From Trauma to Catharsis: East meets West at eclectic forum

From Trauma to Catharsis: East meets West at eclectic forum

At last year’s Beast Crawl festival, the poet Mg Roberts introduced poet and organizer Sean Labrador y Manzano to Carolyn Cooke, who was recently appointed chair of the MFA program at California Institute of Integral Studies.

“He said it was his dream to do a whole conference on the Asian avant-garde. I thought it was really a great idea to have it at CIIS,” Cooke said. “CIIS is a graduate school of psychology and also a school that’s really based in ideas about the integration of East and West, so it’s a great fit.”

Meeting once a month for more than a year, Cooke and Labrador y Manzano have organized a weekend-long symposium featuring writers from as far away as Illinois, Wisconsin and Colorado, as well as from all over the Bay Area.

Labrador y Manzano says the idea was inspired by a couple of performances by poet Bhanu Kapil, who teaches writing and its relationship to thinking at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, part of Boulder, Colo.’s Naropa University. Kapil was in town last year for the East Bay Poetry Summit and another weekend-long conference organized by San Francisco State University, the Poetics of Healing.

“Many of the invited performers/presenters will be discussing their relationship with the English language,” Labrador y Manzano said of the lineup, all of whom are Asian, “for example how the English language – performing it – is in itself a traumatic experience. Part of it is because we write about how, even though we’ve mastered English, we’re constantly reminded that we don’t pass enough as citizens.”

He added, “A lot of the writing has this underlying feel of looking over our shoulder, feeling out ways to pass, to be accepted.”

A fourth-generation American, Labrador y Manzano spent time in the MFA program at San Francisco State before finishing his degree at Mills College. He says workshopping of writing by Asians is often less engaged than that of other students.

“There’s a fear to touch the material because there’s no accessibility to it,” he said. “So an investment in an MFA degree is bittersweet for an Asian writer. (If) you’re touching on immigrant themes or Asian themes, you’re not going to get the feedback. You’ll get the applause – ‘Wow, this is awesome!’ – because it’s new. But a huge percentage of the population is Asian, and the Asian population has interacted with the American population for a very long time, and still their experience is treated as alien.”

This weekend’s performances and panels will be interspersed with incubation sessions, in which attendees are asked to respond and even to perform their responses. “We want to generate a conversation,” Labrador y Manzano said.

“How do we live with intergenerational trauma, personal trauma, historical trauma and how do we embody that,” Cooke asks. “How do we enact it, and as artists how do we perform it and allow it to influence and ultimately extend our work? That’s of interest to everybody, I think. We’ll do curriculum around it, and it will establish some of the baseline conversations for the whole program this year.”


From Trauma to Catharsis: Performing the Asian Avant-Garde: Thursday-Sunday; check website for schedule. Free. California Institute of Integral Studies, 1453 Mission St., S.F.

This article originally appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle.

Photo by Poetry Foundation