April 5, 2023

An interview by Bryan Thao Worra

AAP staff writer

Joseph O. Legaspi is the author of Imago (CavanKerry Press), winner of a Global Filipino Literary Award. A recipient of a poetry fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts, he co-founded Kundiman (www.kundiman.org), a non-profit organization serving Asian American poets.

Legaspi is a resident of Queens, NY, a graduate of New York University’s Creative Writing Program and currently works at Columbia University. His poems have appeared and/or are forthcoming in a wide array of publications including American Life in Poetry, World Literature Today, PEN International, North American Review, Callaloo, Bloomsbury Review, Poets & Writers, Gulf Coast, Gay & Lesbian Review, and the anthologies Language for a New Century (W.W. Norton) and Tilting the Continent (New Rivers Press).

Asian American Press had a chance to discuss his work. You can visit him at www.josepholegaspi.com.

Asian American Press: How did you get started?

Joseph O. Legaspi: I’ve been writing since I was a child; I had cute, small poems published in school newspapers and yearbooks throughout my early academic career.  However, not ‘til I was in college at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles – specifically my first creative writing class my junior year – that I deemed possible that poetry was a worthwhile pursuit.

I suppose using “worthwhile” as an adjective may be arguable, depending on the day. Poetry has kicked me to the curve plenty of times, but I can’t see myself living without her. In any case, poetry brought me to where I am now.

AAP: What keeps you going as a writer?

JOL: These days sometimes I’m not sure. There’s the thrill of the art, when a poem takes you places. I love it when a poem blindsides me, and I’m dizzy after writing. It’s exciting, and tremendously fulfilling. Beyond the personal, I believe in the importance and power of language. I believe it is imperative to give voice, especially to marginalized, oppressed groups; to tell our particular stories, which oftentimes are kept hidden and/or silenced; and to express in language the emotional and psychological state of people. I’d like to be a part of that chorus.  But with that said, I’m not saying that my particular work is of grave consequence.  Not at all: I’m a writer of small, confessional poems.

AAP: You’re also involved in community activism. Do you see a balance or a separation between your art and your work in the community?

JOL: I assume you’re referring specifically to Kundiman, the literary organization devoted to Asian American poetry I co-founded with the poet Sarah Gambito. Kundiman has been around for about eight years now, and this summer is our 7th Kundiman Asian American Poetry Retreat to be held for the first time at Fordham University, NYC (previously we were at the University of Virginia), in which we’ve also expanded the number of fellows and added a day to the retreat. So, we’re growing!

Hands down, Kundiman is one of my proudest accomplishments. I’m elated to witness the fellows thrive, and, in turn, help bring Asian American poetry, hopefully, into a broader landscape. I’d like to believe that I’m able to balance running this wonderful organization, and my own craft. With Kundiman, I found inspiration and family.

AAP: What are the themes you really enjoy examining in your work?

JOL: In my first book, Imago, I delved into my childhood, my upbringing in the Philippines where I was born and my imminent immigration to the U.S. at the age of twelve. At the time it was important for me to understand those two halves, and find a way to bridge and/or reconcile them. Now that I’ve lived in America for 25 to 26 years, more than double the amount of time I spent in the motherland, I’m more interested in the dynamics of life here. I’m interested in examining sexuality, social mores, and place/ in-between/placelessness.

I suppose I continue to examine my “otherness:” as a gay Asian American. I’m also trying my hand on lyric and even language poetry. But with all that said, I succumb frequently to the siren’s song of the Philippines and the narrative form.

AAP: What was your process like for your book?

JOL: Putting a poetry manuscript together was tough. You write poems, hoping that you incurred enough pages that you’re happy with, that you won’t be ashamed to show to the world. Then there’s the shaping of it. It fascinates me how the psyche works, how you have your obsessions, and having pages and pages of your written words in front of you, themes and shapes emerge.

Imago went through three major revisions before it was accepted for publication by CavanKerry Press. It was a relatively easy process from then on. Working with CavanKerry was great! They were amenable to all my ideas and fancies; I made clear choices and decisions on every aspect of Imago, from the book cover to punctuations.  When it was released in October 2007, and I was beside myself. It was such a momentous occasion.

AAP: Where do you feel you are you really trying to push yourself in your writing these days?

JOL: As I mentioned earlier, I’m attempting to write more lyric poems. Not quite sure how successful they are.  I’m a more natural storyteller, I think, but I like the tension and dynamic of swimming against the current.

AAP: What’s the next project you’d like to take on?

JOL: Creatively, I’d simply want to continue writing poems, which, with my lifestyle is a struggle.  I really need to carve out more time and space, and to prioritize. This fall, for the first time, I’m going to a writing residency for two weeks. That’s a step. How ironic that someone who’s involved in sponsoring a writing retreat hasn’t attended one himself! Anyway, I also just moved in with my partner and so my focus is building a domestic life with someone – and incorporating poetry in the process.

AAP: When and where have you been the happiest?

JOL: My childhood holds a dear place in my heart. My upbringing in the Philippines is what made me who I am, and I believe it made me level-headed, open-hearted, and provided me with a cultural filter as to not get too caught up with the westernized world.  That’s the circumstance that has led me to where I am now, at my happiest: in my late thirties, settled in New York City, pursuing my heart’s desire with zest, clarity, considerable leisure, and a certain authority.

AAP: What do you hope people say about Kundiman fifty years from now?

JOL: That it was the little organization that could! Heck, I’d like to see Kundiman in existence 50 years from now – under new leadership that’s been passed on throughout the years – and not just hear about it in the past tense. It would warm my soul to know that Kundiman made a bit of difference in the literary landscape, that we assisted in a small way in harkening new Asian American voices, therefore establishing a solid presence where our stories, histories and cultures are regarded, heard and preserved.

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