“Secrets can be taken apart / like little screws from behind a dead clock,” LA-based poet and artist, Angela Penaredondo, stood at the mic in the intimate Culver Center screening room and read from her book, “All Things Lose Thousands of Times,” which was the regional winner of the Hillary Gravendyk Prize. She opened with her poem “Vampire in a Bad City,” a piece, which like much of her work, was inspired by film.
Penaredondo shared the stage with poet and graphic designer, Kenji Liu, whose work focuses on the notions of language, documentation, race and identity. His collection, “Map of an Onion,” was the national winner of the same prize.
The executive director of the Inlandia Institute, Cati Porter, introduced both Liu and Penaredondo at the beginning of the night to an eager crowd. Behind the speakers was projected an image of their personalized book cover art to further bring forth their individual aesthetic. During this time, each artist had a chance to share some of their views related to poetry, the creative process, publishing, hybridity and politics.
Liu shared some of his personal history with the crowd, which has influenced the subjects he has chosen to write about in his work. He was born in Japan, but because of a political complication, was classified as a Taiwanese citizen. He later came to the United States and faced further issues with the process of documentation. His first name, Kenji, was originally his middle name, but changed to his first as part of the naturalization process.
In his collection, the poem “A History of my Complexion,” explores this process. The piece describes when “Mr. Molyneux of the superior court” categorized Liu according to his skin color, “my complexion was ‘medium’ / a half-cooked steak / or elevated threat / level yellow,” and how his sense of identity clashed with being objectified in this way, “but i was certain i was / a big fancy kaleidoscope / made in 1977 / a flame of leaves / in autumn, a bouquet of / in-betweens.” The lack of capitalization expands on the way the speaker views their self; the lowercase “i” implies a disconnect or insignificance. In this way, Liu’s work questions what the role of documentation is, and how it can affect the psyche of a human being.
Having the opportunity to hear these two poets read together was an engaging experience. As artists, they paralleled one another and echoed similar sentiments; both of them discuss themes of transnationalism and multiculturalism in their work.
Penaredondo was born in Iloilo City, Philippines, and came to the United States as a child. She describes her poetry as a type of “obsessive investigating,” and indeed her work reads as a series of experiments and explorations that delve deep into the human subconscious. Many of her pieces use visual art as an entry point into the body of the poem. During her time at the mic, she read “Woman Leaves Psychoanalysts Office,” which was inspired by the Remedios Varo painting, “Mujer Saliendo Del Psicoanalista.”
The poem weaves back and forth between the speaker’s reaction to the piece, “My eyes can do nothing else / but stare at the way she grips / her father’s beard / as she leaves the office,” and personal memories. It is simultaneously a conversation between different mediums of art and a narrative. Even while reading pieces rooted in art and relationships, Penaredondo shared that, “all poetry is political.”
Penaredondo came into writing poetry as “a mode of survival,” and admitted that her “entry point, in hindsight, was political, but it felt more temporal, more physical.” To Penaredondo, poetics are inherently political because they are a product of a human being whose existence and way of operating in the world are always affected by a political system. Before switching to Liu’s perspective on the politics of poetry, she expressed that poetry is “the resistance of being invisible” and emphasizes “radical openness.”
Liu agreed with the idea that all poetry is political, going on to say that “everything is political.” For poetry in particular, it is political “because it messes with language, received ideas, what’s true and what’s proper.” In this sense, both artists agreed that poetry can be a tool for challenging conventions and preestablished ideas in any given society; poetry has the power to dissolve boundaries between people.
The artists also had a chance to illuminate the inner workings of their creative process that drove the creation of their books. Liu admitted that he liked to use the internet when writing poetry. This could be in the form of using Google Earth to see places he’s never been, or using an online translation tool to help switch his work into one of the four languages spoken in his family.
He also noted how his day job as a graphic designer has influenced his writing, “I’m very concerned with how the words look on the page,” he went on to comment that if a book isn’t pleasing aesthetically, he has a hard time reading it.
Lucky for Liu, he had full creative control over the design and production of his book — a very rare privilege for an author. Normally, a writer does not get much of a say in terms of format, much less things like font or cover art. Liu actually created the work that is now the cover art of his book. His work as a designer is easy to spot in the text. Many of the poems employ scattered spacing, or are formatted to read like a document themselves, which makes the book a sort of document commenting on documents.
Penaredondo also had an active hand in the production of her book. She described how her and a friend created the artwork that would become the book’s cover: each letter was cut by hand using vinyl as the textile and laid on Plexiglas, which they then took with them as they traveled through East Los Angeles and held it against surfaces of different colors and textures to find the right one. The image on the front of her book is the moving panel over two pieces of wood in Boyle Heights.
After the reading, the audience had a chance to ask the poets questions. One member asked the artists to describe a personal struggle they overcame for the sake of their art. Liu revealed that it took 10 years to find a publisher for his book, and that he had to overcome feelings of doubt during that time.
Penaredondo also talked about self-doubt, and claimed that for an artist, it is a feeling that never completely fades. However, to succeed it is necessary to push on. Currently, both artists are at work on another collection of poetry. The night closed with Penaredondo sharing a piece of advice from her mentor, Juan Felipe Herrera, the current poet laureate of the United States, which was simply, “stay curious.” It was fitting though, because really, other than curiosity, what more does an artist need?