My Report Back from Kundiman on PAWA Blog

Thanks to Barbara Jane Reyes who invited me to write this for the PAWA (Philippine American Writers and Artists) Blog! It was a great way to reflect on such a transformative experience.

I’m reposting it here too.


Although the annual retreat is over and I’m back on the grind with my two jobs in Los Angeles, I know that somewhere, out there, there are Kundiman fellows writing each other postcards, supporting another fellow’s reading at Bar 13 in New York City, planning road trips, fundraising for future retreats in Berkeley, inventing poetic forms inspired by Jose Garcia Villa’s Reversed Consonsance, visiting Poets’ House in Lower Manhattan and blogging about the retreat experience and how it applies to our poetry.

Kundiman was created by the incredible duo, Joseph O. Legaspi and Sarah Gambito who organized the inaugural Asian American Poetry Retreat in 2004 at the University of Virginia. According to the Kundiman website, both poets “recognized the need for a nurturing and yet rigorous space for emerging Asian American poets; such a space would facilitate the creation of new work, create mentoring relationships with established Asian American poets and address the challenges that uniquely affect Asian American poets.”

I arrived at Fordham University’s Rose Hill campus in the Bronx, New York, new home to the retreat, in the thick of a hot, humid day in June. After a warm “opening circle” of fellow introductions and sharing of poems, I immediately felt at home with the poets in the room. Despite the bustling city that surrounded us and the pastelitos and fresh fruit I longed for on Grand Concourse, Kundiman remained a true place of solitude on Fordham’s beautiful campus.

Although Kundiman specifically seeks Asian American poets, I’ve never met and worked with a group with such diverse work in style, form and voice. Throughout the retreat, fellows and staff repeatedly described the time and space spent together as a “home” and our group of poets as a “family.” And it’s true. This strong community at Kundiman not only allowed me to feel protected and safe from self-censorship or the need to explain my work (which happens often in predominantly white writing workshops), it also fostered a space where I felt inspired and encouraged to take risks. In this unique space, I also felt a collective sense of duty to everyone’s work, exemplified through nightly poetry salons and rigorous workshops where we challenged each other with honest feedback. The comments and suggestions shared by fellows reached way beyond the typical (and rather unhelpful!) workshop comment, “I like this image…” This, of course, couldn’t have been made possible without the amazing faculty and staff.

I laughed until I cried hearing Regie Cabico perform a poem about his mother and took a stab at writing a funny poem (a big risk for me!). Jennifer Chang gave me courage to read it in front of everyone. I stayed up late, ate pizza and wrote poems. On our visit to Poets’ House, I exchanged poems by my patron poet Brenda Shaughnessy with fellows and gazed at an old photograph of Jose Garcia Villa amongst his peers, mostly white male poets. What would’ve Villa done with an institution like Kundiman?

I scratched my head when Tan Lin first explained an exercise inspired by Stein’s “equal weight, equal volume” theory, but dove in anyway, which challenged the way I thought about relationships between, amongst words. I felt free to play. Paisley Rekdal’s intuition and ability to see the seemingly invisible layers in a poem made me slow down my own reading of poems and pay more attention. R.A. Villanueva, Soham Patel and Tamiko Beyer offered us new fellows immeasurable amounts of kindness and sage advice from their own experiences at the retreat. Sarah Gambito and Joseph Legaspi’s dedication to their vision of seeing “the arts as a tool of empowerment, of education and liberation, of addressing proactively what legacy we will leave for our future generations as individuals and as a community” makes me reflect on my own contributions to the Asian American and poetry communities. They both inspire me to do more. I felt safe as a poet to write deeply and quickly, and hand poems off to other fellows to read and edit. I’d never trusted poets this much before. I’d never felt more at home.

For more information, check out Kundiman’s website:

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    1 Comment

    Filed under influences, Kundiman, writing process

    One response to “My Report Back from Kundiman on PAWA Blog

    1. bjr

      Rachelle, thanks so much for this. I’m struck (and stuck) on this: “What would’ve Villa done with an institution like Kundiman?”

      I think of him shutting himself down and becoming a recluse, ceasing writing and publishing, and I think also of what I’ve heard of his bitterness that was so sharp, as he was constantly overlooked for all kinds of major American literary awards and grants, which ended up going to people like Auden (don’t quote me on Auden specifically, but I recall hearing anecdotes like this from people who knew him). It’s so terrible and heartbreaking.

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