October Light Undiminished--Remembering Poet Jeff Tagami

PNNscholar1 - Posted on 12 July 2013

The poet Al Robles once posed this question: What happens when a poet dies?


Robles, who is often called the poet laureate of San Francisco's Manilatown, whose work centered around the struggle against the eviction of elderly Pilipino tenants from San Francisco's International Hotel—an event that changed the political landscape of the city in very significant ways—juxtaposed this question with the lines:


When a politician dies

he dies, that's it

When a philosopher dies

he dies, that's it

When a mathematician dies

he dies, that's it


But when a poet dies, his words live on forever


Such can be said about the poet Jeff Tagami, whose graceful, humble and powerful poems live on as we honor the 1 year anniversary of his passing. Jeff's book of poems, “October Light” is a powerful document chronicling the lives, dreams, struggles, heartbreak and redemption of Pilipino workers who were part of the first generation of immigrants from the Philippines to come to the US—filled with ideas about America that were propagated by the American school system in the Philippines. The idea that America was the land of opportunity and that all men are created equal were planted in the minds of these young immigrants who came here to seek a better life. However, they learned the other side of the American Dream when they arrived on these shores. Confronted with deep racism and anti-immigrant hysteria, these immigrants faced violence and much indignation. They were ostracized by a society they thought would welcome them—for isn't that what America promised: give us your poor, your hungry, your...


Jeff Tagami's parents were part of that early generation of Pilipino immigrants, migrating to Hawaii before settling in Watsonville. His parents worked the land, knew the seasons. They understood the blowing of the horn, the conveyor belt, the unrelenting sun, stoop labor—the machinery of agribusiness that exploited the Filipinos who gave more than their hours. Some lost fingers, limbs. From the poem “The Horn Blow”


If not for luck, then to pray

Against the spastic knee

That brings the spinning blade

Down like an axe

Sending fingers or a whole hand

Flying to heaven

To daydream is to lose a part of you


Jeff Tagami was born in Watsonville. From an early age he worked and witnessed the struggle of his parents to support and provide for their many children. He grew up among people whose lives revolved around the land and seasons. He was touched deeply by the struggles—jealousies, power dynamics, exploitation, the search for identity—that were imbedded in the lives of the workers in the Pajaro Valley, where Watsonville is located. The Watsonville Riots of 1930 are a documented part of Pilipino American history where whites attacked Filipino labor camps, armed and filled with vitriolic hatred of the Pilipinos who they saw as “Those people that are taking our jobs.” One worker whose life has been immortalized in Pilipino American history is murdered 22 year old Fermin Tobera.


Jeff Tagami's poetry bears witness to the life of Fermin Tobera. He was touched deeply by this event that happened decades before he was born. In the backdrop of the Pajaro River, whose stagnant waters reflected the bitter struggles of Pilipinos, Jeff Tagami was moved deeply, making that stagnant river move with the fire of the spirit of Fermin Tobera, whose murdered 22 year old body was sent home to the Philippines and whose funeral was a national day of shame. It was as if the sound of Jeff Tagami's heart echoed the name Tobera, Tobera, Tobera—inspiring a poem that bears his name:


My name is Fermin

I am twenty -two,


I work all day

I tip a bottle of bourbon

And swallow four times.

I'm as strong as hell.



And of the paradox and contradictions of living as a Pilipino in America:


yes, a man gets lonely

But he has to do something

To stop from going crazy.

And it's not craziness

When men get together

To buy a '29 model T

And drive from Watsonville

To Lompoc, San Pedro

To Oxnard and back again

Past the neatly clipped lawns

Of white neighborhoods

Where they are not welcome

And to do this over and over

Like a man slapping

His own face again and again


And of the bullet that claimed his life:


Here comes the buzzing

of the bullet

which bears my name.

It's a bee looking

for the hive of my neck

and I must lay still

for its sweet entrance.

Time moves on.

My brothers grow older

without me and I

become the cold breath

on their necks, the blind

Fog in the field.

I am not spiteful,

just a reminder

when things are going well.


Kearny Street Workshop published Jeff's book of poems titled, “"October Light" in 1987. A powerful book, it has seen two reprints. The work is vibrant and timeless and is worthy of being called a classic in Pilipino American literature. Jeff's wife, poet Shirley Ancheta, recalls that Jeff wrote the poems when he moved to San Francisco. “Sometimes you have to get away from a place in order to write about it”, says Ancheta, whose own work is steeped in the experience of Pilipino workers of the Central Coast. “Jeff wrote those poems while working in an office in San Francisco, a job that was procured through friend, poet Al Robles. Jeff, who was in his mid 20's, had established friendships with a community of Pilipino American writers based in San Francisco whose vision and art was coalesced by the struggle against the eviction of Pilipino elders of the International Hotel on Kearny Street. From those friendships grew a camaraderie that was a burst of consciousness in which Jeff's poems took bloom. “He spent a long time on his poems” says Shirley Ancheta, who remembers the passion of her late husband's writing. “He had a lot of anger about the way working people were treated and about his own life. He went through a lot”. Jeff and Shirley became a part of a group of writers based in the city that became known as BAPAW—Bay Area Pilipino American Writers. Included in this group were poets Oscar Penaranda, Jaime Jacinto, Al Robles, Virginia Cerenio, Jocelyn Ignacio, Orvy Jundis, Lou and Serafin Syquia and Norman Jayo. This group became the nucleus for a Bay Area Pilipino literary sensibility, based on a common cultural history as a colonized people in America, that inspired a fusion of literary work and community activism.


What's remarkable is the fact that Jeff Tagami was able to write such a powerful book of poems with a maturity that betrayed his young age. In reading the poems, one gets the idyllic sense that he wrote them while sitting at the edge of the Pajaro River, pen in hand, notebook fluttering in the wind, pen moving gracefully under the slow moving billowing clouds lazily hovering above. But the poems were written in the city, removed from his place of birth. At the heart of his poems are personal experience. The poem “The Horn Blow” is about Jeff’s experience working in the lumber yard in 1978-79, where workers were mostly Portuguese from the Azores, poor whites, a few Chicanos, Filipino Americans like Jeff and his brother Fred-- and one Native American. Shirley was in a bad car accident in Watsonville in 1977. (She was on an oral history project from SF State and were at a labor camp when the accident occurred. Two friends were killed. Shirley was the only survivor. Sharon Lew, her roommate– died along with Michelle Hamada another SFSU student. ) As a result of Shirley's long hospital stay, additional surgeries and recuperation, Jeff moved back to Watsonville and ended up at the lumber yard.



The humble grace of the poems in “October Light” and of the life of Jeff Tagami is a testament to what was written in his memory. A respect for nature, of not only taking from it, but leaving something behind to cherish is an underlying thread that runs through the poems, connecting poet to land and poet to reader. From the poem, Stonehouse:


We begin ceremoniously

As if the trees were our grandmothers,

And solemnly undress them to bathe

In the warmth of their age,

Dark years old

Death looms in the fog above

Our heads as we descend the ladder;

Each step measured, foreboding.

Our legs quiver from the bags

Strapped and brimming on our bellies.

Like unborn babies, the shift

Threatening our balance.

All day we work

Until dusk drives us from the orchard


The poems in “October Light” should be required reading in all schools. And with the passing of AB 123 in the California State Assembly—authored by Pilipino-American Assemblyman Rob Bonta—which would require schools to insert the history of Pilipino-Americans in their curriculum, Jeff Tagami's work could be exposed to an even bigger audience. In my opinion, it is as important a work to the Pilipino American literary landscape as Carlos Bulosan's “America is in the Heart” and Al Robles' “Rappin' with Ten Thousand Carabaos in the Dark”, among others. One need only read the poems in October Light to understand why Robles had such a fondness for Jeff. The heart of Jeff Tagami is the heart of a moving river, the heart of our struggle as Pilipinos in America and our perseverance and resiliency which he so genuinely and lovingly illustrates. It is baffling why this book never won an award, although it received much positive critical acclaim. One gets the sense that had Jeff been born 20 or 30 years earlier, his poems would have rung with the same clarity, grace and truth—powerful light, never to be diminished. No awards necessary—the poems are beyond accolades, they are gifts given with an honesty that only love can bring.


On June 22nd, a group of friends honored poets Jeff Tagami and Al Robles in a ceremony at the rooftop of the International Hotel. It was a befitting place to gather, reminisce and honor their friendship and love for community. The wind kicked up during the ceremony. Shirley Ancheta and Theresa Robles (sister of poet Al Robles) released a small amount of ashes as an offering to be carried by the I-Hotel and Manilatown wind. It was a lovely moment to remember two poets who are loved and honored because through their poetry, they refused to forget. Jeff Tagami, presente! Al Robles, presente! Long live the I-Hotel!



Sign-up for POOR email!