Eugene Gloria says that he is fascinated by failure. He was quick to describe a particular poem or two as failed, and even his book, “My Favorite Warlord,” which won a 2013 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, as a failure of his original idea to describe 1967.
“I ran out of ideas for 1967, became bored,” Gloria told listeners at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Cleveland. “I ran out of gas, even though I was obsessed by it. The idea of failure is fascinating to me.”
And yet, 1967 is a fulcrum in “My Favorite Warlord” – the year his family arrived in San Francisco from the Philippines, the year his future wife was born in Detroit, the year that Wole Soyinka is “being hauled to jail/on trumped-up charges” as Gloria writes in “Allegory of the Laundromat.” He told the MOCA audience that he was thinking about soul music as he wrote it.
Harvard University’s Henry Louis Gates, Jr., praised this very poem as he introduced Gloria to the sold-out audience gathered at the Ohio Theatre Sept. 12 for the Anisfield-Wolf awards ceremony:
“What I find so resonant in all of these poems is the idea of multiplicity, that we possess many identities stemming from the many diverse forces that have shaped us,” Gates said. “In Gloria’s case, he is shaped by a Filipino background, though education among the nuns in a Catholic school, to coming of age in the same neighborhood in which he found ‘Janis Joplin shoring up supplies/from our corner Chinese grocer.’”
Gloria, 56, has taught for 13 years at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana. He read his poem, “Here, On Earth” for both the crowd at MOCA and the throng at the Ohio Theatre. He told his listeners that it captures his relationship to Indianapolis. The final two stanzas:
Here, on earth we are curtained by rain.
A subset in the far corners floating
toward the center. We are an island
in landlocked America. We are
Thai, Filipino, and Vietnamese.
We are, all of us, post exotics.
At MOCA, Gloria followed a reading from Kazim Ali, an Oberlin College professor who started with his poem “Fairytale.” It concludes, “All the sacred words/are like birds wheeling in the sky./Who knows where they go?” The political nature of Ali’s reading inspired Gloria to start with “Elegy with Ice and a Leaky Faucet.” He called it “one of the oddball poems in my collection; it failed as a political poem.”
And yet “Elegy with Ice and a Leaky Faucet” is many reader’s introduction to Vincent Chin, a Chinese-American man beaten to death on the eve of his wedding by Detroit auto-workers enraged at the ascendancy of Japanese cars in the U.S. market. “The dialectics of fists and ball bats/turned his wedding party into a funeral” Gloria writes.
When Ali and Gloria perched on tall stools together at MOCA, Ali spoke about the context for two of his newest poems, which focus on Bradley Manning, convicted in July for violating the U.S. Espionage Act.
“We are political,” Ali said. “We can notice it or not notice it.”
“Amen to that brother,” Gloria responded. “We try to avoid being cliché. The struggle is taking an overt political position in an art that calls so much attention to language can be problematic. But like Kazim says, we are all political.”
The men riffed on Shelley’s famous maxim that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” suggesting that the “unacknowledged legislators of the world” may well be the secret police.
Before he returned to Indiana, Gloria said, “The idea of identity is always going to be a subject. I have no choice. Identity is so multi-layered and I am obsessed.”