toxic city (Tinder Tender Press, 2015)
What’s your chapbook about?
My chapbook toxic city is about immigrant women in California’s Silicon Valley who make microchips – women like my mom. It is a part of a larger poetry collection, microchips for millions (PAWA, Inc.), which will be out in summer-fall of 2016. The poems in the chapbook are the ones that I’d selected for readings, especially when I was shopping the entire manuscript around.
My chapbook is also a critique of the Silicon Valley and the ways in which its high technology industry is linked to a need for safer work environments for all workers.
If you have written more than one chapbook, could you describe each of them in chronological order?
I self-published a chapbook called small sky in 2010; it was everything I wanted to tell the world about myself before I went to school to get my MFA in Writing. I also understood chapbooks as a form of exchanges and intellectual currency between poets, especially the spoken word poets I loved, listened to, and created community with when I was first starting out. small sky was written mostly in poetry – specifically free verse and haiku – and there was even a short story in there. The funds I’d earned from creating this chapbook with my friends in various living rooms helped me get to a writing residency for the Voices of Our Nation (VONA) Conference for writers of color.
I also created, with my friend Paola, 16 tiny books titled exploration, specifically created and left only to be found between Burbank and San Jose airports.
I also took a tiny press practices/literary citizenship course with Jen Hofer, as a graduate student at CalArts, and I created 66 copies of a chapbook called ain’t no power (like the power of the students) to honor, complicate, and represent the 66+ years that Filipina/o American World War 2 Veterans have gone without full rights to equity or recognition.
What’s the oldest piece in your chapbook? Or can you name one poem that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the chapbook? What do you remember about writing it?
The oldest poem is one of the first, fuller poems that appears in the chapbook, “the assembly line.” This poem definitely catalyzed what came after. I remember writing it as a result of a prompt that asked about real world issues that should be addressed in poetry.
Describe your writing practice or process for your chapbook. Do you have a favorite prompt or revision strategy? What is it?
I never intended to have a chapbook out of microchips for millions, but it started out as a chapbook in Jen Hofer’s “Documentary Poetics” course at CalArts. Can you tell I love Jen Hofer? CalArts was so crucial to the beginnings of my art-making practice. It was there that my friend and fellow poet, Peter Nichols, said that he uses intuitive research in his writings. Once I heard him say this, I realized that was the perfect description for what I use, too. I describe and define intuitive research as a way of trusting myself to research, discover, and seek out the narrative of the poems I need to write. I feel that I know of the parts, wholes, and holes of a collection as I write, and I write to figure out how the poems belong.
How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your chapbook?
Intuitive research! I read for spaces and spacing. I attempted to make use of the blank spaces between poems – utilizing them as breaths, creating caesura. I also purposefully wanted to braid and weave strings of poems. Each poem (hopefully) functions as a block of text that mimics the shapes of microchips. All of this space – the women and their families in between the lines and in my thoughts as I wrote, the ever-changing landscape of the Silicon Valley, and the threads of conversations with my mother – arranged and created a kind of toxicity I wanted to write against.
In addition, the arrangement of the poems closely mirrors what I would read from this collection at readings. I wanted to create a narrative arc that addressed some of the major parts of microchips for millions.
Is there a question you wish you would have been asked about your chapbook? How would you answer it?
What music do you listen to as you work and write? Through the making of toxic city, I listened to a lot of the music that reminds me of the times in which events in the chapbook happened to me: R&B, hip hop, and 1990s pop music.
What are you working on now?
I am working on a manuscript currently and tentatively titled you don’t know what you don’t know. This collection of poetry is about my relationship with English, Ilokano, and my father. I am also grading a lot of my students’ work and papers…
What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?
I would say either or all of these things: “Do it!” “Please write!” or “Yes!” I read so many stories and essays from students who have so much to say and are not sure if they should share or write it because it makes them feel different. I get it. I know why that happens, as that has happened to me. I wish that it didn’t. I wish that it does not. I think time and time again of Audre Lorde’s quote about the importance of speaking, “I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood.” I offer this quote and I cannot emphasize how much I would love to share spaces with more writers who represent, value, and embody difference.
What advice would you offer to aspiring chapbook authors?
I would say either or all of these things: “Do it!” “Please write!” or “Yes!”
What question would you like to ask future writers featured at Speaking of Marvels?
What music do you listen to as you work and write?
Does the chapbook form have an impact on the politics of the poems that appear inside it?
Definitely. The form of the chapbook attempts mapping, and hopes to mark onto the pages toxic waste sites – at my mom’s workplace(s), at home, and even in my memories as a young girl and young woman. Because each poem functions as its own microchip, I hope to show the pervasiveness of microchips, and to highlight the poetry in between every piece inside.
Without stopping to think, who are ten poets whose work you would tattoo on your body, or at least your clothing, to take with you at all times?
I’ve got a quote by Carlos Fuentes on me already. That quote is “writing is a struggle against silence.” I am actually hoping for more ink from poets and activists like Rupi Kaur, Assata Shakur, Tanya Davis, and maybe one day, my mom. I would also consider but not sure if I would actually tattoo works by Sandra Cisneros and Sonia Sanchez, and hip hop artists like Blue Scholars, Rocky Rivera, Lupe Fiasco, and Common.
What kind of world do you think your chapbook creates? What, or who, inhabits that world?
I think that my chapbook (re-)creates a world where immigrant women and a concern for their wellness and livelihoods are at the center. This world is also about how the high-tech industry can crash on and suffocate the people who work hard to uphold it.
Which poem in your chapbook has the most meaningful back story to you? What’s the back story?
I think that “the family tree” has the most meaning to me because it reminds me of how our technologies and memories work their ways into obsolescence. In this poem, I list many major tech companies that made up most of the Silicon Valley’s image and public memory at the time in which I started really writing this chapbook. I wanted to flip the idea of “the social network” and turn it into an overwhelming presence of tech companies that neighbor people’s homes. I think of and worry about obsolescence with this poem because a lot of the companies listed in it are either 1) more popular than ever before or 2) non-existent due to companies buying out and competing with one another at intense rates. This poem also reminds me that, seemingly, there was no way that my writing could keep up with just how fast our technology and our world, as a result, was and is changing.
If you could re-title your chapbook, what would the new title be?
I love the title I chose! I have to make it known, though, that I was deciding between toxic city or toxicity. I ultimately decided on the former because I wanted the title to serve as a form of critique of the Silicon Valley in itself.
What’s the title for a book you haven’t written yet?
The Economy of Pop Songs. It would be a place where I respond to works by other female poets, just as it would be a place where I could cite lyrics from hip hop and pop songs as epigraphs to foreground my poems. And to be real, this book or chapbook would be a place where I could put to rest, or to life, all of the love poems to formerly important people and partners that I’ve tucked away for so long.
What kinds of writing (comics, dictionaries, magazines, novels, etc.) that aren’t poetry help you to write poetry?
The classroom conversations I have with my students are super inspiring and helpful for me as I articulate my own art-making process. I teach in the Kababayan and CIPHER (Hip Hop) Learning Communities at Skyline College, as well as the Puente Project at San José City College, and so I am always in between some of the dopest and most thought-provoking conversations that the world needs. We’ve talked in the past about the role and complications with authorship, meta narratives, seeing beyond what we can see, ineffability, trusting our intuition, and writing through the fear of writing (which is too real, especially for students of color). These writing-related moments move me to be a better artist and a better teacher.
Whose work helped you in the writing of this chapbook?
from unincorporated territory [hacha] by Craig Santos Perez, Trespasses by Padcha Tuntha-Obas, and The Silicon Valley of Dreams by Lisa Sun-Hee Park and David Naguib Pellow.
Who is your intended audience? What kind of person do you imagine writing to?
I’m not sure if my writing matches this, but: I hope that young Pinays (Filipina Americans) and their mothers will read this book. More specifically, I write to young Pinays in the Bay Area – in the South Bay Area – in San José, or Fremont, or Union City, or Santa Clara, or Sunnyvale, or Milpitas – all places where immigrant women workforces and their children may reside. I also hope that they take pride, or find joy, in just knowing that a book for them exists in the world.
At the same time, I write to and write back and write against people, but I do not write for, those who don’t know that their software, hardware, or phone apps cannot exist without the women who make microchips. Mm-hmm. Yes.
Who do you most hope will read your chapbook (either an individual or a particular group of people)?
Pinays! We must write. We must work to see ourselves in our books, our poetry, our narratives, and in our art.
What do you wish you had been told as a writer? What wisdom have you arrived at?
I wish a teacher, or some adult, would have recognized sooner than later not that I was good at it, but that I loved writing. I would have liked that reflected back to me by someone earlier in my life.
What inspires you? What gets you to the page?
Writing about injustice, which as Sandra Cisneros once said at a reading, is called “writing from where my heart hurts.”
Janice Lobo Sapigao is a Pinay poet, writer, and educator born and raised in San José, CA. Her first book microchips for millions will be forthcoming from PAWA, Inc in Fall 2016. She is also the author of the chapbook toxic city (Tinder Tender Press, 2015). She earned her M.F.A. in Critical Studies/Writing at CalArts. She co-founded an open mic in Los Angeles called Sunday Jump. She lives in the Bay Area and teaches at Skyline College and San José City College.