I was born in the Philippines. When I was ten, my family immigrated to the United States, settling in Oakland. My father worked in a factory that made cardboard boxes, my mother worked at a government office. Between them were over a dozen siblings, scattered throughout California: aunts and uncles who were accountants, nurses, telephone company workers, postal service workers. They had all gone to college, but had the immigrant’s understandably practical view of why you went to school, why you went to work, what things you could get from working. Among these aunts and uncles were readers of books and lovers of jazz and opera, and distantly, in past generations of my father’s side of the family, there had been writers. But otherwise life was family, work, and church. Nothing here was a spur or a hindrance to my becoming a writer, and so I went ahead. Because I had gotten good grades all my life, everyone assumed I knew what I was doing with myself—even if, in the years I’m talking about, I always had my eyes averted, I was always a blur at the edges of gatherings and conversations.
And if I knew at some level that poetry was supposed to encompass the whole of who I was, it would be a very long time before I knew what that whole could include. Poetry was this paradox: it invited a largeness of self even as it foreclosed my ability to see myself as anything beyond the poet I desperately wanted to be. Poetry was emotion, it was intense language. It was a tradition, a canon. Poetry for me was a deeply literary identity before I saw it as a space where sociological, social, political, and other elements of identity also converged. Being an immigrant, being gay, having had an ambitious education, having grown up middle class in a liberal, diverse, culturally abundant part of the country—these were real enough facets in the lived life, the way categories of identity could be checked off on an application form. But in the poems I tried to write, these things were abstract, puzzling, barely available and acknowledged resources. I didn’t know how these things could be expressed in my poems, nor did the poems and poets that I loved at the time give sanction for expressing them in the first place. A time would come when I realized those resources were there; but that was much later.