An Interview with Albert Abonado

Sundress editorial intern Quinn Carver Johnson sat down with Albert Abonado to discuss his new poetry collection, JAW. Albonado talks about food as a source of joy, cultural shame, and connectivity, his personal and family history, Harold and Kumar as affirming representations of Asian identity, and much more.

Quinn Carver Johnson: Several times in the first section of poems there is a repeated image of birds living or existing inside the human body. What is the significance of this recurring visual?

Albert Abonado: I wish I knew why I am drawn to those images. The birds in my poem are a running joke between my wife and I. She’s always waiting for me to put a bird in it. I suppose I’m drawn to tension the image creates. The kinds of images that resonate have this conflict built into them, and the idea of a bird trying to navigate within the body reflects that. I often think of the body as a landscape, an enormous space we inhabit. What happens when we populate it with other living things? What happens when we impose our limitations on others? I want to play with this idea and see what these images reveal.

QCJ: What can you tell me about the title?

AA: I wanted a title that speaks to the hungry poems or the poems wrestling with language or the poems in which someone is being consumed. I love how evocative the word is, too: jawbone, punched in the jaw, to jaw at someone… I wanted the first encounter with the poems in this book to be one that forces the mouth open.

QCJ: What is the significance of national identity in these poems, both internally and as (sometimes incorrectly) perceived by others?

AA: I’m a first-generation son of Filipino immigrants. My experience is neither wholly American nor Filipino. I’ve lived in this limbo, a space between these identities, a hybrid identity, complete with hyphen. So much of my experience is informed by my Filipino heritage, but a heritage adapted for an American life. Once, when I was in the Philippines, my mother pointed out how my brothers and I walk in a way that is very American. In the Philippines, I am foreign. I don’t speak Tagalog or Ilongo. In the United States, I am also seen as foreign. The color of my skin and shape of my eyes will also denote my otherness. How does one account for this?

In a country where the standard for the American identity is white, my biography is always up for interrogation. Rarely have I heard one white person turn to another white person and ask, “What are you?” Rarely have I heard one white person assume another white person’s ethnicity in the same way others have assumed mine. Instead, my identity becomes a game. What kind of brown person is he?

These questions of identity inform so many of the poems in the collection. It’s a collection yearning for a way to resolve this tension when I know no resolution exists.

QCJ: What function does the triptych form have in the poem “Frederick Douglass: A Triptych”?

AA: I was thinking about the figure of Frederick Douglass and the ways in which historical figures can be changed, appropriated, adapted to speak to various conditions. I wanted to explore that and the idea of the portrait. I live in Rochester, NY where the legacy of Frederick Douglass is oft-discussed, but it is a city that continues to struggle with severe segregation. Frederick Douglass has become a figure that can fit into any situation, but the man was vastly more complicated. The triptych form gives me the opportunity to explore different ways of thinking about him, to look at the mythos of Frederick Douglass from different angles.

QCJ: Who is Tito Manuel and how does his story inform the rest of the collection?

AA: Tito Manuel is based on my Uncle Manuel, or Uncle Money as we used to call him. He passed away when I was pretty young, and my parents would tell me all those stories about his life. Coming from a large family, there was a significant age gap between my uncle and my mother. I heard all these stories about my uncle during the Japanese invasion of World War II. I wanted to honor that. I wanted the collection to have historical context, to show how the experiences, the traumas, the stories are inherited.

QCJ: Why did you choose to address Harold and Kumar in the third section of poems?

AA: Growing up, most Asian characters in the movies were quirky sidekicks or stoic martial artists or brilliant scientists. They were always foreign, a curiosity or token thrown into a movie. Harold and Kumar subverted those tropes and featured Asian leads who were goofy and horny and ridiculous, but also conflicted about their identities as Asians. I wanted to write poems to those figures as a way to dig into some concerns that were important to me.

QCJ: Throughout this collection you imagine the speaker as both a fish head and a wisdom tooth and the speaker’s grandfather as a burning kaiju. What drew you to these images in particular?

AA: Fish heads are something I grew up with. I saw them in stews or on grills or in the frying pan. They are representative of my childhood. Once, friends had come over after playing basketball and my parents had left a stew with fish heads on the stove. I remember the looks on their faces when they removed the lid and saw the eyes staring back at them. I didn’t know how to explain this dish to them, as if I also had to explain my family, even feel apologetic that they had to be exposed to that. It was one of my earliest memories of cultural shame.

Wisdom teeth are peculiar. I’m interested in a part of the body that is regularly extracted but can’t help being itself. Is it weird to feel compassion for something like that? Is it stranger still to imagine the self as a wisdom tooth then?

Honestly, I loved watching the Godzilla movies. I would hunker down in front of the TV and consume the Godzilla movie marathons. They were so strange and loud and fun. I think of the ways in which my grandparents can wield the same kind of power, how small I feel in their shadow.

QCJ: What is the role of food in this collection?

AA: I really enjoy eating. I wish it were as simple as that. Food is also history and narrative and magic. As such, food plays an important role as I look into questions of identity and culture. So much of being Filipino revolves around the meals we share, whether that is dinner or birthday parties or during vigil or family reunions. Food is grief and celebration. The food in the collection speaks to the different ways we interact with it. Yes, it is food that I can consume, but it is also food that transforms, food as the self, food as a way to speak to the ineffable, the mysterious.

QCJ: How do the four sections of this collection connect to and inform each other?

AA: I see the first section as the start of the narrative. The poems establish the speaker, set up the themes of family, identity, language, and dislocation, as well as lay out some of the aesthetic concerns, the use of the surreal and the absurd which will play out in later poems. The second section digs a little into the history of the family, persona poems in the voice of my uncle as he talks about his experience during World War II. The third section, the poems to Harold and Kumar, further develops some of the concerns, interrogating the family and the self by appealing to the characters for answers. The poems begin to look towards the future. The final section echoes the poems in the opening section, but in the final section, the poems are more urgent. They are more a meditation on death and loss and sacrifice.

Order your copy of JAW today!

Albert Abonado teaches creative writing. He has received a fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts. His poems have appeared in numerous publications, including Boston Review, Colorado Review, The Margins, Zone 3, and others. He hosts Flour City Yawp on WAYO 104.3FM-LP. He lives in Rochester, NY with his wife.

Quinn Carver Johnson was born and raised on the Kansas-Oklahoma border, but now attends Hendrix College and is pursuing degrees in Creative Writing and Performances studies. Johnson’s poetry and other writings have been published in various magazines and journals, both in-print and online, including SLANT, Nebo, Right Hand Pointing, Flint Hills Review, and Route 7 Review.


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