Kundiman, an Introductory Love Song by Joseph O. Legaspi

Kundiman is a literary organization dedicated to the creation, cultivation and promotion of Asian American poetry.  Founded in 2002 by two poets, Sarah Gambito and Joseph O. Legaspi, Kundiman supports the artistic and professional development of emerging Asian American poets, and aims to preserve and promote the cultural legacy of the Asian American diaspora.  It is the only non-profit of its kind in the U.S.  But what does the Tagalog word “Kundiman” mean?  Kundiman is a classic form of Filipino love song—or so it seemed to colonialist forces in the Philippines.  In fact, in Kundiman, the singer who expresses undying love for his beloved is actually singing for love of country.  The name then serves as inspiration to create and nurture artistic expression.  It also acknowledges the political struggle that fuels change, and harkens to the shared roots of hyphenated Americans.  Building community and fostering the voices of Asian American poetry are at the heart of Kundiman’s mission.  They go hand in hand.  Kundiman gathers together Asian American poets, providing them with a safe, creative space.  To accomplish its goals, Kundiman has three main programs: an annual poetry retreat, a book prize, and a reading series.

Started in 2004, the Kundiman Poetry Retreat is a five-day residency program open through a competitive application process to emerging Asian American poets who seek to improve their skills in a rigorous yet supportive environment.  Kundiman fellows—those who are accepted and attend the retreat—immerse themselves in poetry through workshops and mentorship sessions with renowned Asian American poets, salon readings, talks, community-building activities, and, most importantly, writing.  For the past two years, Kundiman has made its retreat home at Fordham University’s beautiful Rose Hill Campus in New York City.  Our roster of faculty members and guest speakers are a veritable list of who’s who in the Asian/Asian American poetry world: Lawson Inada, Bei Dao, Myung Mi Kim, Kimiko Hahn, Arthur Sze, Marilyn Chin, David Mura, Tan Lin, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Patrick Rosal, Prageeta Sharma, Paisley Rekdal, Regie Cabico and many others.

But why sponsor a retreat solely for Asian American poets?  One cannot argue the importance of people, especially members of a minority group, being in the same company as those who share their background.  There is an innate sensitivity, an immediate understanding of common histories and cultures.  Kundiman fellows frequently express how they don’t have to “explain themselves” while at the retreat.  Many of them arrive from places where they feel isolated as Asian Americans and/or as poets—as Asian American poets—therefore, a safe gathering ground becomes even more vital and crucial.  Beyond the racial and cultural, however, the most enduring bond at the Kundiman Retreat is the collective love of writing and poetry.  In its history, 92 emerging Asian American poets have attended the Kundiman Retreat at least once.  Each fellow can attend up to three times and then they “graduate.”  This format is utmost important in building a solid peer group. New fellows find mentorship and camaraderie not only with staff and faculty but also with returning fellows. Graduated fellows are at times asked to return as part of the staff in subsequent retreats, acting as liaison, as bridge. 

The created community extends beyond the summer retreat. Through the Kundiman listserv, fellows continue to interact online.  They share everything from creative and professional accomplishments to writing prompts to pedagogy. They form writing groups, virtual and real. They sit on panels together, curate readings, exchange poetry postcards, meet up in foreign cities.  I once overheard a fellow exclaim that because of Kundiman, she has many family members sprinkled all across the country. The Kundiman Alumni Association raises funds for scholarships to the retreat. As the organization grows, it radiates outward like tree rings.

Outside of the Retreat, Kundiman reaches out to the community by creating a wider audience and broader appreciation for Asian American poetry.  The Kundiman Poetry Prize is one such vehicle.  Awarded in partnership with Alice James Books, the Kundiman Poetry Prize guarantees the annual publication of at least one collection of poetry by an Asian American.  It is open to all Asian American poets, previously published or not.  In addition to book publication, the winner receives a cash prize and a feature reading in New York City.  In fall 2011, Alice James Books released Janine Oshiro’s Pier, the inaugural winner of the Prize.  Janine launched her book with two Kundiman-sponsored readings at Fordham University and NYU.  Forthcoming is the second winner of the Prize: Matthew Olzmann’s Mezzanines.  These publications help to diversify the American literary landscape.  Our written words help give voice, tell our stories, and strengthen our people’s presence in pluralistic society.  Many Kundiman fellows have followed suit: to date, thirty-one fellows have published, or will be publishing, their books and chapbooks.

Finally, Kundiman maintains its vibrant presence in its NYC home base by running the Kundiman & Verlaine Reading Series.  Housed in an artsy lounge in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, the reading series, now in its 9th year, has featured over one hundred Asian American poets.  It has created new audiences for Asian American poetry by showcasing the works of emerging and established poets.  Moreover, in the past few years, as part of its community outreach initiative, Kundiman has invited poets from other literary organizations serving minority groups, such as Cave Canem and Acentos, to read.  This has not only boosted the organization’s audience base, but also established and strengthened relationships with like-minded institutions.

In keeping with giving voice to the Asian American community, Kundiman is developing an oral history project called Kavad. As part of Kavad, Kundiman produced the multi-media show Together We Are New York to commemorate the tenth anniversary of 9/11. In this community-based arts project, Kundiman poets interviewed Asian Americans affected by 9/11 and wrote poems in response to these interviews.  This enables Kundiman to further community documentation, healing and dialogue. Tapping on its core of poets, Kundiman hopes to narrate the stories of Asian Americans as a people, and so strengthen Asian American solidarity and identity.

If American literature is going to help us understand our place in a multi-racial, multi-cultural global society, it needs first to reflect the racial and ethnic complexity of American society and American experience.  In training and supporting the next generation of Asian American poets, Kundiman is playing a transformative role in American culture and history. Through vital programming, mentorship and advocacy, Kundiman is building a vibrant community of committed poets. This commitment then translates into empowerment for our diasporic and marginalized communities.  Kundiman envisions the arts as a tool for community engagement and social activism, encouraging Asian American poets to find their true desires and perfect their skills through education and performance.  Consequently, Kundiman strives to create a rich legacy.


JOSEPH O LEGASPI is the author of Imago (CavanKerry Press). He lives in Queens, NY and works at Columbia University.  He co-founded Kundiman (www.kundiman.org), a non-profit organization serving Asian American poetry.