Readers of a recent The New York Times review of the restaurant Tito King’s Kitchen at Jimmy’s No. 43 were treated to a snippet of poetry when the subject of pork belly came up:
“When God was Filipino, / he put a pig and fire together and called it porkissimo.”
It was, to her knowledge, the first time her work had been used in a restaurant review, though it was not the first time food had infiltrated her poetry and prose.
“I remember having a very delicious bowl of ramen with a friend, and saying, ‘What if a poem could be like this bowl of ramen on a cold, cold day? You know, carbs and broth and complete comfort,” she said.
“I’m interested in the idea of how that can happen in words.”
The theme of hunger comes up a lot in her work because she writes often about the immigrant experience. Her parents emigrated from the Philippines to the United States, and she grew up in Virginia, before moving to New York in 1995. Because she never lived in the Philippines and left Virginia so long ago, the concept of home is very much on her mind, she said.
A trip to the Philippines in 1999 on a faculty fellowship—her first as an adult to the country of her ancestors— made her realize she has many homes.
“The idea of feeling at home in multiple places is a different kind grace that I didn’t realize I’d have access to either,” she said.
“Much of my writing has been about the anguish of feeling displaced and the anger around that. I’m ready to also look at the other side of it, because I may not have a capital “H” home, but I have these lower case “h” homes in many places that I look.”
Having already published two collections of poetry, Matadora (Alice James Books, 2004) and Delivered (Persea Books, 2009), Gambito is currently at work on a new one, tentatively titled Virginia. It’s still unclear what form it will take, she said, but chances are that food will play a factor.
“There’s a great quote from the poet Lin Yutang: ‘What is patriotism but the love of the food one ate as a child?’” she said.
Gambito came to Fordham in 2008, and in 2011, she became editor of Cura, Fordham’s literary magazine. The magazine, which is a collaboration among the faculty, the public, and students, publishes twice annually online. This school year’s theme, “Black Lives Matter,” was chosen in response to the recent racial bias events both on campus and off.
“Speaking with students, we said ‘We can do something about this. We don’t have to just observe. We can act as artists and encourage a voice against this action,” she said.
Claudia Rankine, whose book Citizen: An American Lyric (Graywolf Press, 2014) was a finalist for the National Book Award in Poetry, will help to edit the Fall 2015 and Spring 2016 issues. Gambito teaches Citizen in her classes. She says one of the biggest challenges she faces is convincing students that the book, which recounts racial aggressions in encounters in daily life and in the media, is written for them, no matter what their racial background.
“We want to collect student voices from both campuses and feature them alongside the pieces we’re finding from members of the public. Poetry, fiction, some fantastic digital creative writing, creative nonfiction, visual arts; it runs the gamut,” Gambito said.
“It’s an issue for all of us to pay attention to.”
The Fall 2015 issue of Cura is being published at the end of the year, and is drawing some of its material from art coming from within the creative writing workshops. As such, Gambito is adamant that students are present for the workshops.
“It’s not just the poems that they bring in, or their stories, but it is what we co-create together. Sitting and speaking to each other is another kind of art. So I tell them, the workshop is mandatory,” she said.
“If you’re not here, we miss what you could have said. We miss what we could have created as a class,” she said. “I don’t make distinctions between writing and critiquing. We’re creating together, we’re imagining together what a poem can be.”