As soon as I arrived, I was greeted so warmly as if I was among old friends! Here was a group of dynamic people who shared both my struggles—being a writer of color in America—and my passions: a deep devotion to the art of poetry. I've always heard, read, and spoken about the importance of community in any artistic endeavor. The poet's road can be a lonely one; the drifting heart needs its anchors. But I never realized how empowering a community of artists could be until I spent four days with the Kundiman staff, teachers, and fellows. I found there what I failed to find in my MFA program, or in any other poetry workshop I've taken: a deep respect and honor among poets; a desire to talk about race, identity, and history, in conjunction with one's composition process; and a willingness to be brave, to fail, and to look silly. The sillier the better! In fact, the laughter, energy, and spark never expired, despite the hot, long days and even longer nights. I thank the founders of Kundiman and the entire staff for having the vision to create and maintain such a fierce organization.
Kundiman has been a transformative experience toward courage and sensitivity. Never have I been surrounded by such an instant sense of family and fellowship, of bread-breaking over poetry. Writing and reading poems during the retreat were rare opportunities to be vulnerable without judgment. There are no words for the dams that break when we realize we don't have to apologize for ourselves as poets or minorities and can be our whole, complex selves. The Kundiman retreat and family exist in a pocket outside of real time for me, in a space where I learn to push myself beyond what I thought were grace and poise, to a new kind of balance, support, joy, and permission. Kundiman teaches me to live my poems; my successes are worth little without the celebration of this community.
At Kundiman, I found the home I didn't even know I wanted and had been searching for. I found a gathering of beautiful souls full of strangeness and passion—for poetry and language and craft, yes, but more than that, these people were dedicated to the transformative force of art coupled with action. They recognized their roles as artists; they owned themselves as poets. As someone who was only about a year into discovering poetry, less than a year into writing it, and the youngest person at the retreat, I wasn't comfortable owning my identity the way my peers were; I felt like I hadn't earned it. But from every person I interacted with at Kundiman, I learned in so many different ways that responsibility is born with each word I write, and ownership is simply making the choice to take that responsibility without conditions or apologies. The community at Kundiman challenged me to take responsibility. They made me want it. They showed me how much I still have to learn and how much is possible, within my reach if I so desire and choose. I left the retreat wanting to dream wider and deeper, wanting to be brave. Just wanting more. I'm not good at being fearless. But I now have the family I never knew I needed, inspiring me to try. I treasure this family, the experiences I've had with them, and the ones to come. And for all of these gifts, I will always be grateful.
Kundiman is not for the faint of heart. The workshops, spark writing exercises, circles, mentoring, and connecting that is Kundiman was one of the most inspiring, surprising, and exhilarating experiences I have ever had. I feel as if I crossed a bridge across an erupting volcano and emerged on the other side with a new understanding of my poetry and myself. I came to Kundiman with the hope of finding a new literary community, but instead found a new family. The voices of my warm, wonderful Kundiman family still reverberate through me in everything I write: transforming me, nudging me to keep challenging myself. I feel so incredibly blessed.
I arrived at Kundiman with some frightening questions, which I had only half-pursued because I dreaded knowing the answers. Did I want to finish my manuscript? Did I care about poetry? Did I even like writing? Midway through the retreat, however, I experienced a profound shift in my creative process, due in part to the intensity of the workshop, but even more significantly because of the nourishing spirit that characterized the faculty and fellows I met at Kundiman. Everything I’ve written since the retreat: lyric, elegy, translation, prose poem, has in some way been a love song to these soulful, meticulous readers. They approached my poetry with such generosity and insight, I can't helpbut write my poems for them. I no longer feel like a solitary voice speaking into the void, hoping vaguely that someone might deem me interesting, or worthy, or in possession of some unique spark. Thanks to Kundiman, I now have a community that will genuinely receive my poems—and even better, I have their poems as well: their love songs to me.
This community is small enough to permit individuals to be open and vulnerable about their work. It is also large enough to possess diversity in aesthetics, poetics, and personal histories. This intimacy and range allows for dialogue. We converse about the tonal shift of a stanza to the arrangement of poems in a manuscript. We also discuss issues that normally do not arise in workshops but relate to the art of poetry and our roles as poets. How do we create more audiences? How will we be engaged with the literary world? There is also a dialogue with history. How have Asian American poets interpreted and written elegies? Who paved a way for us? Because of these discussions and questions, I am trying to develop a longer view of my life. I challenge myself to write, write well, and consider how that is done. Kundiman has challenged me to consider how I may contribute to American poetry as a poet, a reader, and an Asian American. This challenge is so much bigger than me. But I can approach it because I have Kundiman, a community that I can support and that will support me.
While the creation of new poetry and the nurturing of community seem to be of primary importance to Kundiman and its fellows, I want to take special care in drawing much-deserved attention to the thought and imagination which powers the retreat’s pedagogy. As both an educator and a writer, I have been empowered by the diversity of teaching approaches these past three years—these manifold ways of honoring the transformative power of language. Regardless of the faculty or staff’s seemingly disparate “aesthetics” or “poetics,” each individual embodied a genuine faith in our poems and drafts, reaching out to us with an intensity of spirit and intellect: they offered us rule-bound exercises, pushing us to exercise freedom within constraints; they rooted critique in practical, but nonetheless provocative questions of craft and conceptual intent; they sought to initiate us into a writing life, urging us to embrace these rituals of reading and experimentation well beyond our workshops.
and again, I hear my Kundiman co-fellows use the word "magical" to
refer to their experience of the retreat. I also hear the word "kumbaya"
used, perhaps as a means of injecting self-deprecation into the
emotional intensity of our experience throughout the retreat. Both words
fail to suffice, as "magical" suggests something that cannot coexist
alongside the grind of our daily lives, and "kumbaya" suggests anaïveté
misguiding us through our business as writers. Kundiman was a
transformational experience for me. Never before have I sat in a circle
of people and felt so connected to the writers around me, so
appreciated, respected, and loved by writers who understand what it
means to feel trapped in the hyphen so often used to separate "Asian"
– Evan Chen