"To bring the poem into the world / is to bring the world into the poem."

Thursday, November 10, 2011



I have to go back to another earlier economic downturn to answer more precisely. 2003: I was in my mid-20s, and had already sunk a few years as an analyst for companies like Bear Stearns and Wells Fargo. My last “full time job” was in a small HR [human resources] consulting firm that eventually got bought by another giant financial services company. From a funky warehouse space in San Francisco’s Portrero Hill, the company moved to 2nd and Market...

Simply put, at some point, getting up to take the 8 AM express bus downtown to sit in a gray cubicle all day filled me with nothing but dread. At that time, I had only been writing for a couple of years and also wanted to start taking myself ‘more seriously’ as a writer. So I quit, with no definite plans than to substitute teach and get odd office jobs off of Craigslist. Despite a weak job market, I eked out a very modest living for the next couple of years until I started establishing more stable and fulfilling freelance work doing medical and legal translation, research, consulting for small local businesses, teaching Tagalog and in poetry-in-the-schools.

I prefaced with all of that because I honestly think I would have been more adversely affected in this current recession, as a poet and a freelancer, if I didn’t have those years when I had to teach myself to use all possible resources I have so I could have both a livelihood and a creative life. That meant learning when to choose time over money and vice versa. That meant sitting down and taking stock of what I could really do that people would pay for (working with languages and numbers, yes; writing poems full time, no, not directly at least). That meant dividing my brain and days into compartments so I could be focused and able to work on several very different projects at once, including working on poems.

It continues to be a dynamic, exhilarating, often chaotic way to support myself, but maybe that has also made my profession(s) more recession-resilient over time. And it’s been a useful training on trust, foolishness and calculated recklessness—something hopefully transferrable to poetry. I don’t think I’d ever want to work a 9-5 again.



Every day, I encounter small-mid size businesses hurting badly, friends who’d been laid off and unable to find new work, schools that ran out of money to spend on arts education. In my translation work: patients who are very sick and running out of health care coverage, families and elderly people lining up for food stamps and cash aid, Filipinos promised work here that disappeared once they’ve arrived, and now face immigration issues—it is almost inevitable that my creative work will be influenced by this recession in particular, and the role of economics in our lives, in general. I’ve been circling around poems and writing that explore ‘work’ for some time now, and I have a couple of new poems on the subject which I hope will evolve into a bigger body of work.


I’ve to include here that when I visited Manila last May (2011), I felt over there a lot more financial optimism and economic activity than I’ve seen here in the U.S. for years—as in people continually spending money on food, goods, each other (I had many gracious hosts). As in shopping places, bars, restaurants filled to capacity on many late random weeknights, sky-high condos being squeezed into already packed cities. It stuck with me and I finally heard a commentary about it on NPR some weeks ago—countries in Asia experiencing these vibrant new economies, and the long term social effects that are yet to be seen (there are now restaurants and malls that open specifically all night, and some only at night, for instance, to accommodate call center workers in night shifts)

Come November 5th, Bank Transfer Day, I knew I wanted to do something, to participate in a concrete albeit small way, somehow—but I’ve come to know the employees of the neighborhood big bank I wanted to move my money out from. So some kind of guilt, or something, prevented me from doing it in person. When I called the 888 number to do it over the phone, a call center in Manila took the call. I couldn’t do it, at least for a few days. I thought of the relative economic prosperity there compared to the relative economic misery over here, and felt that no one answer will ever be very simple. (I still moved funds to a SF credit union in the end.)

Karen Llagas sharing poems at a reading



Below is a poem in progress, a couple of years old now—

Lament in a Boardroom

            Look for me under your bootsoles...

For those who did, I’m not talking to
or about you. No, this is about those
who’ve looked along the wisps
of two hundred dollar hair trims.

For us whose here and now
is a loyal wife who packs
her husband’s bags
while he paces the bedroom,
always in heat. (Honey I have desires
only the future can fulfill)

For us who have nothing left
to say about grace,
except that it can’t be graphed—

            And to desire—we
couldn’t look you in the eye,
but we’d be happy to collect your tatters.

Here are pictures
of babies, nephews, cream-
colored shores.

Let no one say
it’s just about the money,
that slender,
grief-stricken thing,
so thirsty for company,

oh how you kept me
glued to my seat all those years
I should have been collecting
the dirt under my shoes.
I can still hear your soft voice—

(The world? Someone else
will say goodbye to it.)



Karen Llagas is the recipient of the second Filamore Tabios, Sr. Memorial Poetry Prize, and her first collection of poetry, Archipelago Dust, was published by Meritage Press in 2010. She has an MFA from the Warren Wilson Program for Writers and a BA in Economics from Ateneo de Manila. Also a recipient of a Hedgebrook residency and a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Prize, she lives in San Francisco where she works as a Tagalog interpreter & instructor, and a poet-teacher with the California Poets in the Schools (CPITS).


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