From time to time, I am contacted by students or researchers who are studying my poetry or fiction, and they often ask questions about my life. So I am going to give a brief bio here for those students and others who may be interested.
On June 20, 1952, I was born Vicente Ferrer Gotera in the NCO Club at the Presidio of San Francisco. Well, that's not exactly true. That date is right but the building was the Obstetrics Clinic of Letterman Army Hospital
My parents were both Filipino American immigrants to the US: Martin Avila Gotera and Candida Fajardo Gotera. My father would eventually become a lawyer and my mother was already an MD when I was born (I believe).
I was born in a US Army hospital because my father was a retired Army officer, a second lieutenant who received a battlefield commission, meaning he had performed some feat of extraordinary leadership while in combat
After receiving medical care in the US for combat fatigue in 1946, Martin went back to the Philippines but had to return periodically to the US to re-establish residency in order not to forfeit his naturalized US citzenship. When he met Candida he was in San Francisco on one of those residency trips.
My mother was in the US because she had gone to Stanford University for her medical training (all or part, I’m not certain about). Dr. Fajardo's specialty was pediatrics, and she practiced medicine in the Philippines some time later
In 1951, Martin met Candida Fajardo in the basement of a downtown San Francisco bank. He had heard women's voices speaking Tagalog and followed their refreshing lilts until he saw Candida (nicknamed Dading) with her sister Clara. They were immediately attracted to one another, though Clara said, "Watch out for that one — he’s trouble."
Well, I guess he was trouble
I'm not sure what year my parents moved to the Philippines, I think for my father to study for his law degree, which he earned from the University of the Philippines, I believe. My mother practiced medicine during this period. And to some degree, they had to "lay low" because divorce was not legal in the Philippines and so my father was technically in violation of the law for having married my mom. In the eyes of the law, he would have been considered a bigamist.
In Manila, I went to St. Theresa's School for kindergarten and then to San Sebastian College for first through third grade. It was during first (or maybe second) grade that I wrote my first poem. My father and I were on a ferry boat crossing Manila Bay (I believe); it was early morning, and I distinctly remember noticing the sun, how bright it was and round. The poem was written in quatrains, I recall, rhyming abcb
In the meantime, my father was having professional trouble; the Philippines had enacted a law preventing American citizens from practicing law there, presumably because American lawyers who had trouble passing the bar in the US would go to the Philippines to practice. This left my father in a lurch because he didn't want to give up his American citizenship.
We moved to San Francisco in May 1962. I was nine years old. And I went to St. Agnes School for fourth through eighth grade. It was during this time that I started to go by the name "Vince"; I found that so many people had trouble with my given name "Vicente," wanting to put an "n" between the "i" and the "c." I later went to St. Ignatius High School, which became St. Ignatius College Preparatory while I was a student there.
My mother did not practice medicine after we moved back to the US. And neither did my father practice law
In late 1970 or early 1971, I had some early literary successes. I won a city-wide essay contest for high-school students, though I can't recall now what that prize was called. That essay was published in the Philippine News, an expatriate (anti-Marcos) newspaper based in San Francisco, along with four or five poems. I was fortunate to have really excellent English teachers at Saint Ignatius
I particularly thank Mr. Bob Grady (now Fr. Grady) for his creative writing assignments in junior and senior English. Write a story like Sherwood Anderson in Winesburg, Ohio. Imitate an e. e. cummings poem. And just straight-out creative writing prompts. I remember in particular one classmate who turned in the lyrics to "Cloud Nine" by the Temptations and got an A. For the most part, though, most of us wrote those poems and stories and plays in serious fashion for Mr. Grady, and I learned a tremendous amount in his classes.
During my high school years, also, I played lead guitar in several rock bands that gigged at teen club and high school dances across San Francisco. I remember a couple of band names: Doomsday Refreshment Committee, Change of Heart, and Peace of Mind come immediately to mind. My guitar god was Carlos Santana, and I remember playing the solos on his records over and over, working them out note by note, riff by riff, chord by chord.
When I became of draft age, my number in the draft lottery was 30. This meant that we men born on June 20 would be drafted 30th during the year to come. Really, 30 was a terrible number if you didn’t want to be drafted; consider that there were 336 birthdays that got lower priority.
I entered Stanford University in 1971 with that 30 hanging over my head. And that was also the year that student deferments were abolished. So
And there was another factor involved. My girlfriend, Ivania Velez, was pregnant. We married in January 1972. I needed a job to support the two of us and the baby that was on the way. I left college in March 1972 and enlisted in the Army in April 1972.
In June 1972, just a few days before I turned 20, my first child was born: Martin Adan Gotera. I was in Basic Training at the time at Fort Ord, not far away from San Francisco, and so fortunately I was able to be present for Ivon’s labor and Marty’s birth. I remember that was a gala occasion. My father, who wrote a column titled "Of This and Such" for the Philippine News, really outdid himself with a very joyful and enthusiastic announcement of Marty’s birth.
My Army service was fairly uneventful. It was wartime
When I was discharged from the service in April 1975, I took a job as a civilian employee at the Presidio’s Finance and Accounting Office, where I had worked as a soldier. After a couple of years, I became the Supervisor of the Reserve and National Guard pay division; I remember my own incredulity as I, not even 25, would authorize and sign payrolls worth millions of dollars. It still seems surreal to me now.
In the meantime, on the family front, my mother had grown steadily more ill. Ivon and Marty and I lived with my parents at that time so that Mama could spend as much time as possible with us (especially Marty). In 1976, Mama passed away, having outlived the doctors' estimates of how long she had left to live.
I'm going to stop there for now, and continue the bio in a later post. At this moment I want to share the elegy I wrote for my mother about a decade or more after she died.
Hospital Thoughts, Last Year and Today
Last Christmas Eve, I woke to see Mama, dead
twelve years, bending over me in that strange bed,
but no, it was just those pale hospital green
walls, the yellow daze of fever. I'm seeing
things, I thought. But it must have been like that
for my father, a woman with blue-black hair in whites
bending over him during morning rounds,
like the Tenente and Cathy in A Farewell to Arms.
Around them—like a 1940s black-
and-white flick—the war. Sirens and ack-ack
guns, Manila covered with a shroud of smoke
again. General MacArthur returning like
an iron bloodhound, the Japanese kneeling by the sea.
When I was nine, that's how I'd wanted it to be.
I didn't want my parents to meet in a bank
in San Francisco, Tagalog words like magnets
drawing them together. But that Florence
Nightingale bedside scene never took place.
Those knotted hospital sheets tight around my chest,
I recalled Mama's cancer. How doctors christened
her a "model" patient. Once a pediatrician,
she had already fingered all their talismans:
chemotherapy, radiation treatment,
her hair falling out, her body shucking off weight.
At Carew and English, Papa and I found
she'd already ordered a shiny cedar coffin.
Now my father lies in a VA ward in
California—when I visit, he is skinny
as a nine-year-old boy, legs like useless sticks.
He speaks of the war, the Bataan death march,
how thin he'd gotten in the concentration camp.
He tells me how he misses Mama sometimes.
More desperately than his hand on my hair, I want
to see my mother in white, next to the window,
the stethoscope gleaming round her neck.
The sun glints in her hair, full and black.
— Vince Gotera, first appeared in the Seattle Review.
Reprinted in Men of Our Time: Male Poetry in
Contemporary America (1992).
With regard to my poetics, I would probably highlight my employment of slant rhyme here. First, clearly there are full rhymes: "dead" and "bed," "black" and "ack." There is one instance of pararhyme (or consonantal rhyme, a là Wilfred Owen): "want" and "window." There are also quite acceptable slant rhymes, such as "that" and "whites," or "neck" and "black." But then I also use some very distant rhymes: "rounds" and "arms," "bank" and "magnets," for example. I really wanted quite a bit of diversity in the rhyming. And also my trademark "roughed-up" pentameter.
Basically, I wanted couplets that any formalist could recognize as rhymed couplets but which proponents of free verse would think was free verse. I wanted the best of both worlds in what was at that time, in the 1980s, an armed-camp atmosphere between the free-verse poets and the so-called neoformalists. As in so many contexts, I played at being the joker, the wild card.