Truly, in your own life as well you have lived in a way every single American can strive to mimic for a better world. I am amazed at all that you have accomplished and at how many lives you have changed. Your project, “Speak Poetry in San Mateo County” has no doubt helped thousands of people, and I truly admire your ability to change the world with both your beautiful words and inspired actions.
I also learned that you were born and raised in Manila, Philippines and that you bring a real and personal perspective on being a true American to this poem. I cannot imagine how you felt writing this piece, how you were masterfully able to capture not only the lofty, and hopefully attainable, ideals of the country, but also the reality of the nation’s state of affairs. I found that as you listed the many ways that the country has been struggling in supporting refugees and new American families, you reveal the importance of resolving these issues.
Traversing through your poem brought so many ideas to mind, and I wondered what were some themes that you meant to express in this poem? Was there any singular dominating emotion that led you in writing this?
I also admired the way that you challenged our government’s constrained view on humanity; you reveal that America does not belong to any one group of people, but the dreamers, the immigrants, those even not yet living in this country. In the context of kings, America is not a castle in which kings are hidden and locked away; no, we are a land of freedom, truth, and land that desires to be better.
Ultimately, your piece speaks to me about how writing inspires change. Your passion for this subject is evident, and your fight for social justice that is woven into the legacy of your life shines clearly in your poem. You inspire me on how to write and how to live, and I cannot thank you enough for all that you do to make the world a better place.
Thank you so much for your beautiful letter. Your thoughtful reading of my work moved me more than I can say. It meant a lot to me that you took the time to read my other poems as well as my background. As a poet, I couldn’t have asked for a better reader. So much of what I write is informed by my history and core values. “There are no kings in America” is an immigrant story, and you are right in saying that it is necessary for us to reflect on the reality of this nation, both the good and the bad, to move forward with the future that we choose to have.
This poem stemmed from images I saw, particularly of children, and articles I read on immigration reforms three years ago. At that time, I was due to present a poem before our county’s Board of Supervisors. I decided that I wanted my poem to be a commentary on current sociopolitical events, juxtaposed with some of the most poignant events surrounding the founding of America by immigrants 246 years ago. Some of the themes of my poem include America, immigration, history, and social justice. I don’t think that there was a singular emotion that led me to write this poem. Rather, I felt a mixture of anger and sadness, and writing this poem was a way for me to process my emotions, and yes, like you said, to inspire the change that I wanted to see.
Like many other immigrants, my heart will always be bound in the pursuit of the idea that is America. I truly believe that this country is large enough to hold all of our stories. I can tell by the way that you were posing your questions and thoughts that you are already recasting the world to be brighter and kinder. You have already impacted mine in ways that you cannot imagine. Thank you so much again for taking the time to write to me, all the way from Minnesota. Please take care, and may you have an amazing summer and an even more amazing senior year. I wish you every bright and good thing.
With much respect and kind wishes,
Dear Aileen Cassinetto,
Out of all the poems for Dear Poet 2022, “There are No Kings in America” was the most visually and sounding piece of writing I have read about America. As a young aspiring poet, topics about major issues in America motivate me to learn and write about them. Coming from an immigrant family, both my parents were born in the Philippines, similar to your background history. To add on, reading a poet with the same ethnicity is really empowering, which made this poem even more impactful.
To begin, I believe writing about the realization of “the land of the free” teaches others the problems of the systemic and built conflicts that are held in America. My favorite line was “To be an American is to recognize the sacrifice of the widow and the orphan” because the recognition of immigrants has always been hidden. White citizens do not understand the hardships that is faced to acquire citizenship and the equality that is significantly far from reach. These problems can be achieved by teaching, writing, and talking about these topics, which is very well represented in this poem.
Continuing, the duration of quarantine 2020 consisted of writing poetry about systemic racism. The recent election has also played a role of my desire to learn about politics and liberal arts. My family is from the province of Abra, north of Quezon City in the Philippines. I was born and raised in Alaska but being non-white has led to racism towards my entire family. Ultimately, leading to my love of writing and learning about these topics. Your final lines of “There are no kings in America. Only gilded men we can topple again and again” was a great way to complete the poem. I thoroughly enjoyed these lines because it is true that “gilded men” are seen as kings, which guides to the cycle of systemic racism faced in America.
To conclude, I have a few questions. What gives you motivation to keep writing? How has your life led you to wanting to become a poet? Finally, what is your favorite topic to write about? Thank you for writing such a heartfelt piece of writing about a problem that is faced daily. It is amazing seeing a Filipino achieve Poet Laureate, because it will inspire the next generation of young people of the same ethnicity, like myself, to continue with their dreams.
I’m very honored to meet a fellow Filipino writer. Thank you so much for reading “There are no kings in America” and writing to me. I’m happy to hear that my poem had a positive impact on you. This poem is especially close to my heart because it allowed me to connect my story with other immigrant stories including the founding fathers’.
I am so sorry that your family was treated differently and discriminated against because of your race. I am so sorry that you had to endure this. Poetry for me has been a way to speak the unspeakable, to process issues of equity and belonging. It also gave me agency to defy what systems of power dictated that I should be or do. You ask what motivates me to keep writing. It is that it’s the only way that I can tell a story—mine and those who cannot tell theirs.
I did not consciously set out to be a poet. As you know, this is not an option for most Filipino families. However, I met other amazing poets who mentored me, and showed me that there are many ways to shine your light and write yourself into the future that you want to see. I personally like to write about identity, social justice, and ecosystems. Themes of hope and resilience also interest me.
I hope that you will keep writing. This is the one space that is yours to do with as you will. Dream as big as you can, speak truth to power, take everyone’s breath away. Find your way home.
With much respect and always in kapwa,
Dear Aileen Cassinetto,
Your poem “There are no kings in America” stuck out to me because it is a huge irony that the United States of America, a country founded by immigrants, now openly fears, persecutes, and demonizes individuals who just want part of the “American Dream.” Where I live in San Diego was once a part of Mexico and now politicians and voters lobby against immigration at our border. I have lived through a presidency where the main campaign slogan was centered around hate. What does “build the wall” imply towards those who want to come to America? What is so scary about human beings looking for work, safety, and freedom? I am also moved by your inclusion of the homelessness crisis in our country. It takes a lot of character to shed light to problems that are not easy to solve. Your poem gives voice to the marginalized, and I hope to find a career where I can also use my platform to speak on problems that other people won’t. Poetry has the power to influence others and force individuals to confront uncomfortable truths. Have you had specific experiences that shape your beliefs? Your poem inspires me because I also want to be an artist, one who is informed and ethical just like you. You say there are no kings in America and you are correct, for even if there is a person in power that is filled with hate, we have the right to vote them out. Thank you for writing this. I enjoyed it and hope to reflect upon it and remember the history and origin of our nation and the possibilities of a more inclusive, tolerant future.
Thank you so much for reading my poem and reaching out to me. I sensed your compassion when you talked about the border wall and those who are marginalized. Looking at all the issues we have as a country, nothing seems fair. On days that I feel most helpless, I write. Poetry has helped me find a way out of the brokenness, and to write a future that I wanted to see. For me, it has been a safe space, and a place that connects and holds our shared humanity.
When I was very young, the Philippines was under Martial Law, and I grew up witnessing human rights abuses. I knew it wasn’t fair that some lives mattered more than others. I didn’t know how I was going to do it, but I knew that I wanted to make a difference. I was already in my 20s when I started writing poetry, and that opened up a world of possibilities for me. When I was appointed poet laureate, I knew that I could use my lived experience as a woman of color and an immigrant to create a space for all of our stories.
I can tell that you are an artist, too, by the way that you phrased your thoughts. You inspire me because I know that you are already making the world a better place by being who you are. As artists, we are called to witness, but we also have the power to make the idea of a just world both compelling and possible.
Thank you again for writing to me. It touched me more than I can ever say. I hope that you will keep creating art. I wish for you every bright and good thing.
With much respect and kind wishes,
Dear Aileen Cassinetto,
Your poem “There are no kings in America” reminded me of the sacrifices my parents and grandparents made immigrating to America from Vietnam in the 1980s. My dad had an especially harrowing journey as he lost his younger sister and spent a year at a refugee camp in Malaysia before arriving in San Francisco. Both he and my mom gained an enormous amount of independence at a young age as their parents had to work long hours and leave them to care for themselves.
When I hear the lines, “To be an American is to / recognize the sacrifice / of the widow and the orphan; / it is to understand the weft of tent / cities expecting caravans, / and the heft of a child in a camp not meant for children, or sitting / before a judge awaiting judgment,” I think of my family’s courage and perseverance as they went through the immigration process. When I was younger, the bits and pieces that I heard about my parents’ childhoods were merely stories, but now that I’m 16, I’ve learned to understand and appreciate the troubles they went through to build a better life for themselves. When I read, “We needed the faith and grit of people / who were not yet Americans,” I thought of how hard my mom studied to get into college, despite English being her second language, and how she currently juggles running a business and nonprofit with raising me and my brother. She and my dad paved the way for me to be where I am now, attending an elite school and having the opportunity to write to you. Your acknowledgment of immigrants as America’s foundation reminded me that I am who I am because of my parents’ sacrifices.
Your references to the Declaration of Independence toward the end of the poem were ingenious. I loved your incorporation of exact words from the Declaration in the lines, “What do we say to our immigrant / fathers who held certain truths / to be self-evident? / Do we now still pledge to each other / our lives, our fortunes, / our sacred honor” and the reference to the part that says people can overthrow their ruler if the ruler violates their natural rights in, “There are no kings in America. / Only gilded men we can topple / again and again.” I loved how you used the Enlightenment values that America was founded upon to argue for tolerance toward immigrants and encourage readers to vote out anti-immigrant politicians.
Aileen, your poem made me remember my roots and the impact immigrants like my parents and grandparents have had on America’s culture. As a Houstonian, I have seen firsthand the blending of cultures that makes my city special. I loved your message at the end that encourages readers to fight against anti-immigrant sentiments, and I hope you continue to advocate for immigrants in your work.
Thank you so much for your kind and thoughtful words. It gladdens me to know of the impact that my poem had on you. Every poem speaks to us in different ways. I was particularly moved by how you engaged and reflected on this poem by quoting specific lines and connecting them with your family’s immigrant experience. It is such a gift to be read in this way.
I am deeply sorry that your family experienced such hardship and loss. I understand the courage it took to move forward and build a life with very few choices and opportunities. Thank you for trusting me with your story.
You are right in that my poem argues for tolerance. It inherently asks the question of what it means to be an American—where we came from and what we’re made of. I believe that when we know who we are, we are indestructible.
You are a powerful storyteller with a powerful message. Thank you for writing to me all the way from Houston. May you always shine with all of your ancestors’ brightest hopes.
With much respect and kind wishes,