Category Archives: 3. Literature

Because the Processes of Both Art and Living Are Filled with a Multitude of Disturbances and Other Possibilities

Photograph by Jose Padua
Sometimes, like during the past few months when I’ve had plenty of paying work, I wonder how things would be if I just focused on that. If I tried to take on as much of the web work and editing as I can, and stopped writing all these poems, essays, and stories that don’t pay right away and much of time don’t ever pay anything, at least as far as money goes.

Soon after we moved to Front Royal, I began doing at least several hours of my own work every day. That doesn’t mean I’m at my desk or on the computer the entire time. Doing my own writing involves getting up to make a snack, going to the grocery store, taking the kids to school, picking them up from school, listening to my daughter Maggie play a Thelonious Monk song on the piano, building some Frank Lloyd Wright style house with my son Julien using stray Lego blocks, watching the evening news with my wife Heather when she gets home from the office. It’s a process that’s full of interruptions and for me, without the interruptions, there would be no process.

I recently read an essay by the poet Mary Oliver in which she maintained that she is “heedless of social obligations” and that her “loyalty is to the inner vision, whenever and howsoever it may arrive. If I have a meeting with you at three o’clock, rejoice if I am late.” That’s all fine, I suppose. I’m oblivious in my own ways, too, socially awkward in even more ways, and unable to focus on things and people who don’t intrigue me. Again, that’s all fine but then she says, “There is no other way work of artistic worth can be done.” To which my reaction is a big Fuck You.

Frankly, any artist who tells you there’s only one way to make art is an asshole. This isn’t to say there aren’t a lot of great artists who are assholes—as well as some lesser ones. I know that I’m an asshole in my own way, just not that way. If your way of making art requires you shut out the world, fine. If going off to a writers colony will help you get that novel or book of poems done, fine. Me, I’d go crazy being in a place surrounded by nothing but other dedicated writers and artists. But that’s just my process. That’s why I’ve never considered going to a writers colony or retreat to get more work done, because I know that my process would mess with other people’s processes. And that peace and quiet would be no help whatsoever in getting my work done.

I’ve been keeping up this process of interruptions for nearly ten years now. Before this period though, the interruption went on for a rather long time, because in the eight years before we moved to Front Royal I didn’t write much of anything. Lately, too, there have been days when I haven’t written a damn thing—and, as with those eight years—I felt fine. Which had me wondering.

Then today, with Maggie and Julien back home after school, Julien was playing in the living room when he noticed a book on the table next to the sofa. “Can I look at this?” he asked.

“Sure,” I told him, and he picked it up. What he was now holding was Puñeta: Political Pilipinx Poetry, a small anthology edited by the formidable poet Eileen Tabios that included two of my poems, “Headhunters” and “Seven and Seven Is.”

Julien looked at it for a minute, then looked at me and said, “Great writing, Dad!” He hadn’t really read the poems, of course, but even so, it was the best compliment of the day. And, somehow, he remembered that I was in it—or at any rate, what he was able to read was my name on the cover and inside the book.

“Thanks, Julien!” I said. That’s when I remembered that we are kickers of stupid things, which comes from the punk song Julien improvised on New Year’s Eve last year. It goes, “I’m the kicker of stupid things, I’m the kicker of stupid things…” And on and on like that. It’s plain, simple, and to the point—and what it means is that he, Heather, Maggie, and I do not quit. It means Heather will keep working on her next book while attempting to make change in the physical world, Maggie will learn to play Chopin like Yuja Wang or to paint like Frida Kahlo before moving on to do work that is entirely her own, Julien will continue to be a creator of fierce ideas and wild progressions, and I will continue with my process, welcoming all interruptions, whether long, short, or somewhere in-between.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua


Self-Portrait in the Form of a Chalk Outline on the Concrete Belly of America

Photograph by Jose Padua
Jose Padua is a dish best served cold with onions,
mushrooms and tomatoes in a light broth and
accompanied by a rich lager with subtle aftertones of lemon.
Jose Padua is Arnold Swartzenegger’s imagined tumor
in Kindergarten Cop right when his headache is
at its most painful and the students are ready to revolt.
Jose Padua is the citizen who doesn’t look like a citizen,
the American who doesn’t look like an American, the
human being who doesn’t look like a human being except
in the looming darkness between the last of the previews
and the beginning of the feature film, that precious time
when the prospect of being entertained puts us all
on what the industry calls “a level playing field.”
Jose Padua is a plastic container of air freshener
shaped like a cone that’s run out whatever makes
the almost but not quite pleasant smell that makes
a bathroom smell like a bathroom and not something
that’s been manufactured in an unusually clean factory
in Wisconsin (not that anything is made in America anymore
besides debt, predatory lending, and opportunities
for fatuous demagogues to gain political capital).
Jose Padua is the alley in the neighborhood
he grew up in where all the drunks would stop to pee
and which all the young professionals who were moving
into the neighborhood would complain about because
My god, this is the nation’s capital they would moan
and christ he would pee there too in wet protest of
gentrifiers, scenesters, and financial speculators
because it was his home before it was theirs.
Jose Padua reads fancy books with fancy poems
and fancy stories and fancy essays and the fancy people
who write these fancy poems and fancy stories and
fancy essays totally ignore him except for a few
who’ll nod and say, “Hey, how’s it going, I haven’t
seen you in a long time? Have you bought my new book?”
and Jose Padua will respond by asking, “Hey, can you
lend me a condominium in a rough but upcoming part
of town? Can you spend hours staring at your multi-colored
aquarium fish? Are you the slow, lonesome journey
to a swiftly revolving oblivion?” as everyone whose spirits
had been momentarily lifted feels a dull ache in their knees,
and the thickness of the air that surrounds them makes them
think that time has stopped and been replaced by two or three
hit TV shows from the 90s that no one wants to watch anymore.
Jose Padua walks softly on delicate red rose petals through
the new renaissance he’s creating in his head—you should
take the time to pause and praise his creation; Jose Padua
swims through the ether with neither fear nor loathing
while making elegant strokes on the shifting surface of
popular trends—behold his cultural criticism whenever
you gaze at the nighttime sky and feel like you’re about
to sneeze. This—right here, right now, right off—is what
his lone bright soul contains. This is his vision of what
is crass and obscene and what you need to do about it.
This is his gift to you.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Tearing Up a Box and These Days Spent As if Walking on Unmowed Grass

Photograph by Jose Padua
Sometimes when I’m
tearing up a box
I’ll remember how my father
used to do the same—
collapse it so it was flat,
then rip it in half,
then quarters, and so on
until it fit easily in the trash
without threatening to burst
through the side. Sometimes
he’d tear one up before
we were done with it—
a box for a gift we’d have
to exchange or take back
to the store because it didn’t fit
or didn’t work. Sometimes
when I take the trash out
at night into the quiet street,
drag the bin to the curb,
then carry out the bundled newspapers
and broken down boxes,
I consider these little tasks,
the minutes I’ve lost then found
like an old friend in a fading memory;
the hours, days and sometimes
years spent organizing
small things.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

One for the Morning and the Uninterrupted Dancing in my Head

Photograph by Jose Padua
This morning I’m
looking for my copy
of Reinbert de Leeuw’s
super slow performances
of the compositions
of Erik Satie
to play while I do
the work
I get paid for
but I can’t find it
and somehow
come across my copy
of D’Angelo’s Black Messiah
and put that on
And now rather than
doing my paying work
I’m writing a poem
which means
I think
that I’m coming out
both ahead and behind,
so watch out
all you fatuous clowns,
scheming prevaricators,
and exploiters of
the pure unadulterated dream
because I’m coming
for you next.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

And the Green Card Moon Shines Brightly Over the Beautiful Black Ocean

Photo of Margarita S. Padua
That weekend started off with another encounter with the woman who always tailgates me when I’m trying to stay somewhat close to the school zone speed limit. I’d just dropped off my son Julien when she turned onto the road behind me from the main parking lot. Looking into the rearview mirror, I could see her cold blue eyes staring straight ahead in furious contempt. She followed a few feet behind me for half a minute. Then, when there was a break in the oncoming traffic, she stepped on the gas and zoomed around me. She got all of three, maybe four car lengths ahead of me before she had to slow down again because she was now behind another car that was more or less obeying the speed limit. Still, she had probably shaved an entire half second off her commute, which meant that by going around me she was that much closer to completing her role in making America great again.

Later that day, when we were all home again, I noticed that my daughter Maggie had been carrying around my friend Liz Hand’s novel, Waking the Moon. It’s about the supernatural happenings involving a group of friends who met at college and includes a character based on me. Although the character is much cooler than I was, it still felt odd to have Maggie seeing me this way. This isn’t to say that the real me she sees everyday isn’t odd enough already, it’s just that there’s something about books and real literature that makes you look at the world that much more closely, and I imagined that Maggie, after reading Waking the Moon, was looking at me that much more critically. I just hoped that when she was done with it she still considered the non-book version of me odd and weird enough to take seriously.

After dinner, Heather and Maggie talked again about a paper Maggie did for school on refugees. That’s when Julien asked me to show him my collection of vinyl records in our hall library. One by one, I pulled out the albums of recordings he’d only seen in CD form: Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew, The Art Ensemble of Chicago’s Les Stances a Sophie, Ornette Coleman’s Friends and Neighbors. The full size LPs of all of these impressed him, but what really made his eyes light up was when I pulled out Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s Blacknuss LP. At the time, Rahsaan Roland Kirk was what he asked to hear more than anything else. “Wow,” he said, and he reached out to hold the album himself. When he’s a little older, I thought, I can show him how to use the turntable— just like a couple of years ago when I showed Maggie how to use it to play the Velvet Underground albums she found in my record collection.

That night, we were in Richmond, Virginia, taking another break from the small town life. I was always astounded, whenever we visited a real city, how much more comfortable it was for me. Even in a southern city like Richmond there was so much more of a mix than in our small town. And though there were still people there in Richmond like the guy with the shaved head and yellow Tea Party sticker on his leather jacket—he made a point of staring at me as he walked past us at the pizza joint where we had dinner—most of the time I felt like I didn’t need to explain anything to anyone there. I was an American there in Richmond, and I could be as odd as I needed to be, at least some of the time.

Twenty-three years ago that night, I was in Georgetown Hospital in DC, spending the night in the reclining chair next to my Mom’s hospital bed. In the morning she had another heart attack, and then, that afternoon, she died. She was born in the Philippines in 1925, and although she was always Pinay, or a Filipina, she was also, by the time she died, an American. If she were alive today, and wanted to make one last visit to the Philippines then come back to America, she’d do it. Yeah, one way or as many ways as you can dream of, she’d do it. Because she had two homes—the country where she was born, and the country she worked hard to make her home.

I remember the day when my Mom got her green card. She was happy, she was relieved—I could hear the actual sigh she let loose when she found out. It meant our lives here were more secure. It didn’t mean we were what everyone here would call Americans, but it meant we could keep on trying. It meant that we had a chance.

This poem was written in celebration of my mother and the color green, and all the powers she and it had, both together and separately.

Green Card

Once she made
her way
to the States
in the early 50s,
my mother
never made it
back to the
country where she
was born,
which in the eyes
of some
didn’t make
her an American,
but which to us,
her children,
made her
as American
as she needed
to be.

-Jose Padua

Notes on a Day When I Contemplated the Possibility of Making a Living Playing Free Jazz

Photograph by Jose Padua
What I thought I’d remember most about that day was being in the store and seeing a guy with his girlfriend and the guy was wearing a tee shirt that said “All Guns Matter” and I wished he were walking closer so he could see me giving him a dirty look or shaking my head at him, though I know that with some people the less communication that goes on between me and them the better.

That day, my wife Heather had a meeting in Winchester and, as usual, we all went to Winchester with here. When the meeting was over, Heather, our daughter Maggie, our son Julien, and I drove up Route 11, north of town, on one of those stretches of highway where the decaying buildings and shady businesses from another era have me re-evaluating my concept of time. It’s one of my favorite things to do here in the valley, and although we didn’t go by Piggy’s Club, just past the state line in West Virginia—I usually like to drive at least that far up the road—we did stop at Clearbrook Park. There, Julien ran around on the playground, with Heather, Maggie, and I keeping up with him the best we could. When Julien was tired out, we got back in the car.

One of the new questions Julien has been asking lately is, “When did Ornette Coleman die?”—Ornette Coleman being the great jazz musician and composer who died in 2015—and that’s what he asked when we started to drive down Route 11 from Clearbrook Park. But instead of asking me to play Ornette Coleman on the car stereo after asking the question, Julien asked me to play Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Then, when Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s take on “I Say a Little Prayer” started playing, Julien abruptly said, “Rahsaan Roland Kirk pays the bills.”

There wasn’t much any of us could do by way of responding to the statement other than to nod in agreement—not because we knew anything about how Rahsaan Roland Kirk did with his finances but because to say that “Rahsaan Roland Kirk pays the bills” is to talk about so much more than money, so much more than bills and expenses, so much more than survival. This isn’t to say we don’t need to work in order to survive, but that the purpose of work goes beyond that and involves things that can never be paid for and will never be listed above the total on a bill.

With Rahsaan Roland Kirk playing on the stereo, Heather, Maggie, Julien, and I drove south on Route 11, back through Winchester, and on down our stretch of the northern Shenandoah Valley toward home. As we drove, the sun started going down—so we took our time and paid attention, listening for that sound the sun makes when it hits the horizon, and welcoming the darker shades of light as they rose higher and higher in the sky like red oak, blue mountains, and clouds.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

The Monkey Time

Photograph by Jose Padua
It was a minor soul ballad, though not quite a ballad,
or not a ballad at all, that brought Billy the Kid back
to life in a dive bar downtown. Someone started doing
a strut on the tile floor that looked like the floor
of a church, but it wasn’t a church it was Baltimore,
on a spring evening, during an era no one but me calls
the Renaissance of past lives now coming back to life
when someone plays that great goddamn song on the jukebox.
It was time to stand up, so we stood until we were taller
than we were before like flowers in the afternoon after
a morning when it rained, until we felt dizzy from being
so high over the tiny names carved on the wooden bar.
All the workers from the neighborhood stood up, too,
to dance, because Billy was always good to them and
was like wild west death to their enemies. So many
more names were added to the rough wood that night,
so many more words were breathed like lovers breathing
on hot, dank nights, and so many cow-men and cow-women
never sat down again for the rest of their lives, and for
four hours not a sip of beer was spilled, nor a drop of
bourbon wasted by being wiped away on a man or
woman’s lips by anything other than a kiss. And when
it was time, the floor turned to dirt in our bloodshot eyes
as Billy the Kid tightened his footsteps faster than a
pinball machine going TILT, dancing his way out the door
into the after midnight mist. And when it was time we ran
off into the night like saxophone solos, each note a word,
each sentence a nod to the tune that brought us here, each
day following the last, each night keeping the beat.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

From the Belly to the Head

Photograph by Jose Padua
In my twenties when I was still living
with my mother and father and brothers
in the house I grew up in, I would always
hear from certain friends, “Why are you
still living at home?” The short answer
was that they wanted me there; the long one
that we ate rice for breakfast, eggs with
marinated pork for dinner; had paintings
of tiny houses on stilts with thatched roofs
that let in a lot of air, a plaque displaying
The Weapons of Moroland that reminded
my mother and father of the islands
they came from; displayed on the living room table
wooden carvings of caribaos pulling heavy carts,
headhunters carrying their enemies’ heads;
if you came into our house you ate in our house;
those of you who wouldn’t eat, how could you
expect us to trust you? In my immigrant culture
the custom was for children to live at home with
the family, to contribute to that home, and continue
to do so until they had families of their own,
but I never said that, never explained, never
wanted to say my people do things differently
because there’s nothing like having to state
the obvious for breaking already tenuous bonds
and at the time I wasn’t quite ready to be on my
own. Because being my friend was like going to
one of those stores where nothing has a price tag:
if you had to ask how much it was you couldn’t
afford it, and if you had to ask why I lived where
I lived, you couldn’t be my friend for very long.
And although I wanted to be American like
everyone else, I understood what it meant to stay
in touch with ground that wasn’t right beneath me,
a home that was on the other side of the earth,
teaching me, molding me, giving me strength.
Today I live in my own house with my own
family; if you know the right questions to ask
and what not to ask, I welcome you to come in,
rest your feet, have a drink and a bite to eat;
I welcome you to come in and look around
so you can see the world from here, so you’ll
know and feel, from your belly to your head,
what’s going on now.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

A Brief Reflection on Joy and Alacrity for the New Year

Photograph by Jose Padua
Every now and then I think
about the times I’ve been
a total snot with people.
Sometimes it’s because
I’m really very shy,
other times it’s because
I’m really an arrogant snot.
It’s that simple. And though
the only one who needs
to know this is me I’m
telling it to you anyway,
because I am a magnanimous
snot, full of joy and alacrity,
and I am happy to be
your friend.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

A Story for the Mist and the Fog and the Rain, but Most of All, a Story for Us

Photograph by Jose Padua
We were somewhere around Frederick, Maryland when Abdullah Ibrahim’s “African Sun” came on the car stereo. It had been raining mightily since we left Front Royal, and now, near Frederick, it was raining so heavily that if I were so inclined I might say it was raining in biblical proportions. But, as I am not so inclined, I prefer to say that it was raining like a motherfucker. And that the song “African Sun” then started playing on the stereo.

Whenever I hear “African Sun” and the rolling notes of Abdullah Ibrahim’s piano, I swear I can see the sun coming up, swear that my skin is warming from the arrival of the sun’s bright heat. Abdullah Ibrahim’s “African Sun,” I thought, was going to clear out the rain. Was going to make the sun shine. I sped up slightly, certain that in another minute we’d be under clear blue skies and the soothing yellow of late-in-the-day sunlight. I turned the music up a notch. Sat up a little taller in my seat, the better to see the light. I waited, and I waited.

And it kept fucking raining. Kept raining on into the early dark of night. Raining and I was getting tired of driving, tired of the rain, and most of all, tired of driving in the fucking rain.

So I tried to think of the sort of things that would give me energy. I thought about when we left Front Royal, and my wife Heather was in the convenience store getting coffees for us. Thought about earlier in the afternoon when our daughter Maggie announced that she wanted to learn French, the reason being that she had just watched Truffaut’s The 400 Blows again.

I first saw Truffaut’s The 400 Blows when I was around fourteen, and it changed the way I looked at the world, changed the way I thought about film and art in general. I’d first shown Maggie this classic film of the French Nouvelle Vague about five years earlier. Back then, she liked it, but this time, she said, she absolutely loved it, and, what’s more, because of it, she now wanted to learn French. That, as far as I was concerned, was a big deal, and gave me a big lift for the start of this trip. But then there was this rain.

Still, it was beautiful going through Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia—we always take this longer but slower route whenever we go to see Heather’s family in central Pennsylvania for the holidays. That late afternoon/early evening, the whole town and the entire river there was covered in a thick white mist. It didn’t feel like Virginia or West Virginia or anything so every-day for us, and it didn’t feel like winter turned either miraculously or horribly into spring anymore, it felt like… I don’t know, but it felt like something—something I couldn’t quite name.

Just when we’d left our house that day, our neighbor Mary brought over some presents for Maggie and our son Julien. For Maggie, it was a nice angel doll (Maggie wasn’t so much in to dolls anymore and she’d never been into angels, but she liked it anyway), and for Julien she got a little brown teddy bear, and he liked his bears back then. Mary looked at Julien, saw how he was smiling as he looked at the brown teddy bear and asked him, “What are you going to name him?” That’s when silence fell upon us all. Fell upon us like… something.

Julien looked at the teddy bear for a moment, then said, “Nobody.”

“Oh?” Mary said.

“Yes,” Julien said again, “Nobody”—the name of his new brown teddy bear was Nobody. It wasn’t what Mary was expecting, but she thought it was cool anyway. As for Heather, Maggie, and I, we remembered back when Maggie was around three and declined to give her big rag doll a name. This led to the big rag doll’s being called The Doll Who Cannot Be Named. That Julien called his new bear “Nobody” warmed Heather’s and Maggie’s and my own heart. I mean, even now, a couple of years later, when I’m thinking of the word nobody I’m thinking of something that warms my heart, thinking of something that fills my sometimes congested lungs with crisp, fresh air. It doesn’t work for everyone, I know, but for us it’s a word that helps make us feel even more like family.

When we finally made it through the dark and the rain to our hotel in Central Pennsylvania, Maggie got out of the car and asked me, “Did you remember to bring my black Punk bag?” Maggie has a shiny black bag that says PUNK on one side and nothing, I think, on the other side (though maybe it says PUNK on the other side as well, I’ll have to check.)

“What?” I asked, and I remembered that I hadn’t remembered, which led me to ask once again, “What?”—with the word what meaning that Maggie had no clothes for the trip, other than what she was wearing.

So, first we ate dinner at the Hotel Hershey. I had the Chianti Braised Oxtail with Spinach and Crispy Carrots—I probably hadn’t eaten oxtail since the last time some thirty or so years ago when my Mom made the Filipino dish kare-kare. And after dinner we found a K-Mart on Jonestown Road (“Take a left on Kool-Aid Lane,” I said, and nobody laughed, except for me, which more often than not is enough. I’m happy even when I’m the only one who likes my bad joke.)

While Heather and Maggie were inside the K-Mart looking for clothes, I took a photograph of Julien as he and I waited outside the K-Mart. Of course, it wasn’t long before he wanted to go in as well. We hadn’t been in a K-Mart in a long time—not since the one we had in Front Royal closed down several years ago. This photograph of me was taken two years later. I was trying to take a photograph of the road outside the hotel where we’re staying this year, but there was an extra layer of plexiglass covering the window for some reason, and this layer of plexiglass picked up my reflection, making this photograph a self-portrait.

This year, the big song was Doug Hream Blunt’s “Fly Guy.” Julien kept insisted we play it again and again and again. And we did, quite a few times. The landscape we were driving past—the river at Harper’s Ferry, the hills that hide the Civil War battlefields of Gettysburg from view on the highway—went by more swiftly listening to Doug Hream Blunt. And they went by even more swiftly when my friend Casey Scott’s song “True North” rose up from the random mix on the car stereo. Maybe it’s because we were travelling north. Or maybe it’s because it’s such a beautiful song. Or maybe it’s because the world is moving in ways we ultimately fail to understand until we see it through our art, because in addition to the facts there is an essence that requires we approach it in order to truly live.

Two years ago, as Julien and I walked through the aisles of the K-Mart, I thought how there are, in the world, people who—though they be few in number—envy us our style and taste in clothing. People, even fewer still, who begrudge us our advantage in perspicacity as well as our precision and skill in sometimes employing metaphor to sometimes great effect. Which is to say, sometimes we get there and sometimes we don’t. Or maybe I’m just speaking of myself.

Walking through the aisles with Julien, I saw that they had their Adam Levine line of cool, sophisticated men’s clothes, and a Nicki Minaj collection of hot styles for women, and this collection, and that collection. It all looked so strange and horrible to me.

When Julien and I found where Heather and Maggie were, I said to Heather, “I don’t want any names on my clothes. Hell, I don’t even like wearing things with words like Fruit of the Loom on them. If I wanted there to be words on my clothes, I’d use my words. My Words.” And Heather nodded, meaning that she understood. Meaning that, yes, this is why we are who we are. This is why we are family.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua