Poetry in the Kitchen and Heritage Month

By Gina Hotta

Stories were cooked up and poetry was shared in OACC’s kitchen. Youths and young adults put their pens to paper on the large steel prep table. Garlic and soy, the sharp smell of vinegar and fish sauce, lemon grass and the smoothing blanket of coconut milk, the tastes and smells of Iu Mien, Chinese, Vietnamese, Filipino, Korean and Samoan lives co-mingled together. It was May 2000 and people were prepping for the Heritage Month Showcase at OACC. And swirling around it all, you’d see poet-trickster Al Robles leading “Poetry In the Kitchen” giving gentle guidance by Talking Story where cooking and sharing meals loosened tongues and the unlocked the creative mind. Co-teacher Penina Taesali would cajole semi-precious pieces of word-art from youths like Richard who would conjure up images of Cambodia on tree-staved streets of East Oakland. The Hipster, Fil-Am Wordster, Poetry-in-the-Kitchen teacher Al Robles has passed on. But his spirit is still alive in May where poets, cooks, drummers and dancers again put their food, words and stories on-stage for Asian Pacific Heritage Month at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center.

Talk Story–the idea of sharing story and food–is the Hawaiian Way, was Al Robles’ way, is something that tries to find its home at OACC. Out of the always morphing “South Asian-Asian-Filipino-Pacific Islanders”, out of competing identities, communities and classes, some time is given over for youths, artists, their families and friends to sit together, eat together and shine on-stage in the auditorium. And this happens in some way each May, during Asian Pacific Heritage Month at the Center.

In May 2000, it was the metal and brass percussion rhythms and the dance of princesses and warriors of the Southern Philippines performed by students of Danny Kalanduyan’s kulintang class. A 70 foot dragon wearing tennis shoes looped and swirled across the auditorium floor carried by students of Corey Chan. Students of Asian Pacific Islander Youth Promoting Advocacy and Leadership (AYPAL) gave a reading of their written works that came out of Poetry in the Kitchen. In 2009, AYPAL once again performs for May’s Heritage Month. Also on-stage is the Korean dance-drumming of Kyoungil Ong, the Sahiyar Dance Company, DowneFx and performances by Jay Loyola. There’s a women writers showcase night, Mosque in Morgantown is on-screen, arts and crafts-making and more.

Back in 2000, with coconut in one hand and cleaver in the other, Al Robles would whack the nut just so, opening it with a crack. Around him in the kitchen, students wrote stories of mothers and fathers at work all day (and night), where language and food is a tie to an old home left behind. Taro was baked in OACC’s ovens while mango, papaya and pineapple were carved and plated for the audience of families and friends. In May 2000, students and artists shared and served food for OACC’s Heritage Month Showcase. And each May, in different ways, they’ll do so again.

(Apex Express is a media sponsor of OACC’s Heritage Month.)

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