For Aileen Cassinetto, freedom of expression — especially through poetry — is not something to be taken for granted.

Aileen Cassinetto, who began her two-year term as San Mateo County’s Poet Laureate in January of this year. Cassinetto is the first Asian-American to hold the position, which was created in 2013. (Photo by Charles Russo)

Aileen Cassinetto reflects on her childhood in the Philippines through the lens of being born a self-described “martial law baby.”

Not exactly typical terminology, but life underneath the military rule of then-President Ferdinand Marcos clearly made an impression on Cassinetto, who has an early memory of relatives cautioning her not to speak too freely out of fear that she might be heard and punished. Oddly enough, it was that early suffocation of her expression that Cassinetto says fostered her love of poetry.

Cassinetto often finds inspiration for her poetry in her daily life — including molecular biology, which she studied in school. (Photo by Charles Russo)

“I realized I didn’t have the freedom to say what I wanted,” Cassinetto explains.“Then I discovered poetry and it was like a superpower.”

Cassinetto struggled to reconcile her passion for poetry with cultural expectations: her family, like many other traditional Asian families, expected her to pursue a career in medicine, law or science. As a result, Cassinetto studied molecular biology while in school in the Philippines. Having now realized her dream of becoming a poet, she maintains that poetry and science aren’t as incompatible as one might think. Much of her poetry stems from her scientific research, like the poem she recently wrote about a particular species of bird—the marbled murrelet—that’s native to the Peninsula. For that particular poem, she distilled 30 pages of research into just 4 verses. Cassinetto’s creativity is sparked by observations of her everyday life, and upon arriving to the United States she felt an even stronger pull to focus on her poetry.

Cassinetto says she immigrated here with a literal suitcase full of poems (her bag was overflowing with pages of notes and poetry) and a determination to be a poet in America. Today, as San Mateo County’s third poet laureate — the first Asian-American and immigrant to hold the position — she has the opportunity to share her love of poetry while making a difference within her community.

We caught up with Cassinetto to discuss the finer points of life as a professional poet…

What is your first memory of poetry? Writing it, reading it — where did that begin for you?

I’ve always loved poetry, and as a kid I loved my rhymes, but I never thought of myself as a poet. I actually majored in molecular biology in college, and during that time a friend of mine asked me to write a poem, I don’t remember why. I think he was going around trying to publish written things like that. So I said, ‘Wow, okay, I’ll try it.’ And then actually once I wrote it, it wasn’t too hard — then I was told, ‘You don’t have to rhyme.’ I didn’t know that. Like I said I only really dabbled in poetry. I didn’t get my MFA, I was just really fortunate to have world-class mentors.

What was the process of trying to publish your work, like in the beginning of your poetry career?

In the early 90s, I was very much supposed to study something else, but I wanted to pursue writing without my family knowing. I remember I wanted to go to Penguin Books [in London] and give them my manuscript for a children’s story. I probably looked very lost, and this gentleman who looked like Einstein asked me if I needed help. I said yes, and he gave me his card, and then he wrote his daughter’s name, told me she was a literary agent who might have been able to help. It turned out that this gentleman authored the Oxford Handbook to Food, he turned out to be a really famous writer, and his daughter was actually one of the biggest literary agents in London. I did call her, and they were very nice people, but the lesson is that in writing there are no serendipitous circumstances, it takes time and work and there are no short cuts. Nothing came from that.

And then while I was also in London, I met this Filipino writer who was a diplomat at the embassy. I became very involved in the Filipino writers group there. I showed him an early poem I had written, and it was really bad, but he was really kind. That’s what I get from it: he tried to tell me what wasn’t working with it, in a very kind way, basically so that it didn’t turn me off of writing completely.

The third person, she was the founding director of the Asian Pacific American collection at the Library of Congress. I wasn’t actively submitting work there, but I emailed her, and she was writing a diaspora Filipino journal, so I sent my poems. I was living in Philadelphia at the time in 2003, and she took me under her wing and helped me a lot with her poetry and introduced me. I navigated the literary world through community, and not just the Filipino American literary community, there’s the larger Asian and Asian American community. And there are others — for instance, the California Writers Club invited me to be a part of their group. There’s so much generosity in the writing community.

Do you think your childhood spent in the Philippines impacted your early poetry?

I grew up in the Philippines during martial law, and in my earlier poems I was drawing on cultural memory. For instance, 20 years ago I wrote this long narrative poem while I was preparing to leave the Philippines for the United States and join my family here. I wanted to sketch out scenes that were vanishing already — my family had already been based in the United States for quite some time. I was packing my luggage, and I think half of it were my notes and my poems and my books, so I landed at SFO and I said, ‘I am determined, I am going to be a poet in America.’

I’m what people would call a martial law baby. I was born when martial law was declared by the former dictator of the Philippines, and it spanned more than 20 years. I remember being probably around four years old, and a family member putting their hand to their lips, telling me, ‘Don’t say anything, because the walls have ears.’ I realized I didn’t have the freedom to say what I wanted. That was my reality growing up. Then I discovered poetry and it was like a superpower.

In the beginning it was really, really bad poetry, but it was just very freeing. I could say what I wanted to say, and so that was that. And then as the years went on, I think my style has changed — I’ve become a research poet. I don’t write about culture as much as I used to, I’m now more focused on environmental concerns and social justice. I’ve lived here for 20 years now. Having met, lived and worked with so many different types of people, I kind of see things from different perspectives. I’ve been more exposed to different poets, not just Filipino poets or Asian poets. There are all these other influences here.

Did you attend college in the United States or in the Philippines? What did you study?

I studied in the Philippines. I didn’t really major in literary subjects. I came from a traditional Asian family, and when I was in college I don’t remember having a creative writing program. Like in many Asian families, there are very few acceptable avenues: either it’s a doctor, a lawyer or an engineer. The arts are not thought very highly of because there’s not a lot of financial prestige. But I’ve always read constantly, even when I was a child, and that also helped me in my writing.

If I had to do it over again I would major in something more literary. I would get my MFA, but I cannot justify the expense at this time. I talk to younger people who want to be writers or poets or artists, I strongly recommend having that foundation. It’s not necessarily going to make the path smoother for them, but it’s having a more focused path to where they want to be. In my case I have always been writing on the side, but I haven’t really taken a job utilizing what I really wanted to do. During job interviews, I don’t really say or mention that I’m a poet or that I love writing. Outside of poetry I’ve done a lot of research work because that’s been my training. When I interviewed to work at the consulate, for some reason I mentioned my love of poetry, and I think they saw it as something different and unexpected. I got the job.

Where would you say your poetry comes from? What inspires you?

I read the news a lot, I keep up to date on current events, but I also read a lot of science journals, and I get a lot of inspiration from those things. I just wrote this poem about the marbled murrelet which is a bird local to the area. I did a lot of research on it, and it’s not a very long poem — just four verses — but I probably have about 30 pages of research on it. I do a lot of literary research and scientific research before I even sit down to write a poem.

English is your second language. Do you ever struggle to express yourself in English as opposed to in Filipino?

I am constantly wrestling with language, because I have to translate from Filipino to English in my head, and it’s not that quick for me. It’s a challenge because I don’t have the facility that other people sometimes have with the language. I did grow up attending a Catholic school and we were taught to only speak in English, otherwise we were fined — for every Filipino word it was ten cents. That began when I was in third grade.

If you had to describe your relationship with poetry in a word, what would it be?

I would say poetry is everything. It’s so organic for me. I see it in people — in strangers, even in animate objects.

What’s the local poetry scene in San Mateo County like?

In San Mateo County, I would say it’s pretty diverse. I’m very happy that the support from the community that the (San Mateo) County Board of Supervisors has for this program is really incredible. It’s one of the more well-resourced programs of its kind. The board of supervisors created its charter, and then made sure that there would be a stipend and the office would be administered with the help of the libraries. This position gets a lot of help from many different groups. There are city poet laureates in the county, for instance in Belmont and East Palo Alto and Pacifica. I’ve been trying to reach out and work with them. My idea was to bring poetry to where it’s most needed, because I feel that poetry is a way to create empathy. It’s not expecting people to drop everything and pursue poetry as a career, but this can help people tap into something that they probably don’t know that’s there that can help them.

Cassinetto hopes to work with with the tech community in San Mateo County to see how the two industries — art and technology — can support each other. (Image via AileenCassinetto.com)

I’ve been trying to reach the tech community, also, because when I was appointed in October, the board of supervisors had other items on the agenda at that meeting, and I heard a lot of people from the community speak about how hard it was to [stay here], that they’re a paycheck away from moving out of the county. And I have heard gripes about…‘It’s one of the wealthiest counties, and yet money isn’t funneling to the community.’ So it’s probably an ambitious project, but I have been having my contacts reach out and try to see how the tech community can support the rest of the county in terms of the arts.

What about San Mateo County makes this opportunity unique?

I have freedom to do what I want with the office that they’ve given me. I was asked to come up with a community project and right now we just have a lot of events lined up, like readings and poetry concerts. That said, I just started my term January 1st, and down the line I want to get to know my community more and see how best to help them. There are so many poets in the area, and I’ve been reaching out to them and they’ve been great. So I also will be working with them on projects.

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Sarah Klearman

East coast transplant working her way through all things Peninsula. On Twitter @SarahKlearman

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