Eugene Gloria earned his B.A. from San Francisco State University, his M.A. from Miami University of Ohio, and his MFA from the University of Oregon. He is the author of four books of poems—Sightseer in This Killing City (Penguin Random House, 2019), My Favorite Warlord (Penguin, 2012) Hoodlum Birds (Penguin, 2006) and Drivers at the Short-Time Motel (Penguin, 2000), which was selected for the 1999 National Poetry Series and the 2001 Asian American Literary Award. He has also received a Fulbright Research Grant, a grant from the San Francisco Art Commission, a Poetry Society of America award, a Pushcart Prize, a 2013 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, and a Fulbright Lecturer Award in 2017. He is the John Rabb Emison Professor of Creative and Performing Arts and Professor of English at DePauw University.
Preeti Vangani: Hi there, Eugene. First, my wholehearted congratulations on publishing your fourth book, Sightseer in this Killing City. It is such a vivid and fascinating collection of poems. While reading the book, I had this feeling of being perpetually in transit between the troubled histories of America and Philippines. And was amazed at the breadth of issues these poems address—violence, displacement, grief. Could you speak about how you came around to assembling and braiding these narratives while your memory was constantly a passenger in different places? How and when did you see the overarching themes develop for the sightseer?
Eugene Gloria: Hi, Preeti. Thank you for the kind words. I appreciate your mentioning the perpetual transit occurring in the poems in my collection. I like to believe there is eloquence in movement—especially when I was assembling the individual poems in the shape of a book. Though I confess the themes didn’t fully emerge until I began seeing the individual pieces as parts of a larger whole, or hearing all the poems as one song. After a little distance from the project, I discovered there were gaps that I still needed to fill, and some of the poems I began earlier in the process no longer connected with the overall theme emerging in the book. So I ended up writing new poems as recently as last summer. It was important for me to discover Nacirema as a character who navigated through space and time. Nacirema embodies that sense of movement as well as vulnerability, which she keeps in check with her actions. Long ago, I learned from an elder poet that as artists we are always going to be outsiders, even among familiars. In many ways, Nacirema is a stand-in for myself, even though her first manifestation was that of a Filipina nurse. The immigrant experience in America is always in my consciousness and themes of displacement and alienation typically come with the territory.
PV: You developed your last book, My Favorite Warlord in Kyoto, and mentioned being influenced by Richard Hugo’s idea that to make a poem happen, you need to free yourself from memory by selecting a place about which you know almost nothing. Did you follow a similar approach while writing this book? How did the time and place you developed it in affect the main motif—the speaker’s several arrivals and departures?
EG: Every new collection feels like a new adventure for me. What applied in one project may not necessarily work for the next one. For My Favorite Warlord, I initially attempted to write a memoir of sorts, a series of short essays in the manner of a lyric. Spending some time in Japan triggered something in me that made me realize the memoir thing was going nowhere. What emerged instead was my infatuation with Toyotomi Hideyoshi (the figure for “my favorite warlord”). Thinking about him while trying to write honestly about my father became a handy device for me to avoid sentimentalizing my subject. Kyoto was both a place and a significant character in that collection that drove many of the poems. But in Sightseer in This Killing City, it isn’t so much a particular place, even though you can certainly note obvious cities like San Francisco and Manila. I was more interested in playing with spatial time, which in my process, is usually the landscape of poems anyway. So even though the title poem takes place in Dallas, Texas, the grief and implied violence exist in places like San Francisco and Manila as well. Typically, my poems begin as little stories about people, or the speaker’s relationship with a particular person. Poems such as “Thirteen Dreams and One Duterte” and “The War on Drugs” play with spatial time, or the landscape of dream logic. Most of the poems in this collection began to take shape toward the end of the Obama-era and America’s shift toward populist politics. Like most of us who pay attention to the world, I hold certain political beliefs; but my job as a poet is not to communicate my politics. I love Richard Hugo’s dictum in The Triggering Town when he says, “If you want to communicate, pick up a phone.” How then does one imagine a world in which the poet remains grounded to what is immediate while staying true to the art and craft of poetry? The immediate dictates more narrative sense in my view, and so what I wanted to do with this collection was to resist that narrative impulse by redirecting sentence sense in many of the poems to what I can best describe as the language of dreams and the unconscious. If My Favorite Warlord drew from historical memory to jumpstart the poems, Sightseer draws inspiration from private memory, and if I am doing it well, to remake memory into art. Even with Nacirema speaking in some of these poems, there is a chorus of other voices vying for the reader’s attention.
PV: I am curious also about the voice of Nacirema who appears as a nurse and then in ‘Ave Nacirema.’ These opening lines paint such a distinct picture:
Baby Nacirema was as dolled up as a jeepney:
a surfeit of bling on the Pacific Coast Highway.
Haunted by the territories we traveled –
you’d think the two of us were husband and wife.
Can you speak about what facets of a transiting identity did this voice allow you to access? And tell us more about how Michael Arcega’s nomenclature of the term spoke to you?
EG: What’s consistent in “Nurse Nacirema” and “Ave Nacirema” is the presence of the knife and its voice in both poems. The knife sees all and channels history and his/her affection for Nacirema. When I first began working on early drafts of these poems I was focused on a Filipina nurse who lived below our flat in the late sixties when my family resided in the Haight-Ashbury district in San Francisco. She worked the graveyard shift and she carried a knife in her purse. And yes, as in “Nurse Nacirema,” she actually stabbed a man who was harassing her with her knife one night while waiting for the bus. She and her family were Filipino immigrants like my family. They were sweet people and her mother was forever aproned and often in the midst of cooking. The Filipina nurse is an iconic figure in American culture, but I also wanted to create an interchangeable character in the same manner I imagined how little girls would play with their Barbies. So in one poem she’s a nurse, in another she’s blingy, road-trip Barbie, and in another poem, she’s gang-banger Barbie (“The War on Drugs”). I was trying to resist narrative sense by allowing Nacirema to reflect this sense of movement and less of realistic characterization. I wanted to give my poems more latitude in creating voice, something I would do differently if I were writing realistic fiction. In the early drafts, the Filipina nurse was nameless. Then I met Michael Arcega, a Filipino American visual artist, at an artist residency in California and I was struck by his whimsical conceptual pieces, such as his replica of a Manila Galleon, a trading ship the Spaniards used to haul gold and other precious metals from Mexico to the Philippines. Arcega’s boat, which actually floated on San Francisco Bay, was made entirely from Manila folders. Another more functional boat he built less whimsically, he named Nacirema. “How cool was that,” I remember thinking. Much later when I was working on my collection, I wrote to Arcega and asked for his permission to use Nacirema for my poems. He told me that it wasn’t his original idea either since he stole the name from Horace Miner’s satiric essay, “Body Ritual of the Nacirema,” a well-known text to those who study sociology and anthropology. What better way to address immigrant identity in poems by seeing her “slant,” as suggested by her name.
PV: There were several moments in the collection where I was deeply situated into thinking about the speaker’s acutely intimate loves and losses while never for a second losing sight of the dreadful political realities the speaker traverses. Poems as “Settling on a Bed in the Goon Republic” felt masterful in making the personal and political sleep side by side. For instance, these lines:
our bed, a congress fevered with ghosts
of skin, hands, our fluid stains, a bed alit
in this goon republic where our commander
has declared our eyes, our seeing, a capital
offense; a semaphore flag for public unrest.
In what ways would you say your poetic voice has changed in the face of the last elections in America and in the Philippines? And how has it impacted your thinking on displacement, family, and most importantly your idea of home?
EG: I appreciate your phrasing that the political and the personal “sleep side by side” in “Settling on a Bed in the Goon Republic”—and thanks also for calling attention to a poem I felt the least confident about. The implied narrative, of course, suggests Nacirema as a student activist embroiled in demonstrations denouncing the extrajudicial killings ordered by President Duterte who won the presidential election in the Philippines just a few months before Trump won the presidency in 2016. In writing the poems for Sightseer, I think I have become more aware of my sense of displacement, especially since my original intent for the book was to interrogate what it’s like to live in Indiana during Trump’s ascension to power. Even in the voting booth, I realize my vote is meaningless, since I reside in a conservative state that consistently votes Republican. I still trust in our system of democracy, despite its flaws, including our Electoral College, which has elected presidents who did not win the popular vote. My parents and my siblings and I arrived as immigrants in San Francisco over fifty years ago. More than ever, my memories of our arrival as newcomers are just as relevant now as they were when I first began writing about them. I don’t think that my ideal for what makes a good poem has changed; though I will admit that I’m more inclined now to entertain chance, the absurd, and the uncanny in my work than I have been in the past. These shifts are, in part, a response to our current political climate. But here, I have to invoke the great Derek Walcott who once said, “the fate of poetry is to fall in love with the world, in spite of History.”
PV: I was particularly moved by your poem “The Holler,” having experienced a similar loss. It becomes clear that this is not the first time the speaker is talking about that familiar and deep cut of grief. The opening lines reinforce the writer’s negotiation with memory, as to how much must the reader know or want to know—
I’m opening up and then shutting down
Why this compulsion to tell everyone
when I should keep it zipped up
How, over the course of four books, has your voice changed or evolved when writing into irrecoverable loss?
EG: I would like to think that over the years my voice on the page has matured, even though some people who know me intimately might have a differing opinion of how I see myself. In the classroom, where I normally engage with students about the art of poetry, I note an older, more formal self. What has remained constant is my aversion to sentimentality, and yet, I still walk that fine line between pure emotion and sop. “The Holler” is a poem about our struggles with expressing grief and the danger of sentimentality when writing about a loved one’s death, especially when it’s your mother. I lost both my mother and father around the time I was working on this collection. My father as a subject has appeared in many of my poems, especially in My Favorite Warlord. I was writing those poems when he was still alive and the poems in Sightseer when he died. Li-Young Lee, who was an important teacher to me at one point, always cautioned against regarding the father in his poems as his biological father. The father as a subject is manifold and complex. Some of that thinking perhaps is reflected in how I regard my father in my recent collection. It’s difficult for me not to examine my family in my work. Again, Nacirema becomes an important persona because she was helpful in allowing me to examine my own difficult emotions about my mother in this latest collection. I didn’t realize how present she is in Sightseer in This Killing City.
PV: How much or how differently were you thinking about form while writing this collection? More specifically, in poems such as “The Suitcase” and “The Handsome Face of Tatlonghari,” you’ve created a voice that narrates beautiful and devastating stories in a folktale-like fashion. Where did you learn this way of integrating storytelling into poetry? We also get the emphatic repetitions in “The War on Drugs” and later a ghazal, a sestina, a Golden Shovel. What were some of the thoughts guiding your formal choices?
EG: Folk narratives were my first love when I realized I was going to write poetry with commitment and conviction. I went to the Philippines on a Fulbright fellowship after graduate school to research family folk narratives and ghost stories. I was always intrigued by my grandmother’s stories when she lived with my family in San Francisco while I was growing up. Both she and my mother were superstitious, and half of the time I wondered if some of the things they’d teach us about life were things they’d make up on the spot for the sake of advancing a family value, such as “It’s good luck to give your mother money.” But the ones I’ve always found a little trippy involved solemn little gestures, like making us turn our plates whenever someone in the family had to suddenly leave while we’re in the middle of dinner. Doing that would ensure their safety. These were things we would blindly do and would still do without question if my mother were still alive today. As far as writing influences go, Gabriel García Márquez was, and perhaps still is, one of my favorite writers, and One Hundred Years of Solitude would be that one book I’d choose if I were allowed only one while stranded on a desert island. “The Suitcase” borrows from the plot of one of his short stories. “The Handsome Face of Tatlonghari” is a retelling of the same narrative in “Nurse Nacirema.” Echoing motifs in fiction always intrigued me, so I wanted to try that in my poems. “Tatlonghari” in Filipino translates to “three kings,” calling attention to the holiday setting of both “Nurse Nacirema” and “The Handsome Face of Tatlonghari.”
My relationship to formal structure, or received forms, is a more complicated one. In graduate school in the late eighties and early nineties, my great and wonderful teachers then were not huge proponents of writing in form, even though they understood and studied form when they were students. The poets I was exposed to and grew to love were poets who wrote in free verse. As much as I was enchanted by Elizabeth Bishop’s sestinas and her sly and elegant villanelle, “One Art,” I wasn’t encouraged by my teachers in writing workshops to experiment with form as I do with my students at DePauw, where I teach creative writing. I don’t regard myself as a formalist, but rather as someone who has discovered over the years from teaching that formal structure opens up other rich and surprising possibilities, a different kind of freedom that I didn’t experience in free verse when I first started writing poetry.
PV: I read that you intended calling the book “Karate, Guns and Tanning,” a phrase from the powerful last poem, “Baby American.” What led to the change?
EG: Sightseer in This Killing City began as a project investigating my sense of displacement in the Midwest, in Indiana more specifically, a place I now consider home. Every time I come home from traveling, my drive from the airport would always pass by this strip mall in Plainfield with the sign: “Karate, Guns and Tanning.” I loved that sign and I always felt welcomed by it because all three things in that sign represented something about American identity in my imagination. With the convenience of one-stop shopping, this strip mall delivers what the average American consumer demands in suburbia: self-defense for the kiddos and a gun shop and tanning beds for mom and dad. The powerful gun lobby and our orange-toned president certainly corroborates this version of America. Meanwhile, mass killings with assault rifles become the norm, black men and women are wrongfully dying in the hands of the law almost regularly, and populist candidates spouting hate and intolerance ascend to positions of power all over the world. “Karate, Guns and Tanning” would have been a fun title for an earlier version of the book, but when I finally decided on what poems to keep and what poems to take out, I realized that it no longer echoed the overall feeling of the book. I made a short list of other possible titles and finally decided on one which suggested violence, grief, and displacement on a global scale. Public memory and personal memory always converge in my work. But on the whole, Sightseer in This Killing City is constantly trying to answer that perennial question of identity and the poet’s relationship to language.
PV: The book is filled with some gorgeous references from soul and jazz. You also refer to Thelonious Monk, Stevie Wonder, and John Coltrane. Can you talk about the relationship between these sources of inspiration and your own writing? What works are currently inspiring you? Who are some of your must-teach writings/writers, given the “arsenal democrac” we are writing in and responding to?
EG: The feeling I was trying to get back to in this collection was that sense of innocence and wonder in my early twenties. Naturally, the melodies and lyrics of Stevie Wonder and Al Green were often playing in my head while working on these poems. I was already in college in the late seventies and early eighties when I first discovered classical jazz, such as Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane. Fela Kuti and his revolutionary music in the seventies came to me much later, even though I had already been exposed to Afrobeat by listening to Osibisa when I was in elementary school. Growing up in the Bay Area and having older siblings exposed me to a wide range of music, including the local funk and soul music of Tower of Power, Azteca, Santana, and Malo. Music keeps my work grounded and reminds me of what my teachers taught me…that music is that feeling we attempt to locate with our words.
I am more hesitant about discussing writers who are inspiring my work right now for fear of sounding precious, but I will say it anyway. I am coming back to the source and love and bewilderment I have had with the English language by re-reading Shakespeare. King Lear I can read again and again, even though it’s something I wouldn’t teach in the classroom or even admit to my colleagues who teach literature that I read Shakespeare for pleasure. I have also been reading James Baldwin’s essays in Notes of a Native Son. His words and thinking especially in our political moment are the very things we need to confront “our arsenal democracy.” I still love to read Elizabeth Bishop and occasionally teach her work for her subtlety and arduous precision. In the classroom, I also love teaching Natalie Diaz for her playfulness with language and fresh use of received forms. Chang-Rae Lee is another beautiful writer whom I love in the same way I love John Banville and Ian McEwan. Reading the writers and poets we cherish is our best defense against the hate-mongering going on in our world right now. If anything, it gives us pause and shows us how to fall in love with the world again.
PV: I understand it feels like a burden to keep asking writers what they’re working on next, but is there something that’s been keeping you excited that you want to tell us about?
EG: To be inside a poem is what keeps me going. I wish I could steal more hours from the day to devote to making and shaping my poems. Since Sightseer in This Killing City just dropped this summer, I am excited to be out promoting it. But to be honest, it’s always the new poems that I’d rather be working on; and I’m excited about the poems for the next collection. It’s a project book on a historical figure, a dream book about José Rizal, a revolutionary writer, poet, and world traveler. I envision more traveling in my future while reading and researching his work.