Saturday, April 27, 2024



Jose Padua at home, sitting on the stairs where the overflow of books

 has found a place.


What are your reading habits and/or tendencies (e.g. favorite type of reads)? 

I tend to float around from book to book—my ADHD is certainly present in my reading habits. I have in the past, for example, gone back and forth reading Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine and Haruki Murakami’s Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, each of which I loved but in different ways, of course. Back when I had more magazine subscriptions, I’d go back and forth reading The New Yorker and Harper’s and The New York Review of Books—I read the latter mostly when I could manage to get an introductory subscription rate. Lately, though, it seems so expensive to get a yearly subscription to anything and, what’s more, they always stuff them into your mailbox so what you end up with is some mangled copy of the latest New Yorker. Since I have OCD, this really disturbs me. I have, on occasion, picked up one of my mangled magazines and just put it right back down, too angry to read. I know—a trivial first-world problem.

Now, I’ll usually read magazine articles on my phone but with novels, poetry collections, etc., I always read the actual books. I don’t like reading for too long a time on my phone. Besides, sometimes when I’m reading on my phone in bed, I’ll fall asleep suddenly and my phone will hit me in the face, which is kind of embarrassing, and I’ll let out a little yelp or go “ouch.” It doesn’t wake up my wife, though. She’s usually got her earplugs in already because of my snoring. Other than that, I’m a wonderful person to live with.


What are you currently reading?

I’ve just started two books I picked up in March during a trip with my family to Amsterdam and Berlin. The first is Geert Mak’s Amsterdam: A Brief Life of the City. My friend, the Dutch writer and DJ Bart Plantenga, gave me a copy when we were out there. It’s a great guide to Amsterdam’s history, culture, and attitudes. My wife Heather and son Julien loved Amsterdam and I found it to be a beautiful and fascinating city. I’d love to move there, but I guess the first step toward that is to become as knowledgeable as I can about the place.

The other book I just started is Alfred Döblin’s Berlin AlexanderplatzWe went to Berlin after Amsterdam because my daughter Maggie has been studying there this semester.  Berlin Alexanderplatz is one of those classics I’ve never read and I found it, naturally, at Berlin’s massive Dussmann das KulturKaufhaus—with five floors, it’s the bookstore of my dreams. Of course, most of the books are in German and, although I studied the language for several years, my skills are rudimentary at best. I bought my copy of Berlin Alexanderplatz in the basement of the store, where they have their books in English. I’m not very far yet, but when I’m done reading it, I’ll finally watch all of Fassbinder’s 1980 series.


If you’re a published book author, choose a book(s) and think about how you hope readers would read it?

My poetry collection A Short History of Monsters came out a few years ago, not long before COVID hit and shut everything down for a while. A lot of the poems were written when I was living in New York City or else involved more in the spoken word scene there and in my hometown, Washington DC. Ideally, I would like people to approach that book as a kind of bridge between “performance” poetry and poetry on the page—which is to say that I tried to transfer some of the energy of spoken word to the page. Also, the poems are about a hazy, drunken phase of my life, so I would hope some of the struggles that come from attempting to sustain that sort of life are made clear. But at the same time, I want to demonstrate and expound upon some of the exhilaration I felt because I do believe in pursuing certain levels of intoxication and even in losing control some of the time. One has to watch out not to go overboard, of course, and many friends from my New York days were in AA or NA, their pursuit of various intoxications having gotten out of control. But I think it’s important to have at least some experience with intoxication. Besides, a well-lived life isn’t one spent in complete safety—sometimes you have to seek out monsters. You just have to hope you’ll be able to back off before the monsters take you over completely.


Please share some favorite books.

One of my favorites from the past twenty years of reading is the aforementioned Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. I love the way it’s so loose and wandering while at the same time seems to drive you toward some unspecifiable conclusion. Some people may complain that it leaves a lot of loose ends, but that’s one of the things I like about it. Certainly, to tie up all the loose ends in that books would feel false. Among other recent favorites is Rachel Cusk’s OutlineTransitKudos trilogy. As with the Murakami novel, these books seem to just wander off into the ether, yet do so in a way that each sentence builds off of the previous one and feels lived and real.

Among my favorite poetry books are Tony Hoagland’s Donkey Gospel; the old collected poems of Tom Clark, When Things Get Tough on Easy StreetOoga Booga by Frederick Seidel; Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems. My tastes in poetry are similar to my tastes in fiction in that I’m most moved by work that goes off in odd directions and is devoid of any conventional lyricism. Poetry that some people might consider, on one level or another, a bit misanthropic—which certainly describes much of Seidel’s poetry and which is why I can keep reading it when others might put it down saying it’s horrible and he’s horrible.



Why? [Question, as asked almost thirty years ago, by an Asian-American student of a group of poets, myself included, after a reading at a coffee shop near George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia]

I neither read nor write to be comforted and I tend not to like literature that takes me too far away from the real world. I was never able to get more than a few pages into any of the Lord of the Rings trilogy—they were among those books I could put down and did. When I was a young teenager—a time when one might be expected to get into Tolkein and all that, I started reading James Joyce and Samuel Beckett. My favorite trilogy when I was young wasn’t Lord of the Ringsbut Beckett’s MolloyMalone Dies, and The Unnamable

I gather that I was a strange kid. Being a Filipino-American on top of that strangeness, with all the cultural differences it entails, put me even more at odds with many of the people around me. I didn’t see myself reflected very much in popular culture, which perhaps drew me to the sort of culture “normal/everyday people” might find strange. I got heavily into avant-garde jazz, which paralleled my interest in literature that might seem to have a similar element of improvisation or that, at any rate, eschews anything like a three-act story structure. Certainly, that’s what was always more important to me than being able to identify with the characters in a novel or the voice in a poem.

As it is now, I still don’t read that much literature in which people like me are represented. I much prefer culture that emphasizes the representation of alienation and isolation. This isn’t to say that those aren’t topics the literature of the Asian diaspora considers, but my greater allegiance is to that sense of being lost and the condition of alienation rather than to any single group or culture (thus my affinity for Beckett’s trilogy, for example).

A high level of fellowship—whether by nationality, shared interest, or affliction—tends to make me ill at ease if not suspicious. Although the sense of being lost is not exactly comforting to me, it does feel more natural—I am drawn to what feels foreign to me. If that means my mind has been colonized to some extent, so be it. My entire existence has been subject to the forces of colonization and, even though much has been lost because of that, I feel compelled to appreciate the circumstances that made me (I hope) at least slightly more original and independent.

To clarify this, let me add that, for me, it’s no help at all knowing someone else has gone through the same things I have. I really don’t believe there’s anything that can prepare you for a particular experience but that experience itself. Although James Baldwin said, “You think your pain and heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, and then you read,” my response to that is that yes, we share these experiences, but we still have to go through them ourselves.

What’s more, I don’t see myself as writing poems to heal anyone or comfort anyone. I write poems to create a work of art. Art may end up helping a person, but I don’t see healing as its reason for coming into existence. As far as literature goes, healing is not part of the text—that’s what you bring to it. The healing has to be your own creation—i.e., what you bring to the work of art you encounter. 

Real art is not the equivalent of an amusement park ride or superhero movie where you sit back and let it do its business on you. Real art challenges you to rise to the task, it asks you to fill in the blanks, connect the dots, and ultimately change in some fashion. In other words, half the work is done by the artist and the other half by you—that is, if you want to get all you can out of a work of art. It's not like a drug that's just going to cure you—anything that claims it's a cure is something you better watch for because that's something that's going to try to take you over or, at any rate, sell you something you don’t need.

And so, to get back to the question of why, let me say this. I was a child. I saw a skyline in the distance that was too far for me to touch. Every time I approached it, it moved farther away, but I kept on approaching. I felt compelled to find a way to get there.




Jose Padua’s first book, A Short History of Monsters, was chosen by Billy Collins as the winner of the 2019 Miller Williams Poetry Prize and is out from the University of Arkansas Press. His poetry, fiction, and nonfiction have appeared in many publications. He has read his work at Lollapalooza, CBGBs, the Knitting Factory, the Public Theater, the Living Theater, the Nuyorican Poets' Café, the St. Mark's Poetry Project, the Split This Rock festival, and many other venues. After spending a dozen years in Washington DC and Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, he and his family have moved slightly north to Lancaster, PA.




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