Kundiman: a Zuihitsu
by Ching-In Chen
My poetry originates in other bodies. I listen, observe, look for the unexpected path between our bodies, the question which tells me you are a friendly cog, a configuration unlike me perhaps, but also shimmery material which won't fit, a body I can sit next to, a body humming with letters.
The first time I took a poetry workshop was from Kearny Street Workshop in San Francisco, the oldest multidisciplinary Asian American arts organization in the country. I was in Maiana Minahal’s Waiting for Our Words workshop, where we learned about the poetic forms of writers of color. Around this time, I was accepted into the Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundations, studying with poets of color like Willie Perdomo, Suheir Hammad, Ruth Forman and Elmaz Abinader, and into Kundiman, an Asian American poets’ retreat where I studied with poets like Arthur Sze, Marilyn Chin and Kazim Ali. As a baby writer, I was nurtured by these kinds of community spaces. I met other writers who had followed different paths—for instance, going to an MFA program where they were the only writers of color in the program (one of the reasons that co-founders Sarah Gambito & Joseph Legaspi wanted to start Kundiman).
Wondering about the bodies I relate to, the bodies I recognize since I've moved to Milwaukee. I did not realize how coastal I was until I moved to this mid-Western city in which I often feel like an alien—contradictory, singular and misplaced.
What does it mean for me here to search for other bodies I used to be familiar with and simultaneously make relations with those who I am not? Here, in this black-and-white (though not) city, I am here.
At Kundiman, Melissa Roxas became my friend.
I remember listening to Melissa talk about her human rights delegation trip to the Philippines in the circle, about the people she met and about the shocking atrocities that were happening there.
The words Melissa sent to us before she left about the decision to leave her life behind in the US and move to the Philippines. The urgent e-mail notifying us that Melissa had been disappeared on May 19, 2009 with two other health volunteers.
In Milwaukee, I make a new friend and try not to write about her, even when she says, looking at me, I have been so lonely. I keep writing and writing about this, trying to settle myself down, sitting inside myself. I have looked for two years for such a person, almost a myth, a person whose small movements, habits are familiar, familial. A body like mine.
Melissa has said that poetry kept her sane during the five days she was disappeared and that the outpouring of community support eventually helped resurface her. An excerpt of the Kundiman call out that Sarah Gambito circulated asking for Kundiman poems for Melissa—Let us participate in a community of cymbals through poems—bringing noise and sound and outrage and unremitting memory to what has happened to Melissa and what continues to happen to activists and artists around the world who dare to take a stand against injustice. Let us encircle them, encourage them and fight for them. There is power when people agree to stand and speak together.
This essay was supposed to take a different turn. I meant to write about the value of misfit-ness, the productive nature of being a mutant. But I turn back and back again to one person, who I feel like I can breathe around.
Kundiman founders chose the name because Kundiman is a classic form of a Filipino love song of unrequited love—or so it seemed to colonialist forces in the Philippines. In fact, in Kundiman, the singer who expresses undying love for his beloved is actually singing for love of country.
So what was Kundiman to us? I'd love to talk about Kundiman as a springboard for other projects, about collaborations and solidarity with other communities, and about how valuable it was to become intimate with the work and persona of other Asian American poets and to see how varied from each other we all were and how we could still remain connected in this network of relations. This is all true.
And Kundiman to us? A community we came to where we sat down with each other, looking at each other's full selves, shaking with our words.