Patrick Rosal resides at many cultural intersections. You can find it in his poetry, you see it in his Filipino heritage, and you hear it in his vernacular. And that's how he likes it.
Rosal, a poet and professor at Rutgers-Camden, just finished Brooklyn Antediluvian, his fourth book of poetry, slated for release on May 3.
As the title indicates, his book addresses many kinds of flood: Hurricane Katrina; Tropical Storm Ondoy, which hit the Philippines in 2009; the emotional flood after a breakup; living in Brooklyn amid the flood of gentrification.
"I want people who know poetry to feel they recognize a heightened music and fresh imagery," he says. "For people who might not be as familiar with poetry, I'd love for them maybe to say to themselves, 'I didn't know poetry could be like this or about things that I could relate to.' "
In his poetry, he takes us from Brooklyn to Spain to his Jersey hometown. In "A Scavenger's Ode to the Turntable," he writes:
In a basement of a maple splint
in Edison, NJ, we were learning to turn anything
into anything else . . .
a dance floor could go from winin' to riot
quick if a record skipped when we spun back
the wax to its cue
His hometown was diverse, comprising black, white, Hispanic, and Asian working-class immigrants. The influence is apparent in his work. As a poet, he says, he focuses on the connections among people, places, things, and histories. There are no binaries when it comes to his influences - rap cyphers, DJ and b-boy culture, Amiri Baraka, Audre Lorde, Sekou Sundiata, James Baldwin.
As for race, Rosal urges that we break out of the black/white binary: "If the only differences that we are navigating are black and white, then we are oversimplifying the racial dynamics in this country." And he says communities of color need to see one another, as well.
The award-winning poet says growing up, he hated books: "I resented literature because it didn't have anything to do with me."
It wasn't until he attended Bloomfield College, before attending Rutgers-Camden, that he learned art, music, literature, and music stemmed from everywhere, including Africa, Asia, and from indigenous peoples around the world. Before that, much of his education came from hip-hop culture, in which he still finds cultures mixing.
"I'm fascinated by that," Rosal says. "Hundreds of years of university research has not been able to produce structures that allow us to see each other as clearly as the cypher has."
A few days ago, Rosal was reading in a class at the University of Pennsylvania, telling students about the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis, where Filipinos were "on display" along with U.S. imperialism and colonization. He stressed, especially to the Asian students, that in his class mistakes are OK. In fact, they're welcomed. The flawed space is a growing place.
"Asian folks are held to a standard that white folks are not," Rosal says. "We have to fulfill this idea of the model minority. It's a myth. You can sustain conflict between communities if you perpetuate that narrative.
In "Lone Star Kundiman," Rosal writes of being rendered invisible by the dominant culture:
I keep saying it was the way you took my arm,
the small imperceptible squeeze, that tiny shove,
the way you told me Get to the back of the line,
how you eyed me to my place with your little smirk.
Some keep saying it was the rum. I keep saying
it was history. . . .
In Texas, you can sit in a diner packed with white folks
who dip their sweet potato fries in honey Dijon, while
you practice what it's like to be the last man on earth
or the first one to land in a city where no one sees you.
"Communities of color have always recognized, as a way of survival, various kinds of trouble that you run into," Rosal says. "Now we're in a moment in history where that trouble is made more public."
Bridging gaps within those communities is crucial, Rosal says, for both healing and loving. "We have categories, definitions, and boundaries to help us navigate the world," he says. "When we become over-reliant on those tools, certain sectors of our lives and our imagination become segregated.
"I wonder," Rosal says, "what happens when we take those boxes away to bring them back together."