The Rumpus Poetry Book Club Chat with Chris Santiago


The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Chris Santigo about his new collection Tula, writing a multilingual text, William McKinley and the Phillippine-American War, and the connections between music and writing poetry. 

This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month the Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts an online discussion with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To join the Rumpus Poetry Book Club, click here.

This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.


Brian S: So first question about the book—what was it that led you to use Tula, those sounds that form different words in different languages, as the metaphor for this collection?

Chris Santiago: Well, the collection I think began with the long poem that threads throughout the book, which is called “Tula.” I didn’t call it “Tula” at first, but none of the names I had for it seemed to be working. One of the major themes that came out of it, and that came out in other poems, was not knowing my parents’ language(s), and so I decided to put some Tagalog in there, even though I don’t know it.

I tried numbering the sections in Tagalog first, but then I looked up the word “poem,” thinking it would be a built-in tension if the poems were just called “poem” but in another language, which made the word sound more song-like and lovely, at least to me!

Brian S: I was curious about that—I read it as a series of connected poems sharing a title rather than a single poem, though I suppose that’s not much of a distinction. How did you decide to divide the poem up?

I was also curious about how you kept track of which was which when you published them, but that’s mostly because I’m a disaster at keeping track of poems even when they have different titles.

Chris Santiago: The folks at the Asian American Literary Review were kind enough to publish it as a long poem in numbered parts. When I tried putting it in manuscript drafts, though, it sort of had too much gravity.

I showed a draft to Oliver de la Paz when I was at Kundiman in 2013, and he had the great idea to break it up and spread it around the book. David St. John said the same thing.

Brian S: Can you talk about your relationship to language some? You mentioned that you don’t know Tagalog and that you don’t know your parents’ languages, but there’s a fair amount of movement across language in these poems.

Chris Santiago: Sure. I don’t know their languages, but I’ve been trying to teach myself for years. And I’ve heard it spoken around me since I was in the womb, so the music of it is almost like a first language to me. But I don’t have any of the grammar, any of the vocabulary. It’s all emotive to me, and not referential.

Brian S: As a side note: I fully plan on using the last lines of “Transpacific” in any poetry workshop I teach from now on.

The ghost of an action:
how a gerund blindfolds
a verb to make it still: come, go

That’s just an amazing way to describe it.

Chris Santiago: Thank you, Brian! That’s a huge compliment, and I’m glad the lines worked, for you at least! 🙂

Brian S: Do your parents speak each others languages? I have three-year-old twins, and my wife and I know just enough French that we might start dipping into it if we want to talk about something in front of them without letting them know.

Chris Santiago: I’ve got an eight-year-old and a five-year-old! So I know where you’re coming from!

Brian S: Mind you, one of the schools we’re thinking of sending them to teaches all students Mandarin Chinese, so it could backfire on us.

Chris Santiago: I actually speak more Japanese than Tagalog, since I studied it a bit and then lived in Japan for a year. My wife grew up speaking Japanese, so we speak it a bit to each other and are trying to teach our kids. We had our son in a Japanese Immersion when we lived in California, and it was fantastic. Unfortunately there isn’t one in the Twin Cities (Korean, Chinese, Hmong, lots of others, but no Japanese)

Brian S: I liked that you crossed languages, and that you didn’t generally seem concerned with translating it into English. It’s easy for US English readers to expect, even demand that literature be written for us solely in English, or at least that we not be forced to do any work to understand what’s going on.

Chris Santiago: I chose “Tula” partly because it was almost as unfamiliar a word to me as it was to most of the people I showed it to; I never really heard the word spoken in my house, although my mom memorized tons of English poems and liked to recite them to me.

I think readers in other parts of the world, and readers here in the US from immigrant backgrounds, are more used to looking at words and thinking of them as possibly being something entirely different in another language. I used to get frustrated at Nabokov dropping French or Russian untranslated in the middle of a novel, but that’s life.

Brian S: Junot Díaz had that great line a few years ago about how certain white readers are willing to learn a made-up language like Elvish but will freak out about Spanish showing up in a novel.

Chris Santiago: Sometimes someone walks down the street and says something in a language you don’t know, and tough shit; you don’t know what they’re saying! It can be like music; it can be like birdsong.

Brian S: I lived in San Francisco from 2003-05 in the Excelsior neighborhood, well south of the Mission, and it was great for just that. Most of the adults in the neighborhood spoke something other than English—Chinese, Korean, Tagalog, Spanish. When I heard English, most of the time it was a kid speaking.

Chris Santiago: That Junot Díaz line is classic. I try to play with that kind of presumption in my novel. Cathy Park Hong plays with that too.

You’re making me homesick for Cali!

Brian S: The poem about McKinley struck me because it’s about a part of US history that gets largely overlooked in US schools. I think most people, if they could name anything at all about him, they know he was assassinated. But the Philippines has a much different view of him. Can you talk some about what inspired that poem?

Chris Santiago: Yeah, the Philippine-American War is completely forgotten. Most people say, “What Philippine-American War?” They remember MacArthur, if anything, which is important to, but of course that’s the US coming to the rescue to fight off Japan. But they don’t remember that the US invaded the Philippines in 1898, and hundreds of thousands of civilians, and that’s a lower estimate, died.

McKinley was a bit like Bush 43, and Elihu Root was his Karl Rove. McKinley had the stones to claim that God told him to take the Philippines, so that he could Christianize them. Never mind the fact that the country had already been invaded with Catholicism, but I guess that didn’t count!

Brian S: I have to admit, the reason I learned anything at all about it is because of the waterboarding that the US did in Iraq, because the US executed some Japanese soldiers who did it in the Philippines during WWII.

I assume McKinley was some manner of Protestant who looked at Catholics as Papists who weren’t really Christians, so, you know, get them to the right kind of Christianity, even if you have to slaughter them along the way.

Chris Santiago: Right. Taft was the Governor of the Philippines in this period, and later brought some souvenirs from the Philippines that he had in the Oval Office. And about waterboarding: the US Army had Filipino scouts use the “Water Cure” on Filipino insurgents. There’s congressional testimony by soldiers who did it and had bad consciences about it. My second poetry book, at least as I’m outlining it, explores a lot of these war crimes.

Brian S: Right, I was just about to mention that. The water cure came up in my reading about the war crimes trials and Cheney’s claim that waterboarding wasn’t a war crime.

We have done ourselves no great favors in the way we teach US history in this country.

Chris Santiago: I’d say it’s another history that was ignored and so repeated, but Rove was actually a huge FAN of Elihu Root, I read in an interview somewhere, so it’s like he new the history and thought it was GREAT. Even worse!

I agree. I used to work for McGraw-Hill, editing textbooks, and we had different editions for California and for Texas.

Brian S: I’ve read about that. And I don’t imagine the California ones were great. They were just better than the Texas ones.

I saw in your bio that you’re a percussionist and a jazz pianist. Do you think that musical background affects the way you approach your poetry?

Chris Santiago: Absolutely. I heard Robert Pinsky once talk about becoming a poet because he’d ride the subway and listen to conversations and all these rhythms of speech and the train got in his ear.

For me the rhythm was even more literal: as an undergrad at Oberlin I practiced percussion five hours a day, and then piano for maybe two more. But I was also studying poetry at the same time.

Brian S: Some of the best writerly advice I ever received was to listen to the world around me, the more public the better. Unfortunately, more people than ever are walking around with earbuds in and aren’t speaking, so there’s less to listen to.

Chris Santiago: Yes. I love being immersed in music, too, but one of the things that music can do, I think, is to remind us of the ecology of sound that’s around us, not just in nature, but in urban soundscapes and elsewhere.

Whose advice was that, out of curiosity?

Brian S: My fiction professor as an undergraduate, Tim Gautreaux. He once told us that he got the idea for his story “Welding with Children” from overhearing a conversation at Wal-Mart while he was shopping for tires.

That story won an O. Henry and was in Best American, so he was proud of the idea.

Chris Santiago: I haven’t read it, but I’m putting it on my list!

Brian S: I think it was published in the Atlantic—might be in their online archives. [My memory was faulty. It’s available in the NY Times Archives. –Ed.]

This always feels like a hokey question to me, but who do you see as your poetic influences?

Chris Santiago: I know what you mean. It’s hokey but not hokey. It’s a legitimate question! I’ll never get tired of Larry Levis. Robert Hayden and Gwendolyn Brooks crafted perfect poems. I was completely under Li-Young Lee’s spell but had to think my way into different directions. But I still love him as a poet and as a mentor.

Brian S: Yeah, I wrote Miller Williams poems for a long time. Part of the reason I got my MFA at Arkansas. But I had to move on.

Who are you reading right now? Anything new we should be on the lookout for?

Chris Santiago: I’ve been reading Pat Rosal’s Brooklyn Antediluvian, which is amazing, and Solmaz Sharif’s Look, which is absolutely essential. My colleague, Leslie Miller, pointed me toward Dianne Seuss’s Four-Legged Girl, and I LOVE it.

Brian S: Look was a Poetry Book Club selection, and I’m supposed to be working on a review of Rosal’s book—I have it on my desk right now. He’s got a crazy long poem in that book too. I’ve been meaning to read Seuss’s book for a while—lots of people I respect have raved about it.

How far along are you in your next collection?

Chris Santiago: I’m not sure! I’m erasing/reappropriating a long source text, but I’m not sure how far to go with it. Erasure is tricky that way, isn’t it? I talked to Srikanth Reddy about it, who worked miracles with Voyager, but I think the book will have other types of poems as well.

And Pat’s book has so much energy and brawl and spirit to it. He doesn’t let the energy flag in a single line.

Brian S: I can’t wait to see it. Thanks for joining us tonight and for writing such a terrific book.

Chris Santiago: Thank you, Brian! I hope it won’t take me as long for the next one. Thanks for having me; it’s been a pleasure!

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