Monday, March 30, 2009

'57 Chevy ... Sweet, Sweet, Sweet

In my previous post, I mentioned that I am currently in touch through Facebook with some University of Georgia students who are in an Asian American Literature class reading my poems this week. While discussing my work with these students, I have found myself rethinking and reconsidering an artistic decision I made over twenty years ago while writing a poem in their textbook, Shawn Wong's Asian American Literature: A Brief Introduction and Anthology. Here is that poem:

Alan Valeriano Sees a Lynch Mob

This morning, Alan wraps a rust and verdigris
paisley scarf around his do, a bouffant
Elvis coxcomb. I'm sitting on
his bed with his little brother
Jose, my best friend in fifth grade.
On KDIA, the Tempts croon about sunshine
on a cloudy day while Alan's getting on
his finest threads. Later, the requisite black
leather hip-length coat, but first,
starched Levi's steam-ironed between newspapers.
Jose asks about the cut on Alan's forehead.
Here's the thing, blood. I'm styling down Fillmore
yesterday. The old men, they standing round
the liquor store, and old Mr. Page, he ask,
"Where you going, my man?" But I keep on strutting.
Ladies on corners with they twenty dollars of White
Rain hair spray, they pivot to watch me go by, yeah.

Alan slips a flamingo knit over
a sleeveless turquoise undershirt. Then
silk stockings ribbed in maroon. In the mirror,
he rehearses the strut: left index finger
slung inside the pants pocket,
the other arm swinging free from right shoulder
cocked slightly lower than the left.
Anyway, I seen my partner Jackson
across the street, dig? And he yells,
Say, Al! Check out my new ride, man!"
And his buddy Rolando, he yelling too,
"That's a '57 Chevy, brother!
Sweet, sweet, sweet." So I yell back,
"Let's go for a spin, man," and Jackson,
he give me the wheel. We burning rubber
now, blood, heading for the Sunset.

Jose and I look at each other. Both
thinking the same thing: the Sunset District
might as well have its own white
pages — MacInerny, Petrovsky, Puccinelli, Ryan.
Well, maybe some Changs and Wongs. A Gomez or two.
We doing it, boy! Rubber smoking
every time we come round a corner.
But, hell, that cheegro Jackson, he got gypped.
Some motherfucking thing wrong with the brakes, and boom!
the car's up against a garage door.
Jesus Christ, man. Got blood dripping
in my eyes, and we drawing a crowd now.
Blonde hair, freckles, everywhere. Rolando
and Jackson, boy, they gone. And I'm seeing
axe handles, shotguns, a burning goddamn cross.
So I rip off my scarf, man, show them straight
hair. "I ain't black! I'm Flip! Filipino!"

Jose glances at me, but I'm
looking out the window. Now
Alan adds the final touches: sky-blue
Stacy Adams shoes, the leather coat,
one last glimpse into the mirror.
Vince Gotera performing this poem.<bgsound src="" loop="1">

Click on a picture to see a larger version.

The fashions shown in the ad above would be about eight to ten years later than in the poem, but they reflect a parallel kind of boldness in fashion statement (Ebony, 1970s).

1957 Chevrolet Two-Ten Sedan
— Vince Gotera, first appeared in The Madison Review
(1989). Reprinted in Asian American Literature:
A Brief Introduction and Anthology

If you have the Wong textbook in front of you, or else the issue of The Madison Review in which this poem first appeared, it would be relatively simple to see how the version above has been altered from the original text. The changes involves two instances of what is called, in polite society, the n-word.

The character Alan Valeriano above is quite the raconteur, speaking in ultra-hip Black English — well, hip for the late 1960s, anyway — and he uses the n-word the way African American youth today say "niggah" (insiders say this spelling and alternate pronunciation indicate a non-racist usage, though I still find it troubling). Alan is not black, however, so although he sees himself as an honorary black person, when he uses the n-word it has a more toxic bite.

Here are the two times where the word "nigger" appears in the text of the poem as I originally wrote and published it: And his buddy Rolando, he yelling too, / "That's a '57 Chevy, nigger! / Sweet, sweet, sweet" (lines 28-30). So I rip off my scarf, man, show them straight / hair. "I ain't a nigger! I'm Flip! Filipino!" (lines 49-50). When I originally wrote this poem in the late 80s, I would have defended this use of the n-word as "true to the character's personality and customary language." In other words, someone like Alan — a Filipino American "passing" as a black man — would have used the n-word in just this way. And in fact this would be accurate, at least as I witnessed it back in the day.

But . . . does this make it art? Twenty-plus years ago, I would have said yes. But now, I wonder. Especially when the changes I am making to the poem today seem equally genuine for Alan as character: "That's a '57 Chevy, brother! / Sweet, sweet, sweet." And again, "I ain't black! I'm Flip. Filipino." The deal-breaker for me is imagining reading this poem out loud to an audience where there might be one black person, perhaps an older woman in her 70s. In that situation I would probably have tacitly made these very changes on the spot, on the fly.

I suppose the craft lesson for the day has to do with revision, how one makes decisions about what to change and what not to. I am tempted to make some other edits: (1) Change the verb tense in the non-Alan sections to past (e.g., "That morning, Alan wrapped . . .")to solve the quandary of whether or not the speaker is a fifth-grader or an adult looking back. (2) Redo the line breaks so they reflect a more consistent lineation strategy. (3) Tighten up Alan's Black English (e.g., "he yells" should be "he yell"). (4) Rename some things according to how we called them: "silk stockings" should be "pimp socks"; "strutting" should be "pimping"; and so on. But I think I will leave off, make only the large sociocultural edit today.

I should say, though, that I have made a couple of very small changes: the textbook has "the Temps" as a nickname for The Temptations; this should be "the Tempts." Otherwise, it sounds like a reference to temporary workers. I've also taken the hyphen out of the middle of "motherfucking" . . . that hyphen should have never been there in the first place, if we are to follow customary usage. I also capitalized "Flip" since it derives from the proper noun "Filipino."

Moving to issues of content and theory, "Alan Valeriano Sees a Lynch Mob" is a dramatization of a phenomenon among Asian American youth in San Francisco when I was a teenager: imitating and even entering African American culture as a rebellion against the tendency among our parents to imitate European American society, become the "model minority." During the 1960s, American culture was seemingly made up only of white and black — that's all we saw in the news, in the movies, on TV, in sports, wherever. Asian American young people felt they had to choose between those two monolithic influences, and many (both boys and girls) chose black culture to identify with. It would be more truthful to say, though, that Asian American youth often individually swung back and forth between "being" black and white.

In the discussion I've been having with the UGA students, a question that came up was whether or not the "lynch mob" scene is literal or figurative. I meant it to be not literal. Imagined more than figurative, though. In other words, there is no mob, just curious bystanders, but Alan, because he has identified so closely with blackness, imagines the lynch mob. And his blackness breaks . . . he falls back on being Filipino.

At least that's how I had always thought about it. Because of my conversations with the UGA students, however, I am starting to see a new way of looking at Alan. My idea for the poem had been that Alan was not seeing a hypocrisy within himself. Because he's still dressing up, right? But how about this? Maybe Alan is really a trickster figure and he tells the story as he does because the lynch mob drama makes it a better story. He's a showman, an entertainer. Alan could be exagerrating about both the lynch mob and his reaction. Does that make sense?

There is a real person I knew as a child on whom Alan is modeled, and I can certainly see "real Alan" just making up all that stuff. Maybe there was no car accident at all. Maybe he was just pulling the kids' leg. Playing a joke on them. Keeping them real. Alan the character then becomes something like a Native American trickster, whose job it is not just to pull the rug from under our feet, but to pull the whole world out from under us. Destabilize us. Keep us from getting too comfortable. From thinking we know everything. Hmm.

I do want to thank those students in Georgia, my new Facebook friends, as well as their professor, Will Abney, for making it possible for me to see in new ways this poem and the others we have been discussing ("Aswang" and "Fighting Kite"). I hope our interchange has helped them also to see literature in new, fresh ways. Peace out.

NOTE: the International Fashion ad above comes from a collection of 1970-1976 Ebony ads ( The second picture comes from Wikimedia Commons; the original photo was taken by Douglas Wilkinson for in 2006.

Added on 3-31-09: audio recording of poetry reading above (to the right of the poem).


OBermeo said...

Thanks for sharing your decisions about the use of the "n word." I'll be keeping it in mind when I write more persona poems.

Vince Gotera said...

Hi, Oscar! Thanks for your comment. And good luck with your own poems. --Vince

bjanepr said...

Vince! So I like the idea of the trickster/destabilizing agent. I also like that even though the poem is very time-specific it can be read as relevant to these times, with a modern day Alan who is a Hi-Hop head?

Also: KDIA! I remember KDIA! It was the AM soul/R&B station, right?

bjanepr said...

(typo: i mean Hip-Hop head)

Vince Gotera said...

Hi, BJ! Yes, KDIA and KSOL were the AM soul stations. And if I remember correctly Sly Stone was a disk jockey at KDIA before he became Sly of Sly and the Family Stone. Thanks!

I've been meaning to get back to your blog and chime in on the discussion you and Edgar are having. I'll do that soon. You rock! --V.

Barb said...

Vince, this "Flipping" (pun intended) among Filipino-American youth still happens today. In a nearby neighborhood where Filipinos make up a good part of the population, I've noticed that many boys have adopted a bad-ass, hip-hop persona. The driver's seats of their sports cars are adjusted so they're practically lying down as they drive. The CD player is blaring the latest in hip-hop or rap. It's almost a Filipino male stereotype.

From what I've observed (not just in the neighborhood), the Filipino female stereotype, especially recent immigrants, is that of an incompetent nurse. Others, like myself, tend to be what the older generations call "Americanized" meaning "white, not necessarily Westernized" basically, though we aren't always treated by others as if we are--white, I mean. Many of this latter group may understand or even speak some Tagalog, eat with a fork and spoon at home, own rice cookers--the surface of our culture, but I don't believe they've embraced it fully nor are they trying or even want to. And some of those who have (like myself), switch back and forth between being "white" and "Flip." (Admittedly, I'm also a fan of gangsta rap.)

Maybe I'm rambling incoherently here, but my point is that Filipino-Americans still adopt this persona possibly as a means of rebellion or maybe because we still have an ethnic/cultural identity crisis. And I've just realized this has nothing to do with craft.

Vince Gotera said...

Hey, Barb. I bet we (meaning Filipino Americans) do still have an "ethnic/cultural identity crisis." Isn't it true, for example, that in Chi, Fil-Am youth are well-known for experimenting with hair color? At least, I heard that at a Fil-Am youth conference in Urbana-Champaign. Anyway, it that's true, it surely has deeper ramifications.

Btw, your comment may not have to do with POETIC craft but certainly connects to personality craft. Meaning that we all need to be more aware of how our public personas are constructed and why.

Besides, you don't have to have to talk only about writing craft on my blog. It's all up for grabs. All good.

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